It’s a little before 9pm and the last customers are just leaving Bettys cafe and tearooms in Harrogate. Normally this would also be the cue for the staff to get ready to pack up. But not tonight. Instead the shop area, which is normally laid out with military precision, has more of the air of a car boot sale. The floor is piled high with cardboard boxes, pallets and storage containers. Some are filled with fairy lights, others are piled high with gold stars and the rest contain a selection of this year’s festive range of biscuits, cakes and chocolates.
“Fingers crossed we’ve remembered everything,” says Robyn Cox, Bettys’ visual merchandiser and the man responsible for designing the Christmas window. “Honestly in a few hours you won’t recognise the place. I know it looks a little chaotic, but trust me, it will all come together.”
Out the back, in between a job lot of mince pies that will keep the team going through the night, are three Christmas trees and upstairs is the star of the show – a reindeer affectionately known as Norman, who was hand-iced a few days earlier by Jackie Tobin in the cake decorating department.
“Christmas is a big deal for us at Bettys and as soon as this window it done, I’ll already be thinking of the next one,” says Robyn while drilling holes into what will soon become a couple of cardboard drums.
For Robyn, who lives just up the road in Arkengarthdale, creating the Christmas window has become something of a family affair. This year his father helped him make the wooden frame holding a sign that pledges “Create a perfect Christmas with Bettys” and his mother was tasked with gluing the ribbons on the biscuit tree decorations – all 600 of them. Tomorrow morning she will also pass the final judgement on her son’s window display.
“Neither of them worked here, but they like to help out. Whenever mum is in town, she will make sure she has a look at the window and I’ll often get calls from her saying a decoration has dropped off. She’ll also listen into what passers-by are saying about the display – she’s like our Bettys spy.”
With the previous Hallowe’en display removed, Robyn can finally start to see his design, which has previously existed only on mood boards and his mind, taking shape. The garlands, which each year are handmade by the same couple of ladies, are removed from the boxes. One is used to frame the window while the rest are used to decorate the cafe itself.
“I am a bit of a perfectionist,” says Robyn as he makes sure every berry and piece of orange on the garland faces the right way. “You wouldn’t believe it, but at home I’m pretty messy and last year we didn’t get our tree up to Christmas Eve.”
Robyn joined Bettys 10 years ago straight from university. He is now responsible not just for the windows, but for all the company’s brochures and marketing materials, and Christmas, along with Easter, is his favourite – and busiest time of the year.
While major department stores like Harrods and Selfridges create their festive displays behind blacked-out windows before doing the big reveal, the Bettys team are much more up front. Their window takes shape in full public view over the space of about five hours, which means that those spilling out of Harrogate’s pubs after last orders are often the first to see the display. “We’ve never had any trouble, but you do get a few people who might have had a little too much to drink offering their opinions on how we should decorate the place.”
Right on cue two couples, already full of Christmas spirit, roll past with a few suggestions of their own as to where Robyn might like to stick one of his stars.
“Why don’t you have a go at doing the lights? They need to be evenly spaced and we don’t want to see too much of the wire. All we want to see is the twinkle,” says Robyn, passing me a string of LED fairylights. “Then you need to grab 10 small yellow stars, 10 white ones and three of those big decorations. There’s no strict decoration scheme. Just make sure they look nice.”
With that Robyn is off. There’s a problem with one of the trees which were earlier installed above the main entrance. The lights won’t stop flickering and no-one seems to be able to turn them off. When he returns, one tree is complete and when he gives it the Bettys seal of approval I feel ridiculously smug.
“The Bettys Christmas window has become something of an institution in Harrogate,” says Robyn, who has compiled a soundtrack for the night which opens with Fairytale of New York and runs through every festive classic you can think of. “I have lots of wacky ideas, but we can’t do anything too leftfield, it’s not what Bettys is about and it’s not what people expect.”
Enter Norman, who has spent the day in one of the upstairs offices to ensure he makes it into the window piece. Having been brought down onto the shop floor, a last-minute disaster is narrowly averted. One of the festive team accidentally drops a box of biscuits on his head, but it turns out that royal icing is more robust than it looks. “We were going to go for a marzipan base and soft icing. I’m glad now we had a change of heart,” says Robyn.
By 11.30am, the three trees are decorated and Norman, along with an iced gingerbread sled, is ready to be lifted into place. It’s a tight squeeze and while Robyn has to do a touch of emergency icing after a section is knocked off in the move with a bit of careful manoeuvring the centrepiece is finally installed.
“I don’t think I ever stop thinking about the Christmas window. I find inspiration everywhere, even when I’m on holiday – in fact, I brought these napkins which we’ll use to cover that table while I was in Italy. I’m not alone. The whole team loves what we do and that means you never really switch off from work.
“Right, what we need now is to fill the window with as many festive goodies as we can.”
With that the team are sent off to raid the shelves for tins of Christmas cake, boxes of biscuits and miniature chocolate puddings, penguins and reindeers. Some of the products are Bettys staples, but each year there are always a few new additions – for 2015 that includes the Belmont chocolate box containing 80 liqueur truffles, floral creams, pralines and caramels and peppermint creams for £95.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” says Robyn as he puts the finishing touches to the window as 2am approaches. “I think we are just about there. I challenge anyone to walk past and not feel a festive glow.”