Linus here again, writing from the Christmas UK Cavern on the eve of the Christmas Run-Up stepping up a gear as Christmas 24 starts up, and the first major Christmas Window display opening.
Now, you've known me for anything up to eight years by now, and so you truly know that I'm very geeky about the whole Christmas Run-Up. But even I think I surprised myself when I was having a casual chat with a friend and I found myself saying "...but you know what, I think it's Garden Centre Christmas Department Season..."
Yes. Complete with capitalised initials.
GCCDS is a thing, apparently, even though up to that moment I didn't realise it was. It truly is one of those mini-phenomena during the mid-stages of the Christmas Run-Up (yes, I realise how unashamedly nerdy that sounds!) that is a joy to experience. It's only when you take a step back to examine it all that you realise what a perfect setup it all is.
We're talking your massive garden centres here, rather than a back corner of your local Homebase. These are sat in the middle of nowhere and usually have a few acres of land to play with. Places which have plenty of space for nurseries (of the plant kind, not for little Jake), farm animals, greenhouses and a myriad of large departments selling everything from shrubs to hot tubs. With all that space available, a lot of them build some cracking Christmas departments.
Dedicated garden centres are usually based around large warehouse-like buildings, with rooms with ample width and height. You could easily build entire buildings within a single room because the ceilings are so high. The large airy rooms with plenty of huge windows turns the entire building into a massive sauna in the Summer, but when Autumn arrives it becomes the ideal canvas for the festively-inclined interior designer.
As Christmas UK was formed to celebrate the creativity surrounding the Christmas celebrations, you can bet your bottom bauble that the work of these interior designer craftsmen falls directly into our wheelhouse. If you can get to the larger garden centres near you, then you are probably in for a treat.
First of all, many of them start early, but you can pretty much guarantee that their Christmas departments will have been rolled out by mid-October - which is right now, which is handy. Secondly, they usually have a very good café for lunch, so you can get well fed and watered before you begin your extended wander around the facility. A panini, coffee and cake goes a long way to energising you whilst you have a surprisingly long walk.
Thirdly, the good Christmas departments are usually spectacular, not just in terms of size, but also of content. So much care and attention can be seen and appreciated as you see what can be made by people with a visible love for the subject.
Usually they break you in gently. There are giant reindeer or angels guarding the main entrance, each one covered in a gazillion lights. In the entrance hall there's a wintry scene with snow, Christmas trees and animals. You will then be reminded that this really is the season when, day or night, whatever the weather, wherever you are, there is always a penguin watching you. Watching. Always watching. And waiting. Anyway...
Once you are past the perky peering penguins, you find yourself surrounded by baubles. Billions of baubles of every size, shape and colour imaginable. You turn into an adjoining room, and find that it's rather dark. This is where all the lights are displayed, from strings of Christmas tree lights, to light-up ornaments, through to outdoor giant decorations and - something quite new to us - light projectors that will show various pictures gliding across the walls of your house.
Into the next room, and you find yourself back in the light and crowded by the stand-alone ornaments, like festive wintry scenes, Santa in his rocking chair, and a surprising number of meerkats in Santa hats. Usually it is here where you see how Santa is visualised in other parts of the world, and those freaky visions will revisit you when you have your next fever dream. But in amongst the nightmarish apparitions, you know you'll find plenty of decent decorations for your home.
You quickly realise that the Christmas department sprawls everywhere, and you find that the next room has the Christmas gift food. It is here you'll find the weird and wonderful Advent Calendars, from simple traditional glittery pictures, through to big boxes with doors hiding a daily treat, be it chocolates, crisps, boozy liqueurs or pork scratchings. You see shelf upon shelf of large rich Christmas cakes, and wonder if it'll be fine to buy a large stack of them on the premise that the New Year diet will shed the pounds gained over the previous three months due to a sensational stollen stuffing session.
