Betjeman’s Christmas presents
. . . those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant
John Betjeman’s poem Christmas, motivated by his desire to emphasise the religious, is dismissive of the gifts given to each other by ordinary people. The son of affluent parents, public school and Oxbridge educated, Betjeman does not hold in high regard those things that do not conform to his taste.
Was he justified, though, in using words like “fripperies” and “silly”? Was he reasonable to trivialise other people’s choices because they did not match his understanding of Christmas?
Betjeman understood well the concept of the sacramental, the poem itself concludes with the belief that Jesus is present in bread and wine; the sacramental is about an outward sign carrying an inner meaning. For Betjeman, the bread and wine are the outward of the inner reality of Christ’s presence. But can the things aboit which he was so scathing not have a sacramental significance for those who gave them and for those who received them?
A poor print in a cheap plastic frame hangs on the bedroom wall, it was a gift to my mother in childhood years. A seascape, it depicts the rock formation at Durdle Door in Dorset; print and frame together weigh no more than a few ounces.
The print has hung on the wall for at least forty-five years, it is hard to remember it not being in the house. Why has it retained its place for so long when numerous other things, probably more valuable and certainly more tasteful, never gained a lasting place? The print would have fallen into Betjeman’s category of “inexpensive”, though it probably consumed most of a small amount of pocket money. He would probably have thought it “hideous,” he would not have been a man impressed by cheap plastic things, but was it “silly”?
My mother clearly thought that the picture had a significance that extended far beyond what could be seen or touched, it was a sign, for her, of something deeper, something that could not have been described by the child that bought the print, thinking it a work of art.
Perhaps many Christmas presents are fripperies with no meaning beyond themselves, they are silly, but perhaps many more are outward signs of deep thoughts and feelings, they are sacramental. When it comes to surveying one’s presents on Boxing Day, the inner meaning shouldn’t be forgotten.
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