Why Christmas cheer isn't available online
On the first day of Christmas my true love emailed me: online credit for Amazon UK to the value of 50 quid. It doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it? Not that I'd particularly thank you for a partridge in a pear tree, or eight maids a-milking for that matter.
Ten lords a leaping? Possibly, as long as they were there to do my bidding and weren't just leaping in bed with each other.
Six geese a-laying? Can you even imagine the mess that would be created by six geese running wild around your house? Five gold rings? Now at last yer talking my language. I'll take the rings as long as they have a hallmark and come with a verification certificate so I can sell them on eBay.
Granted, no-one can dispute the fact that the 'true meaning of Christmas' has long since been swept away in the maelstrom of materialism and mammon. As soon as the big corporations such as Cadbury and Disney started selling Advent calendars with a picture of your favourite cartoon characters on each window and a chocolate reward inside each one, you kind of knew that pop-up tableaux of Jesus, Mary and Joseph would lose all their novelty value and commercial appeal.
But now even the good old-fashioned materialism of the festive season has changed forever too. Thanks to a technological age in which anything can be ordered from anywhere in the world without even leaving your armchair, the symbolism and sentiment of Christmas gift-giving is also something to be recalled with a sidelong glance of misty-eyed nostalgia.
At the risk of sounding like a Dickensian caricature, in days of yore there was always a certain magic to be found on a trip to the shops on a chill December afternoon. Okay, it was always frantic and fraught, but even panic-buying once had a certain charm all of its own ...
The sounds of carol singers huddled around the town hall Christmas tree as the ragged tinsel sways in the icy breeze and a vaguely familiar-looking Santa ringing his bell outside a corrugated cardboard grotto with his pile of last year's Beano annuals bought as a job lot from the Pound Shop ...
There was the Guess-the-Weight-of-the-Turkey raffle outside the family butchers; the market stalls selling boughs of prickly holly for you to deck the halls and injure your pets; and all the shop windows - even the hardware store and the chemist -decorated with the same spray-on snow and stick-on snowflakes and fairy lights and inflatable Santas ...
There was the crib in the town square which never changes, year-in and year-out, and even has the same Tiny Tears doll dressed as Jesus that you remember from when you were a kid ...
You just don't get that with online shopping, do you? It may be the new and most popular choice for millions of working mums and the convenient compromise for busy businessmen, but what's going to happen to the spirit of Christmas past in the future?
And how will our kids have any magical memories to pass on to their kids, if all they recall of the 12 days of Christmas was mum online, clicking on websites, logging in and out of eBay and frantically folding down corners from the Argos catalogue? This isn't a criticism, merely an observation. Heck, I'm just as much of a culprit as the rest of us. Last year I did almost all my shopping - even the food - from the comfort of my own home. But at least there is one existing event that has, in just a few years, become as much a part of our festive tradition as mulled wine and mince pies.
I'm referring to Belfast's wonderful Christmas Market, which has reintroduced an atmosphere of excitement, as well as tempting a generation of online shoppers back on to the icy streets again in search of some good old festive cheer. And the great thing is that it's enjoyable for all ages. My boys are now both adults, but we still make a point of going together for some steaming cider under the spectacular Christmas tree. What better way to get the Christmas spirit back into Advent?