The two ways of Christmas

    1 December 2012


    Toby Young

    Christmas is a bit like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. But the problem with loving the idea of it — as I do — is that the reality never lives up to your expectations. Or maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe that’s what I like about it.
    I think my deep affection for the period is linked to the Christmas television schedule. As a child, I had no sources of electronic entertainment apart from the telly. No video games, no DVDs, no satellite channels — nothing. And the programmes on the three terrestrial channels weren’t simply better at Christmas, they were miles better.

    Christmas officially began when I turned to the back page of the Radio Times in mid-December and saw a picture of the cover of the next edition and read a brief description of the delights that were in store. I’m not just talking about things like the Porridge Christmas special — though I loved that, obviously — but the films, too. BBC2 screened a cornucopia of black-and-white classics. Those were the gifts that Santa brought me every year and they rarely disappointed.

    As a grown-up, my warm feelings about Christmas have taken on a more literary tone. I now have a sort of Dickensian image in my mind, with friends and family gathered round a fire, accompanied by much drinking and merriment. In this picture, I’m the Scrooge figure — at the end of A Christmas Carol, not the beginning — bursting in with a sack of presents and an enormous turkey and prompting a round of applause. My children all behave like Tiny Tim, weeping with gratitude as I hand them inexpensive wooden toys.

    The reality is nothing like this, not least because my children are glued to the television set on Christmas Day and are reluctant to be prised away from it — just as I was. When they’re forced to turn it off and exchange pleasantries with ageing relatives, they’re stilted, unable to conceal their displeasure. They’re not interested in the elaborate Christmas lunch my wife has spent the past 48 hours preparing. They just want to eat the chocolates hanging from the tree. And the present-giving ritual always exposes them in the worst possible light as they tear through wrapping paper and disdainfully toss aside whatever gift has been carefully chosen for them in search of something better.

    I’m exaggerating slightly. Occasionally, something goes well. Sharing a bottle of Montrachet Premier Cru with my wine-snob brother-in-law, for instance, or dancing to Neil Diamond with my children after lunch. My youngest, four-year-old Charlie, might even play for five minutes with an inexpensive wooden toy. But these moments tend to fade into the background as a mood of sourness descends on me. It’s as though I begin actively looking for reasons to be disappointed — the celebratory glass of champagne is half-empty rather than half-full. I’m the Scrooge figure, all right — but the one before the moral awakening.

    To complicate matters, the more things I find to complain about, the happier I am. There’s something peculiarly British about this, and not easily understood by anyone born outside these islands. In a sense, the perfect British Christmas is a meticulously planned day on which everything goes horribly wrong, involving at least one trip to A&E, and ends with the survivors breaking into a rendition of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

    I experienced something close to this as a child when my late father failed to turn up for Christmas lunch. Like me, he officially loved Christmas and insisted that all the members of his large and dysfunctional family gather for a meal. So there we all were, sitting at a large dining table, with a carefully coordinated series of dishes about to appear, but without my father. He was at a cemetery in Bethnal Green. He’d heard about this ritual whereby lonely widows would appear at the gravesides of their departed husbands and share a Christmas cuppa with them by pouring tea into the ground. As a sociologist with a particular interest in the East End, he was determined to see this and he’d disappeared that morning and failed to re-materialise. Evidently, this macabre ritual was more compelling than spending time with his extended family.

    When he turned up, more than an hour late, we were all furious, particularly my mother, whose lunch was ruined. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more hostile and several of his children (he had six in total from three different marriages) were threatening to leave. To placate us, my father started describing the women he’d seen at the cemetery. He had a Dickensian gift for evoking pity and painted such a lachrymose portrait of these widows that he soon had us all in tears. Suddenly, we felt ashamed of how ill-tempered we’d been moments earlier and grateful that we at least had each other. We didn’t start singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ — we were middle-class, educated and repressed — but our mood changed from bitter frustration to stoical optimism.

    I’m greatly looking forward to Christmas this year and even fantasising about reading The Hobbit to my children on 24 December, with all of them sitting at my feet in their pyjamas. Won’t happen, of course, and all my hopes of a perfect Christmas Day will be dashed. There may even be a trip to A&E. But by the end, having found lots of reasons to be cross, I will be quietly satisfied. ‘Another bloomin’ Christmas,’ as Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas is fond of saying.


