In defence of Christmas gift request lists

Over the age of 10, is it ever right to give family and friends a list of what you want for Christmas? Or should you let people surprise you? Lauren Bravo weighs in

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By Lauren Bravo on


Around this time every year, I have conversations with friends that go like this: “Argh I have NO idea what to get Dad, he hates everything.” “What do you buy for a sister-in-law who moved to Bali to live in a tree?” “Ffs, I spent £40 on a monogrammed leather shaving kit then remembered he has a beard.” “I just WISH I knew what they’d actually like.”

During these chats I make sympathetic noises, but I am smug – because I do know what my family would like for Christmas. I have their Christmas lists.

The lists have been part of the package of festive rituals in the Bravo household since the days when we’d lie on the carpet with a red pen and the Argos catalogue, weighing up the merits of a Mr Frosty against those machines that dispensed Dairy Milk for 2p a pop. Crucially we never got everything we asked for (I’m assured Mr Frosty was a piece of crap anyway), but we never abandoned the tradition. These days they’re shorter and contain fewer pleas for Spice Girls merchandise, but we still tell each other what we want. What we really, really want.

 I completely understand why many people find the whole notion of writing a Christmas list a bit icky

I know what you’re thinking; I’m a terrible mercenary with a lump of coal for a heart. I’m no better than the workaholic dad in a 90s Christmas movie, missing his kid’s school concert to go to the casino. And I completely understand why many people find the whole notion of writing a Christmas list, once over the age of 10, a bit icky. In an increasingly materialistic world, prescribing presents from your nearest and dearest could seem crass and entitled, or at best taking all the fun out of things.

Because ideally, we’d all like to surprise our loved ones with thoughtful, considered gifts. Gifts that speak to them on a deep, emotional level, magically preempt their needs and crystallise our relationship with them for decades to come. Gifts that say quietly, unflashily, “I understand the truest essence of your personality. To me, you are so much more than a reed diffuser.” Of course we would.

But let’s be real, shall we? Second-guessing people’s taste is hard – half the time we don’t even know what we want ourselves, until we stop to think about it – and Christmas can be demanding enough without having to remember which aunt once mentioned she quite liked frogs, and whether she already has a butter dish. Presents should be a token of affection, not a harried emotional obstacle course. And each to their own, but I find the idea of people spending their time and money on unloved presents – or, horror, asking for a receipt – so much more upsetting.

As someone with a tendency to panic and compensate with wild extravagance, Christmas lists help rein me in. Far from greedy, it’s surprising how simple and modest people’s real desires often are – just like Dumbledore and his socks – and besides, making a list can be quite the opposite of cold and impersonal. Let me tell you, there is no joy in the world purer than the joy of opening up an email from your mum to find the first item at the top of her Christmas list is “a guinea pig mousemat”.

My family’s Christmas lists chart our passions and priorities each year, with adorable clarity. You get some reliable constants, some hilarious curveballs (this year it’s a guinea pig mug; the year before was a guinea pig adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). I know one brother’s list will always feature a book of football facts, and something niche I’ll have to ask idiotic questions about in JD Sports. The other brother listed "a puppy" with unshakeable optimism every year until he was about 19; now he’s a vegan and his list includes “a massive sack of cashew nuts”. And every Christmas for as long as I could remember, my Dad’s list included a new Terry Pratchett book. For the last couple of years, it’s been a poignant absence.

Of course, there are caveats. This is not a wedding registry; you can’t whack a £500 food processor on the list just to see if anybody bites. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t issue lists to friends and family who have never asked for one. Do that and you may as well send back every gift they’ve ever given you, smeared in poo, with a note that reads “nice try but no”.

I also believe a good Christmas list should still leave room for creativity. It doesn’t have to be hyperlinks straight to Amazon, more useful signposts to guide a frazzled gifter. Even the vaguest of vague suggestions – “classic novels”, “nice bath bits”, “slippers” – can help prevent a full-scale shopping centre meltdown. With a Christmas list, you might save them an hour of dithering back and forth in John Lewis on December 23, scrolling through Facebook in a desperate attempt to factcheck the frog butter dish.

So no, they might not be the sentimental ideal. But in real life, a Christmas list can be a priceless "get out of stress free" card at a time when stress is as abundant as cinnamon. And that, I’m sure we can agree, might just be the best gift of all.



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