Christmas tales 2007: our favourite writers rant, reflect and reminisce

A Christmas visitor, by Matt Thorne

For weeks we've been exhorting you to spend, spend, spend, but now that the presents have (with any luck) been bought and the preparations are complete, it's time to ponder the deeper meaning of Christmas. We asked our favourite writers to rant, reflect or reminisce on a festive theme. As Ronald Hutton explains, the last thing you should feel at this time of year is guilty, so sit down with a mince pie and enjoy

I spent last Christmas at home with my wife, my son, my brother-in-law and my friend, Bob. We'd enjoyed Christmas lunch, listened to a selection of novelty Christmas CDs and were sitting down to watch a DVD of 'R Xmas, Abel (Driller Killer) Ferrara's 2001 film about a yuppie coke-dealing couple who have the misfortune to run into Ice-T on Christmas Day, when the doorbell rang.

I went downstairs and found a Hasidic Jewish man on my doorstep. We live in an area populated by a high number of Hasidim, and I have often found myself being invited into Jewish homes during the Sabbath to turn on their lights and ovens, as they are forbidden from doing anything that might count as physical labour during this period. But this was the first time anyone had come to my home.

He was standing shyly by the wall. He had very black hair, a pair of thick glasses and the mandatory long black jacket and hat. "I'm sorry to disturb you," he said, "but I have a somewhat strange request. It is one of your special holidays today, I believe?"

"Christmas."

"Yes," he said, "Christmas. I have always wanted to witness what goes on in your homes on this day."

"OK," I told him, "come in, I'll show you."

He seemed surprised. "Really?"

"Of course."

I took him upstairs. Bob and my brother-in-law sat up immediately when the man entered our lounge. They looked as shocked as if I'd brought Henry VIII into our house. I picked up the remote-control and turned off the television.

"You have a tree," the Hasidic Jewish man said.

"Yes. We decorate it, that's part of Christmas."

He nodded and touched his beard. "What else is part of Christmas?"

"Well, we eat turkey, we give each other presents..."

"And what are you celebrating?"

"Um... family, friendship..."

"The birth of Christ," said my wife.

"Ah, him," he said. "He was one of ours."

I picked up a tray of mince pies and offered one to him. He shook his head.

"Would you like a drink?"

"No, thank you."

"Well, perhaps you'd like to sit with us? We're all about to watch a film on television."

"No," he said, "that's enough. Thank you."

I showed him out. As he was about to leave he said to me, "So you are spending this festival with your wife, your son, and some friends?"

"Yes."

"That's unusual for your lot, isn't it?"

"My lot?"

"Christians."

I didn't know what to say. He thanked me and started walking down the street. I went back upstairs. Bob was wearing a cowboy hat that had come as an accessory with my son's Christmas present: a singing rocking horse. He looked at me and asked, "How much did you pay him to do that?"

"I knew you'd think that. But I didn't, I promise. You heard the doorbell."

"Why did you let him in?"

"I had to. What if it was some sort of test? Besides, he seemed nice enough."

"What kind of description was that about Christmas? 'We eat turkey, we give each other presents...'" he mocked.

"What would you have said?"

"I don't know, how about, 'We pull Christmas crackers, we make decorations, we sing carols, we drink mulled wine,'" he had a flash of inspiration, "you could've told him about Father Christmas."

"Was that Father Christmas?" my son asked.

"No," I said, "it wasn't Father Christmas."

The next day we had lunch at our neighbours' house. We live in a friendly street where there are lots of people with children and there were three or four small families sitting round the table. After we finished up the various leftovers from all our Christmas meals, one of our neighbours said, "The strangest thing happened yesterday, a Hasidic Jewish man came to our door and said he wanted to find out about Christmas."

"Us too," said another couple, and in a few moments we'd established that he'd gone to nearly every house in the street. He hadn't accepted food or drink at anyone's homes, and hadn't stayed more than five minutes at anyone's place, aside from some slightly older neighbours whose drunken friend had bullied him into a theological argument.

"He must have been young," said my neighbour, "and brave, to do something like that."

"I'm glad he did," I said, "it made our Christmas."

I never saw him again, and this year we're spending Christmas with my wife's parents. I don't know if he understood the meaning of Christmas from going to all the houses on our street, or even if I could explain the meaning of Christmas beyond turkey and presents. But I know that this will remain one of my more memorable Christmasses, even when I've long forgotten the Christmas that my family watched the Rambo trilogy in one go, or the time that my friends rescued me from a miserable day with my divorced parents to take me to watch a band at the only nightclub open on 25 December, or any of the other weird ways I've chosen to celebrate this holiday over the years, and for that I thank him.

Matt Thorne is currently working on a critical study of Prince for Faber

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