…in which I continue to probe modern festive customs…
Dinner – The main Christmas Day meal is traditionally regarded as the centre-piece of the annual feast day and is, from the pigs in blankets to the brussel sprouts (via the chestnut stuffing and the ‘family recipe’ gravy), unquestionably the most stressful occasion on the festive calendar (unless it has ‘circumcision’ written on it in red pen). Every single element of this mammoth meal has the potential for disaster: over-cooked veg, under-cooked turkey, roast potatoes that fall under grandma’s deathly scrutiny, bread sauce that is to all intents and purposes merely bread, sage and onion stuffing that you can pour from a jug, gravy with lumps that could threaten safe passage along all major routes – for those with a nervous disposition, this part of the day is more threat than treat. [Please note: Christmas crackers are tiny tubes of cardboard stuffed with a gunpowder ‘snap’, a paper crown that will fit any head as long as it does not broaden out from the neck, a joke that has been lovingly translated from Serbo-Croat by a man with a Latvian to Classical Greek translator, and the kind of plastic ‘novelty’ item with which China intends to bring down the whole of Western Democracy – they are not what happens when granny warms the tinfoil-wrapped turkey in the microwave.]
Elf on the Shelf – Who could possibly tire of finding some novel misdemeanour for the knitted little scamp to perpetrate for each of the first twenty four days of Christmas? Ah yes, of course, everyone. Where did this tradition come from? I don’t recall it even existing ten years ago. When I was a boy, traipsing icing sugar across the kitchen floor, wrapping the Christmas tree in toilet roll and riding the cat up the curtains would merely have resulted in a clip around the ear and the possibility of having the tangerine removed from your stocking and the hammer detached from your toffee. Now, the appearance of the kapok stuffed scallywag heralds twenty five days of gift giving and the very definite likelihood of the Hoover giving up the ghost before the month is out. My tip: drop the gnome on the fire on the first of December and tell the kids he’s had an unfortunate little accident. Promise chocolate to whichever child can dig the deepest hole in which to bury him.
Film Night – Settle down and pull up the Bailey’s for a couple of hours bickering together in front of the TV. Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually, Home Alone, The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life – now is the time to relish sentimentality and drown in marshmallow. Don’t fight it, this is the true spirit of Christmas: laughing together at jokes you’ve heard a thousand times and grinning again at an ending you’ve seen coming right from the very start.
Garden Centre – Do you remember a time when garden centres sold plants? Do you remember a time when you went there to buy the constituent parts of a hanging basket? Do you remember a time when you could find a hybrid tea without having first to join the queue for a cream one? All greenery is now banished from the garden centre on the first day of September and replaced by acres of tinsel, bauble and gnome; the pesticides are usurped for the season by Santa’s Grotto and every person of pensionable age in the county is drawn to the queue for the Christmas Carvery. This is the world of the super-sized, the battery-powered, the twinkling and the singing; the land of everything you had no idea you ever wanted and the source of everything you will never need. It is impossible to enter these dream factories in the search for a potted poinsettia without exiting, some flustered hours later, on the outside of a festive three course (including mince pie and coffee) and clutching a boxful of something that will, with the introduction of a thirteen amp fuse, inflate into a rooftop sleigh at little more than the cost of a new roof. The enthusiastic gardener need not be down-hearted: as soon as Christmas is over, the space will be refilled with everything that has withered away during the last three months.
Mistletoe – Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that the symbol of Christmas romance should be a poisonous parasite. Little compares to the horror of seeing an elderly relative stationed under the mistletoe with the facial expression that says they are either puckering up for a kiss or sucking the chocolate off a brazil nut. Pray that it is the nut…
Posadas Pinatas – Other than Mexican Food (also known as edible origami) this is probably the most popular thing ever to come out of that country. Tie up a container full of sweets, blindfold the kids and let them knock seven bells out of one another in the attempt to release the goodies. Once the children are all safely blindfolded, the piñata can be taken away and the kids allowed to thrash around until exhaustion kicks in, whilst the adults eat the sweets and chuckle as their offspring walk into walls.
Present Giving/Receiving – Do not believe what they tell you, receiving is much better than giving. However much joy you might get from giving away something really nice, you can double it by receiving it. Presents require choosing, buying and wrapping. Even worse, some of them require making! Giving them away is a betrayal of all that you hold most dear – you. Tell everyone that you are not giving presents this year but are, instead, giving the money to charity – they may believe you, you have some really stupid friends – but don’t try to persuade them to do the same or you may end up having to buy your own Walnut Whips this year. If anyone asks what you would like, quietly murmur ‘World peace, an end to poverty… and a nice bottle of malt wouldn’t go amiss…’
Walk – The bracing Christmas day walk is a highlight for everyone who can’t wait to get away from the kids in the afternoon. Wrap up warm (or, in alternative climes, deck the thongs) and attempt to get around the block without somebody moaning that they’re cold, tired, hungry or sure they’ve just trodden in something brown and malodorous. The best thing about fresh air is that it makes you desperate to get out of it. Pour the sherry before you leave in order to save time upon your return – and make sure that everyone leaves their shoes outside.
Yule Goat – Okay, I admit, I had no idea what this was until I saw it in a list of the best Christmas traditions and I haven’t had the chance to look it up yet. Whatever it is, it is already my favourite…
Whatever your own Christmas traditions, I hope that you have a happy and peaceful few days.