These are just the basics of garden centre Christmas departments. The best ones go further, staging scenes that any film set would be proud of. All those high ceilings come in handy for massive displays out of arm's reach, be they big piles of gifts, or in one place I saw today, Santa in his sleigh with all his reindeer, full sized, flying over your head.
And remember when I said you could build full sized buildings in the rooms of these garden centres? In Scotsdales' Great Shelford branch near Cambridge, they built a mini village. Well, a couple of Victorian style streets with a pub and a couple of pretend shops with beautiful traditional Christmas windows. Delightful.
Garden centres during the Christmas Run-Up makes a great family trip, be it a young family with kids, or somewhere to take your parents and grandparents. It’s also a fantastic way to welcome in Autumn and tee yourself up for the Christmas festivities.
It is very pleasing to see that our quest to have The Silver Bauble to be a reflection of you all is gaining momentum. Fresh from Colin McGreogor’s debut, Graham Harrison has picked up the baton with his festive faves.
1) Chris Squire & Alan White - Run With the Fox: A 1981 single from two members of prog rock legends Yes. You know Christmas is on the way when Ken Bruce plays this.
2) Extreme - Christmas Time Again: Another Ken Bruce fave, should be on everyone's playlist.
3) Cliff Richard - Little Town: Much better than Sir Cliff's other Christmas songs in my humble opinion.
4) David Essex - A Winter's Tale: Tragically kept off the number one spot by Phil Collins' “You Can't Hurry Love".
5) Angel - Winter Song: Apparently this was originally to be called "Christmas Song" but due to a marketing cock-up was released in January so was renamed!
6) Trans Siberian Orchestra - Carol of the Bells: Be honest who doesn't want their Christmas heavy metal with more than a hint of prog rock?
7) Corey Taylor - X-M@$: The singer from Slipknot with his own take on the festive season, be warned it's a bit sweary...okay, very sweary.
8) Bring Back Christmas #1 - Going Home: The festive edition of Justin Lee Collins' Bring Back… series. Wasn't released as a single but is rather good nonetheless.
9) The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping: A bonafide classic, apparently written in the cab on the way to the recording studio.
10) Prokofiev - Troika: Everybody knows this, used by Greg Lake for “I Believe In Father Christmas".
11) Bing Crosby - White Christmas: The grandaddy of them all, if you get chance to see the stage musical of White Christmas I heartily recommend it.
12) Mike Oldfield - On Horseback: So this wasn't a single and isn't about Christmas but it mentions snow which is good enough for me. The final track on MO's third album “Ommadawn", starts at 13:45.
This is what we love about the Desert Island Christmas Discs - there’s a smattering of the familiar, a smattering of the obscure, and a whole lot of character. How about you send in your favourites and your hidden classics? Send your dozen to email@example.com and we’ll share them with the nation!
Do you fancy writing something for The Silver Bauble? Chances are that if you find something interesting, someone else will do too. You can send us your thoughts about Christmas past, present and future, your reviews of your favourite Christmas movies, albums and songs (including those obscure ones you think people would love discovering), and anything else that reflects what you love about this time of year. Think of The Silver Bauble as a glorified letters page where you can exchange thoughts, memories and information with the other followers of Christmas UK. Send your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org, and have a look at our writing guidelines to see a little bit of inspiration and also the sort of thing we’re after.
Sarah Tipper has taken up the challenge and well and truly run with it - enjoy this festive tip for your next Christmas...
Firstly, select your stocking. You might pick a traditional boot shape, you might like to use a pillowcase, a gift bag (perhaps left from last year), a brightly coloured plastic bag or a re-usable shopping bag. Although a stocking is the traditional receptacle you don’t have to stick to this, do what suits your budget and style. You may want to leave this step to the end and decide based on the size of the items that will comprise your finished stocking.
