Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tis more blessed to give than to receive....

Feel the burn, Arnie style. Or just reward yourself after a
 hard day's shopping with a pleasingly rubbish film. 

It may feel early to be talking about Christmas – I hate those reminders that it's only x days to go (34 today!) but as I am the most organisationally challenged person in the world, I thought I could help my similarly time / motivation-poor brethren with a timely reminder that actually, 34 days isn't very long....

That's the trouble, isn't it? We're so used to being bombarded with tinsel and Rudolf deelyboppers from September onwards that we get lulled into a false sense of "Christmas is ages away!" security until it's suddenly December 20th and the shops are like a glimpse into the seventh circle of hell.

I am lucky in that my family has adopted a foolproof scheme – we all buy our own presents. This may be unsentimental, but it does mean that we all get what we want. (I've taken the attitude that commercialisation is part of Christmas, so we might as well make it work for us.)

Assuming that your family takes a less mercenary view of presents, the next best thing is the wishlist. (I have about ten on Amazon, all carefully categorised. Nerdy, but necessary.)

Where to Go:

For stress free shopping, Amazon is always my first port of call – it's generally the cheapest choice for music, books and DVDs (although it's worth checking out play.com, greenmetropolis.com, and Asda and Tesco's websites for a price comparison). It also sells pretty much everything else, including jewellery, toys, gardening equipment, furniture, food and clothes. (They are taking over the world, I tell you!) The joy of doing all your Christmas shopping with a few clicks of the mouse (either lounging about in your pyjamas, or sneakily, in quiet moments at work) is enjoyably smug-making. And there is no lugging heavy bags all the way home, overheating in shops or being stuck in car park traffic.

My second favourite website to shop at is etsy.com. This fantastic site (better known in the US although it's gaining ground rapidly on this side of the pond) features goodies made by individuals; meaning you can magnanimously contribute to someone's kitchen business – how's that for seasonal cheer? You can choose from jewellery, clothes, furnishings, and paintings, among many others. The variety and homemade-ness guarantees you'll find something a little bit different from the norm.

Magazines always urge you to make your own presents, because apparently people love them so much. Which is all very nice, but in the past when I've had lofty ambitions to make gorgeous boxes of homemade fudge wrapped in satin ribbons, or sequin-encrusted accessories, I have ended up stressed, and with a tighter schedule, messier house and lighter purse than I would have if I'd just bunged a CD in a bag. Plus, I don't think people are generally as appreciative of homemade presents as you might expect. I'm sure they realise the effort you've put into it, but who wants a bag of reindeer biscuits when they were expecting a Spooks box set?

(Having said that, for the last two years I've make my mum and dad a calendar each – with pictures from icanhascheezburger.com as they are both suckers for a cute furry face. However, the making of these calendars has largely taken place late on Christmas Eve / the early hours of Christmas morning. One year, they were allowed to admire their gifts but not touch them, as the glue was still drying. Of course, this year will be different...)

Internet shopping has many advantages (not least generally lower prices) but there are drawbacks. One major problem is the time it takes to be delivered – sometimes you need something RIGHT NOW. Here are a few of my favourite shops:

* If you can face the likes of Oxford Street (sometimes I like to test myself, just to see if I really do have the necessary nerves of steel) Paperchase on Tottenham Court road will be full of inspiring ideas.

* Vinmag.com is a shop in Soho which sells fantastic movie posters, t-shirts, and all manner of things you never knew you needed, such as a "Bates motel" soap dish or a Wizard of Oz tea towel. The website has a limited selection of stock, so shopping for a movie buff may require a trip to the Big Smoke.

* Heals – hideously expensive, but you can check it out then steal their ideas. One of my favourites was a transparent plastic case, filled with lots of different sweeties in compartments. It cost about £30. The same effect could be achieved a Hobbycraft storage box and penny sweets.

What to Get:

You know all this already – but if you're in panic mode and your mind has gone blank:

* DVD Box sets: A series of must have TV (True Blood, 24, Dexter, etc) or movies. Would anyone in their right mind be disappointed in a lovely set of classic Hepburn / Bogart / Cagney films? Or you could also get the latest, "re-mastered, commentary and documentary with knobs on" DVD of a favourite film they've seen lots of times...

* CDs: Taste in music is a very personal thing, but here is where an Amazon wishlist is invaluable.

