Fewer cards, more turkey: Here’s how to kick your Christmas cynicism

Just to be clear, the Christmas herein discussed is not the Christian festival that falls at the end of advent and celebrates the birth of Jesus, but the secular bank holiday of the same name, taking place on the same day. This latter Christmas, is concerned chiefly with the gathering of clans, feasting, and the exchange of gifts. It tends to be followed by a period of austerity, bloating and regret.

Before we consider how to recapture the small pleasures of Christmas, let us consider the small pains, which make the whole experience so exasperating and stressful. At the top of this list are Christmas cards. It’s unfathomable that technology hasn’t seen off this throwback to the Victorian era of the penny post. Surely no one enjoys the chore of writing out “Must make YYYY the year we finally meet up!” and their signature 50 times? Labour-saving shortcuts like printed address labels just serve to underline the sorry truth that the job has been approached as an administrative chore, in the same joyless bracket as changing your energy provider.

Receiving cards is no less irksome than sending them. There is the one from “Bill and Wendy” that arrives unfailingly every year for the people who lived in your house over two decades ago. You long to return to sender, to let Bill and Wendy know that their friends have gone and bring an end to this melancholy, one-sided correspondence – but you can’t, because they never include their address. There is the one from the new people up the road, addressed to you by name, but signed only, “No 38” so you can’t reciprocate. There is the one that contains change of address details, which you will be too disorganised to write down at the time of opening and never find again. This is probably what happened to Bill and Wendy.

E-cards. Though less wasteful of resources, in every other way these are worse than the paper versions, obliging the recipient to sit through a mini-movie of gambolling reindeer in order, finally, to get to the message. Any form of Christmas greeting that takes longer to read than it did to write is an act of aggression.

The Round Robin is a subset of the above. This seasonal bin-botherer is just an excuse for boasting about one’s offspring and holidays and should be retired as soon as possible. Friends of mine with no children retaliate with a detailed update on the condition of their white goods: “It’s been another good year for the dishwasher, which continues to deliver unbeatable cleaning across all programmes.”

Repetitive behaviour. Every December we rehash the same conversation triggered by the cookery section in the Sunday paper suggesting alternatives like curried badger to those who are “sick of turkey”. “How can anyone be sick of a meal they only eat once a year?” my husband snorts. “You say that every year!” I snap. “How can you be sick of something I only say once a year?” he replies.

Christmas stockings for adult children, especially non-doms. It’s infantilising. It’s got to stop. This is the last year I am doing it. Definitely.

Tipping anxiety. Whom? How much? How? There must be a way of negotiating these transactions that doesn’t involve lying awake at night wondering if the tenner you left out on the doorstep for the milkman has been nicked by the paperboy. Or lying awake at night wondering if the tenner you left out for the paperboy has been eaten by the fox.

The Big Film. It’s hard to look back with any fondness on the days when you could only watch, on a now-or-never basis, what schedulers deigned to broadcast. Streaming has surely killed the “national viewing experience”, but maybe that’s no bad thing. Who can forget the morale-crushing experience of gathering around the TV set on Christmas night to find that, after three series of will-they-won’t-they-yes-they-will, the handsome one from Downton Abbey dies in a ditch?

Having swept away the above irritants, we now have some reclaimed time to devote to recovering the lost gleam of wonder. The uncomfortable and obvious truth is that the best pleasures are those that can’t be bought and whose currency is our time. A long, hand-written letter to the one person who really needs it is surely better than 50 perfunctorily signed Christmas cards? We all know that there is more satisfaction in volunteering than in merely donating, not just because of the human connections made, but because it asks more of us. A large part of the joy of a new book is the implied promise of the untroubled hours of leisure in which to read it. A walk in the countryside never disappoints – crunching through snow is the ideal, but a muddy hike will do. Even the sight of something other than a squirrel on the bird feeder is enough to lift my suburban spirits.

For those of us without young children on hand to inject some innocent excitement into proceedings, the best way to rediscover the child within is to play a game that involves drawing. Professional artists aside, most people, however capable in other fields, are deeply inadequate when it comes to drawing a horse, for example, and produce the kind of elementary scrawl that would embarrass a prehistoric cave dweller. I don’t know why this should be funny but it always is.

Ultimately when cynicism starts to bite, all we need to do to reignite our enthusiasm for the festive season is to cast our minds back to lockdown, when we wanted nothing more than Christmas as it used to be – in 2019, say – with 10 of our relatives in the same small room contesting the five comfortable seats.

‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers (W&N) is out now in paperback, ebook and audio download, and as a new special Christmas gift hardback edition available from all good bookshops

Clare Chambers is the author of ‘Small Pleasures’


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