Friday, December 25, 1998

We Three Kings bearing acute shoppers' stress

[A brilliantly funny Alan Coren piece stolen from The Times where it was first printed on Dec. 9, 1998. I've been e-mailing it to people every Christmas ever since.]

I stand, today, in great debt to Dr David Lewis. What about it, you cry, every man in the country stands in great debt to him, he is the brilliant psychologist who last week declared that all men risk instant heart attacks if they try to do any Christmas shopping — just walking past Selfridge's window induces male stress-levels normally recorded only when a Tornado pilot spots a missile in his mirror, or a copper finds himself staring down the sawn-off end of something unpredictable. So then, since Dr Lewis has told all the nation's wives that if they don't want to become all the nation's widows they must tuck up all the nation's husbands in front of a roaring fire with a magnum of claret and a pile of ham sandwiches, no crusts, while they themselves rush about accumulating the yuletide gubbins, what makes my debt so special?

What makes it so special is that Dr Lewis has done not only all this for all men, but also, for me, solved a 2,000-year-old riddle. The solution is contained in a sidebar to his report, stating that when men actually steel themselves to do Christmas shopping, they do it, in order to reduce their agitation, at the last minute, buying the first thing they see. Which, at last, sheds all the light we scholars have hitherto sought on the mysterious case of the Three Kings of Orientar and the bizarre gifts they carried with them to Bethlehem.

I realise, of course, that for non-scholars among you the location of Orientar is itself a mystery which has annually nagged at you down the long carolling years, but we dabber hands at exegesis are now firmly convinced that Orientar is a rhyme-enforced abbreviation of Orient'R'Us, a supermarket-chain specialising in everything from brass gongs and Kaftans to spice-racks and hookahs, and very probably — such has been the rigorous nature of our scholarship — cognate with the Aladdin's cave featured in the Christmas panto, which, you'll recall, if it supplies a gift you don't like, for example a lamp, will be happy to exchange it.

Just the sort of portmanteau establishment to appeal to frantic last-minute male shoppers stuck with the problem of gifts for a faraway family of which they knew little. Oh, sure, they would have begun, like us, by coming up with lots of imaginative possibilities: they would have sat down, weeks before, with a papyrus pad and a nice sharp quill, and, Caspar having pointed out that Joseph was a carpenter, Melchior and Balthazar would doubtless have agreed that a state-of-the-art toolbox was just the job, or a fabulous multipurpose drill, possibly a folding workbench, jot that down, now what about Mary, lingerie is always a winner, you can't go wrong with a nightie, or perhaps a peignoir, perfect, she'll have the baby by then of course, a wide choice there, romper-suits, mobiles, bouncer, pull-along duck . . .

The list complete, they gird their loins, and pop down to the shops. But lo! there are windows full of 87 different sorts of toolbox and 23 assorted folding workbenches, there are lingerie emporia with 1001 nighties, which material, which colour, what's her size, you go in, no you, why me, what do I know about women's thingies, let's get the baby's present first, blimey, look at that, the place is packed, there must be a million screaming kids in there, I feel dizzy, Caspar, my heart's going like the clappers, Melchior, I have come out in a muck sweat, Balthazar, tell you what, why don't we sit down somewhere, have a drink, two possibly, it is no good rushing these things, we could do ourselves a mischief, we'll just sort ourselves out and come back later when it's not so busy, yes, I'm up for that, me too, call a camel!

So, do they go back? Of course they don't. On the way home, they pass their local branch of Orient'R'Us, oh look, spot on, we can get everything we want here, so in they run. And while they find, of course, no power tools, no nighties, no toys, there is gold, always an acceptable gift, Caspar, and frankincense, can't go wrong with female fragrances, Melchior, and what's that box next to it, the label says myrrh, what's myrrh when it's at home, Balthazar, who cares, what does it matter, he's only a kid.

Copyright © 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd.