The Emma Maersk - a 45,000 tonne container ship from China, renamed the "SS Santa" in honour of its mission - arrived in the UK on 4 November 2006, loaded with thousands of shipping containers full of toys, books and computers. A Chinese Online News service managed to obtain an oddly wistful quote from an English bystander : "It's like a dream to see such a mountain-like ship floating on the sea, and all the more incredible to learn that the ship is bringing Europeans with Christmas made mainly in China," which sounded more like a quotation from a Chinese Government press release. 3,000 of these containers were unloaded and the toys, books and computers distributed to warehouses and then sent out on their next leg to fill the shelves of Toys 'R' Us, Tesco and the mysterious back rooms of Argos. On Christmas Day 2006, carefully wrapped packages were hurriedly opened by children, teenagers and parents, their paper discarded, and the keys to temporary enjoyment revealed in all its glory.
It was, and still is, a time to remember the past year, to be together and enjoy each others' company, to have fun, and to make the most of the time we had off school and work. I wanted to find out how much of a part material goods played in those special Christmases, so I put together a list of the particular things that stuck in my mind:
- Putting together the plastic Christmas tree and watching my Dad test the lights, then sorting out the decorations from last year before they were put up.
- Seeing brazil nuts, walnuts and hazelnuts in the bowl in the sitting room, and wondering whether I was allowed to open the lozenge-shaped box of dates.
- Buying the Christmas Radio Times, and finding out what films and Christmas specials would be on TV.
- Listening to the radio the Sunday before Christmas and finding out what would be the Christmas number 1 in the singles charts.
- Visiting friends and family, dropping off presents (the contents of which I rarely knew) and being driven home while my sister and I counted Christmas trees in house windows.
And I don't think those memories are particularly unusual for anyone in their 30s or 40s, or even for anyone in their 80s or 90s; just change the odd detail and I reckon not much changed from the 1930s right up to the 1980s. I am not old enough to remember Dickie Valentine or Bing Crosby first time around, but I do remember the sounds of Slade, Wizzard and Mud, telling us to have a Merry Christmas Everybody, wishing it Could Be Christmas Every Day, and reminding us that some people might be Lonely This Christmas. And there were shops full of toys - to me the Woolworth's marathon-length TV adverts were magical - but what they actually offered was limited in both quality and range; if you didn't fancy a hostess trolley or a K-Tel LP then you had better not shop at Woolworth's! And those songs, essentially feel good music to wash the winter blues away and remind us that this is a special time, a time that has meaning beyond the acquisition of stuff in it's shiny wrapping paper.
I have hinted that the 1980s started to change things, and so they did. With the bringing together of Thatcher and Reagan to tell us that change was overdue and greed was good, we changed.
The British Toy Retailers Association, each year, award Toy Of The Year to the item that has both sold in huge numbers and has the elusive star quality that other toys can't match. The complete list can be found at their website, and it is a fascinating history of which toys really mattered to the British family. This is part of the list between 1970 and 1991:
1970 -- Sindy Doll
1971 -- Katie Kopycat writing doll
1972 -- Plasticraft modelling kits
1973 -- Mastermind board game
1978 -- Combine harvester
1979 -- Legoland space kits
1980 -- Rubik's Cube
1981 -- Rubik's Cube
1985 -- Transformers
1986 -- Transformers
1987 -- Sylvanian Families
1988 -- Sylvanian Families
1991 -- Nintendo Game Boy
What is really interesting is how simple and untechnological some of these toys were. In 1976 the most popular toy was a type of kite! The 1970s really does seem to reflect the times in its toys. In the 1980s we saw the rise of cross-merchandising - the Star Wars and Transformers toys - and in the 1990s the unstoppable rise of technology in the form of Gameboys, Furbys and Tamagotchi. Now I'm not going to pass judgement on the relative merits of these toys, but the merchandising and technological aspects show what was happening -- there was commercial power behind toys, and those toys were increasingly becoming Christmas essentials.
Companies would not advertise unless their adverts were effective in shifting products, and what we see in the run-up to Christmas is a huge push to sell toys, games and an endless variety of ephemera that the large companies like to sell. The retail sector seems to be deluding itself that it needs to keep pushing more new products made of plastic that will be lucky to see past the next Christmas, when it could just carry on as normal and make a decent living. The figures I analysed still show that the British spend about -9 billion in November and December on Christmas presents - -150 for every man, woman and child in the UK - and you can guarantee that it will mainly be spent on what the large retailers want us to buy.
Now I want you to go and listen to the words of "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole and think about what they mean to you. The Problem With Christmas is that it has become a battle between what we want it to mean and what the retail industry want it to mean to us. As with all stories of this type, we are being sold a dream of something we never realised we craved - a Christmas that fulfils some short-term desire for material happiness, but ultimately leaves us feeling empty. We are left craving the real happiness that has long eluded us in our search for commercial Nirvana, and in its wake a planet that has fewer resources left for the following year.