Secondly, pick your stocking fillers. Many things can be a stocking filler but they need to be smallish in size and low in cost. The key thing is picking the right items for the recipient. Choose their favourite chocolates and sweets and things that tie in with their hobbies and interests. Pick a few items from the categories below and you’ll soon be ready to stuff your stocking!
The best bit of a stocking is the surprise of its being there in the morning where previously it wasn’t. Then staring at a gift wrapped parcel, feeling it and willing it to give up its secret! The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Happy stocking making!
We at Christmas UK would love to hear some of the stocking fillers you fondly remember receiving, please let us know…
Sarah has also written a book of twenty-four short Christmas stories named “Tales To Take You To Christmas", and you can find more details on its Facebook page.
I was quite late to the whole pay-TV thing. It was around 2009 when I finally convinced myself to get a satellite dish installed when it became a choice between doing that or spend a similar amount of money getting a new TV aerial fitted so that I could get Freeview.
You know what these digital TV platforms are like. Even in the early days there were only a handful of useful channels, and then an awful lot of filler. Do people actually watch those dozens of shopping channels? But there was a nice hidden surprise that I had the pleasure of discovering for myself: Christmas 24.
OK, so the official channel name was Movies 24, but I caught it during its annual festive rebranding, at a time when there was no such thing as a dedicated Christmas movies channel, even on the premium TV services. Heck, it would be a pretty rare event if the significant TV channels ever showed a Christmas movie outside of December.
Over in the States, this was a more common practice, and there was a plentiful supply of Christmas TV movies from the likes of Hallmark, Lifetime, ABC, and many others. You know the sort of thing: light feel-good movies, morality tales, utter turkeys and the odd gem hidden in the dross.
The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year was the first Christmas 24 movie I hit whilst randomly channel hopping, and the thing which first grabbed my attention was Henry Winkler in a leading role as Uncle Ralph. Yes, that Henry Winkler: The Fonz. The film starred Baywatch's Brooke Burns as high-flying working single mother Jennifer who’s caught in a permanent overdrive. Christmas was an annual distraction that she could well do without, and had fallen into the trap of doing everything on autopilot. She had To Do lists for everything, cards would be sent without really caring who they were for, and she took everyone else's festive activities in her stride.
Enter Morgan, played by Warren Christie. He's a free spirit with no real direction in life, drifting from one major project to another, just following his heart and finding his feet. He crosses paths with Ralph at an airport and they form an immediate bond. Once in Chicago, Morgan finds his connecting flight cancelled due to a major snow storm, and Ralph offers to put him up at Jennifer's house.
You can probably guess the rest of the plot, but it's filled with lots of festive activities, a little neighbourly rivalry, and keeping a sweet little boy on Team Santa for a little while longer. A word about the little boy - he’s just on the right side of cute, without getting too annoying.
It's definitely a feel-good Christmas TV movie that you can drift in and out of, whilst also being good enough to stand up on its own two feet. Winkler is wonderful as the retired cop with a solid heart, and this movie definitely isn't just a pretext to get him some screen time once more. It’s also an affectionate tribute to working single parents everywhere.
It usually makes an appearance every year on some TV channels - we'll let you know when it's on. And with Christmas 24 starting up tomorrow, it may be on quite soon!
2008: Director - Michael Scott
Main cast: Jennifer Cullen - Brooke Burns, Uncle Ralph - Henry Winkler, Morgan Derby - Warren Christie
Running Time - about 90 mins
As we reach the end of October, we're now in the stage where the Christmas adverts are appearing on TV, the window displays are opening, the shops are in full festive swing, and next week the first mall Christmas lights get switched on (it'll be a little while longer before the lights go on in the towns and cities). I'm trying to pace myself by not getting into the festive food too early, but with the Christmas markets just around the corner, well... sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Especially when the Christmas menus start to get rolled out in a couple of weeks' time. Stick with us, and we'll make sure you don't miss out on what's happening around the country. And if we do miss anything, then send us the details!
'Til next time...
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The Silver Bauble - Intro