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Monty the Penguin: Available in gingerbread form at The Place To Eat

At my Church of England primary school, we were required to produce an annual little piece of earnestness on "The True Meaning of Christmas". Until recently, Christmas in Catholic countries was not such a big deal. The French, Spanish and Italians marked the feast and gave gifts to children, but the big excitement was Epiphany, Twelfth Night, with bean-cakes and Lords of Misrule evoking Roman Saturnalia, more a rambunctious celebration of anarchy than goodwill to all men.

According to statistics released last year, 2,618,000 people attended an Anglican service at Christmas 2011, that is, approximately 10 million fewer than had watched the John Lewis "Monty the Penguin" Christmas advertisement by mid-November 2014. From which one might conclude that Catholics can afford to be relaxed about Christmas since they got all the other big stuff like art and sins of the flesh, while Protestants have to make do with 19th-century Germanic sentimentalism and department stores.

And since Christmas is the one big sparkly holy razzle that Protestantism encourages, it seems entirely consistent with the Weber-ish truism of the Protestant work ethic that any festive delight should first involve suffering. We revel in the cultural oxymoron of the "relaxed Christmas"; flagellating ourselves with the obligation to produce ambassadorial-scale meals, negotiate with feuding relatives and bankrupt ourselves with exquisitely tasteful gifts. We subject ourselves to the alcoholic squalor of the office Christmas party,  take a grim satisfaction in the annual increase in divorce and suicide rates and then feel guilty about getting fat and drinking too much. A blazing row round the blazing fire, then the carbslump in front of James Bond: this is what Henry VIII bequeathed us.

Reflecting on this, I thought that whatever your Christmas rituals are — Dickensian gorge-fest, refusenik takeaway with the telly, carols and tea-towelled cherubs, or non-denominational "holiday" — one seasonal constant will probably involve a visit to John Lewis. I feel about John Lewis the way John Betjeman did about the Ritz: that nothing nasty could possibly ever happen there. It makes me feel safe, and protected, and oddly domestically competent, as though the presence of so much tasteful cookware and ingenious anti-moth gadgets will effect a process of osmosis whereby I emerge as a cross between Nigella Lawson and that nice lady who won The Great British Bake Off. I love the assistants in the beauty halls with their slightly scary Polyfilla-d faces, I love the possibility that I, too, could one day be the sort of person who owns a padded coathanger, and I particularly love the lady in Peter Jones who was so kind the time my daughter threw up in Children's Shoes. So given that most people's experience of Christmas shopping does not involve a tasteful waft around a holly-bedecked high street, but a sweaty, nerve-jangling tussle through an overlit, overscented, over-the-whole-bloody-Christmas-and-why-don't-we-just-get-EasyJet-to-Malaga-this-year department store, I thought I might check out the Oxford Street flagship to see if there was anywhere nice for a soothing spot of lunch.

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