LONDON -- Ah, London at Christmas.
Up to three-hour delays at Harrods department store to meet Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus. Shopper gridlock between the temporary barricades along the main shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. And rain.
This is the time of year when the normally civil British lose their civility. Jammed stores, crammed sidewalks and standing-room-only subways fray the nerves of London's shoppers, who are without hermetically sealed malls.
"People get a bit frantic this time of year," says Gavin Brewer, who manages Hamleys, the self-proclaimed "finest toy shop in the world." "The last time we had a rugby scrummage over a toy was a few years ago," Brewer says. "I think it was over the first set of Cabbage Patch kids."
Britons only rarely raise their voices, their fists or their umbrellas. But in a country without a Fourth of July or a Thanksgiving, this is the holiday that binds a nation in celebration, the one time of year the British let their hair down.
They turn out in the thousands to see a giant Christmas tree from Norway trucked into Trafalgar Square.
They jam restaurants for office parties.
They flock to carol concerts at churches.
They watch pantomimes, wild, burlesque theater performances in which TV stars in drag perform such classics as "Aladdin" and "Cinderella." The crowds contribute to the performances by singing or screaming out lines -- most un-British of them.
They also buy Christmas crackers, a sort of British fortune cookie that two people pull apart -- with a pop -- over a Christmas lunch of turkey with all the trimmings. Inside the foil-covered cylinders are paper party hats, written jokes and cheap toys.
And then, after pausing to hear the traditional Christmas message from Queen Elizabeth II, they dive into the flaming Christmas pudding, the rich fruit and alcohol mixture that keeps for a year and is traditionally served with brandy butter or whipped cream.
Christmas is taken so seriously that people bet on which single will top the pop charts on the holiday. The hot favorite? "2 Become 1" by the Spice Girls, who are more famous for their length of mini-dress than their voices.
But before the celebrations, the British have to shop. Within reason, of course. Stores rarely stay open past 8 p.m. weekdays, with all the big stores closing by 5 p.m. Sundays.
But that is apparently plenty of shopping time for Britons. Researchers from Oxford University, calling shopping "another middle-class disease," reported this week that an estimated 700,000 shoppers have debts of up to $11,500 each.
Hamleys is ground zero of London's Christmas shopping experience, a store that has catered to customers since 1760. On Saturdays near Christmas, 40,000 shoppers will wander through the seven-story store. The 40,000-item inventory ranges from trinkets that sell for less than $2 to a $6,680 handmade doll.
The big sellers have been Buzz Lightyear toys. They sold out three weeks ago and the new supply won't arrive until February. The Sunday Telegraph dispatched three reporters in an unsuccessful quest for one.
Come 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, Hamleys will close. Brewer will head home, another Christmas season mercifully over.
"On Christmas morning, I look forward to my smoked salmon and bottle of champagne," he says. "And I look forward to a day of rest."
Pub Date: 12/20/96