William Brown had the right idea about Christmas lists. Under the heading ‘Things I Want for Christmas’, he requests: a bicycle, a gramophone, a pony, a snake, a monkey, a bugal, a trumpit, a red Injun uniform, a lot of sweets, a lot of books.
The Christmas list, as William so ably demonstrates, is a rare opportunity to be shamelessly greedy. I don’t hold with the Tiny Tim business of ‘God Bless Us Every One’. God Shower Us With Goodies, I say.
When my brother and I were young we were fascinated by ‘Santa Baby’, that hymn to consumerism performed first by Eartha Kitt and later by every popette from Kylie Minogue to Taylor Swift. ‘What’s a yacht?’ we asked. ‘What’s Tiffany’s? What’s a sable? What’s a deed to a platinum mine?’ When all was explained, we were incredulous. Why would anyone want such boring presents?
For us Christmas meant only one thing: the Argos catalogue. With plenty of time to go until Christmas Eve (after school on 1 September) we would visit the Argos on Edgware Road, pick up a catalogue each and spend the next few months labouring over the toy section and making a list, with helpful catalogue numbers, for our parents. The Father Christmas myth had long been rumbled. Come December, our parents would chuckle merrily — ho, ho, ho! — and go off and buy a completely different set of improving and educational presents.
Now that I am older and less venal, I feel sorry for parents discovering that Toys R Us has sold out of Jurassic Park Pterodactyl Drones, or whatever this year’s must-have present is. There’s a heartfelt entry in E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady for 19 December when our heroine sets off for London: ‘Find Christmas shopping very exhausting. Am paralysed in the Army and Navy Stores on discovering that List of Christmas Presents is lost, but eventually run it to earth in Children’s Books Department. While there choose book for dear Robin, and wish for the hundredth time that Vicky had been less definite about wanting Toy Greenhouse and nothing else. This apparently unprocurable.’ She eventually tracks one down in Selfridges: ‘admirable — though expensive’.
Vicky is lucky. Usually, the item you most want is the one you don’t get. Take this Christmas list made by the wartime party girl Joan Wyndham in 1939: ‘Inhibitions by Sigmund Freud, Madame Bovary, a nest of live ants and an indecent pink gauze nightdress, the kind you can see through.’ She gets everything but the nightdress.
The best sort of Christmas list, though, is the cosily old-fashioned kind: the stocking fillers a Victorian child might find at the foot of his bed. Stockings such as these, described by Angela Thirkell in Christmas at Mulberry Lodge, which contain a humming top that sang a lovely sad note, a little bag of chocolate buttons with tiny white sugar balls on them, a mouth organ, a real pocket-knife with two blades, a tangerine — and a sleeping dormouse.
Just William also gets a mouth organ in his stocking, which he starts playing lustily at 6:25 on Christmas morning. If only Mr Brown had observed the golden rule of Christmas lists: if it makes a noise, don’t buy it.