… An Ali Smith short story
This year I have the task of kicking off our literary festivities, in the build up to the Scottish Writers’ Centre Christmas party on the 20th of December (more information can be found here). So, I thought, what better way to start the countdown than with a Scottish writer who uses the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol as a refrain in one of her short stories? Ali Smith published ‘Do you call that a Christmas present?’ in 2008, and if you want to read the piece yourself (which obviously you do) just click here. This was also a good excuse to revisit the work of one of my favourite writers.
On the first day of Christmas, the story opens with an unwanted gift from a true love. We’ve all given and received presents that were not ideal. I once gave someone a stuffed toy shaped like a pineapple. With googly eyes. He was not impressed. But the unappealing gifts that Smith’s narrator receives – ‘Darkness. A bare tree. Ice.’ – aren’t shop-bought. No pineapples to see here. At first the narrator is a bit of a Grinch about this. Unsurprisingly. Who wants a block of ice melting all over the place? The narrator says ‘Your retail talents are dreadful’; they expected, and hoped for, something shop bought: ‘a jersey or socks or a scarf or a hairdryer’.
But soon they are won over by a string of festive experiences, especially the pantomime. Personally, the pantomime is not for me. Even as I child I remember thinking, why do I have to keep shouting ‘he’s behind you’? Does the dame think I’m stupid? What a waste of pies! So I can’t really relate to this part of the story, being a bit of a Grinch myself.
But when the narrator cancels their Amazon orders (including a widescreen TV, Estonian turtle doves and dancing lords) I think, you know what? Good idea. Who needs Estonian turtle doves? (I had been on the verge of ordering some). Who needs most of the things that people get for Christmas? This year I’m going to make something instead of buying those doves. Something arts-and-craftsy. That doesn’t mean I want a block of ice or darkness or a bare tree. It just means that during the twelve days of Christmas you need not give to me, a partridge in a pear tree. Or any of the rest of it (except maybe a copy of Smith’s new book, Autumn). And I promise I won’t be getting anyone a cuddly pineapple with googly eyes.
Words by Saskia McCracken.