John Walsh: Tales of the City

'There's a whole lexicon of insults in gift-exchanges.... Generosity comes freighted with other impulses'
Click to follow

I've put in hours of shopping research. I've examined the Clocky Alarm Clock which, after it jangles you awake, leaps off your bedside table, runs away and hides behind your wardrobe, uttering its horrible alarm every two minutes, before scurrying off again; I have tested "the No 1 most popular toy in the US", a Flying Monkey in mask and superhero cape which, when you send it whizzing through the air, makes a tragic, simian bleating noise; I've watched several sales assistants try to explain the wonders of the Nintendo Wii without waving their arms around; last Saturday, I even joined the platoons of dead-eyed consumers marching five-abreast down Oxford Street like a scary out-take from I, Robot, so that I could stand in Topshop and discover that they've run out of size 10 black sequinned knickers, as required by a young relative.

I have, in short, done my bit for Christmas shopping this year, and I'm still unclear whether I'm driven by a genetic impulse or because I just love seeing the faces of cosmetic-counter babes in Selfridges when they realise that, by God, there is one born every minute.

Scientists at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have been researching generosity and altruism; their findings, published in the ever-popular Genes, Brain and Behaviour magazine (I only get it for the centrefold) suggest that there's a generosity gene, an "altruistic tendency" in your DNA, which makes some people 50 per cent more likely than others to buy, say, farcically expensive Ugg boots for someone at Christmas. The boffins made their breakthrough by giving 200 students 6 each and telling them either to keep it or give it away to other players not with any end in sight, merely to give someone else some money. Several students did so, flying in the face of evolutionary biology, which tells the human brain to hang on to things that will work to its owner's private advantage.

"This is a really exciting discovery," said a Dr Knafo, who led the research. "You often hear it said that people are generous by nature. We now know that's because it is encoded in their genes."

The good doctor and his friends are, I feel, being simplistic about why we give each other things. Not all presents are occasioned by "an unselfish concern for others" quite the reverse. There's a whole lexicon of subtle insults in gift-exchanges. We give in-laws jars of peaches-in-brandy as a way of saying we don't expect them to treasure our gifts for very long. People give soon-to-be-ex-lovers executive toys to show that they haven't a clue what they like any more. Chaps give other chaps noisy rock CDs to drown any festive emotionalism in gruff manliness. Our impulse to generosity comes freighted with other impulses. The worst gift-giver I've ever known was my late Irish aunt Philomena: she had a genius for presents of monumental inappropriateness. One year, I received a screaming-yellow, plastic hostess trolley which, after I'd manoeuvred it home on Ryanair, sat accusingly in the corner of my dining-room for a year, like a ghostly emblem of bourgeois bad taste. She followed it the next Christmas with a gross brass-rubbing of an eviscerated Irish saint that took up most of the hallway; then, the next, a huge, spiky, beaten-metal sculpture of a disgruntled Fenian horseman, on which visitors regularly impaled themselves. Why did she do it? To bring some decency and mementi mori to a smug, heathen household in the sinful British metropolis, that's why.

I've a firm strategy about buying presents for children. Each is allowed one classy present, plus one silly one and that's it. OK, and maybe a book as well, to improve their minds. And perhaps just one DVD each, because DVDs aren't real presents. And a stocking, because well, because they had one last year (the fact that the eldest is now 20 is inadmissible in this logic). On Christmas Eve, I panic that I haven't got enough for the poor darlings and wonder if the No 3 bus is still running to Oxford Street... then, on Christmas Day, someone will look at the debris of gifts all over the house and say, "You can't buy their love, you know..." But now I can reply, "No, no, it's actually pure altruism. There's been a survey in a Jewish University. It's in my genes, you see..."


It's shocking to hear that the Pope has decided to follow the gospel of St Matthew in designing the Vatican crib this year, rather than the version by St Luke. Luke was the only reporter of Middle Eastern events of the time (I think of him as a prototypical Robert Fisk) to include the crucial details about the manger, the Bethlehem stable, the guiding star, the no-vacancies inn, the shepherds and the three visiting wise men. All the details, in other words, which for 2,000 years brought the Christmas narrative to vivid life for children and sentimental grown-ups. The Matthew version is much less flavourful, involving lots of reassurance by the Angel of the Lord, but precious little star action, and bugger-all frankincense and myrrh. It just reports that St Joseph decided not to hurl his suspiciously pregnant wife into the street, but to set up home together, and the baby was born under a proper roof. The Pope's life-size Vatican crib will show the baby in a front room in Joseph's house in Nazareth, perhaps also featuring his carpentry workshop and a tavern next door.

This is all fine and dandy, but where will it leave carols in the future? Will we have to start singing, "Away in a Slumberland Junior Divan"? Or "While shepherds watched their flocks by night,/Absolutely nothing happened at all"? Or indeed, "Once in royal David's city/ Stood a lowly mid-terrace conversion in need of some cosmetic repair"?