Last spring I noticed that some Cotswold shops still had their Christmas decorations up. When they were still sporting Santas in the summer, I took a closer look and discovered that these were ‘Christmas shops’. What’s more, these shops suddenly seemed to be everywhere — in Burford, Lechlade, Broadway and Bourton-on-the-Water — all roughly within a 20-mile radius.
In fact the Christmas shop is nothing new; the one in Lechlade opened 22 years ago, catering to homesick American serviceman at RAF Fairford. When I walk in, I am hailed by a notice proclaiming ‘73 Days Till Christmas!’ Despite the long countdown, I find I am picking up glass angels and mini-snowstorms and putting them into a basket. The shop sells decorations from around the world, nesting dolls from Russia, nativity scenes from Germany, wooden figures from Sweden and tree ‘hangers’ from as far away as Kashmir and Cape Town. Judith Hurt took over the shop nearly four years ago and sources everything herself, mainly from Frankfurt’s Christmas World Fair at the end of January. The shop is open seven days a week from March and at weekends in January and February. ‘It’s always busy,’ says Judith. ‘I wouldn’t have taken the shop over if it wasn’t a good going concern.’ I ask where the original owners went after Judith arrived and find they have retired to the Caribbean. Clearly there’s money in Christmas as never before.
Lechlade’s Christmas shop claims to be the oldest in Britain but Coral Farr says she opened Cherubim, on London’s Fulham Road, over 23 years ago. ‘I’m a Christmaholic,’ she says, peeping out from behind a sequinned peacock and a white feathery owl. Coral reminds me of a friendly little owl herself. The tiny shop, draped in crimson velvet and festooned with decorated pine garlands, is a treasure trove for anyone seeking decorations or gifts that conjure up nostalgia for traditional Christmases past. Unlike the Lechlade shop, most of Coral’s wares are decidedly British: Victorian children’s tea sets, 1930s jelly-and-trifle moulds in peach-coloured Bakelite, fretwork angels and robins, proper old-fashioned fairies for the tree and vintage cards. With Help the Aged, she hires teams of elderly people to knit — and knit they do, providing an array of eccentric gifts from tea cosies and golliwogs to Christmas pudding hats. ‘I had a taxi driver who wore one of my hats all December. So many people came here from that cab,’ she chuckles.
Coral’s original shop was across the road and so popular that coaches stopped on the way back from Harrods to Southend or Brighton. When Coral fell ill and closed her doors for a year, frantic customers besieged her. ‘I had notes shoved through the door begging me to open again,’ she says. ‘We can see you in there with Santa’s Little Helpers! Don’t desert us!’ one devotee pleaded. People likened her shop closing to a death on Fulham Road, and now that it’s reopened, passing cars honk.
While we are chatting, a well-groomed woman buys up an armful of garlands made from green papier-mâché apples. ‘I’m doing a huge corporate event in Tokyo,’ she explains, ‘Their logo is an apple’ — making it obvious what the corporation is. She also buys a whole herd of felt cows with Christmas hats on. ‘The Japanese are going to adore these,’ she trills.
To find out how long Christmas has been a year-long money-spinner, I telephone Harrods to ask when its Christmas World started to open on 1 August. No one there could remember but a spokeswoman told me, ‘For at least 15 years. It was a purely commercial decision. We have plenty of international customers who come early to buy a new decoration each year.’ I wonder if in future there will be queues to see Santa in July. Reassuringly, Santa’s Grotto does not open until the first Saturday in November.
When I was growing up in London, my parents grumbled if shop windows began sprouting Christmas trees or they switched on the Regent Street lights before November. It was as if the mere sight of a festive snowman exhorted us to start consuming with indecent haste and greed. As I coo over a star made from berries, I remember with a sudden pang our wilting tinsel and tarnished red baubles that lasted us for 20 Christmases or so. How times have changed and, just for a second, I dither before I buy the star, a ‘fireplace wreath’ and a dozen sparkly velvet butterflies. Pointless frippery they may be, but irresistible they surely are.