The Christmas gifts that keep on giving

The Christmas gifts that keep on giving
The World of Books by the books editor


With Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, Old Christmas and the Christmas of the Eastern Churches behind us wherever we are, the holiday season is truly past. The Christmas trees have come down, along with the lights, tinsel and holly, the cards received have been packed away as a reminder of those who must get one in return next year, and everyone by last Monday was back at work.

It was said in advance that Irish families were about to spend £2,700 – not in this one, said my wife on hearing that. However gifts are still given and we are still reminded that it is thought that counts, not the cost.

I have always wondered on this connection with that old song the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, in which what seemed a simple enough gift at the beginning gets totally out of hand by the 12th day – just like real life many would say, though 12 drummers drumming would drive anyone not in love quite mad.

Seemingly of French origin, the carol became popular in the 1700s. In the US a bank calculates the actual current price of the 364 items; the 2015 Christmas Price Index was $34,130.99, but this is thought by critics to a quite unreal calculation.

But I have thought that a gift is not just for the day itself. Even when it is broken at last, or put away and neglected in an attic for another generation to find and take along to some TV antiques show to get appraised and flogged off, a gift still goes on giving.


When I was 14 I had a passion for the history of exploration. One Christmas I was very anxious to have a book by Frank Debenham on discovery and explorations, which had wonderful maps. I didn’t get it, and only relatively recently bought a copy second-hand at a jumble sale.

But I got something better. My father had gone into Hodges Figgis and had asked for the book I wanted. But ‘old Mr Murray’, as the legendary shop manger of those days was known in our family, showed him something else with the same name.

It was a splendidly printed book, edited by Albert Bettex, originally created by the Swiss firm of Conzett & Huber, based in Zurich. It is a magnificent example of photogravures printing at its very best, the very finest kind of printing for illustrations ever achieved according to many.

The trouble was the book cost five guineas, at a time when a novel cost six shillings. My mother was very cross. It was a waste of money of a present for a child. But I loved it then, and have loved and preserved it since, and this Christmas I got it out again and enjoyed its magnificent pages all over again.

I now realise that looking closely at the images selected by Bettex from a remarkable range of artists – here only a few photographs – taught me a great deal about looking closely at pictures and how artists worked. It was an education in graphics that my Jesuit school did not provide.


This was a book which certainly influenced my imagination, in a way few books since have done. One image was a drawing by two Bavarian explorers in the 1820s of a giant tree in the Amazon forest, which was so large it would have taken twenty people holding hands to measure its circumference. It was a picture that summarised in one image the true glory of creation. But every page was a revelation and a delight.

So it cost a large sum of money. But it gave uncountable hours of pleasure and enrichment.

But in line with the old song, we ought to realise, as I say, that presents go on giving, greater than we can ever tell. Of course, I knew no one then, or now, who ever could cope with the tweeting of all those birds, the clutter round the house of all those trees, birds, dancing maids and massed drummers madly drumming on the last day of Christmas. No, there must be some restraint in these things.