The Saturday Essay: The seasonal struggle of pressure and pleasure

But drawn back as though to the scene of a crime, I could not resist having a look to see if history would repeat itself
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IT WAS the afternoon, if not the night, before Christmas. There were only two supermarket-shopping hours left before the beginning of that unreal, time-out-of-time, two days of total shoppinglessness.

Every good citizen, and especially every good mother, had long since filled fridge, freezer and every available household cavity with turkey, pudding, crackers, brussels sprouts peeled in advance, and everything else required or desired to survive or enjoy the interval. Or so it seemed if, like me, you were wandering along aisles that seemed suddenly empty. Gone were those tailback queues, the trolleys stockpiled with festive fortifications as though to last out the whole winter. Now there were just a few people merrily scurrying about with baskets and the air of a job long done, picking up a few last things.

It was all as jolly as could be. My two-year-old daughter, as yet unimpressed by the packets on the shelves, was grabbing all she could of the unaccustomed space in the aisles. I was thinking we might as well go and see what there was in the way of, say, turkeys, and even brussels sprouts, and especially smoked salmon, when the first of the announcements came up. "All items in the bakery department reduced to 10p. Extensive selection remaining, you are invited to come and look." A short pause. Then it was turkeys - down to pounds 1, or was it 50p? Then it was maybe the puddings or the cream or the sausages. Anything you ever wanted for Christmas Day you could have for next to nothing.

We drifted about with the prices dropping audibly at every turn. Big yellow REDUCED stickers beckoned with offers you couldn't refuse. We could have had Christmas every day for the next year and still had change from - in fact, why not stop off for a couple of cut-price freezers on the way home and simply stock up now for 50 convenient Christmases to come? This, perhaps, would be a form of just return for our undeserved good fortune.

For the scandal was that we, the ungodly, the non-planners, the last- minute dissolute, were the ones who were being so magnificently rewarded. We had failed to attend regularly through December, carefully laying up our stores and buying always more than we meant. Imagine if all the others had known, the faithful of the full trolleys, the list-makers and impulse- buyers of all shades, all those who had filled and fulfilled the lures and demands of supermarket orthodoxy. For them, Christmas had been a long-term, long-month project, one which requires - and start in November, by all means! - that you spend as much in four weeks as you would in four months of ordinary mistletoelessness.

Now, naturally, when we went up and asked the people energetically unloading the loaves and the fruit cakes, it turned out that no such dramatic drop of price or convention had been intended to gladden the hearts of the last shoppers - not even the cheery top-up crowd, let alone the feckless turkeyless few. There had been, it appeared, some almighty error of judgement that was certainly never to be repeated. Calculations in high places and on far-off computer screens had gone wrong.

Over-ordering based on mistaken predictions of levels of demand in the final days, not to say the final hours, had regrettably taken place. But the proof that the mistake was at least honest, and even in some sense not a mistake because accurately based on the available evidence and premises, was that, not coincidentally, the same thing was happening right now in East Grinstead. However, lessons would be learned. Next year, it would not be like this year.

And nor would I, not daring a second time to risk the possible effects of a supply swing in the opposite direction. A year on, I was a reformed character. Planning and preparation had occurred. A bird awaited stuffing. A stocking awaited filling. And I was not the only one to have grown up. Helena by now was picking up things that appealed to her off every reachable bit of shelf, and chucking them adeptly into the trolley whenever I wasn't looking. Supermarket shopping had become a newly dangerous business, not to be undertaken on a whim, still less without a plan.

But drawn back as though to the scene of a crime, I couldn't resist having a look, same time, same place, to see if history or fairytale would repeat itself on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. No such luck. This time there seemed to be very little fresh food left on the shelves, and nothing that was reduced beyond the usual half-hearted 20p or so. Maybe that wonderworld last year had all been a fig of the overheated Christmas imagination, a tale told to gullible toddlers and listless grown-ups to indulge and correct their misbehaviour for one magic and final moment.

Shopping at Christmas is pictured as a joyful, impulsive experience, at the same time as it is also meant to be meticulously planned. In this respect, it is like a magnified version of other kinds of shopping, striking an uneasy or intriguing balance between images of work and pleasure.

Get a list! Prepare in advance! Christmas shopping has to be done, and the sooner the better, to get it over with, all ticked off and ready. First the plan, then the purchase, then the event, in a straightforward, ordered sequence. A crucial prop is the sacred List, which in this once- a-year form oddly involves a mixture of people and commodities. An aunt is one thing, a box of chocolates another, but here they bump up as potentially compatible items, incongruous matches to be attempted between those in the category of the to-be-bought-for and those in the category of the to-be-bought.

At the same time, have fun! Be spontaneous, open to inspirations of the moment. Christmas buying is now, but it is also a time of nostalgic echo and hopeful anticipation, recalling and remaking imagined Christmases past when the snow is always just starting to fall in soft white flakes and the presents have yet to be opened. Christmas shopping makes magical providers, finding the very thing for the very person, creating a surprise.

This double face of a commercial Christmas is nothing new. In two famous novels from the first half of the century, both sides appear in sharp relief, in the women who act out their roles. Jan Struthers's Mrs Miniver, the subject of sketches in The Times in the late l930s, became a cult figure of middle-class Englishness. First becoming a novel, in 1942 she was made into a Hollywood film that was instrumental in swaying American public opinion in favour of entering the Second World War. And the thing about Mrs Miniver is that she does it all effortlessly.

