By Rowan Pelling
Before Covid-19 reached our shores, only the Puritans and Narnia’s White Witch had managed to crush the joy out of Christmas. Now we face a soulless Advent without parties, carol concerts, pantomimes and Nativity plays.
But the saddest loss, or so it seems to me, is hanging up the mistletoe. There’s little point having a lush bunch of Viscum album dangling from a beam if no singles are allowed to kiss underneath it. For children the approach to Christmas Eve means Santa and stockings, but for lonely hearts it’s a 24-day countdown to find romance. As long, icy nights draw in, the impulse to find someone warm to wrap around becomes irresistible.
I first became aware of the Christmas Love Challenge in 1986. I’d opted for a gap year after leaving school and was working at Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street. The store doubled its workforce from November to December, as the ranks were swelled by temporary staff toiling as toy demonstrators, shelf-stackers, loading bay work-horses and, in my case, as one of Santa’s elves. There was a heady, carnival atmosphere across the seven floors, and when workers weren’t assisting shoppers they were engaged in non-stop flirtation. This was particularly true in Santa’s Grotto on the top floor, where sixteen or so student-age elves worked in rotation. You could practically sniff the pheromones when you walked in. I had my eye on a bleached-blond, six-foot-two elf called Dickie, but faced competition from Katy, a vampish fairy with scarlet lips and a Louise Brooks’ bob.
On quiet days I’d be sent round the store in a jester’s costume to drum up custom for the grotto. This enabled me to widen the scope of my flirtations. I gave the glad eye to the sales manager in the model toy department, who was an expert on steam trains and read Chekhov in the staff canteen. I also nurtured a slight crush on the store’s magician who performed tricks by the entrance to lure in shoppers. He asked me if I was a virgin and when I said, “Yes!”, said this proved he was clairvoyant. My wanderings also allowed me to spy on workmates’ budding love affairs. Hannah on the first-floor tills was smitten with muscle-bound Craig from Oz, who moved stock from lorries to the shop floor. The store detective – Mitzi, a scar-faced former copper endowed with raw sex appeal – had seduced the 20-year-old son of Hamley’s then owner – who’d been sent to work “incognito” on the shop floor. Everyone, but everyone, knew he was a multi-millionaire’s son; especially Mitzi. The poor boy arrived every day looking dazed, as if a hurricane had passed through him.
At the close of each day we’d all decamp from the store to one of the three pubs behind the store on Kingley Street and flirt some more. The Clachan Arms was for worker bees, The Blue Posts for management and The Red Lion was where the thieves gathered (one Irish chap had a side-line in snaffling chess computers). I drank at all of them. As Christmas Eve approached, we elves were flirting in the last-chance for lovers’ saloon bar. Most of us were going on to university or drama school and there was even one elf heading to Sandhurst. I had a wild party at my flat and ended up kissing the model-train-set guy. But it would be another year before I had a properly passionate embrace with the tall elf, Dickie.
My elf love didn’t last, but it did ignite my burning faith in winter romances. In my first year in magazines I kissed a colleague under the mistletoe at the office Christmas party and fell half in love. He wasn’t handsome, but he was the Rudolf Nureyev of snogging. We had a brief but intense affair, which ran out of fuel when he discovered I shared a one-room bedsit with my best friend from college. Three years after that I was working on British GQ when I had a sudden premonition that the dark, brooding chap on the other side of the features’ room was the man I was going to marry. There was just one problem, I already had a boyfriend. Nevertheless, by the end of the magazine’s annual Christmas party we only had eyes for each other – and two years later we tied the knot.
The fact is we uptight Brits need an annual chance to let our hair down. Without Christmas parties we might never pair off at all. After all, an instinct for heightened human contact throughout Yuletide is hardwired into British systems. Pagan celebrations, such as Saturnalia, long predated Christ’s birth, setting a template for feasting, boozing and fornicating before the dreary trudge through the new year’s dark months. A Lord of Misrule was appointed from the ranks of menials – temporarily raised up as master of revelries – who encouraged his “subjects” to jettison inhibitions. And ever since those days single adults have thrown caution to the wind in December, as they go questing for a Christmas kiss. At office parties across the land Mark from sales has a snog with Gail from HR – and six months later they’re living in a cottage in Berkshire, with a baby on the way.
So, boo hiss to Covid-19, the Grinch who stole kisses; who put them in his swag-bag along with flirting, fumbling, trysts and shagging. Be gone from our shores, foul pestilence! Let the Cavaliers, and an effective vaccine, restore sex to the heart of our Christmas festivities.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and a former editor of The Erotic Review