In the last week of August, I called my favourite country pub to book a big table for a Boxing Day lunch. Because, yes, I am that person – the fruitcake outlier on every WhatsApp group, wanting to make Christmas plans four months in advance. Hiya! As I write, we’re still in bonfire season, yet I am already consulting daily with my packed shelf of Christmas cookbooks (I’m planning to start practising a gingerbread martini) and signing off messages with the new female Santa emoji, my digital daemon from now until the new year.
So I am accustomed to the polite bafflement with which my early-doors Christmas enthusiasm is usually greeted. What I’m not used to is being told, as I was that day in August, that the pub was fully booked for Boxing Day already. This year I am no longer the fruitcake outlier. After last year, when Christmas was semi-cancelled by a last-minute lockdown, the world has gone crazy for Christmas.
If you are planning on an audience with Father Christmas this year, you’d better be top of the nice list. From Holkham Hall in Norfolk to the Tong Garden Centre in West Yorkshire, Santa’s grottos have sold out in record time. In London, the Liberty department store’s Christmas shop has been selling 38 baubles an hour since it opened, and is on track to sell 110,000 over the season – its highest figure ever. The Liberty beauty hall is set to sell enough fragrance to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. By mid-October, “Advent calendar” was regularly among the top search terms on the Selfridges website. (These days, you can count down the December days with cheese or nail polish if chocolate isn’t your thing.) The mood this year is “Christmas – amplified,” says Meave Wall, store director at Selfridges. “Big, sparkly, all-round joyful.”
Festive glamour is as it ever was: cosy slippers, Fair Isle sweaters, and velvet in crimson or black
“There is more excitement for Christmas this year,” agrees Gareth Banner, managing director of London hotel The Ned, whose grand marbled lobby will soon be home to a Christmas tree almost seven metres high and twinkling with 6,000 white lights. “I think most people feel they were cheated out of Christmas last year, especially after the last-minute U-turn by the government.” He is seeing an unprecedented number of bookings for private parties, festive weekends, and restaurant tables. The consumer research department at Marks & Spencer confirms that the British want “a bigger Christmas” this year. Its most recent data shows 39% of families planning to do more to mark Christmas than they did before Covid-19. This year, 68% of people hope for “a big family Christmas”.
The vibe for Christmas this year, in other words, is as if we were an entire nation of six-year-olds, all overexcited and on tenterhooks for Santa. After the handbrake turn of last year’s 11th-hour rule change, attempts to save Christmas Day tended to focus, for most people, on keeping the magic alive for children. And the grownups felt they missed out.
The vibe for Christmas this year is as if we were an entire nation of six-year-olds, all overexcited and on tenterhooks for Santa
“After sacrificing so much last year, our customers want to pull out all the stops and be fully immersed in Christmas tradition,” a Marks & Spencer spokesperson told me. It’s not just children who are getting treats: by mid-October, M&S was selling a bottle of its light-up snow globe gin, with flakes of edible 23-carat gold leaf suspended in clementine-flavoured Christmas spirit, every three seconds.
The uncertainty of last Christmas has generated an appetite for festive pre-planning of the kind that usually gets normal people rolling their eyes. Street WhatsApp groups are alive with plans for neighbourly get-togethers. End-of-term ballet shows are oversubscribed with parents wanting to bring four grandparents, three godparents and the cat. After last year, Christmas feels precarious and precious, creating an anxiety not to be caught out by empty shelves. Amid early scares of Christmas tree shortages, John Lewis saw a 14% uptick in sales of twig trees, as more of us invested in a plan B. Every retailer is reporting brisk business in frozen seasonal food, from turkeys to canapé-size mince pies.
Christmas spirit can’t be stored in the freezer and defrosted at will. It can’t be guaranteed with a credit card deposit, and it can’t be bottled and stoppered, with or without edible glitter. Christmas is togetherness and kindness. It is hopefulness on the darkest of days. It is everything, in other words, that the past two years have crystallised as being all that matters. But Christmas is also about life being out of the ordinary. It is wolfing down chocolate from your stocking under your duvet before dawn breaks or, for a slightly older audience, opening the first bottle of fizz straight after breakfast. It is eating brussels sprouts and Christmas pudding, which you wouldn’t dream of doing any of the other 364 days of the year. Christmas has its own timetable, whether that’s midnight mass or eating lunch at 3pm. It has its own menu, whether it begins with lumpy tangerines in the stocking or with smoked salmon. It has its own dress code, whether that is pyjamas or paper hats.
