By this time in December, if 2020 were a normal year, I’d already be wilting under the stresses and strains of the festive season.
I don’t mean the business of buying and wrapping the presents, ordering the turkey, choosing the tree, inviting the guests, putting up the decorations, baking and icing the cake, writing the cards, etc.
In my household, Mrs U has always seen to such matters, while my own duties have been confined to buying and wrapping one present (for her). Indeed, I blush to admit that even though this will be my third Christmas in semi-retirement, without the excuse of a job to go to every day, nothing much seems to have changed on that score.
Well, aren’t women better at handling the practical side of things? That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when my conscience gives me trouble — and it’s certainly true that Mrs U has had a great deal more practice at organising Christmas than the Homer Simpson in her life.
No, when I speak of the pressures of the season, I’m thinking of the exhausting round of parties that normally begins at the start of Advent (supposedly a time of fasting and abstinence, though you’d never guess it) and goes on through to the New Year, after the shattering climax of over-indulgence and family tension on the great day itself.
By this time in December, if 2020 were a normal year, I’d already be wilting under the stresses and strains of the festive season
I should perhaps point out that, apart from parties thrown by friends and neighbours, we lucky journalists tend to get asked to many more pre-Christmas celebrations than people in more respectable trades.
At the Mail, for example, there’s a fine tradition that the various editorial desks (news, features, comment, sport, books and the rest) throw separate bashes of their own — and some of us are invited to several of these each year.
On top of that, we also get asked to parties thrown by public relations firms, think tanks, publishers and film companies with Christmas books and movies to plug.
So it is that every year, for as long as I can remember, I have resolved that ‘this time’ I’d take it easy. I would just drop in to the odd knees-up after work, sip a single glass of whatever might be on offer, wish everyone the compliments of the season — and then go home, like a good husband, to help Mrs U with her preparations for entertaining our vast extended family.
But it never seemed to work out like that. At each party I attended, I’d fall into conversation with someone congenial, have one for the swing of the door and another for the road (I’ve always found alcohol somewhat moreish) — and before I knew it, I’d be the last one to leave.
In my household, Mrs U has always seen to such matters, while my own duties have been confined to buying and wrapping one present (for her)
The upshot was that, year after year, throughout December, I’d stagger home to the rolling-pin — and to work every morning with a murderous hangover, praying for the world to end. Come the mighty endurance test of the 25th itself (of which more later), I’d be three- quarters dead — and not much minding if the Grim Reaper made good the remaining 25 per cent.
It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that I view this month’s Covid restrictions (we’re in Tier Two, and heading for Tier Three, so it’s said) with the prospect of only four for lunch on Christmas Day — two of our four sons, one wife and me — instead of the usual 20 or more.
On the one hand, I loathe the curbs on our freedom and the Government’s abject kowtowing to epidemiologists who have proved, again and again, that they haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.
Indeed, it grieves me deeply that, although she lives only 14 miles away, I’ve met my beloved granddaughter only once since her birth in July — and I was banned by law from congratulating her big brother in person when he turned three on Wednesday.
On the other, this is the first December I can remember when I’ve woken every morning with a moderately clear head. This is because the only invitation I’ve received this month came from a think tank asking me to a ‘virtual Christmas party’ via Zoom (‘supply your own booze’) — an offer that even I have managed to resist.
Nor do I miss the seasonal crush of amateur drinkers in my local. You know the type. They emerge from their offices once a year to stand at the bar, asking if they can see the wine list and grilling the barmaid for hours on end about the relative merits of the chardonnay and the pinot grigio.
Then they order six elaborate cocktails, a cappuccino and a lemon-and-lime for their friends at the table in the corner — all of them wearing stupid paper hats — before asking for the bill to be divided into five. Meanwhile, you’re standing behind them, gasping for an honest-to-goodness, hair-of-the-dog pint.
Whatever we may think about the Tier Two restrictions — and I know that my friends in the pub trade have a thing or two to say on the subject — at least they’ve kept away all but the most committed regulars.
Indeed, I blush to admit that even though this will be my third Christmas in semi-retirement, without the excuse of a job to go to every day, nothing much seems to have changed on that score
All right, it’s a pain that the law says we must order a ‘substantial meal’ with our booze, but unless I’ve got this wrong, we’re not legally compelled to eat it.
In my experience, however, all the trials of a normal Advent pale beside the ordeal of a pre-Covid Christmas Day.
I hasten to say that I’m devoted to my family — my wife and her ancient mother, our four boys, my daughter-in-law and our grandchildren, my three siblings and their young, my wife’s four sisters, their menfolk and their legions of sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.
I’m also hugely in favour of large family gatherings. In theory. It’s just that the reality of feeding more than 20, in a kitchen that can comfortably accommodate no more than six, makes the whole performance a logistical nightmare.
Every table in the house has to be pressed into service and laid end-to-end. There are never enough chairs, which means that some have to sit on the filthy fold-up jobs from the garden, while someone else — usually me — gets the stool with the wonky leg.
Then we’re squashed together at the table, like passengers on a Japanese commuter train, while the floor beneath our feet is awash with turkey grease carelessly spilled by the carver. Me again.
Add tipsy aunts, toddlers fractious with over-excitement and every square inch of the house knee-deep in torn wrapping paper — and not even Mrs U’s superb Christmas fare (a never-failing tribute to the Gospel According to St Delia) can make this a seriously enjoyable experience.
To make matters worse, my siblings tend to regard Christmas as the perfect day on which to regale younger members of the family with tales of embarrassing episodes from my childhood, long ago.
Enough to say that by six or seven in the evening, I’m yearning for everyone to go home, so that I can sleep off that strange-tasting apricot brandy, given with love by a nephew or niece. But, of course, this is the moment when someone pipes up with the heart-sinking suggestion: ‘Let’s have a game of Trivial Pursuit!’
I hate to echo Scrooge’s ‘bah, humbug!’ I realise, too, that a great many readers, cut off from their near and dear for most of the year, would give almost anything for the chance to be reunited with their families two weeks from today.
But I can’t believe I’m the only one who quite looks forward to a less exhausting celebration this year. Just don’t let’s have any more like this one.
With that, I wish readers as merry a Christmas as our masters will allow. I’ll see you in the new year — and join you in hoping that 2021 will be happier and freer than 2020.