Come on, even in the short time that we have known one another, you and I, you must have realised that the very mention of Christmas was going to set me off on one. It is unfashionable, I think, to admit it but I still get excited by Christmas: the whole thing. The carol singers, the TV specials, the food, the drink, the panicky rush to the local petrol station for the last minute present, the never-ending trailers for this year’s Eastenders Christmas disaster… Well, perhaps not the TV trailers. I just can’t understand the desire to witness such unremitting melancholic disaster as the highlight of Christmas evening. The vicarious thrill of eavesdropping on an entire community of joyless and soulless characters as they plunge headlong into increasingly preposterous seasonal scenarios of calamity and bedlam is not, for me anyhow, any way to let the sprouts go down. I’ll take Eric and Ernie making breakfast together anytime, thank you very much.
So many people seem to want to be depressed by Christmas: ‘I can’t wait until it’s all over,’ ‘It’s such a lot of fuss for one day,’ ‘I don’t even like Christmas pudding…’ What is this nonsense? For a start, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are the three kings of the epicurean calendar and the greatest consumable inventions of all time: fact. I would buy mincemeat flavoured toothpaste if it was available. Everyone’s happy* – especially the maker’s of eggnog – and even the dourest of aunties will agree to wear a paper crown for the duration of the meal. When it is all over, you have 364 days to wait until the next one. Enjoy the day, embrace the mayhem. I know it’s overhyped, unnecessarily expensive and endlessly protracted, but come on! It’s once a year. As far as I’m concerned, the best Christmas present is Christmas. A sense of benign serenity pervades the house and will last all day, as long as nobody gets the Monopoly out.
What’s not to love?
• Hungry Hippos? Tick.
• Whoopee cushion on Aunty Elsie’s chair? Tick.
• Hugely inappropriate joke from Great Uncle Derek? Tick.
As for mawkish sentimentality – well, why not? Twenty first century life is completely hidebound by startling and grimly held reality: dreaming is something we are only allowed to do when we’re asleep. What’s wrong with allowing a little fantasy into our lives from time to time?
So, does Father Christmas actually exist? Well, why would I choose not to believe in something that brings so much joy to so many? Father Christmas exists in spirit. That spirit itself may exist for just a few hours each year, but as long as it is here I will embrace it and yes, I do believe in Father Christmas.
I have actually, in the past, ‘played’ Father Christmas for the village children in my Father-in-Law’s pub on Christmas day. I have to tell you, it is not a job for those of weak disposition. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted to pull my beard. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted the opportunity to complain about what I had brought them that morning (or even what I’d brought them the previous year). I was even prepared for the sinisterly whispered, ‘I know who you are really…’ I was not prepared for all of the children who wanted to kick my shins.
We are asked to believe in so many things for which there is no proof. Most of them are intended to constrain or control us. God knows, millions have died for some of them. I believe that Jesus existed. I believe that he was a very great man whose life has impacted on millions for centuries. But a virgin birth? No, surely not. The whole Christmas story is a metaphor isn’t it: a fable become lore – either that or a very cynical ploy by the manufacturers of hand-made wooden cribs and personalised Christmas tree decorations. To be honest, after some of his frankly appallingly vengeful behaviour in the Old Testament, I think God had probably been spoken to by somebody from PR before setting off on the New Testament. A story of love and hope and peace and joy; just what we need at Christmas time.
Of course, as with all major undertakings, planning and preparation are the keys to a successful operation. Allow me to talk you through some of my own basic preparations for the big day:
1. Miracle on 34th Street (the Richard Attenborough version). If you need proof that Father Christmas really does exist, it is right here. Settle down with a glass of something seasonal, a warm mince pie, a little stilton and watch this film. I defy you to leave it without feeling the spirit. (And by the way, just for the record, Christmas did exist before Prosecco.)
