As a working-class child of the 80s and 90s, memories of my early Christmases are made up of 1) that Coke advert where the lit-up trucks full of toys drive through town with Santa, 2) obsessively memorising the Argos catalogue’s selection of toys, and 3) the repeated promise that there were millions (said Geoffrey) all under one roof at Toys R Us. We weren’t a religious family, so there wasn’t much pretending Christmas was about celebrating Jesus in our house. And most of our relatives lived close in the surrounding villages, always around us, so the festive season wasn’t quite about family either.
We weren’t financially comfortable – quite far from comfortable, often. Mum worked as a childminder after Dad left; things were tight, and we weren’t always particularly clever with what little money we had. There were mornings without anything much in the food cupboard, where breakfast was three jelly cubes placed into our hands before school, pretending it was fun and not alarming at all. Christmas, then, was the idea – the fantasy – of toys we’d been wishing for, imagining playing with, and owning if things were different: ours.
Staring at pictures in catalogues to play with the toys in my mind, walking around toyshops to wish, was special. That’s harder to do now … mainly because I’m in my 30s and I have a job to go to instead, but also because all the toy shops are steadily disappearing into memory.
The branch of Toys R Us in Tunbridge Wells (near where I grew up) is one of the UK-based stores earmarked to close after Christmas, steadily bleeding money. We only managed to find our way there once when I was a child, to walk around its cavernous halls and gawp. Toys R Us was just too big – the magical place, from the adverts ... Way too dreamlike, and always just slightly too far away to be part of real life.
Mum worked, saved up, and overdrew hard to get us what we wanted so badly, and remembering the Mighty Maxes, Polly Pockets, and Micro Machines in our house, she usually managed it. But because of our situation the toys would have to be good and durable if she was going to get them, top notch – something we would love and look after forever (or as close as you can get to forever with a Care Bear). None of that Keypers crap, no Lite Brite. Those were the things we touched and walked past in the toy shops – not for us, but for children that lived in the better parts of the town, and could waste even more money than we did: the families who had a car, could get to Toys R Us, and afford to shop there without worries sparked by jelly cubes in the morning.
Ordering toys online – cheaper and easier – is killing those expensive out-of-town warehouse-style toy shops now, the ones I imagined other families filling shopping trolleys in. Smaller chains were mostly cleared out and closed down years ago. Like the tiny independent local toy shop my mum had an account with to save for My Child dolls – long gone. It felt safe and comforting in there … but it sure wasn’t making money. The Gamleys we used to go to for birthdays – with a toy train snaking around the store up above the shelves – also gone. FAO Schwarz from the film Big is gone, too. You can order a giant keyboard online now though; easy. But they don’t look nearly as big or special.
Just as childhood toys stop coming to life in your hands as you get older, Christmas automatically starts to dull as you grow out of childhood. Joy comes from looking forward to time off work instead of opening gifts saved for and picked out so carefully for you by someone who loves you (if you were very, very lucky, which I know I was).
But there’s an added little sadness for what’s lost when the spaces you remember and wish you could visit are gone. Where would I go now to pretend we weren’t in trouble. What would I look at and dream of? Online is easier, with millions of choices to click on for Christmas, but it’s not nearly as magical or comforting as the places Geoffrey and his helpers showed us from before.
• Phoebe-Jane Boyd is a freelance journalist who writes on politics and pop culture