In the book version, we see her returning from a successful day of Christmas shopping. All her Christmas shopping is gift shopping (she has servants to take care of the food), and no war is yet interfering with her whimsical meditations on her not very, but just planned enough attitude to buying presents, and her pleasure in the actual experience of finding just the right thing.

However much she might try to persuade herself to get it done early, she ponders, by pretending Christmas was on another date or that all her friends lived abroad, "Mrs Miniver knew very well that Christmas was not until the 25th of December, and that all the people on her list lived in England.

"Besides, successful present-choosing depends very largely on finding the right atmosphere, upon the contagious zest of crowds, upon sudden inspirations and perceptions, heightened rather than otherwise by a certain sense of pressure in space and time. To do it cold-bloodedly, in a half- empty shop, without any difficulty or competition, is as joyless as a mariage de convenance".

Hence, there is no point or pleasure in shopping before the middle of December, when the "pressure" of people and time has mounted up.

Mrs Miniver's self-congratulatory consummation is meant to convey the happiness of her matches. Pressure engenders not stress but a positive urge. Atmosphere, zest and inspirations far outweigh any sense of duty or necessity in what still remain as "all the people on her list". Mrs Miniver is effortlessly munificent, passionately punctilious, everybody's attractive mother.

At the other extreme, and 40 years earlier, it would be difficult to find a more dreary scene of Christmas shopping than the one in Howards End. Forster writes:

"The crisis opened with a message: would Miss Schlegel come shopping? Christmas was nearing, and Mrs Wilcox felt behindhand with the presents. ... Margaret accepted, and at eleven o'clock one cheerless morning they started out in a brougham.

"First of all," began Margaret, "we must make a list. My aunt always does, and the fog may thicken up at any moment."

Then Mrs Wilcox tells Margaret to put her own name down first.

"Oh, hooray!" said Margaret, writing it."

That is about as jolly as things get, as fogs of seasonal depression and annoyance duly drift between the two of them:

"They drove from shop to shop. ... At times they passed through a clot of grey. Mrs Wilcox's vitality was low that morning, and it was Margaret who decided on a horse for this little girl, a golliwog for that, for the rector's wife a copper warming-tray. `We always give the servants money.' `Yes, do you? yes, much easier,' replied Margaret, but ... saw issuing from a forgotten manger at Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys. Vulgarity reigned. ... A poster of a woman in tights heralded the Christmas pantomime, and little red devils, who had come in again that year, were prevalent upon the Christmas cards. ... How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop assistants realised that it was a divine event that drew them together?"

Nearly a century later - Howards End was published in 1910 - there may be some distraction to be found in the transformation of the golliwogs and copper warming-trays into items of historical curiosity rather than purchasing potential. They evidently figure as permanent present possibilities at the time, while clearly there was also a definite sense of changing Christmas fashions in other areas, like greetings cards; though little red devils, in or out of style, have not been seen for some time.

Mrs Wilcox's depressive Christmas spirit and Margaret Schegel's censorious one get a necessary job done with a certain morbid efficiency, making the world appear a slightly less tolerable place in the process. No Mrs Miniver sparks here. Margaret's "hordes of purchasers" are in a different world altogether from Mrs Miniver's "contagious zest of crowds". Mrs Miniver manages to embody a remarkable mixture of blissful maternal generosity with multiple varieties of self-satisfaction - in the moment of shopping, in herself as inspired shopper, in her brilliant reflections on both. What a satisfying image, in its turn, of adorable femininity.

No supermarkets are yet available to require of these fictional ladies the food-buying work that servants, somewhere off-page, are no doubt performing on their behalf while they go to buy their presents. But change the scene, and set them all down in a supermarket on Christmas Eve at the end of the century.

Mrs Miniver's eyes light up as she starts to formulate some excited and pointed thoughts on the automatic pricing scales or the end-of-aisle display. Mrs Wilcox, sadly, becomes faint at the very first whiff of store-baked bread, leaving Margaret to go round resolutely locating every item on the list. Perhaps out loud this time (she is getting old), inviting strange looks from knowing toddlers, she delivers a fierce complaint at the contemporary conflation of commerce and spirituality, text slightly amended from 1910 version to allow for changes in detail. A PRICE REDUCED sticker on an advent calendar containing chocolates elicits her particular condemnation. Meanwhile, Mrs Miniver sails smugly by again, basket on arm, picks up a luxury assortment of nuts. "Vacillating shoppers and tired shop assistants" continue to circulate for the final hour, vaguely looking for yellow stickers or mechanically sticking them on.

Perhaps it is time to get out of here. A solitary Santa Claus, as though unsure whether this is the place he should be, is hovering at the top of the aisle like a ghost of department stores past. There are things to be done at home and it is, after all, getting late. Mrs Wilcox needs to have her early night, and Mrs Miniver and Margaret will want to collect their consumerly thoughts together and wrap them up once more for rumination over the course of next year.

Never before could so much be seen, to despise or desire, under a single Christmas shopping roof. Christmas has come again and again, with its repetitions and its surprises, its pressures of pleasure and planning. But next year - and the thought gives Margaret a pang she did not expect to feel - will be different, and even final. For better or worse, it will be the last 20th-century Christmas.

Rachel Bowlby is Professor of English at Oxford University. Her book, `The Last Shopper', will be published by Faber in 1999