The whole point of Christmas is that it should be different from every other day of the year – which is what made last year’s scaled-down Christmas feel odd, when most of us ended up spending it with exactly the same people we’d spent the rest of 2020 with. In other words, Christmas is supposed to feel very slightly crazy, which is why those who roll their eyes at making the dog wear reindeer ears or risking life and limb on top of a wonky stepladder to get the fairy to sit just so miss the point.
But sustainability is changing the way we do Christmas. Showstopping gift wrap that creates a mountain of shiny, non-recyclable waste – think Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually, with his cellophane bags and curls of shiny paper – is making way for squares of fabric that can be saved by the recipient for next year’s presents. Selfridges has resale and rental options on its partywear floor. Collectible, heirloom-worthy tree ornaments are taking over from pop culture glass aubergines and neon Beyoncés. We want linen tablecloths and napkins instead of the disposable kind.
The more foodie we get as a nation, the larger Christmas looms. Gone are the days when a gourmet Christmas meant not drying out the turkey
Christmas is bliss for anyone who loves making rooms look nice. At Christmas, I get to wrap the banisters in holly and other greenery, despite this serving no practical purpose except to fill dusty corners with wrinkled berries. I get to curate such an over-the-top mantelscape of scented candles and lights that it takes a good 10 minutes of fussing with matchboxes and fiddly switches to get the house out of darkness when I get home from work. I’m sure I’d tire of this level of aesthetic micromanagement if I did it year-round, but for one month a year, it is heaven. Decorating for Christmas once meant baubles and tinsel on a tree, but has expanded into a hobby that covers the house – wreath on the front door, festively pimped mantelpiece, curated table.
Christmas always reflects the time that precedes it, and this year’s has taken inspiration from 18 months of staying in. A British countryside aesthetic has superseded our recent Scandi passions for the cosiness of Scandi hygge and the wholesome outdoorsiness of friluftsliv. (To recap: hygge is a scented candle and a fine knit; friluftsliv is a fire pit and a rugged sweater.) John Lewis Christmas buyer Jason Billings-Cray says his team “found inspiration a little closer to home than usual”, adding: “We had all reconnected with the world around us and found the joy and beauty in our little pockets of nature, from windswept coastlines to babbling rivers.”
As a result, robins are the new reindeers. There’s an online waiting list for the store’s £30 neon robin light, and for its £4 mince pie plate with painted robin in stripy scarf. If you are quick, you might snag the last £7 beach hut bauble, complete with miniature bucket and spade.
The more foodie we get as a nation, the larger Christmas looms. Gone are the days when a gourmet Christmas meant not drying out the turkey. At Selfridges, this year’s lean-in to nostalgia and familiarity can be see in the personalised Toblerones with retro artwork – but the pop up Great Feast food market will feature a liquid-nitrogen ice-cream parlour with Willy Wonka-style festive flavours. Personally, I suspect that this may be the year that I finally succumb to my absurd but persistent yearning for a Christmas tree-shaped Bundt pan in which to attempt Nigella’s Spruced Up Vanilla Cake. The Always Pan by Our Place – think Le Creuset, but in millennial pink – is at the top of a number of fashionable wishlists, along with electric woks. (Cindy Crawford swears by hers.)
Which brings us neatly to fashion. On this front, you will be glad to hear, there is to be no ramping-up of the festive arms race. Higher heels and tighter dresses will not make you feel more festive. Quite the contrary, in fact. Christmas glamour is as it ever was. Fair Isle sweaters and cosy slippers. Cashmere in Quality Street brights, and velvet in crimson or black. Look-at-me pyjamas, whether they’re in soft brushed tartan or satin with feather cuffs. And – for 10 minutes at the start of lunch, while you read out the cracker jokes and pass around the bread sauce – a paper hat. This year, Christmas comes with all the trimmings.