* If a member of the family is a big fan of any particular film or TV show – from Dora the Explorer to The Godfather – there will be plenty of accessories to be found – Ebay is my favourite place to find bargains.

* Experiences: OK, so it's less exciting to unwrap, but you could get a voucher for something lovely like a day at a spa, or even a zoo experience (being a keeper for a day or hanging out with the elephants). A word of caution: make sure the recipient actually wants the experience you're offering them (ie don't use this as a means of manipulating your family members; your mum is not going to want to go skydiving just because you've bought her a voucher for it).

* That old cliché, bath products, is a mixed bag. If your loved one is a fan of Lush – well, a gift box or personalised bag of favourites is a sure winner. Likewise, if Lush is a bit full-on for their tastes, there are plenty of ethically minded, goats milk and oatmeal type soapy products (see etsy!). But those generic, bubble bath and body lotion sets you see in Boots? Nope. They are suitable only as joke gifts, as in "See how much thought I *snigger* put into your gift this year."

* You have to be pretty confident that you know someone's taste before you buy them items of clothing or jewellery. (In fact, being confident doesn't necessarily mean you are right – several times my family / friends have proclaimed "I had to get this! It's SO YOU!" while presenting me with something extremely pink and fluffy. Which I would have LOVED... when I was 12.) But you could try something like gloves, a scarf, or the classic: socks. (Hey, we always need more of them!) Last year I got some fluffy slipper boots. They may be chavtasitic, but they have kept my tootsies warm all year and have been brilliantly useful.

* Cath Kidston (online and in stores nationwide) is full of lovely, vintage style fabrics, purses, towels, etc. (Warning: if you like the sound of this, only look if you have cash to splash.... you'll only be torturing yourself otherwise.)

* If all else fails, wine and chocolates. It's so trendy to be vegan / gluten intolerant / fairtrade these days, that you should be able to find something to please everybody.

Buying for Children:

No doubt advertising will have got to them and there will be a "must have" toy this year, hyped up solely to manipulate those unfortunate parents who will end up weeping at the empty shelves of Toys R Us. Or perhaps you have been nagged for a wii / wii accessories for the last 6 months? Here are a few other ideas:

* Books books books! No matter what age group you are buying for, books are such a wonderful investment; I cannot recommend them enough. Even if they are disdainfully tossed aside on Christmas morning, there may be a rainy Sunday a few months later when that paperback suddenly becomes riveting. And I sometimes want to buy young children's books purely for the beautiful illustrations.

* www.insectlore.com sells eco-aquariums; you can learn about frogs, breed butterflies and hatch your own praying mantis. (Only give these if mum and dad are happy for creepy crawlies to join the family...)

* When shopping for small girls, Claire's accessories is a veritable orgy of pink, glittery, Hello Kitty goodness.

* Hawkins bazaar (www.hawkin.com) sells a fantastic range of stocking fillers for children and adults. It is really quite brilliant, with all those classic toys you had forgotten about – rubiks cubes, slinkies, and etcha sketch. (Am I taking you back to your childhood yet?)

* Again, chocolate (especially in Christmassy shapes like Santas and reindeer) will always be a winner.

The Shopping Itself

* They may seem hellish but malls are the best way to go. For one thing, you won't have to take an umbrella or keep taking your coat off. In fact, my No. 1 TOP TIP is to go without a coat; wear just a thin t-shirt. (I'm assuming you can actually drive and park at said mall.) Getting overheated and panicky in stuffy, packed shops is what makes the whole experience uncomfortable; being cool and calm and not having to carry a bulky jacket will make the day so much more palatable.

* Within an hour of the shops opening or closing are the best times to shop without crowds (with the notable exception of 5pm on Christmas eve).

* Wear comfortable shoes – duh.

* Use the lightest handbag you can manage.

* Shop on a full stomach. Hunger pangs and the subsequent headache make me *Very. Irritable. Indeed.* Queues and braindead shop assistants will only exacerbate the situation.

* Little and often may be more convenient, (especially if you live or work nears a good set of shops) or you might prefer to just get it over with in one long, tiring day (although you may find you quite enjoy it once you get going).

One last tip: See as many family members AFTER Christmas as you can, that way you can delay shopping for them. The shops may be heaving again in January but at least you might get some bargains. Good luck!

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