‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is my favourite piece by one of my favourite writers, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro). Saki was a novelist, parodist, author of short stories, journalist, and an wit in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. Like the first two of that triumvirate, he was also gay. He died during the Battle of Ancre (1916) in World War 1. Reginald is Saki’s most exquisite hero, a natural successor to Algernon Montcrieff, and the precursor to Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Nancy Mitford’s Cedric Hampton. The piece below comes from Christmas 1904, and was originally published in the Westminster Gazette. I’ve illustrated it with some images of Edwardian Christmas, building on yesterday’s Victorian Christmas extravaganza.
My copy of the Complete Saki was given to me by my wonderful late grandfather. In full disclosure, ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is almost the first piece in the book. As a teenager, those first two sentences hooked me, and they always delight me with their instant immersion in Saki’s era. In 2017, I suggest we all follow Reginald’s guidance when it comes to last-minute Christmas shopping: I, for one, am always willing to receive ‘something quite sweet in the way of jewellery’.
Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki (1904)
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.
There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.
Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.
The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.
But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.