Once a year in December my mother actively encouraged me to talk to a complete stranger without fear of reprimand. She would physically lift me onto this stranger’s lap without a second thought and take photographs of me gazing in awe and wonder at him in his red suit and his false, scraggly, whitish beard. She was not in the least bit worried about whether or not he was an alcoholic pervert on day release from a high security fat farm. And was that the intoxicating aroma of sweet candy on his breath or the smell of Pernod stolen from the local off-license during a daring daylight robbery? At least she would be able to identify the perpetrator if she ever had to pick him out in a police line-up. “That’s the man, officer! The one in the red suit that smells of stale piss and aniseed.” Not only that, she also encouraged this stranger to enter our house in the dead of night, compounding the situation even further by leaving alcohol out for him. After this stranger had downed the last few drops of his Pernod, it must have seemed like a red letter day for him when he discovered an unopened bottle of Remy Martin sitting seductively by the fireplace. For 364 days of the year the very thought of someone entering our house unannounced would have sent my mother tumbling into hysterical apoplexy, and she would have greeted the aforementioned burglar not with a mince pie and a bottle of Remy Martin, but with a cricket bat with three or four nails driven through its tip. But this was Christmas Eve, the one day of the year when she gladly allowed a stranger to enter our house unannounced.
Now, I may be looking at this through rose-tinted glasses, but can anyone who was a kid in the 1950s or 60s remember anything connected to Christmas being in the shops before December? It used to be that Christmas was not even mentioned until after Bonfire Night, but these days Christmas Shops throughout the country begin opening their doors for business in September. At the latest!
In the words of the late, great Marvin Gaye: What’s going on?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I remember the shops being closed for days over the Yuletide festivities. It was a period for families to get together and spend some quality time with each other, for better or for worse, whether they wanted it or not. It even, on the odd occasion, snowed. And nobody starved to death.
Nowadays, by the time Christmas comes around, everyone is sick and tired of it. It’s lost the magic that it once had because it goes on for SO LONG. Is this just me getting older and more cynical? I don’t think so. I used to love Christmas, especially in my 20s and 30s. It was a time for playing cheesy Yuletide songs, eating far too much that was good for me and getting stupendously drunk and falling asleep in front of the telly at around 8pm. By December 2nd I’m already tired of hearing Christmas songs because they’ve been playing in stores throughout town since the beginning of November. As far as I can tell, the majority of Christmas songs fall into one of two categories of Christmas song. These categories are:
1. Sickeningly sentimental, or
2. Morbidly depressing.
A Fairy Tale in New York by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl obviously falls into neither of these categories, but any Christmas song by Cliff Richard inevitably falls into both.
I will admit that I do play some Christmas music but only on Christmas morning. After that I eat far too much that’s good for me, get stupendously drunk and fall asleep in front of the telly at around 8pm, but that’s because I’m a man and I’ve never really grown up.
Christmas in today’s consumer society seems somehow forced, thrust upon us by that most odious of sins – greed. When I was a kid I was happy to just get an Eagle or Valiant annual that cost a mere 12/6d (around 62p in today’s money). Nowadays kids want laptops, games consoles, tablets and PS4 and X-Box games that cost around forty quid each. Parents spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds on presents that are, in the most part, neither appreciated nor looked after. The not-so-wealthy strata of our society spend a whole year paying off what is essentially one day of overindulgence only to go through the whole miserable process again the following year.
I was talking to a woman in Sainsbury’s who had spent over £200 in the October half price toy sale. She was probably in her mid to late sixties and was buying presents for her entire family of kids, grandkids and great grandkids. “I’ll be glad when I get home,” she told me, “I’ve been shopping all day in Carlisle and I’ve spent over two thousand pounds on presents for Christmas.”
I was stunned. “Two thousand pounds!” I declared in amazement, “I haven’t spent that much on presents in the last ten years! And that includes birthdays!”
Christmas shoppers today are more like survivalists, clearing all the shelves in the supermarkets in case there’s a zombie apocalypse or the imaginary planet Nibiru comes crashing unexpectedly into Earth. “Oh, my God!” they exclaim, “The shops are closed for ONE DAY! We must go out and buy enough food for at least two months. We must also buy several items that we don’t need and at least three of them must be so obscure that we’ll find at the back of the cupboard in nine months and wonder what they are and why we bought them in the first place!”
And then there’s the depressing hour-long Christmas edition of Eastenders. I mean, what is the point of watching a whole hour of miserable people being miserable on CHRISTMAS DAY! I used to buy the “legendary” Christmas issue of the Radio Times, but last year I didn’t bother, because after flicking through it in a newsagent’s I discovered that there was absolutely NOTHING I wanted to watch, except for the film of Raymond Briggs’s film Ethel & Ernest, and that was on AFTER Christmas. The programme planners who ‘planned’ last year’s Christmas schedules should all have been sacked. But, then again, they probably thought that most people work over the Christmas period, so it didn’t really matter.
