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“Put a circle around the things you like, and a star next to three things you really, really like.”
That was the clear instruction my mum gave my sister and I each November, as we perched above the Argos catalogue, pens in hand, eyeing up our potential Christmas presents.
The system was faultless; we annotated the pages in our designated colours, although our mum was probably fully aware which sister had opted for the arts and crafts (me) and which the Scalextrics (my sister), almost without fail.
By December 25, we’d have forgotten our choices completely, in the way that children do, and ripped open the gifts with genuine surprise. We never asked how Father Christmas got access to our scribbles, because why would we? Such magic doesn’t need to be questioned.
“The annual catalogue flick-through pre-Christmas was a ritual in our house, too,” says one of my colleagues, while another goes misty eyed at the memory of “ringing round all the stuff I wanted with a highlighter. Proper nostalgic!”
But kids across the country will no longer feel their legs go numb as they sit with the giant book sprawled across their laps – because Argos has announced it plans to stop printing its famous catalogue after almost 50 years.
By January 2021, those afternoons of innocent excitement will be no more.
The next generation of children will miss out on unpeeling pages that have stuck together when the precious book has been left in the sun, or trying to decipher the precise product names and codes when someone has spilt their squash.
They won’t get to squabble with their sibling when a (rare) cross-over of interests occurs and they both want to circle the same item. And they’ll not get that incomparable whiff of Christmas excitement a whole month in advance.
Most Argos stores have gone digital-only too with tablets available to browse items and only a few branches still offering the catalogue – or “laminated book of dreams” as comedian Bill Bailey affectionately refers to it.
Argos says that online shopping offers “greater convenience” than flicking through a catalogue, but what could be more convenient for parents than allowing your children to choose their own gifts, without moving a muscle?
Sure, you could plonk little Timmy in front of an iPad screen, but it’s a risk; the choices on the internet are too vast, the prices too variable, the ‘Buy Now’ buttons too clickable.
With the catalogue, expectations could be contained. As we got older and started to eye up the jewellery and electronics pages, my mum knew it was time to quietly hide the catalogue away. She was no fool.
Admittedly, it might make sense to ditch the catalogue in 2021, as many people strive for a greener lifestyle and online shopping has become even more second nature post-lockdown. But who wants logic when it comes to Christmas?
The end of the catalogue marks the death of a simpler time, when a pen and paper held endless possibilities and could unite two sisters in an hour of quiet concentration.
I, for one, will miss it.