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December 2010: Don't let Christmas get on top of you!

Christmas cheer is about rather more than laying in adequate supplies of alcohol

December is an expensive and depressing time of year: not only are the days shorter and the weather colder but when we finish work and turn on the television, we are confronted by interminable repeats and a new round of irritating advertisements for settees at ‘unmissable’ prices.  After the winter sale, there’s the Christmas sale, the Boxing Day sale, the New Year sale and after the Spring sale, there is the Easter sale and (nearly forgot) the Bank holiday sale.  If the television doesn’t jar, then the radio or music blaring in the shops will.  In considering the plight of starving masses in the ‘Don’t they know its Christmas?’ track, one commentator in a Sunday paper observed that the question is spurious because most of the subjects would not be followers of a Christian church which would mean that they would not celebrate Christmas anyway and certainly not ‘winterville’ (whatever that may be).

Turning up the heating to avoid winter’s bitter chill runs the risk of melting some of that snow on your bay window roof, (which will leak the second your back is turned) only to short out your new Christmas lights.  This may cause a house fire but don’t bank on your insurance company covering the damage: spontaneous combustion caused by the wrong type of snow is expressly excluded in the small print.

If your house does burn down, the chances are that if you are a seasoned on line shopper, then at least all the presents that would normally have been stacked neatly under your smoking tree will be safe.  They are still stuck in a warehouse after the disruption caused by the snow.  Savvy online shoppers were grinning smugly last week after reading that delivery slots for groceries were in short supply.  That was untrue- in truth, all the delivery slots for the large retailers were taken within hours of being made available.

Winter weather means turning up the heating system and getting up earlier than usual to allow extra time for getting to work.  Small wonder everybody is grumpy!  Fuel and energy prices in general have risen in the UK and train fares have risen too but commuters stranded by adverse weather do not see the funny side.  With all these depressing factors coming into play, worrying about the Christmas dinner and what presents to buy seems low priority but there are less than 14 days to go to Christmas Day at the time of writing and last posting days for cards (and presents) are approaching fast...

The organised shopper will have a mailing list and a form letter set up in MS Word using mail merge and that most useful device, a thermal label printer.  This takes care of the chore of addressing cards, which are usually bought cheapest after Christmas in the New Year sales.  Be careful when selecting cards to ensure that they conform to Post Office size rules – that fancy card with the hand cut letters may fall foul of the width measurement and incur displeasure from the recipient who has to pay a surcharge when they collect it from the (frantic) sorting office.

Choosing presents though is rather harder.  Buying your beloved a Cookery book or perhaps the lastest Diet may suggest that he or she is overweight or cannot cook.  Clothing is a great idea in theory but unless you know the recipient’s size there is some risk involved because makers do not conform to any standard size guidelines and some flatter to deceive.  This means the author has discovered that Wrangler shirts in size L will fit well but Levis equivalents generally need to be XL.  The only safe way to proceed is to determine the measurement from armpit to armpit.

Gizmos and toys amuse boys of all ages but do make sure that if your selected device needs batteries, they are purchased at the same time otherwise be prepared for plaintive cries ‘it doesn’t work!’ on Christmas morning or (worse still) a scout around the area for any shops that might be open.  The author, of course, has been obliged to help out on Christmas morning when friend’s teenage youngsters were presented with new mountain bikes.  These were an excellent present but needed assembling with tools (Allen keys) that only the diehard DIY person would own.

Plants make an obvious choice of present for those with green fingers.  Poinsettias are colourful, yet with care can be encouraged to bloom again but cactus grows for many years.  Just bear in mind that plants make a poor choice of present for recipients with a busy lifestyle but as many houseplants die from over watering as neglect.

At home, family folklore tells of the year when dad decided to spend one Christmas with my grandmother, who lived hundreds of miles away.  My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, used to organise our own Christmas feast, furnishing us with the finest free range poultry and fresh foodstuffs from the farm.  Everything like Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies were home made and (predictably) the quality and taste was nothing less than superb.  Dad, however, was never too keen on this elaborate preparation.  He never bought presents (too involved) and on Christmas morning was wont to retreat to his den only to return brandishing a cheque book.  The food, he argued was ‘very nice’ but in his book, the preparation was excessive and quite unnecessary (especially when there was a pressing engagement at a local hostelry).  With this in mind, we were keen to discover what culinary delights had been consumed but it took time to elicit the information that dad and grandmother had a turkey roast for Christmas dinner.  When pressed, he admitted that it had been “miserable”!

Enough is as good as a feast, according to the adage but instead of going short of food at Christmas, it is clear that many people do quite the opposite.  The food industry bombards everyone with pages of scrumptious looking fare in carefully arranged adverts in the newspaper and food columnists publish their ideas for spicing up leftovers.  Leftovers?  The truth is that Christmas is a great opportunity to sell huge amounts of poultry (and mince pies).  By buying a larger chicken, turkey or goose than you really need, there is a risk that everyone will be fed up with poultry after a couple of days but much will be wasted and of course more fuel will be expended cooking it all in the first place.

One of the consumer programmes on television noted that many stores started to sell many festive lines earlier than usual this year.  The stores responded to criticism that some of the sell by dates would be reached before Christmas by claiming that shoppers liked mince pies and such like and it would be wrong to deprive them of their treats.  Every year, Santa (complete with improbable grotto) arrives earlier – possibly as a result of global warming but festive fare and Christmas lights simply softens up consumers who are resigned to spending increasing amounts on their precocious and critical offspring.

Alcohol consumption in the UK has raised concerns that we are a nation of alcoholics and this would seem to be confirmed by major advertising campaigns undertaken by retailers this year.  The cynical could claim perhaps with some justification that those making efforts to stock up in advance might be thwarted by other family members sampling the Christmas cheer prematurely. 

Planning for Christmas somehow manages to undermine even the efforts of the most orderly souls.  The Christmas card list may never be lost but here will always be some relative or friend who has moved house and work setting up the tree so the star doesn’t lie at a drunken angle maybe undone by your cat who will attack the red robin bird ornament you have put amongst the tinsel.  Those of us who prefer to do some research before we buy anything end up frustrated because newspaper reviews of best wines, sherries, whisky, cakes, puddings, stuffing and mince pies are always published after all sane people will have bought theirs already.  The best policy, is just to go with the flow.  Bon appétit!

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