Christmas, Special

There’s a captive audience for Christmastime telly. All your family, together in one place? Better switch on the TV and diffuse those tensions! There’s always a bumper crop of movies, but the staple of seasonal British TV viewing is the Christmas special.

Christmas specials are new episodes of TV shows that are aired during Christmas and as such aren’t part of the show’s regular season. Hence, specials. They aren’t necessarily fuzzy, feel-good stories either. Doctor Who in particular often takes joy in killing (sorry, exterminating) lots of characters in its Christmas specials, but this year might be a little different, judging by the synopsis released today:

The Doctor and Clara face their Last Christmas. Trapped on an Arctic base, under attack from terrifying creatures, who are you going to call? Santa Claus!

And if you’re part of the minuscule percentage of the population that aren’t Sherlock fans, you might’ve missed the furore yesterday over the release of a new promo picture. Aside from the temporarily missing body part, the picture is purportedly from the Sherlock Christmas special.

In 2015.

It’s hard enough anticipating something as big as Christmas. How hard must it be for you to want it to be over with so you can move on to the next one? But, as they love to remind us, Sherlock fans are used to waiting, so I’m sure they won’t mind waiting a little longer.

Christmas windows in London

England has the best shopping in the world. Not for nothing did Napoleon call the English “a nation of shopkeepers.” Some people might put in a word for Galeries Lafayette or Macy’s but for luxury, diversity of choice, and rampant consumerism all in one immaculate package, London’s department stores are the place to be. There are even TV shows about them.

Christmas, as I’ve mentioned before, is the biggest shopping event of the year. British department stores, especially the flagship stores in London, push to extremes to have the best window displays each Christmas.

Creative Review has a look at the best department store Christmas windows. Naturally, the British stores top the list.

If you can’t get to Oxford Street between now and December 24th, here’s a taste of what you’re missing:

Penguins, especially Monty: An explanation

These days, when there’s major change sunk into making TV commercials, to many viewers the commercials become equal in importance to the event. Sometimes even more important than the event itself.

In America, we have the commercials during the Superbowl.

In the UK, there are the commercials during the World Cup, and even the Euro Cup, and something called Six Nations that you probably don’t care about. But what’s the one thing, every year, causes companies to budget huge amounts of money to try to win the most consumers?

Christmas.

And the unveiling of the Christmas commercial has become an important event in its own right.

After being loosed onto the populace, these Christmas commercials (or ‘adverts,’ to be proper) will be shown over and over again, either in full or edited down for time, nonstop, relentless, until you cave and buy something.

If you’re not a Brit, you might have wondered why penguins are suddenly a hot topic, especially one named Monty. That’s because today is the day an upscale British department store chain called John Lewis released their offering to the gods of commerce:

This was a major event, make no mistake. Remember that last November’s John Lewis advert netted Lily Allen a number one single in the UK. Again this year, a trailer for the advert was released several days before the advert itself. Today it was all anyone could talk about, on talk shows and radio programmes. It trended on Twitter.

I don’t want to get into it too much, since tumblr user thiscouldbetonight summed it up admirably:

I bet the meeting for the John Lewis Christmas ad is the easiest thing of the entire year.

Sentimental soft pop/acoustic cover of a famous song by someone your Mum will like for two weeks
Extremely white, middle class family as protagonists
Snow and a hint of whimsy/fantasy characters
???
They’ve just got those 4 points written down, and then they go and do a load of coke in the bar downstairs

But essentially, a little boy sees his best friend is lonely and buys him a girlfriend for Christmas. Thankfully, his best friend isn’t another boy but a toy penguin. Yes, we are supposed to find this heartwarming.

Like I did, you could assume that Monty might be a gay penguin. Why not? Ignore the crushing heteronormativity of it all for a minute and acknowledge two facts: 1. that there are gay penguins, and 2. earlier this year, same sex marriage was made legal in England and Wales. A Christmas advert would be a sweet way to recognize that, even if you keep it ambiguous so the pearl-clutchers aren’t scandalized. In any case, the sexuality of a plush toy in a TV advert doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, so it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Right?

Nope! John Lewis has removed all ambiguity by not only selling a stuffed Monty in several different sizes, but throwing the entire weight of their merchandising department behind the story. Monty’s new friend is called Mabel. Her cuddly plush self is also available to purchase, in several different sizes, from the John Lewis website. And Monty and Mabel’s likenesses can also be bought on a range of items, from umbrellas to mugs to coin purses. There is a story book. And an app.

And pretty much all of these Monty and Mabel-branded items are already sold out.

Congrats, John Lewis. You have already won Christmas.

‘Tis the season, apparently

England, not having anything for which to be thankful, has no real buffer between Halloween and Christmas. It barely has a Halloween; in the years since I first moved here, I’ve seen the American influence growing little by little. Now there are pumpkins available to buy from the grocery store, candy eyeballs proliferate, and trick-or-treating is more of a thing than it used to be. Trick-or-treaters won’t knock on just anyone’s door since they’re too polite for that. You have to put a pumpkin outside if you want kids to take your candy.

Now, though, all that is over, and there’s just the tiny bump of Bonfire Night festivities left before Christmas panic sets in. The stores have already been preparing for a couple of weeks and there is no escape from the reminder that you must buy things for the people you love, and the people you like, and even the people you can’t stand but have to do the polite thing for anyway.

At least it’s possible to feel good about yourself while you spend money you don’t have! In England, the sales from pretty much every single Christmas card you can buy (from fancy department stores like John Lewis down to the crappy newsagents on the corner) go to supporting a charity. This is where the troubles really begin: what if you love the design, but not the charity? I’m not gonna name names, but some charities aren’t the best at putting your money to good use.

This is why I look at the back of the cards first, to find the logo for the charity I like, and then the front. It saves on disappointment. Even though I’ve lived here for more than half a decade now, some teeny tiny part of me is still a hardcore Anglophile. I tend to go for the traditional English Christmas card designs, which are mostly cute little snow-covered cottages with holly wreaths on their front doors, old-style red phone booths or mailboxes, or robins.

English robins are the Platonic ideal of bird-ness. They’re nothing like North American robins, which are monstrous and terrifying in comparison. If you’ve ever read a Beatrix Potter book, you’ve seen a picture of a real English robin. It looks just like somebody took a puffball and painted it light brown, then added a fluffy orange-red front and two weeny black button eyes above its precious little beak. It looks like if you were to hold it in your hands and squeeze ever so gently, it would let out the tiniest and cutest of squeaks.

It actually sounds like this:

Which is still pretty adorable. If you really need to get into the Christmas spirit, you can look at these cute little so-and-sos for an entire hour: