- 19 декабря 2012, 23:00
From a hat inspired by the Queen Mother to a model of the Millennium Dome, Guardian writers recall past gifts that still make them shudder
One present – technically two, I suppose, as my sister and I each received the same blighted gift – lives long in family infamy. Twenty-odd years ago, Dad had spent some time working in North Carolina. When we gathered round the tree on Christmas morning, he handed us a flat, floppy giftwrapped rectangle each and bade us open them. With eager childish – or at least adolescent – hands, we did so. Therein lay shirts. Stone-washed denim shirts. Massive stone-washed denim shirts with giant heart-shaped lace inserts on the chests. They were awful. They were beyond awful. Even if high camp had come to Catford by then – and it's still not here now – they wouldn't have passed muster. We looked at each other. We looked at Mum. We looked at each other again. "What," my sister whimpered, "did we ever do to you?"
He looked baffled. I am the eldest. I took control.
"Are you feeling all right, Dad?" I asked.
"Aye," said Dad, who was 20-odd years closer to his northern roots back then. "Why do you ask?"
"Because these are the choice of a diseased mind," I said kindly. "I think you must be ill. I sort of think this might be your last Christmas. Which, after these," I added, gesturing to our latest wardrobe additions, "might not be the blow it once would have been."
He was baffled. They were denim, and we liked jeans. We were girls, and he had heard – I suspected from a heavily rhinestoned saleswoman – that girls liked lace. They were hard-wearing, and Mum liked clothes which, after seeing us safely through to adulthood, would still be capable of giving 20 years' service as window, then floor, then toilet cloths.
We parsed the semiotics of denim versus stone-washed denim, and outlined the difference between us and lace-loving girls.
To this day, my sister and I still occasionally turn to each other and mouth: "What was he thinking?" I'm not sure he even now understands where he went wrong. All great men have their blind spots and it turns out that Dad's is a lacy heart shape.
I sometimes wonder, when I see the pink hat my mother made for me one Christmas, if it's just a small revenge for all the misshapen clay pots and deformed stuffed animals I made as a child, which are still on display in my childhood home, like a shrine to my ineptitude and creative failures. Because, really, what was she thinking?
Actually, her thought was to recreate a hat – in knitting – worn by the Queen Mother. It was the same Christmas that she also gave me a carriage bolt – a long metal screw – that wasn't even an antique, and therefore of historical interest, but one she'd picked up in the ironmonger's because she thought it looked nice.
I suppose the effect of unwrapping a large bolt was to make me more grateful for the hat. It is similar to a beret, but puffier so it can sit high on the head like a cushion, and knitted in three shades of pink (ranging from earthworm to bruise) in hairy angora. To finish it off, a small fabric floral corsage with a tiny string of plastic pearls was stitched on the front. It's the sort of hat shire Tories dress their small daughters in for church, but I was 25. And besides, we're a family of republicans. I still have it, and sometimes I even wear it (when I'm channelling my inner Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, which isn't really a regular occurrence). And I can't throw it away.
It was Christmas morning, 1999. We had been gathered in the lounge for some time, waiting for my brother, 22, to emerge so we could start opening presents. Perhaps Christmas Eve had been a heavy night because when he emerged, bleary-eyed and with not much wrapped up, he told our older brother and me that ours was "in the kitchen". More waiting, until he returned, looking entirely unembarrassed, proffering an upturned cereal bowl with 12 matches Blu-tacked round the edges, standing up proudly like the candles on a cake. Here we go, he said: a trip to the Millennium Dome!
The Dome had not received a great deal of positive press and we looked a little crestfallen. The bowl wasn't even wrapped up! More painful, scored purely in terms of improvisation and surprise, it was pretty impressive. It didn't matter that he had got us nothing, you had to admire the ingenuity, which only added to the sense of being out of pocket with nothing to show for it. So what was the dome like? Alas, the tickets never materialised. Though his presents have since got better.
We've had some shockers in my family: puzzling items of kitchen equipment, devices for squeezing the last blob of toothpaste out of the tube, corn-on-the-cob sets, plastic pop-up address books from long-lost aunts so strange (the presents, I mean, not the aunts) that we often took till turkey-time to work out what they were for.
My sister Claire once got a leather key-fob embossed with the name "Clare". My brother-in-law's brother opened 13 pairs of socks on a Christmas morning. And I'm not sure there was a single Viyella blouse or Jonelle cardigan from my dad that my mum didn't take back and exchange.
But, throughout my earlier years, Christmas was synonymous with Nana's knitting. She produced such astonishing quantities each year of hats and bonnets and gloves and scarves and mittens and jumpers and cardigans, she must have started in June.
They were, most of them, lovingly and quite expertly made, hardly ever shapeless (not, aged six or eight, that I cared very much about the aesthetics). But the important thing was, they came in wool.
These days I can't wear wool, so I don't. (Actually that's not strictly true; jumpers I can just about manage, if the wool is not too coarse and the shirt beneath is good and thick. But prickly, itchy, scratchy wool, against my skin … never. Never ever.) Back then, of course, I couldn't wear wool either, but the big difference was I had to. The balaclavas were bad enough, hugging your face, rubbing against your cheeks. But worst of all, unimaginably awful in fact, were the knitted vests – of finer, cream-coloured wool, admittedly, with sleeves and neat little buttons. In the classroom of Holy Trinity C of E primary school, I can tell you, Nana's knitted vests were sheer bloody hell.
And nobody else had them. Not only that, but everybody else got Dinky toys or footballs or Lego sets from their grans. We got itchy knitwear. But I can't hold it against her. Greater love hath no nan for her family, it seems to me, than to knit them several dozen articles of clothing each year.
There had never been much love lost between me and this particular relative. I wasn't an endearing 18-year-old but then he wasn't that much of a charmer himself and our relationship had become limited to a perfunctory, dutiful Christmas exchange. I would send him a card and he would send a present. Nothing I wanted or of any great value, but something appropriately forgettable and inoffensive.
Until he gave me that shirt. Not just any shirt, but quite the most hideous shirt I had ever seen; a brown shirt with brown stripes that had never been in fashion even when it was first made. And this one had clearly been made a long, long time ago as its plastic packaging had been left out in the shop window of a rural gentleman's outfitters for so many years it had gone an even nastier shade of brown than the shirt. The only good thing to be said about it was that it came in a "size small" so I didn't feel the need to go through the motions of unwrapping it and trying it on.
It wasn't the lack of thought I minded. I'd lived with that for years. It was the fact that this was a present on which my relative had clearly spent a great deal of thought. If he'd failed to notice that the size was wrong or that the colour scheme was repulsive, he couldn't have missed the staining. This was a present with the message: "I really don't like you." Looking back, I can see there was an honesty in this but I wasn't quite ready for it at the time. Since then, we've only met a couple of times and spoken once. At a funeral.
I'm not too sure what happened to the shirt. For a while it became a family joke, but then my dad suggested I give it to the secondhand clothes stall at the church fete. Nobody there wanted it, either. Though we might have improved the chances of a sale if we'd taken it out of the wrapping.
• What's the worst Christmas present you ever got, and why? Tell us below