Here's ho, ho, hoping we won't stuff up the perfect Christmas this year
It's not even December yet and already I'm stressed about Christmas. We're having 21 people for Christmas dinner. How many Brussels sprouts is that exactly?
And the Chris Kindle list hasn't gone well either. We thought it would be nice if everyone brought a small present for someone, max value €20.
The pairings were compiled with utmost care. My daughter drew the names out of a hat. All we were missing was Marty Whelan and the man from KPMG. Then two guests asked to be taken off the list (they still want dinner, mind), throwing the whole process into confusion. If the pre-Christmas arrangements are this fraught, what will the day itself be like?
I have been here before. Every year, I think: this is the one. This will be the perfect Christmas. Everything will come off beautifully. Everyone will be in top form. We will sit around the table with our funny hats on, brimming with goodwill and looking like a Norman Rockwell illustration.
But so far, it has never worked out like that. One year, the stuffing-maker was two hours late. When he arrived, the best I could do was to summon up my mother's most withering put-down. "Punctuality," I told him, "is the courtesy of kings."
Then there was the year my mother herself brought proceedings to a halt with an unseasonal excess of candour. "Now, stop me if I'm boring you," said my father-in-law in the middle of one of his greyhound stories. "Stop!" she replied.
There have been other disappointments: my father going missing for large chunks of Christmas to drink with his mates; my uncle, in the last throes of his dotage, ruining the sherry trifle; our hostess breaking down in tears at the stress of it all.
George Bernard Shaw said that marrying for a second time represented the triumph of hope over experience. He was wrong: hosting Christmas dinner is.
Why do we do it? What drives us to try to create something so intangible, something with so many variables, that it's pretty well impossible to bring off?
I blame nostalgia. And I don't mean nostalgia for a perfect Christmas I remember from my past, because there aren't any of those. I mean the kind of mass-produced nostalgia, the sort of wistful sentimentality that is half Dickens, half Miracle on 34th Street and half 'O Holy Night'. (That's three halves, but you know what I'm getting at.)
Nostalgia can be an insidious emotion. We tend to think that things were better and people were happier in the past, but that is clearly not the case.
We love Downton Abbey because part of us yearns for the social certainty that existed below stairs in the stately homes of England between the wars. In fact, those were years of intense social unrest and inequality.
We love those French movies – Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources – based on the novels of Marcel Pagnol, because they show a bucolic Provencal life and a France populated by wily peasants and florid inn-keepers.
But rural France at the end of the 19th Century was not a place of timeless certainties: it was a backward place about to the blown open by the Dreyfus affair, the invention of the automobile and the cinema. Those times that we cling to in our minds as periods of peace, calm and safety were precarious and even dangerous. The time of the Crawleys in Yorkshire, and of the Soubeyrans in Provence, was coming to an end.
Christmas is a lightning rod for nostalgia. So many powerful forces converge on it: popular culture, religious ritual, social custom and history. These forces all give us powerful ideas of how Christmas should be. The pull is so strong, it is no wonder that so many of our Christmases fail to live up to expectations.
Yet, even when you know all this, you still dare to hope that this year, of all years, will be the one. Of course, one day hope will triumph over experience, and it might as well be this year as any other.