Even without Noddy Holder’s ubiquitous throat-shredding yell, it’s not hard to tell that the festive season is upon us. All over the country, Secret Santa conscripts are reluctantly drawing out a name from an empty printer toner box and praying they haven’t been granted the privilege of purchasing a gift for Neville from Accounts whose only interests seem to be CB Radio Club and attending Ford Escort rallies. Even the local dry cleaner’s window looks positively jaunty with several chains of multicoloured foil bells strung across it - the convenient type that fold into themselves, to be stored in an A4 envelope under the counter until next year. Purchased in Woolworths in 1987, they have more than paid for themselves with years of loyal service.
In the Roman calendar December was originally the tenth month of the year, hence the Latin word decem. The calendar began in March. The formless winter days following December were not included as part of any month but were rather a period of nameless limbo. Those Romans knew what they were about. Obviously frequent sufferers from the same post-Christmas pudding-stuffed, light-deprived slump as the rest of us, they were a race who were well acquainted with the feeling of advanced cheese poisoning.
If the Romans were re-writing the calendar today though they might do well to rename December ‘Tabernamicus’. Tabernam, Wikipedia reliably informs me, is Latin for ‘shop’. There are many things to love about Christmas: sparkling lights, church bells, chocolate being weighed by the kilo rather than the gram, Michael Bublé shaking the moth balls out of his tux and making the most of his annual outing, dewdrops on tins of roses and LED whiskers on kittens etc. but the sheer amount of shopping time that has to be clocked up during the season threatens to extinguish every last glowing morsel of festive cheer. In fact, though shopping forms the first leg, it might be more accurate to say that the festive season is less marathon and more triathlon - a series of three distinct and arduous phases.
By the end of the first stage I have bought thoughtful and appropriate gifts for everyone in our town, the next town and other towns as far as Greenland. Oh yes, and the dog. I have stocked the cupboards and fridge with a smorgasbord of complicated condiments, epicurean style dried fruits and fine cheeses, not to mention the 16 game animals that have to be stuffed one inside one another and perched on top of the hog roast at the climax of the 15 day long Tudor banquet that we seem to be having. I have ensured that the house looks as close as possible to the Las Vegas branch of Santa’s Grotto and have scrawled 300 Christmas Cards while main-lining gingerbread lattes. I have taken Small One to 25 Christmas parties at various venues each with their own distinct dress code. I have bought 150m of wrapping paper and crammed it in the cupboard with the bottle bags and 14 crates of Shloer.
I reach the end of the course trailing the front runner exhausted and with energy waning but there is no time to rest because this is when the second trial begins. If the retail section is somewhat of an obstacle race, the second stage is very much more of a cross-country sport. One nervous late night glance at the tightly packed calendar mid-month reveals that we may have to work out how to form a wormhole in the time/space continuum. Because it is then, when I have already exhausted myself with the extended retail marathon, that the intense festive socialising really begins in earnest. Unfortunately, this section requires different equipment and a quick change. It is then that I realise, at this very advanced hour, that I have absolutely nothing to wear.
I wish I could say I have only had to be cut out of clothes in changing rooms on one occasion. But if I had to choose the most memorable of the slew of such incidents in which I have unfortunately been involved, it would have to be The Boots. A few years back I had gone into town just before Christmas to buy a few last minute essentials (bells for the Jester, a waistcoat for the ceremonial pig, the usual kind of festive purchases) and, as is my wont, had swung by TK Maxx to see if there was anything worth adding to the Christmas Wardrobe. And Oh My Stars Rhett Butler! they were having a sale on boots. I didn’t have much time as I was already supposed to be waiting for Beloved in the allotted meeting spot. But I figured he knew me well enough by now not to expect me to actually be on time, so I just had time to try on a fetching pair of dove grey knee-high boots in a very supple suede. A glance at the price tag (even in the sale) was a chilling experience but I just couldn’t resist.
I pulled them on and paraded around for a few moments, pretending to myself that I was going to buy them, whilst knowing perfectly well that I was not. Because as beautiful as they undoubtedly were, one was far too big whilst the other was unaccountably small and pinching terribly. I had expected more from the Imelda Marcos-worthy price tag.
