Shopping is such a nightmare when there are so many businesses to boycott

This Christmas was one long deja vu. The last time I went to a carol concert, I was dressed head to toe in navy nylon and was trying to get expelled from the Girl Guides. At the same time as being called a "fascist" for pledging allegiance to God and monarch, I was being hissed at as a "hippy" for boycotting South African produce.

Twenty years on, and boycotts and carol singing were again focal points of Christmas. I inadvertently became part (as a consumer) of half a dozen seemingly random but very important high street boycotts, and I also found myself unfashionably dressed and singing "O little town of Bethlehem" in a church.

I was told in September to avoid a certain high street drug store "or else" because, according to animal rights groups, the store in question - let's call it Pharmacy X - cuts the heads off beagles and other little furry creatures. Why, I've no idea, but having a leaflet waggled menacingly in my face by my mother-in-law was all the convincing I needed to avoid shopping there. By December, the list of shops and businesses to boycott was growing exponentially with my shopping list. As I ran between the West End, Brent Cross and, finally in desperation, Wood Green Shopping City, I really understood just what impact globalisation has on our free choice. Pharmacy X, normally good for gifts and perfume, was now a money-laundering network for animal mutilators. Where would I buy Grandad's 1970s brand aftershave, and what about those oh-so-well-packaged "gifts" for nieces and next-door neighbours?

The biggest blow to my shopping came via an e-mail. It advised me gently that several Palestinian support groups have organised a boycott of Marks & Spencer and Selfridges. Both stores, said the e-mail, have been selling products such as olive oil bearing the legend "made in Israel". In reality, the products are made in the occupied territories by settlers with, shall we say, rather poor human rights records.

I gave up on the high street in despair, convinced that every major chain was involved in some dodgy but so far invisible scam somewhere in the world. The moment the till went ding, I would unwittingly be contributing to world injustice in the name of an almost forgotten but all-seeing Messiah.

So this Christmas became a perverse party of avoidance. Getting pissed, for instance, was out of the question, because it's clearly a roundabout way for big corporations to get us to buy products we wouldn't dream of buying when sober, such as Coca-Cola, a Big Mac and Kentucky fried chicken.

With the exciting buzz of big stores and their big purchases out of my reach, I took drastic action and bullied, conned and blackmailed assorted pals into attending the local carol service. The witty and the sarcastic fought for the rights of "pagans" to drink and throw up in the fire while singing bawdy songs. Others laughed derisively at the thought of any church anywhere being the venue for "fun" or "festival". Two more honest, older members of the family looked sheepish and guilty when I suggested that they come to a carol service: they felt they had left it too long. Like playing tennis or learning to ski, getting into a religious situation was "for young families" or "too late for me now". An elderly uncle winced: "Turning up out of the blue, having been AWOL for half a century, makes me uncomfortable y'see." He sipped his port thoughtfully. "What if He notices how long I've been gone?"

Three of us went to the carol concert, out of place in our glitter make-up and spiked heels. From me, Grandad got kitchen utensils bought at the market - in fact, everyone got market-bought presents this year. It really was 1981 all over again.

Better still, I received an all-important e-mail from a Palestinian campaigner explaining that "Selfridges has now taken the decision to no longer sell these products". The best presents can come in the smallest packages.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?