Books: Hark the herald angels whinge

So did your favourite modern authors enjoy their pudding and crackers? Pull the other one, writes Jeremy Lewis
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The Independent Culture
In December 1958, Philip Larkin wrote, festive as ever: "What an awful time of year this is! Just as one is feeling that if one can just hold on, if it just won't get any worse, then all this Christmas idiocy bursts upon one like a slavering Niagara of nonsense".

Despite Dickens' best endeavours ("That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused by the recurrence of Christmas") the Season of Good Will seems to have an equal and opposite effect on many literary folk, who have a way of articulating feelings (often unworthy) common to us all.

"Christmas is upon us, Oh Lord preserve us," sighs the diarist Frances Partridge, while Stephen Spender sagely observes that "This part of winter becomes every year more like a dark tunnel one enters about 15 December, not to emerge until after New Year". Widespread sentiments, it seems, in the republic of letters, the citizens of which grudgingly push typewriters aside to partake in last-minute present-buying, gorging themselves rigid, affecting paroxysms of pleasure and surprise, trying to be kind to dull or unwanted relations, and seeking oblivion via the bottle.

Christmas 1959 was, for Frances Partridge, "as usual a gruelling endurance test for almost everyone - except the children, who moved like ecstatic ghosts among mountains of parcels, toys, books, television sets and Balmain fur coats". One of the side-effects of wartime shortages had been to simplify the business of buying presents. In 1941, Vita Sackville-West gave Harold Nicolson an alarm-clock which failed to go off, and he spent the rest of the day "sitting indoors feeling rotten".

Lunching with the formidable dame Una Pope-Hennessy on Christmas Day two years later, James Lees-Milne gave his hostess, her two sons and Nancy Mitford a small bar of soap each, shaped like a lemon. The Dame reciprocated with a honeycomb, while Nancy Mitford chipped in with an egg and "an ounce of real farm butter". Thirty years on, staying with the Droghedas, Lees- Milne found himself caught up in a more familiar routine of "effusive thanks, cries of gush as we unpack expensive parcels which we don't always want, much over-eating of too rich foods."

One of the dangers of inviting writers to lunch is that the world may end up learning about the stinginess of the presents on offer and the horrors of the cooking. Cyril Connolly and his pantherine second wife, Barbara Skelton, spent Christmas Day 1953 with Ian and Ann Fleming in Kent. Their host, Barbara noted, had "lost any semblance of good looks, a bottle-necked figure with a large bum". Famously greedy, Connolly liked to be known as a gourmet, but although much had been promised from the Flemings' new cooks, the best they could provide was "rancid stuffing for the turkey and bottled chipolatas", and brandy butter made with synthetic cream.

After lunch, presents were handed round. The year before Fleming had given Barbara a "used pencil, a used lighter and a dirty motto", but this time he stretched to a pair of black lacy underpants and a "hideous beige galoshes bag". A fellow-guest and former lover, Peter Quennell, came up with the same Henry James novel he'd given her 10 years before. On the way home, the Connollys' car run out of petrol, and the embattled couple stamped angrily off in opposite directions.

Equally unflattering accounts of seasonal festivities are provided by Connolly's friend and tormentor, Evelyn Waugh. "We managed to collect a number of trashy and costly toys for the stockings," he wrote in 1945, and although the plum pudding was tasteless, "by keeping the children in bed for long periods we managed to have a tolerable day". The following year, "I made a fair show of geniality throughout the day, though the spectacle of a litter of shoddy toys and half-eaten sweets sickened me." Lunch was "cold and poorly cooked", and Waugh spent the remainder of a "ghastly day" comparing the published version of The Diary of a Nobody with that serialised in Punch - an improvement on Harold Nicolson's 1940 Christmas diet of government memoranda.

"We got tight and I recited Newbolt's poems, firing off a toy pistol as a `turn' at the local Yuletide Dance at the Beach Hotel in Littlehampton. Alcoholic remorse set in afterwards," John Betjeman confessed in 1931. Booze looms large in literary Christmases, both as antidote and as agent provocateur. In Yugoslavia in 1944, Waugh condescended to drink cocktails "with a group of proletarian officers". Anthony Powell's Christmas Day diary entries read like vintner's lists ("Tristram gave me a bottle of Nuits St Georges '85; Archie, Moulins Grassier Grand Poujeaux (Medoc) '79).

No doubt drinks had been taken when Barbara rounded on "Hubby" chez the Betjemans ("My god, you are a bore with your shrub talk all the time!"), or when Lees-Milne spotted Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon bickering over drinks after the Christmas service in St George's Chapel, Windsor ("Then I shall have to walk home by myself!").

Few of our modern diarists put in an appearance at church, though Barbara Skelton went along one year with Mrs Lea the charwoman and complained that "the turning of the wafer into Christ's body and the port wine into blood took an interminable time." Staying with Lord David Cecil and his family, Frances Partridge tried instead to "bring my mind to bear on an article on Wittgenstein", but the Cecils wouldn't stop talking for an instant.

Dislike of Christmas in general was as familiar to the mid-Victorians as it is today. Edmund Gosse's father abominated Christmas, declaring it to be nothing more than Popish nonsense, and when his son confessed he had been lured into the servants' quarters and offered an illicit slice of Christmas pudding ("Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols"), the old gentleman rushed into the kitchen, laid hands on the offending object and buried it deep in a compost heap. Few of our modern Christmas-haters quite come up to that.