And who’s to blame for that? Who’s to blame for the erosion of family time over Christmas? Well, I’m afraid to say that we are. We allowed this to happen. We allowed the major stores to convince us that we needed to shop on Boxing Day. Oh, they like to tell us that their customers wanted it and they were just filling a need, but that’s a lie and deep down we all know it. The major stores created that need because they wanted to sell more stuff and make bigger profits, they wanted to make more money out of us. And you can’t blame them for that because they’re in the business of making profit. We, the consumers, are the real culprits here. In the rampant consumerist society we live in today all we want to do is Shop! Shop! Shop!
Retail executives on high salaries across the country must have gathered their minions together one day and delivered the good news to them with all the excitement of a dog with two cocks.
Here’s what the conversation must have gone like:
“Hey, I’ve got this GREAT idea to make Christmas even MORE brilliant for all our customers!”
“Oh, tell us! Please tell us!”
“We’ll open on Boxing Day!”
“How is that a great idea?”
“We’ll be giving our customers what they want. It’s not rocket science.”
“On Boxing Day? Who wants to go shopping on Boxing Day?”
“Well, that’s perfect, because instead of shopping you’ll be able to come into work.”
“What about the quality time we normally spend with our families on Boxing Day?”
“Your families can come shopping instead. Think of it! We’ll call it a Boxing Day Sale and we’ll get rid of all the stuff we didn’t sell before Christmas.”
“Will you be coming in?”
“Of course not. I’m an executive. I need to spend some quality time with my family on Boxing Day.”
Joy to the world!
Except, obviously, those in the retail industry who have to come into work on Boxing Day.
Can’t people wait just one more day to spend the Waterstone’s or Next or HMV gift cards they received and why would anyone need to go food shopping on Boxing Day when presumably bought enough food on Christmas Eve to feed a small army? Back in 1823, when Christmas meant something other than rampant consumerism, Clement Clarke Moore published his now famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. I think now, in 2017, it needs a little tweaking. And so, for all those poor souls who remember the innocence of Christmases past and for those unfortunate enough to be working on Boxing Day with an almighty hangover, here’s my new updated version:
It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.
The sacks for the gifts are left out with care,
In the hope that Santa Claus will soon be there.
The teenagers are nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of i-Phones dance in their heads –
They want computers and tablets and Minecraft manuals
(As kid I was just happy to get a Valiant annual).
The shops have been selling Christmas for a quarter of the year,
It’s not joy they are selling, but falling profits they fear,
And they love to hear children shouting in glee:
“I want it! I want it! I want it for me!”
And so, here I am dreaming on this dark Christmas Eve,
Waiting for the morning and the presents they’ll receive,
And they’ll wake me up early on Christmas Day
And with whingeing voices, they’ll loudly say,
“This is NOT what I wanted! I wanted this year’s design!
As a parent, you are RUBBISH! I wish you’d resign!”
But suddenly I was woken from my cynical reverie –
I looked out of the window and what did I see,
But Santa Claus and his sleigh land with a bump on my lawn
And he called out to his reindeer, who all looked tired and forlorn:
"Whoa, Dasher! Whoa, Dancer! Whoa Prancer and Vixen!
Whoa, Comet! Whoa, Cupid! Whoa, Donner and Blitzen!”
The landing was graceless and decidedly tricky
And Rudolph was absent, he’d stayed home on a sickie.
Santa climbed off his sleigh and pulled down a large sack
And huffing and puffing he slung it onto his back.
He tottered down the path, he cursed and he swore
Until he reached the front step and knocked on the door.
“You should come down the chimney,” I declared, “this is cheating.”
“Don’t be daft,” he replied, “you’ve got central bloody heating.
As you can see I’m a bit out of shape and rather rotund
And these presents for your kids don’t half weigh a ton.
Now, let me into your house and pour me a drink.
I’ll have a very large whisky with no ice, I think.
I’ve been round all the houses, but your house I somehow missed,
So, I apologise in advance, because I’m feeling quite pissed.
I’ve eaten Christmas cakes laced with brandy and whisky
That made me feel tired, not randy or frisky.
I’ve drunk bourbon and vodka and gin with some tonic,
It’s a wonder I’ve not turned into a raging alcoholic.
And with all these electronics the kids want today,
The sheer weight of them all is making my back give way.
Why can’t they be like you were, there was nothing finer
Than presents made of plastic from Taiwan or China.
You got what you were given. You either liked it or lumped it.
I never heard you complain when your presents were shit.”
He downed his whisky in one and then emptied the sack
Before arching his spine and rubbing his back.
“Thank Christ, that’s all over,” he said with relief,
“Now I’ll be off back to the Pole for some sprouts and roast beef.”
He picked up his sack and stepped out into the night.
He climbed onto his sleigh and I turned out the light.
And then laying his finger aside of his nose,
He gave me a nod, and into the air the sleigh rose.
And then I woke up after my alcohol induced relaxation
I must have been dreaming, it’s the only explanation.
But then out in the night I heard his faraway voice wail:
“If I’ve missed anything, you can buy it in the Boxing Day sale!”
Bah! Humbug! And a Merry Christmas to you all!