Once we lived off the grid (no electricity or telephone.) Things had to work without connections. So things worked or we didn’t keep them. That meant we had to know how to work with them, or they were useless.
This is not true of a lot of gadgets and devices curently available. I say this now because it is the time of the year when all sorts of gizmos appear on the gift-buying market. “What will we get for Uncle Merv this year?” “What did we get him last year?” “An automatic wall-washer.” “Did he like it?” “How do I know? He never used it.”
So off to the big box store with all its desperate seasonal decorating and promotion, and what do you get Uncle Merv this year? There’s the Pierre Cardin multi-tool that includes a blade for declogging sinks, or the kitchen appliance that bakes bread, poaches eggs and smokes the ham, too. There’s some strange personal grooming razor, the purpose of which remains a blessed secret.
If Uncle Merv actually tries any of this stuff, he’ll probably find it doesn’t work nearly as well as the non-gadgets he’s used for the last three hundred years for exactly the same purposes. And it will be broken by the end of the month.
Why do we keep doing this? We fall into the same stupid trap year after year. We feel compelled to buy gifts, wrap them in coloured paper and hand them out to friends and family who in turn hand us doodads in shiny paper. We could just keep the wrapped doodads we bought ourselves. It is a silly exchange program, and why we continue to engage in it, I don’t know.
If we are going to give gifts, shouldn’t they be something so useful that the recipient will really find his or her life improved? These are things that work, that maybe your family wouldn’t think to buy for themselves.
Tempered steel tools (that is, good ones) such as hammers, screwdrivers, real garden tools; a plain black wool hat with a brim (think Quaker or Amish – very practical); a plain denim jacket, like we had in high school because it was stylish but now is outrageously sensible; warm workboots; a packbasket; a handloomed wool shawl (not the expensive pashmina, but Shetland, in black or brown); really good knives with riveted wooden handles; a handmade cross or crucifix or creche (remember why we’re here); a family prayer book or hymnal; a seedstarting kit, with peat pots and a grow light; a boar-bristle hairbrush; wool socks in dark colours (goes with anything); instead of a big gift like the plasma screen digital tv or the laptop, a sewing machine, loom, spinning wheel, chain saw or hydraulic woodsplitter. Some kitchen things besides knives: a real hardwood cutting board; antique enamelware (still usable); a stovetop coffee pot (perk or drip); a real brown betty British teapot; a bean pot; a canner or pressure cooker; glass storage jars; handmade wooden spoons; tempered glass measuring cups; a big stack of cotton dinner napkins; a birchwood draining rack for handwashing dishes; lots of colourful dish clothes and towels.
These are things that work. Why waste your money and someone else’s time and the world’s resources on junk that requires batteries that will poison the land and water, or made of plastics that poison everything between extraction and disposal?
These are gifts I have received over the years which I remember and did make a difference to me: One hundred pounds of potatoes, Danish sausage, a gardening book, work gloves, wool roving, the loom my parents gave me when I was ten (a tiny harness loom – lots of fun!), cross-country skis, a kerosene lamp, a winter parka, handknit Irish sweater, socks. Stuff I got that I don’t have anymore, and didn’t make much difference: Dressy clothes, perfume, earrings, popular fiction, chocolate (obviously gone.) In other words, the stuff women usually get.
What did I ask for this year? Socks. Good ones. Me and Dumbledore, we always need socks.