    Francesca Zampi Hammerstein

    I currently live between New York and Las Vegas, but London is where I want to be  in the run-up to Christmas. Everybody is full of  boozy good cheer and it’s party mayhem for 25 days straight. If there are two things I’ve learned from my hedonistic life, it’s that the craziest parties are Christmas parties, and that nobody goes for it like the Brits.

    Good will to all men: Marilyn Monroe tries on a Christmas stocking, 1951. Previous page: a family Christmas, 1971
    Good will to all men: Marilyn Monroe tries on a Christmas stocking, 1951. Previous page: a family Christmas, 1971

    Until recently my job was fully set up for a life of excess — working at the Box, Soho, where partying was pretty much my profession. And while I witnessed a lot of scandalous behaviour during my Box years, there’s something about the holiday season that makes people particularly naughty.

    Fond Christmassy memories from the club include one friend’s very straight, hedge-funder dad drunkenly snogging a transvestite with a huge wig and breast implants, while holding my hand under the table for security. Another night a staff member ended up at a rave in east London in the early hours of a Sunday morning with a famous fashion designer. They danced like mad and then she went to church with him in her full Box regalia — leotard, stockings and six-inch heels — to sing Christmas hymns.

    Needless to say, I’ve developed several strategies for how to survive the British holiday season intact. First, get a tan. Before heading to London to indulge in all the things I love and can’t find in America (old friends, mince pies, Christmas crackers and binge-drinking), I go and spend a week or two in Miami to work on my winter glow.

    To take the stress out of consecutive nights in your glad-rags, I advise planning your party outfits in advance. Something in a reflective metallic is unfailingly festive, a winter-white dress à la Celine will be dazzling with or without a tan, while this season’s jewel-toned dresses from Lanvin are Christmas-party perfection. And hurrah — the trouser suit is back this season, which is the Holy Grail of day-to-night dressing. Just switch to stilettos and a different top (or even better, no top) for night-time antics.

    The fun will also be hampered if you get fat on fun, or sustain disco injuries. Although I don’t believe for a second that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’,  I do know that spending Sundays un-tagging fat Facebook photos is depressing, so avoid champagne and cocktails and drink vodka soda with lots of fresh lime. Save your calories for Christmas dinner, which at least you’ll remember.

    It is crucial to wear flat footwear during the day in December, to nurse your feet after dancing in preposterously high heels. Now that the platform shoe is officially over, which is aesthetically fortunate, it does mean shoes have become — if possible — more painful, since there is no cushion between the ball of your foot and the pavement. I shuffle around in disgusting old Uggs at the weekend (when nobody can see me but my Rottweiler, Eva). Regular reflexology is also part of my crippled-by-vanity prevention programme.

    Naturally, my hangover routine is pretty refined. My tricks are coconut water before boozing, and then two glasses of water before bed — you’ll need to get up in the night but it’s worth it. More coconut water in the morning consumed while taking a bath of Epsom salts. Antihistamine is another secret weapon — I take a Claritin most mornings as it reduces alcohol-induced face puff.

    If you wear make-up, I recommend removing it before going to bed. I use Quick Thinking Wipes by No.7. Make-up removal is a relatively new thing for me but my skin and my pillow thank me.

    You need to be fighting fit to make it through all of December without looking like a crackhead on day two, so this is not the time for slacking with your workout routine. Hire a personal trainer to come to your home (if you’re hungover you’ll never make it to the gym), and keep your immune system in shape with at least two nights of proper sleep a week. Nobody wants to kiss someone under the mistletoe with cold sores.

    Although I love London for pre-Christmas debauchery, I advise getting the hell out of Dodge for New Year’s Eve, which I stopped bothering even to get disappointed about aged 16. Leave town after the 25th. For the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to be on Mustique for the weeks after Christmas. Days there involve yoga on the beach with my bendy instructor Charity Joy (that is her real name), rum punch by the pool, delicious Caribbean dinners and lots of early nights. Highly recommended.

    This year, however, I’ll be in the mecca for hedonists, Sin City itself, for 31 December. My husband, Simon, recently opened a new club, the Act, at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. The space has winding corridors and various chambers where you can lose the people you came with and find new ones. Anyone who has ever been to his other clubs knows the real party goes on backstage — I have spent many a night squished into the dressing rooms drinking with the performers and friends, so this time he’s designed a dedicated bar backstage where guests can party with the dancers, singers, acrobats and glamorous misfits.

    Maybe I’ll see you there.