It is Christmas and we will buy gifts, wrap them, give and receive and be generous. It is altogether a good thing. Sharing what we have, marking our appreciation of others, acknowledging their support throughout the year; this is one of the better Christmas traditions. If you possess the means and the time, then it can be a wonderful season. A bit strapped for cash and/or run off your feet, however, and it can be a stress-fest. Especially if we put ourselves under pressure to stretch the generous gesture towards apocalyptic acquisitiveness, commonly known as, ‘shop-till-you-drop’. At this time of year, more than any, we can look around our homes, shelves, wardrobes, cupboards and – for most of us – take stock of more things than we can possibly ever need. Yet we add to them.
Shop windows are entrancing in December, reeling us in like fat trout to the fly on the water. It used to be that children would be taken to special shops for a tour of the magically dressed windows. Brown Thomas, in Dublin, still puts on a fabulous window display. There is a good half hour to be had just standing outside, staring at the colours and textures, all things shiny and sparkling. Here, in Edinburgh, it’s all about Jenners’ (department store) indoor tree, reaching up three floors to the atrium with icicle lights falling in stalagmites from each mezzanine. Beautiful trappings draw us in and we flap around like over-excited magpies examining the attractive wares, feathering our nests with all that glisters. It takes a brave and strong-willed person to resist the seasonal lure, to say no to just one more cinnamon and clove scented candle for the mantle.
When I worked in Dublin I would occasionally meet Sister S. in Wynn’s Hotel on O’Connell Street for a cup of tea on a Saturday. I took her to Arnotts once, as I ‘needed’ new winter boots. She was a great shopping companion, as, despite having next to nothing in her life as a nun, she loved everything. Contrary to tut-tutting at my spending she had no disapproval and seemed to revel in it. I remember us wandering around haberdashery, handling silk scarves, leather gloves, printed brollies, patterned tights. She was in no rush, taking it all in as one might museum exhibits. And I remember her saying to me, without one ounce of judgement or disdain, “would you look at all these beautiful things we don’t need? Isn’t it marvellous!” I had no idea what to say, as, in that moment, I knew entirely what she meant. Very few of us will ever be Sister S., though, I certainly won’t, but adopting a little of her attitude could go a long way, especially at this time of the year.
How do we become a little more like her? How can we appreciate beautiful things – shoes or perfumes or crystal glasses – and not want five pairs, three bottles and a set of six? I wonder if our instinct to acquire and collect is actually incompatible with appreciation of true beauty? I’m beginning to believe that a collection is more beautiful if it is small; that we enjoy things more, place greater value on them, the less we have. Take the Louvre or the Prado or The Hermitage, each is enormous and bursting with treasures. But if you are lucky enough to have visited any one of them, there is only so much beauty you can take. For me, it is a matter of a few rooms.
This Christmas, when you become sated with the beauty of the shop windows and enticing goods lose their allure, whisk yourself away to the simplicity of the outdoors and bathe in its unassuming beauty. I’ve quoted GMH on this blog before, but I could quote from him every day and still it would not be too much. In his masterpiece ‘Pied Beauty’, he sees beauty in the everyday, everywhere, but not in shop windows.
‘Pied Beauty’, Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.”