Every year people bemoan the fact that Christmas is not what it was. The lights down Oxford Street, the films on television, the Queen's Speech, they all sparkle less than in our memories. One of the reasons for this is the hackneyed images of Christmas past: chestnuts roasting on an open fire; stockings hung by the chimney with care. Who roasts chestnuts these days? You may have a chimney and an open fire but the chances are it is fuelled by British Gas rather than logs you have chopped yourself in crisp,frosty, pine-scented air.
Toy shops and department stores play their part in the seasonal surge of expectation, which is frequently doomed to disappointment. Fuelled by magical, enticing windows, stores hold out the promise of meeting every child's desires, but what happens? Every year the one thing that every child desires has usually sold out some time round the end of October and is not available for love nor money. Last year it was Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story (remember him?). This year it will be a Tamagotchi nano pet, Tellytubby or Spice Girl.
What is striking about many of the year's must-haves is that they are film or television spin-offs. Everything from Wallace and Gromit to Winnie the Pooh now generates a mountain of merchandise. But this is year The Empire Struck Back. Twenty years on from the release of the original Star Wars film, a new generation has been enthralled by the intergalactic jihad waged by Skywalker, Leia, Solo, et al, against the forces of the thrillingly bad Darth Vader.
Unsurprisingly for three re-released films which are epic in scope (good versus evil, world against world) there is plenty of Star Wars paraphernalia to choose from. At Hamleys in Regent Street, you can find most of the cast, plus their assorted weapons, modes of transport and various fields of battle, including foot-high Yodas and Vaders, in full colour and exquisite detail. Pricey at #163;59.99 each, they are, nonetheless, collectors' items. There is also a chilling Darth Vader which comes to life, complete with deep breathing and flashing lights (#163;35). But if, like me, you want a Wookie, you're out of luck.
If you want to wage your own Star War then there is a Return of the Jedi B-wing fighter for #163;19.99; Luke's Snowspeeder for #163;14.99, and an encounter with Yoda on Dagobah (with tree hole) for #163;19.99. There's also a laser wand which no self-respecting Jedi knight could afford to be without (#163;29.99, with "movie sounds and extendable light-up beam").
But Star Wars is not the only film to launch a thousand space ships, as science fiction exerts a continuing attraction for toy buyers: models of Kirk, Scottie and the crew of the SS Enterprise are #163;19.99 each, as is the grand old ship herself; however if you want to upgrade your star fleet with Voyager (her successor) it will set you back #163;32.99.
To commemorate the return of feisty Lt Ripley and her orthodontically challenged adversary there is plenty of really nasty merchandise to put you on your guard for Alien Resurrection. Some of these include large scale models of the monster for a monstrous #163;69.99; but who would want one hanging round their bedroom on Christmas Eve? Bound to frighten the reindeer.
By now you are probably wondering, so where are the Spice Girls? And the Teletubbies? There are tantalising hints here and there in the delightful jumble of Hamleys's five-tiered toybox: a Spice calendar (#163;7); pencil case (#163;9.99); tee-shirt (#163;9.99), some Teletubby Fuzzy Felt (#163;6) and bubble bath (#163;4.99). But no sign of a Scarey or Tinky Winky you could get hold of.
You are on safer ground if you opt for something more traditional, like the sweet counter. This is eye-poppingly well stocked with old-fashioned candy canes, pastel ropes; long PVC-like tubes in orange and green and horrible veined balls that are described as Raspberry Creams but look more like something the Alien hatched. There are lollipops and love hearts, custard creams and liquorice allsorts; huge bon bons and wine gums in fantastic shapes. And just in case you get too carried away, there is a big jar of false teeth (gelatine, I suspect).
For an even stronger whiff of tradition, Hamleys has battalions of tin soldiers - at a price. A confederate supply wagon and crew costs #163;175 and General Grant #163;33. The Scots Guards are something of a snip at #163;53 but what is so special about the Black Watch which makes them nearly double the price?
There are miniature cars of every marque and size from a colossal pink Cadillac Eldorado (#163;99.99) to James Bond's BMW for #163;23. In this unadulterated boy zone, there are also model aeroplanes by the shelf-ful: Lancasters and Shackletons for #163;14, a Tiger Moth for #163;17 and a Spitfire Mk II for #163;9.
And for the girls there is Barbie. Again. Still going strong after a lifetime of reinvention. This year she gets to be Cinderella (#163;45); the Sugar Plum Fairy (#163;35) and Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (#163;60). She now has her own dream home (at #163;130, she may well need a mortgage too) a pastel palace that looks like a cross between Southfork and Windsor Castle: it has turrets, porticos, balconies, and crenellations; not to mention a "motorised elevator". How else is a girl supposed to get about in her ball gown?
What there is not an awful lot of is cheap stocking-fillers. There is some-
thing called Super Formula Slippery Wobbly Gunk for #163;2. All one can say about this is that it's green. With
the Noise Blaster (#163;3) there is yet more gunk in a pot. This you remove, squish, return to pot and then press down. "It makes a hilarious raspberry noise!" says the blurb. Oh, yippee. Better value is a Grow Your Own Spaghetti plant (actually a marrow) for #163;3.
So on to the Disney store where they have really missed a trick this year.You cannot move for Buzz Lightyears. There's a talking head version at #163;24.99 and
an Intergalactic Buzz which has a
detachable back pack, space disc-firing mechanism; flip-up arm, communicator, light-up inner helmet and pop-out
wings. What price one of these last
year? This year you could buy a houseful for #163;32.99 each.
Sharing the floor with Buzz is this year's big hitter, Hercules. Disney's rather dubious reinterpretation of Greek and Roman legend has attracted some criticism from academic quarters but if it stimulates a child's interest in these fabulous old stories, then it must be congratulated. So a Hercules model comes with armour plating that changes colour in the sunlight (#163;14.99); or with Pegasus and a back pack for the same price. Some of his opponents come complete with props: the Cyclops has a corinthian column; Zeus has a thunderbolt and Hades has a fireball shooter (#163;5.99 each).
Best of all are the Hercules his 'n' hers costumes, of which hers is by far the most desirable: it is purple, with Grecian folds and a socking great sparkly brooch on it for #163;24.99. Hercules has a tunic with the imprint of his golden armour, a fake leather belt and a Superman-style cape for the same price. Mind you, he does get a sword which clangs. Last year, the Hunchback of Notre Dame's was #163;9.99; this year you will need to fork out #163;12.99 for the same thing. Shame on you Disney.
Last stop is Selfridges, which usually has the most magical windows and the best grotto outside Greenland. Well don't hold your breath. This year, it has neither. The windows are full of bejewelled twigs and exotic plants; undersea rock caves and glittering woody hollows. They are also stuffed with expensive gear for rich adults to buy one another; there isn't a toy in sight.
Inside, as I joined the meandering queue to see the great man in red, two fresh-faced helpers informed me that the wait was "30 minutes from here" and "this year, we're not having a grotto".
Ah Christmas - it's not what it was.