Magazine article The Spectator

Santa's Little Helpers

Magazine article The Spectator

Santa's Little Helpers

Article excerpt

A recent survey found that 25 per cent of people polled admitted finding Christmas more stressful than getting married. It doesn't surprise me. Wedding planners ease the anguish, caterers prepare the food and gift lists solve the strain of selection -- at least you know what the bride really, really wants. Christmas, on the other hand, is all about personal choice, which given the scale of shopping today can be bothersome, bewildering and terrifyingly expensive. With the national average of immediate family gifts apparently totalling a staggering 11 items per head, it seems to me that those Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior have a lot to answer for. Quite apart from anything else, all this shopping takes so much time.

Unless you are the type of dutiful domestic goddess who plans ahead, pickles her own walnuts and makes plum chutney -- both charming presents, as it happens -- then I am obliged to remind those of you reading this on publication date, there are only 31 shopping days left until Christmas!

The American-born retail genius Harry Gordon Selfridge is the man responsible for the countdown to Christmas, having coined that dramatic slogan over 120 years ago to motivate his sales staff at Marshall Field in Chicago. On moving to London, where he opened his eponymous store in Oxford Street in 1909, Selfridge -- a man who undeniably knew how to put on a show -- tackled Christmas with huge gusto, creating a hitherto unknown magical wonderworld of tempting displays all cleverly designed to seduce customers who enjoyed shopping to the gentle sound of carols sung by choirs, surrounded with the evocative scent of cinnamon and spice which flooded the store. Although fond of saying, 'once the imagination is moved the hand goes automatically to the purse', the egalitarian Selfridge genuinely wanted his customers to enjoy the whole shopping experience, regardless of their spending power.

Even for customers on a budget -- and given the current gloomy economic predictions, that means many of us -- Christmas has the power to sweep away restraint. London's shops and stores are gearing up to meet the demand head-on, laying out enough finery to impress even the richest of the Russian oligarchs. Fortnum & Mason, London's oldest surviving speciality store, has undergone a lavish £24 million refit, leaving the grand dame of Piccadilly ready to embrace conspicuous consumption head on. Grocery shopping, it must be said, has rarely been so glittering: spend £20,000 on a Christmas hamper and the store will deliver it in their beautiful horse-drawn carriage. …

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