Eventually, with a last sigh in the mirror at what might have been, I crouched down on the uncomfortable birthing stool that had been placed in the shoe section in lieu of a seat that actual people could place their posterior upon. I took the too-large boot off easily and moved on to the nippy one. The zip would not budge. I tried sliding the boot down my leg with the zip still closed but they stuck with an easy friction that would have made Uhu jealous.
At this point a woman clicked past. She was modelling emerald green stilettos with diamante bows and admiring herself in them from various angles. She nodded her head at The Boots. “I tried those too. Really struggled to get one of them off afterwards. Turns out they are two different sizes.” She sashayed back on her way while I stared disconsolately down at my feet. One was wearing a purple hiking sock with reindeer on it and one was wearing a boot with a price tag that Posh Spice would blanch at. It looked as though I might have to be buried in it.
I looked at my watch. I had now missed the acceptable lateness window and was teetering on the brink of the “Where are you?” phone call. I needed help. A woman was pairing shoes in the sale section. She was standing in the centre of a series of concentric circles of shoes that seemed to go until infinity. Not one shoe was with its mate. She seemed jaded. I would have been too.
I hobbled over to her with the uneven limp of a person who has one stockinged foot and one wearing a, very expensive, very uncomfortable, firmly adhered boot with a 4 inch heel. She had her back to me as I said, “Excuse me. Could you help me please? I am struggling to get this boot off. It was fine when I put it on but now the zip seems to have jammed…”
Without turning round she shouted, “Sheila? You there?”
A disembodied voice from men’s trainers responded, “Yes Pat. What do you need?”
And then in perfect and definitive unison they both said, “The Scissors.”
Sheila promptly appeared. She was dwarfed by the size of the implement (or should that be implements?) she was carrying. Said scissors looked as though they should be used for sheep-shearing. Or cutting the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of a new branch of B&M. Pat was unmoved by my sharp intake of breath: “Sit down love. And for goodness sake stay still. I once cut clean through a girl’s jeans with these.”
I didn’t need to be told twice.
At the exact moment she angled the tip of the blades down the top of the boot and I felt the cold metal alarmingly close to a major artery, Beloved arrived fresh off the escalator. He looked flustered. I had phoned him a few minutes before with the bewildering instruction, “I’m in TK Maxx, about to be cut out of a boot, can you come meet me?” He took in the entirety of the situation, sighed a quiet sigh of unsurprised resignation and wandered off to look at headphone adapters.
“I’m so sorry,” I burbled to the sales assistant. I was beyond mortified. I also felt as though I had been par-boiled. The combination of excessive shop heating, too much outerwear and the sheer indignity of being stuck in a boot had, by that time, caused severe dehydration. Pat shrugged, held my arm sympathetically and enigmatically replied, “Don’t worry love. It’s just that time of year.”
Without pausing to fully unpack this comment I gratefully flew out of the shop, pausing only to grab Beloved who was perusing laptop bags.
“Should I even ask?” said he.
“Nope” was my only reply as I rushed for fresh air and freedom.
I am very proud to report that this year that I have not been stuck in, nor had to be forcibly removed from, any clothing that I have not yet purchased. If I’m being entirely honest I must confess that I did spend one afternoon with not one, but two, 7 foot artificial Douglas Firs in the boot of the car, due to an unfortunate mix up. But let that be a story for another day.
And now all that now remains is the final leg of the course: eating. If the obstacle and cross-country stages are not my forte, I have every hope of distinguishing myself and perhaps even clawing back a personal best, at this, the final stage.
What possible use the Baby Jesus has for our munching through an entire wheel of cheese, washed down with copious quantities of Shloer, while watching a dutiful and twin-set-decked Liz (presumably the bottom half of her onesie is just out of shot) talking the nation through what “Pheeelip and myself” have been up to this year, I do not know.
One thing I do know, however, is that later that afternoon when the fire is beginning to burn low in the grate, and we have passed round the Celebrations for the last time, I will glance around the front room at all those familiar, rosy faces in various states of repose, and suddenly the whole crazy race will have seemed worthwhile.
And that is why despite not bringing home a medal this year, and while I will most certainly not brave the shops again until at least half way through March I am still glad to say, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
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