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I have a slightly new agenda for my Christmas shopping this year. I have cut myself a little slack. I have performed a kind of surgery on my habits, removing sections of the heart, possibly, but shoring up the brain and the nerves.
In the past when I have shopped for Christmas, I have tried to inflict some kind of sacred act on my recipients (I almost wrote “victims”). I sought out presents that attempted not just to improve but to transform people’s lives. I didn’t use a Christmas list so much as snippets of the Sermon on the Mount, certain passages of Mary Poppins, with a bit of Winston Churchill thrown in for good measure. “Where there is a specific anxiety, I will bring the perfect salve,” I thought. “Where there is a fledgling talent, or passion, which may not even have been acknowledged by its owner – well, I will dignify and champion. I will breathe life.”
Over the past few years the stakes have become even higher, as I noticed that even within my immediate circle Christmas seems to have been losing its lustre. People were critical and negative. They were, frankly, afraid of Christmas’s relentless demands.
So not only was I attempting to heal and solve with wondrous gifts, I was also trying to shop in such a way as to rehabilitate Christmas. I was trying to buy presents so heart-cracking in their tender perfection that they would bribe people to learn to love Christmas all over again. I wanted my presents to prompt great swaths of forgetful compassion, so that people would forgive Christmas for no longer making them feel how it made them feel when they were children – which is what people who claim not to like Christmas are really angry about, it seems to me.
With this agenda, Christmas had become so daunting that I wondered whether I should just do the decent thing and make its safe passage, its triumphs and its inexorable claims my full-time job.
This year, however, I have a more achievable aim. Instead of attempting, through my shopping, tremendous acts of pity, mercy and catharsis, I am aiming for a Christmas that is the equivalent of those Low Country royal families who go about on bicycles, smiling and making people feel jolly. I am just going to try to spread a bit of cheer.
It was a scarf that helped me make this transition: a Parisian scarf spotted near Bond Street. It had red-and-cream stripes on the upper side with two large black cherries, and black-and-cream stripes on the back to cut through the cute. I stood outside the Sonia Rykiel boutique and gazed at it with approval. It really was a scarf you could adore. I just loved it. “Even in your dreams I don’t think you could imagine making a person so happy,” I murmured to the scarf through the plate glass.
I wandered into the shop, slightly dazed, and said, “That scarf!” as if I were about to expire, and the assistant fetched it. And perhaps because I was not very well-dressed, she said, brightly, “It’s from our affordable range,” which was encouraging. (Although, perhaps, this did not speak too well of the rest of the stock.) I put the scarf on and instantly everything about me was lifted. It just radiated celebration, without in any way being that dreaded thing: fun. It was Santa, Coca-Cola, a Black Forest gateau, a Colette schoolgirl, high-flown insouciance and a nod to Arsenal all rolled into one. I kept it on.
Afterwards I met my lovely long-lost cousin Augusta for a drink in a nearby hotel and from the revolving doors to the bar seven people said, “I love your scarf,” or variations thereof. I went to to the National Gallery wearing it, and I swear no one was looking at the paintings, only at my scarf.
“That’s the best scarf I have ever seen,” three people said to me on Charing Cross Road. I almost started to feel a little rivalry. Without my new scarf, I half-wondered, what am I in the world? I wore it to the opening of a fashionable new play and in the interval, several people standing quite close to the playwright said, “It’s marvellous” – but they were referring to my scarf! The pleasure others took in my scarf caused me great pleasure also. Me and my scarf, I thought. We’re really something.
Cheer – a modest, almost limp thing, I sometimes think – had proved itself to be as powerful as mountain. There was only one thing for it. I was going to have to buy the scarf for almost everyone I know. Race you to the store.