LONDON: All husbands have their shortcomings. One of mine — not the worst, but a hard one to conceal — is Christmas. I am bad at it.
This takes many forms, from failures of adequate preparation to insufficient merriness on the day itself. Most pronounced of these is my inability, in 15 years of what has otherwise been an unusually happy marriage, to once get my wife a really good holiday gift.
I accept that the easiest explanation for this sustained pattern of yuletide error would be that I am too selfish to bother. But I prefer to blame my whopping case of seasonal affective disorder.
You say Christmas; I say darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. I celebrate the season by sitting under a sun lamp, popping pills, and reminding myself that the apocalyptic thoughts are likely to fade by April. Pass the eggnog.
One holiday season — this may have been before we were married — I was quite pleased with myself for picking out a silver Tiffany’s charm bracelet.
Classy! It was only when Wylie opened the gift that it became painfully obvious to me (and, needless to say, to her and her assembled family) that it was catastrophically wrong. I had committed the classic gift-giving error: Buying something for yourself.
Not that I fancy a charm bracelet. But I am the kind of hopeless square who might enjoy a gift from Tiffany’s (a nice cocktail mixer, say? Not that I’m suggesting anything).
My wife, on the other hand, is cool. She is not coming within a mile of Tiffany’s. The fact that I even walked into the place shows how mentally depleted the short winter days had left me. She was very sweet and thankful, and returned the bracelet immediately.
A COOL WIFE CREATES A LOGISTICAL PROBLEM
Having a cool wife, with a developed sense of personal style, creates a logistical problem. Once she has bought something for herself, I can instantly recognise it as a correct extension of her personality.
She can work magic in a TK Maxx. But I cannot pick something off the shelf with any confidence that it will cohere in the same way. That, in a way, is a litmus test for having a personal style worthy of the name: When others shop for you, they fail.
Try a bookstore, you say? Please. Literary taste is like taste in clothes, except more personal and harder to understand from the outside. So if you really want to show your spouse how little you understand them, by all means, find a book you think they will love, and give it to them.
In the early 2000s I hit, briefly, on something approximating a solution: The jewellery counter at the New York outpost of Japanese department store Takashimaya. It sold earrings that I could afford and which broadly approximated Wylie’s style. This did not prove sustainable, for two reasons. At some point one has enough earrings, and Takashimaya closed. It was a pretty good run, though.
A few years later, children appeared, further reducing occasions for wearing a nice pair of dangly earrings and raising the general level of Christmas difficulty dramatically.
After a few years living in London, I became one of those useless dads who goes into Fortnum & Mason before work on the morning of the 22nd or so — doors open at 8:30am, fellow reprobates! — to try to do the whole thing at once.
What I have learnt from these desperate expeditions: Everyone likes a Christmas pudding; tea is acceptable to most people; no one wants your stupid tin of fancy cookies; and Fortnum’s has nothing for your wife.
WHY I'M BUYING GIFTS REGARDLESS
Having fumbled along in this way, my wife and I have settled on the transactional approach that now seems to predominate between couples: She tells me what she wants, I buy it online, wrap it, and put it under the tree.
She does the same for me, but given that what I want is almost always either calorific or alcoholic, it goes in the refrigerator instead. An efficient arrangement, but one rather lacking in holiday magic.
I have, in sum, exchanged a romantic form of failure for a mechanical kind of success. But I am beginning to think this may have been a mistake.
Christmas is, after all, a holiday for children, and adults who wish to feel like children again. If we are just going to exchange Amazon orders, why bother?
This year, then, I will venture out and find something that speaks to who my wife is, and why I love her so. She is going to absolutely hate it.
Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US finance editor.
© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd.