How to avoid a nightmare before Christmas: gift shopping in York

Christmas might not just be about the presents, but it’s definitely a lot about the shopping. If the story of Jesus’ birth was made into a modern-day narrative, the wise men wouldn’t just pop up with the gold, frankincense and myrrh – we’d see them trawling Bethlehem’s streets weeks (if not the night) before Mary’s due date to find the perfect wrapping paper.

Today, only the ultimate Christmas scrooge makes it through the festive season without feeling compelled to buy at least a few presents for their friends and family. It’s lucky for us in York, therefore, that this city is the perfect place for the discerning shopper to source the perfect gifts. Not because of its stunning array of chain stores, that is – if you’re in the market for mass-produced tat, you’d be better off heading to Leeds instead. If you’re prepared to resist the high street’s dazzling window displays, however, and diversify a little this Christmas, all the romance of the festive season can be found and packed into a little box in and around the quaint little shops in the Shambles. I know, I know, it’s weeks away yet – but do you really want to leave it all until the holidays? With this quick guide to the pick of York’s Christmas markets and gift shops, you’ll save time, avoid the usual high-street hassle – and get yourself into the festive mood as well.

Xmas York, Nov '06

Your first chance to search out something original to produce on Christmas morning comes in the colourful form of the ‘Made in Yorkshire’ Craft Market, which takes over the central thoroughfare of Parliament Street from November 30 until December 10. York does markets well (its heritage as a commercial trade centre is founded on this – not on its having a decent-sized Topshop), and losing yourself within the little dens of miscellaneous, material goodness is as much a sightseeing experience as a successful shopping trip. Search out unique gifts from contemporary art to handmade jewellery, to bedspreads and garden sculptures; hot tips include hand-painted ties for a twist on the traditional ‘man present’ (sunflowers is the favourite, if unseasonal pick) or handmade silk underwear from the provocatively titled ‘Mistress Collection’ for your girlfriend.

The market can’t fail to inspire you but if it doesn’t actually offer up the goods, head for the plethora of gift shops scattered just beyond the city centre. The most popular of these is probably Give the Dog a Bone (17 Fossgate), a London export that epitomises quirky city-chic and makes much-appreciated attempts to offer the disillusioned shopper a choice of more ‘individual’ Christmas presents. In amongst the slapstick comic books, retro paraphernalia and – wait for it – Jesus action figures, is a treasure trove of affordable items. Where else in York could you find a pink flying pig watering can for your mum, a giant rubber duck for your sister, or a 1950s-style toy robot for your brother?

If your Christmas afternoon usually culminates in eating left-over turkey while slouched in front of the television, a trip to Compendium of York (1 Grape Lane) could turn things around. This kooky little store stocks a wide and unusual range of games that provide, as it says on the label, “fun for all the family”, including the usual favourites – beautifully crafted Backgammon sets, sparkling marble chess boards – and more contemporary tools of amusement, like table football and poker apparatus. The main items of appeal, however, are the giant Connect 4 and mega-sized Jenga – ideal for a friend, and a fantastic addition to any Christmas house party worth its punch.

Getting tired? Finish up at Cusp (28 Back Swinegate), another favourite gift emporium that looks like a miniature gallery but is actually full of attractive, purchasable items. With its accessories and home-ware, glasswork and ceramics, it looks like one for the girls. A hint for the boys, however: don’t peek in and then fly past; make it your one-stop last shop for an assortment of cards and wrapping paper.

There are, of course, always the stock fall-back options: alcohol and chocolate. Luckily, even if you do need to rely on these, as a term-time York resident you can still put a spin on old favourites. The Whiskey Shop (11 Coppergate) means that, instead of picking from the measly selection at Costcutter, you have a whole shop to choose from – and clued-up staff who can help you choose so that if you don’t know your malts from your blends, you can still confidently hand one or the other over to someone who does.

Satisfying someone’s sweet tooth with a box of sugary titbits is another easy temptation to succumb to – and one often welcomed by the receiver. However, while chocolate is a cop-out, fudge, on the other hand, says originality, style and taste. The Fudge Kitchen (58 Low Petergate) makes and sells delicious, creamy fudge out of its little shop in the Shambles. With countless flavours to choose from, it’s a real treat – not least for you, weary shopper, who can put down your bags and sample each before you buy. A perfect end to the shop for the perfect present; a perfect little gift for the giver – even one who knows it’s better to shop than receive.

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