It would seem to me that there are three categories of present givers: those who like giving presents to others, those who appreciate receiving, and those (not few in number) who prefer giving presents to themselves.
Incidentally, "presents" is so much a better sounding word than "gifts." And of course for the purposes of this post I am trying to think of famous instances of presents.
What about the pearl that Cleopatra dissolved in wine at the banquet with Antony? There would not be much point in her melting down a present she had given to herself. Whatever its history, it is curious indeed that this same pearl was till lately, and may in fact still be, in possession of an English "noble family." If you are willing to believe it, that is to say.
An English speaking instance and as typical as the immortal words "Dr. Livingstone, I presume ?" -whoever but him could it possibly have been ?- I have transcribed and it reads as follows. "August 26, 1878. Again this dear and blessed anniversary returns. When I came down to breakfast I gave Beatrice a mounted enamelled photograph of our dear mausoleum, and a silver belt of Montenegrin workmanship. After breakfast I gave my faithful Brown an oxidised silver biscuit-box and some onyx studs. He was greatly pleased with the former, and the tears came to his eyes, and he said 'it is too much.' God knows it is not too much for one so devoted and faithful."
This is that great letter writer Queen Victoria-one of the best in the English language-on the birthday of her beloved Prince Consort. She was, also, Empress of India as well as the personification of half a century of history, alike in its dullnesses and in its greatness.
But I am thinking now that there is another category that of unwanted or unnecessary presents. "So and so, or so and so, will go on sending"; I am certain we all have had experience of this. Bloggers, and I like to remind myself I am one, are sent messages. What a nuisance it can be. For long months I was deluged with missives with a missionary basis, or, rather, bias. And once, out of a clear sky, I was asked to proceed immediately to a museum, at my own expense of course, and lecture to them how the medieval game of spillikins was played. They had been told, the message explained, that I was the only person who knew about this. Had I gone, which I didn't, it would have come under yet another heading, that of unwilling present giving.
Probably among the biggest present-givers was the Empress Catherine the Great and Louis XV. The brothers Orlov; Zoritch, in his hussar uniform of scarlet and silver, ablaze with diamond orders; Lanskoi; the brother Zubovi; and of course, Potemkin, all of them her erstwhile favourites, received in money alone from the hands of Catherine some 90,000,000 rubles, the equivalent of £15,000,000 in mid- Victorian England. The Empress Catherine was no giver of enamelled biscuit tins! If, on the other hand, the monastery of the Troitsa, outside Moscow, was the possessor of 106,000 serfs and their families, mostly derived from royal presents, but particularly from the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, the motive at least was different. It was not love but repentance, and dread of the world to come.
Louis XV gave away tapestries and sets of Sevres porcelain, and we may be sure passed the order and thought no more about it. Any more than Augustus the Strong whose presents were not Sevres but Meissen. In those days it was ambassadors and not only mistresses who were given dinner services. The full luxury of presentgiving was possible until 1914 from the Saint Petersburg workshop of Faberge.
And even in one's own family-where more so, indeed?-there are, and have been eccentrics. I had a great-uncle who gave pink champagne. Why the champagne rose, I do not know; but my mother, just married and eighteen years old, was loaded - with pink champagne.
Ordinary mortals have to be content with presents from a shop. I remember Guerlain and the way they used to tie up parcels in pink paper; and trifles like their Extrait de potpourri de plantes marines! This makes me think of other places where it is or was a delight to buy something.
There is the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, founded in the time of the Medici Grand Dukes, where you can buy soap scented with orrisroot from the Florentine blue or grey iris, and many things besides.
And then I remember the New York shop of Caswell-Massey. Their mere catalogue was a delight to read, and they seemed to import things from all over the world. There, in reckless mood, I bought deliciously smelling soaps, and enjoyed it as much as looking in jewellers' windows in Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix.
But the town of towns for shopping is Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. In the paper fan shops one would like to buy up everything in sight, while the Kabukiya doll shop, and I am no infantilist, is something transcendental and extraordinary. There are, as well, the Thai silk shops in Bangkok; and I am told another marvellous silk shop in Benares.
There was Hadji Bekir, where they sold Turkish delight in Istanbul.
And there was the Juvenile and Theatrical warehouse in Hoxton, run by Mr. Pollock, a retired clown, where one bought "penny plain and tuppenny coloured" prints of actors of the time of Grimaldi and Edmund Kean. What a wonderful place that was!
And I end in thinking of the most exciting present I love to receive (and we could give easily to each other) and I do not hesitate, each other.
After a year of so many ghastly horrors, in which, I am sure, many of our friends and contemporaries were touched, let us have more present giving instead of...