2. Love Actually. I know, I know, and frankly I don’t care. I could watch this twice a week and it would still warm me cockles. A must for the pre-Christmas run-in. Christmas is not Christmas without an in-depth discussion of what’s the best bit of this film. (It’s the Colin Firth/Lucia Moniz bit, by the way.)
3. A trip to the supermarket to purchase several hundred-weight of snack foods and any number of bottles of sweet alcoholic beverages that would not be allowed through the door at any other time of the year. Sweet British sherry is produced for this single occasion alone: along with Advocaat and those little marzipan fruits, it has no purpose other than to keep the (more) elderly relatives quiet during the afternoon session of Charades. Nothing grates quite like an over-lubricated Great Aunt yelling ‘Casablanca’ to every single mime, especially when nobody else is getting your superb rendition of ‘Oops… I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears.
Drinking the overlarge tot of whisky and eating the mince pie left out for Santa remains my final Christmas Eve task (Santa does not like sherry at our house). No carrot to nibble on behalf of Rudolph these days – he can fend for himself. Every year the startling realisation that, by a process I do not fully understand, somebody has bought and prepared everything for Christmas lunch and dinner. I’m not sure who. The Pixies I think… And then one last check of the night sky:
• Giant airborne sleds? No.
• The unmistakable glistening of snow in the air? No.
• Superbright star on the eastern horizon? No.
…and so to bed.
Christmas morning, I usually wake at about 5am. When they were at home I used to creep into the children’s rooms and try to make just enough noise to wake them. Oh the joy of seeing their little faces as they looked at the clock before burying their heads under the duvet. I am certain that both of my children learned to tell the time simply so that they could tell me to go back to bed on Christmas morning. But I’m up – no point in going back to bed now. Christmas jumper, Christmas shirt and Christmas socks: it’s the one time of the year when everybody else is just as badly dressed as me.
Christmas dinner is a big deal in our house. Crackers are cracked, paper hats are worn and terrible jokes are read. The lighting of the Christmas pudding is a ritual that cannot be missed. It usually comes directly after the mass panicky dash by the assembled adults towards one of this year’s high chair incumbents who, with some encouragement, manages to cough up half a sprout, two carrot sticks and a red Lego brick. A spirit of benevolent bonhomie pervades even in the midst of the communal clear-up and dishwashing that follows the meal. The dregs of the wine are consumed, perhaps a small coffee and Bailey’s, and then for many the mass, slack-jawed snooze of Christmas afternoon, whilst the rest of us (me and the kids) construct Lego housing estates or attempt to disentangle the new mini drone from the light fitting without fusing the rest of the street. Sometime later, everybody wakes for the afternoon ritual of ‘Oh look at the time. We’ve missed the Queen.’ And ‘who’s putting the kettle on?’
The rest of the day is filled with the welcome drifting in and out of various members of our joyfully expanding family. Every available chair, pouffe and footstool is utilised. As the afternoon draws into evening, people are routinely stepped on, sat on and, if certain members of the family are having a nap, dribbled on. Board games are begun and almost immediately dismantled by children who crawl through them, sit on them, fly a Lego rocket through them or otherwise decimate them because they are being ignored. Everyone, except grandad, who has just evaded a very large snake and reached the top of an equally long ladder, thinks that it’s funny. Come the evening and anything that is vaguely soft becomes a crib. All rooms are occupied by people sleeping on beds and mattresses, on inflatables and floors in a selection of duvets, blankets and sleeping bags, many of which have not seen the light of day since Glastonbury 2004.
Anyway, that’s Christmas for me, and a joyous occasion it always is, until, of course, I turn on the news on Boxing Day and discover that the world is still in exactly the same mess as we left it in on Christmas Eve – and a whole new year to look forward to…
Oh well, Merry Christmas One and All.
*Not totally true, I know. This is a very lonely time for lonely people. Nobody chooses to be lonely yet loneliness could be the future for any of us. It’s easy to ignore the future as you get older; there is a lot less of it and the end of it is quite a lot closer than it was. If you get the chance, then making somebody less lonely could be one of the best presents you could ever give yourself.