The Idler: Gifts from the Past

My favorite Christmas story is “The Gift of the Magi.” A poor young married couple give each other their most prized possession. She sells her hair to earn enough money for the watch chain her husband has admired; he sells his watch to buy a barrette for her luxurious hair. We read O. Henry not so much for his sentiment, though I confess it has that power, but for his insight. What is most striking in the story is the exquisite generosity of two people with intimate knowledge of each other. Each understood the most important object in the life of the other.

Nowadays, we rarely appreciate the wonder of a single prized thing. Some of the holiday catalogues pride themselves in having the gift for someone who has everything. Most people I give gifts to already have everything. They want for no material object. They bought the new shirt when they fancied it. They rarely denied themselves a book or bottle of wine. What is there left to give them? Yet perhaps there is still one thing—a lost treasure, a lovely prize from an older era, when craft was not the product of aging flower children and gifts were given with the presumption that they would last through generations.

Gift-giving is harder than many realize. Doing it well requires a loving, particular knowledge of the recipient, as well as a long, patient hunt for the precisely suitable gift.

Christmas shopping is a necessity. For me it is no one-day affair in the nearest mall; I go there only when truly desperate. I shop for Christmas all year long. The objects I seek cannot be located simply. I subscribe to an ancient heresy: “Everything old is better than everything new.” We say time is precious, but so are things. Time may be getting a might too precious, and modem gifts show it.

I’m not a mere shopper, then; I’m saving our culture from the cast-off mentality. Better yet, I’m a devoted recycler. I have proven credentials: I never want a house that someone else hasn’t lived in before me. It’s not the ghosts I’m after, but rather the knife cuts by former 11-year-olds, the cigarette burns from distant uncles, the white rings from glasses of aged wine. If my own forebears had saved love letters and hat boxes, I wouldn’t have to shop at all. After all, the most endearing gift of all is preceded by, “It was my mother’s.

As it stands, I must search for gifts. I like to fill the shelves and walls of my family home with collectibles, many of which will soon be gifts for nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, friends and co-workers. I prefer antiques, but I make mistakes.

By this method of shopping, I’ve saved some glasses and plates of china from the landfills and maybe even preserved some material history for the next generation of Fernand Braudels. I’m part of the historical gathering process, even if my scouting doesn’t yield items quite so elegant as those treasures Braudel described the Turkish army seizing from a Kurdish prince in 1655: “ivory, ebony and cedar boxes, chests encrusted with pearls from Ceylon, flagons of rose water, perfume-pans, books embellished with precious stones, works of famous calligraphers, carpets, silver candlesticks, porcelains from China.”

How could there have been such a flurry of potting in English kilns if the Chinese hadn’t already created a demand for pretty china by cutting off the supply from clipper ship traders? Most people feel indebted to the English for a political heritage; I owe my debt to their pots. I am in search of our cultural heritage.

We are in danger of losing it, but I side with the Edwardian lady who remarked, “If I have to eat off an ugly plate, I’d rather not eat.” With the abundance of plastic and paper plates these days, the lady would be anorexic. If the Marquise de Pillsbury used the cake plate before me, so much the better.

I have an eighteenth-century print of Louis Joseph Bourbon de Conde, found in a tiny and untidy shop of indiscriminate taste in Aix-en-Provence. It was purchased for very little money (not counting the airfare) and proves another shopping adage, “The dustier the shop, the better.” For those of us who frequent such shops, dust suggests a bargain. A store that is filled with highly polished silver tells me I can’t afford it (overhead, you know). But who wouldn’t be happy to receive a small faience bowl, even if it has a chip?

Informed shoppers know if a silver spoon was crafted by Paul Revere or Hester Bateman. Most of us recognize that Georgian pieces are valuable, though some Georges are better than others. We can squint at hallmarks (not the greeting cards) on English silver to determine its period. But if a pretty object has no mark, no matter; it costs less. Let’s face it; not much we own will end up in museum collections, but our children will inherit our material goods. The only real value is sentimental; the rest is commerce. Surely, I won’t bequeath a VCR to my grandchildren. Brass candlesticks, though, they might cherish.

Only a few years ago, one overheard the wails: “I hated the oriental rugs my parents had. Now I wish I hadn’t refused them when offered. They were sold.” So much for sentiment and gifts. Carpets, “for which Christendom has always had a passion,” as Braudel reminds us, should go to the next generation.

This year I have located a second-hand silver compact with someone else’s initials. (We can’t actually read elaborate monogramming anyway.) Aging linen towels, water-marked aquatints of pastoral landscapes, and battle scenes from unknown wars are on my list, especially in old chipped frames with original glass. A 1920s fountain pen is to die for.

A friend in Paris writes that she has seen a green, oriental bamboo case, perhaps for a quiver, in a neighboring window. She asked its function. She was told it was an “objet de collection“; no other information was given. So little is known of items once de rigueur, of plumes, quills, pushers, and tools. If nothing else, on my expeditions I inquire about the item’s original purpose. At least I have a clue into another era.

My son brings up the frightful word use. He wonders if I will ever use some of the objects I have collected. “Do you use all those baseball cards?” I shoot back. Do I read the leather-bound French volumes? Not much. Do I use a delicate silver pitcher of reportedly Georgian origin? Only if I can trust the guests or I know they will enjoy it. Usually, if someone else used the object, that is sufficient; I don’t require its use. There are plenty of useless things in mall windows.

Ignorance about an item’s domestic utility is no excuse for casting it aside. I may have dim knowledge of the purpose of the lid on a pot au crème. Perhaps Julia Child wants her mousse to have a lid for proper cooling. Some functions we would as soon ignore. Remember the original purpose of canopy beds? To keep the mice and bats which housed themselves in thatched roofs from falling on the bed while you were sleeping. And look what we do to perfectly useful items. Lobster traps become coffee tables, armoires turn into entertainment centers, and I once had a craftsman cut a silverplated tray cover in half so I could mount it on a wall to hold dried flowers. The tray cover had its function; it was an early thermos, keeping hot things hot and cold meat cold. (And maybe keeping those mice and bats at bay.) But I have an oven. Come to think of it, I would like to have tray covers now, to save fuel costs.

Another adage I like covers shopping and children: gift-giving begins at home. When a child asks if you desire perfume or a book, accept all offers. Mae West is supposed to have replied, when asked what she wanted, “Don’t give me a book. I got a book.” To say “I’ve already got a book” or “enough perfume” because you fear the child will come up with an encyclopedia of NBA statistics or essence de peanut butter only discourages him. It is a challenge for a child to think of the wants of others for even a short time.

This year I’ll put aside the stack of glossy catalogues and prowl second-chance shops. A quick look through Neiman Marcus’s catalogue tells me it offers reproductions of what I’ve sometimes found in the original. For more money than I paid, they offer replicas. At Christmastide, I often suggest looking for wood boxes in a variety of sizes. They are functional and beautiful. They can store what we have so much of. They hide cosmetics, jewelry or, blessedly, even video tapes. They will go away to college and off to a child’s first home, all the while reminding him that bigger is not necessarily better. that the best gifts are ones that let the receiver add his own treasure to them.

I’m going to give my son an awkward-sized train that gathered dust and rust in a New Hampshire barn. It was once used by another boy. A second opportunity gift teaches the child that not everything has to be the first time around. Even things have another life.

I love something a childhood chum said one year: “I got everything I wanted for Christmas, and some things I didn’t even know I wanted.”


  • Marilyn Ryan

    Marilyn Ryan is a mother of three and a hunter-gatherer.

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