Joan Smith: Shopping is the true spirit of Christmas

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The Independent Online

I'm not sure which was more irritating, driving to Somerset on Christmas Eve to the strains of some terrible Christmas singles or returning to London yesterday accompanied by incessant adverts for the winter sales. When the choice is between Noddy Holder of Slade and a man offering cut-price sofas from DFS, it's hard not to think that you have finally reached the bottom of the barrel of Western culture. These days, I like to think that the slight air of desperation in the voices of actors urging me to think about a new patio is down to global warming; everything is happening earlier than it used to, and I did most of my shopping for bargains well before the celebrations even started.

Then there's the internet, where you can not only buy cut-price presents before Christmas but "rehome" them - that's what the man from eBay calls it - over the next few days. I'm not sure about the etiquette if, say, you spot the underwear you bought your partner at enormous expense from Agent Provocateur listed as an unwanted gift, but someone will no doubt come up with a guide in due course. (I once spotted a pair of shoes I'd seen in a local charity shop listed on eBay at almost twice the price, prompting a series of philosophical reflections on honesty, modern manners and the kind of person who tries to make a profit out of Oxfam, for God's sake.)

At first sight, it's hard to think of two events more diametrically opposed than Christmas and the winter sales, and there is a palpable sense of release every year when the stores re-open. It may be because we've got used to something approaching 24/7 shopping and the idea of two whole days without sends people into a panic, although I do wonder what possesses anyone to queue at Next at 5am. In fact, it seems to me that the impulses behind the two events are pretty similar, the difference being that before Christmas we have the excuse that we're spending money on other people. In the sales, it's every man and woman for herself, but the net effect - an orgy of over-consumption - is much the same.

If that sounds cynical, I actually think there's more to it than that, in the sense that this is the time of year when people are positively invited to act out fantasies. It begins with Christmas, which we're all supposed to look forward to with breathless anticipation even though for many people the reality falls quite a long way short of expectation. It isn't often that everyone in the entire country is forced to do the same thing at the same time, and that sense of compulsion - and the absence of alternatives - inevitably grates on the nerves. One of the nicest Christmas mornings I've ever spent was in San Gimignano, where the cafés were open and thronged with people, quite unlike any British town centre on Christmas Day.

Whenever I hear conservative commentators extolling the virtues of the extended family, I wonder whether they've ever experienced a large family gathering at Christmas, when the tensions between generations become apparent. No wonder so many people are eager, after a couple of days, to indulge in a new set of fantasies in the shape of clothes, sofas, computer games and holidays. If we were more relaxed about Christmas, we might not need such an extravagant antidote. And I can't help being amused by the fact that the result of a concentrated dose of family values is to send most of us to the shops to spend as if there's no tomorrow.

Tony Blair dusts down his white Travolta suit

Who could forget that marvellous picture of the Blairs on holiday in Silvio Berlusconi's Sardinian villa a couple of years ago, accompanied by their host - still prime minister of Italy at the time, amazingly - in a bandana to conceal his hair transplant?

Tony and Cherie's taste in villas is pretty much like that of any other middle-class couple, but what really grabs the attention is their choice of host: Mr Berlusconi, that perpetual favourite Sir Cliff Richard, and now Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.

Has the Prime Minister packed a white suit? I can just see him in the John Travolta role at a Saturday Night Fever theme party, with Cherie twinkling round him. It's almost too exciting to think that even now, as I write, Mr Gibb might be rehearsing the famous couple at his villa in Miami Beach.

* I've never been on a plane with Tony Blair, let alone overshot a runway with him as happened on Tuesday at Miami international airport.

But exactly the same thing happened on the one occasion I met John Major, on the first day of campaigning in the 1997 general election. I was on board a plane chartered by the Conservative Party for a day trip to Carlisle, and it was the roughest landing I've ever experienced.

Later in the day - which went miserably for the Tories, by the way - I decided I'd had enough and sneaked back to the plane. The crew were being interviewed by someone from an aviation magazine, and that's when I discovered that no one had checked the length of the runway in advance. Fortunately for the prime minister, the crew were experienced and managed to get us down safely.

It didn't inspire confidence in the Tories, and I politely declined a pressing invitation from Central Office to join the next day's outing in the campaign bus.