Christmas bustle! Advent services with tiny little children switching on lights, the nativity with barefoot shepherds, and carol services with all the children bashing their percussive instruments, singing to the ceiling, and falling off their chairs. Grandparents sniffling into their Kleenex and parents pretending not to. It’s cute and lovely and exciting, a celebration of family and community, and if it takes a chunk of the working day, then that’s fine, I’ll work till midnight or get up at 5am. I’ll also put on my Santa hat and jump into the sea without a wetsuit. All good.
But one thing overwhelms me every single Christmas: SHOPPING.
I found myself in Sainsbury’s today, gaping at shelf after shelf of brightly-coloured logos. My eyes struggled to focus (tired) and my head was spinning as it processed the sheer volume of stuff. I like to give individual gifts when they count: a new book when it first comes out, a bunch of flowers on a bad day. But bulk-buying to a deadline sends me into spasm: I get past the first couple of “good idea” presents and then panic-purchase my way through the rest. After an hour, I’d gift wrap windscreen wipers if it’d let me off the hook.
After two hours I was muttering, ‘Oh fuck it,’ and making a lunge for some random colours: a red, a couple of purple (I think some form of chocolate), and the nearest toy (make that two), ‘that’ll do.’
The woman beside me burst out laughing, and I apologised (I don’t normally swear in public), ‘Sorry, Christmas overwhelm.’
She laughed again, ‘S’OK, I just shouted, “Oh bugger, I’ve forgotten the girls at work!”‘ She motioned towards a pile of candy in her basket, enough to feed fifty normal girls or two badly over-Christmassed ones.
Buying Christmas presents is a form of torture for me (if you get a present, it probably means I actually, proper squishy-hug love you). Even aside from the ever-mounting cost, buying anything much is a torture for me; I loathe shopping with spectacular venom. I’d rather unpick my own stitches. There are various reasons for this:
- I care about people, animals, and our planet; not stuff. Stuff is not how I express my affection, so I struggle with the how and how much. I just don’t get it, but I understand that this is what other people do, and expect, so I try.
- I love being outdoors with my kids: that is my happy place. Christmas shopping is primarily indoors and I tend not to take my kids, so I’m alone with my misery and the crappy, ear-worm music (the last good song I heard in a shop was Joan Armatrading in Woolworth’s about 8 years ago), unnatural lighting, plastic tat, and lots of pallid people hacking viral particles into a too-warm and humid air space. It’s the aerobic and cultural equivalent of sucking a verruca-toe.
- I get paid by the hour, so shopping’s double-time away from my happy place: the time spent earning the money and the time spent buying stuff. So I like my shopping to be brief and I have made this an art form. Buying a house? One visit. Car? Ten minutes. Nice pair of jeans? Buy five and don’t go back for five years. Christmas? Oh dear sweet Jesus.
- Eco WHAT? Like we don’t have enough plastic in our sea and our landfills. By buying it, we’re driving ourselves towards dystopia; narrative-wise, we’re building Stepford or condoning the Hunger Games. Plastic is an eco-nightmare to produce, ship, pack, and post, and often it doesn’t last a week before it’s garbage. Sure, it’s for “children to enjoy” but they enjoy sticks and mud as much. Lovely, eco-friendly sticks and mud that everyone can afford.
- The clobber in my house, that I have to tidy up before I can clean the floors, that takes an hour out of each and every day — came from these shops!
- Even the food — my favourite gift — can be a frustration because the little bit of “gift food” inside all the packaging is not as delicious, soul-filling, or even nutritious as the great handfuls of “non-gift” food; the potatoes, apples, carrots, cabbage heads, rocket leaves, dumplings, kidneys, Stilton and satsumas that I can buy for a fraction of the cost in the next aisle. For me, the joy of food is gathering together to prepare it, marinade it, and spice it, drinking and talking as we grate and pound and knead, getting hot and floury and boozy as we warm up together before sitting to eat. But we rarely give the whole great food experience — we rarely say, instead of buying Christmas presents, let’s get messy with some veg, cumin and a Shiraz. It’s easier to “send chocolate” (low-cocoa, lardy, sugar-pap) in plasticised paper. Expensive tooth rot and arse-sag because we don’t have time to properly slow-cook with friends.
And yet if we all gave good food to one another instead of plastic, we could all enjoy and better afford Christmas. Those who struggle to pay for feast and presents could give knowing that food was on its way. Those who struggle with space could eat their way to feng shui, and those who struggle for gift ideas could literally follow their noses.
Of course, I could cook up some chutneys and rum pots, dress some Camemberts, and dish them out in ceramic baking jars to all my loved ones, but the season of giving implies a nod to what the recipient might actually like. I’d do happy dances over pickled foods and boozy fruit but my young son might cry if he received a Brie-baking kit and some apple jelly. He wants Pokémon.
So every year, I start with the things I like to buy (string instruments, candles, days out) and finish with a couple of vile compromises. Pokémon is everything I dislike. The war-mongering, the banal stories, the plastic, the electronic games, the excessive brand/price combo and the three layers of tough plastic wrapped around its tawdry little anti-theft tag. Bleugh. But my child and his best buddy, whom I also love, would do happy dances over them. Compromise? I can eschew the £25 monster set and buy a smaller toy to hide in a sweet little rucksack. Covering dystopia in denial.
Every year I worry about the balance. Am I a mean, over-thinking old scrooge? Or am I ridiculous, buying my children this kind of crap at all when they would be better without it? Either way I feel guilty, especially when some people don’t have roofs over their heads, or drinking water, or even a safe country to live in. Am I a weak sheep in the face of a consumerist society that future generations will regard with despair and humour, a plastic equivalent of the Roman vomitoria?
Certainly this is a fad; it wasn’t always like this (plastic didn’t even exist until 1907). I need to be brave enough to carve out my own Christmas. To make it real, about gathering family and friends, about community, about sharing with hands and plates rather than lavish gifts of unnecessary stuff.
I want my children to know the seasons, and to feel Christmas on a physical and spiritual level. I’ll take them to the sea and we’ll jump in and try to keep breathing, watch each other turn purple, and dash home to feed the family. Bring on the satsumas, the nuts, the mead and the music. Candles and cake. Logs on the fire and cloves in the wine. We’ll have a laugh, hug, talk, raise a toast, listen to the strange noises of children playing and all drift off to sleep on the sofa, to dream of Good King Wenceslas, and all the things we should be doing.