Bah humbug: Darkly funny Christmas tales from Britain's best writers

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Inflation, recession and gloom: you don't have to be Scrooge to say 'Bah humbug' this year. But even the biggest Christmas curmudgeon will find something to raise the festive spirit in these pages, as AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, Sue Townsend, Neil Gaiman, Sebastian Barry and a host of our favourite writers share what the big day means to them. To kick off, Will Self remembers a perfect Christmas – with none of the trimmings

Joy Division and a Vesta curry

by Will Self

When I was 20 I tried to spend Christmas alone. It was a protest – of sorts – and also an actualisation of a deep and twisted disappointment in family, love, cosiness and cheer – all of which I held to be, in this the climactic period of my protracted adolescence, Yuletide lies and festering festive spirits. My parents' marriage, which for many years had resembled a gnawed upon string of gristle, had finally and greasily disintegrated. My mother was spending the winter on the Costa Blanca, in a whitewashed house full of mice that animated her own scuttling phobias. My father had recently emigrated to Australia with his new love – a nice enough person, if I could've appreciated it at the time, but all I seized upon was her proclivity for writing spiritual doggerel. I can't remember where my brothers were.

It was my final year at university, and together with five women (something of a coup), I shared a damp and cavernous redbrick house in the Jericho neighbourhood of Oxford. My bed was a makeshift pallet of lumpy mattresses; I had turned the wardrobe on its side. All my dog-eared paperbacks were piled up in a nook, and the only decoration on the walls were the Rorschach blots of moist plaster and a tiny picture of Kleist, the German Romantic writer who killed himself in a suicide pact at the age of 34.

In this unprepossessing environment I smoked a water pipe made from a large mayonnaise jar and a length of shower fitment; when I drew on this, the .002-scale plastic soldiers I'd put inside the bong – US Marines as I recall – would roil and moil in a vortex of hash smoke and fluid, looking like the doomed in John Martin's apocalyptic painting The Fall of Babylon. When I wasn't haranguing anyone who'd listen on the subjects of nihilism and my own rampant anomie, I'd listen to Joy Division on my tape recorder (remember those!), or watch films on my four-inch black-and-white television – epics for preference. There was something immensely satisfying about the juxtaposition between Land of the Pharaohs, and that upended shoebox of a room in Jericho.

You get the picture: I was a regulation scrofulous and disaffected student, in those happily miserable times before higher education became fixated by the ridiculous – and mercenary – idea that it was part of a career path, and that pliant youths should be forcibly moulded into productive units for use in the burgeoning economy.

It was cold that winter, and scuzzy rime built up inside the tall, ill-fitting sash windows. Even with the noxious gas fire continually twittering on in the corner my room felt exposed to the winds blowing from the Urals. Early the following year Russian tanks would roll into Poland. Frankly, I wouldn't have minded if they'd invaded my room – for there was no solidarity to speak of. I eschewed the overtures of my housemates and packed them off to their families: Sarah with her dyed vermilion hair and spiky earrings; Polly with her silk dressing-gown and her lapsang souchong; Imogen with her leather jacket and her growling BSA motorbike.

When they were all gone, I went to the local shop and bought the most antithetical Christmas dinner I could think of; no buxom brown fowl for me, oh no, this not-so Tiny Tim would slurp down a Vesta chicken curry, his only company the rattling ghosts of Christmas past. Because the truth was that Christmas had never been that great in my family of origin. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy families may be different, but there's something about festivals, celebrations and anniversaries that makes them behave in the same way: badly. The last Christmas we had spent in my natal home, two years before, had been distinguished by my brother and I having a stand-up fist fight in the street, smiting one another until we fell into the privet – a small suburban nightmare.

No, I would spend Christmas, and the nights that book-ended it, alone, in bed. There would be no decorations, nor carolling, no wassailing, no sub-mistletoe canoodling, no stuffing, no adoring of the Christ Child, no saturnalia, no potlatch. All I'd do was agitate the Marines and squint at the telly (but only when it was showing epics). Like all kingly babies, I imagined myself to have a Divine Right; it was as if, by ruining Christmas for myself I could somehow ruin it for everyone else. If I weren't going to have gifts, treats and sweetmeats, I would dash them from the hands of all.

It all went swimmingly. Christmas Day dawned satisfyingly bleak and gloomy: there was no snow to make the dull suburban street look anything but bare and uninviting. I squatted in my tumbledown bed re-enacting Iwo Jima .002-scale. At approximately lunchtime I went into the kitchen and boiled my bags of rice and chicken slop in their plastic bags, but when I got them on to the plate they tasted so unpalatable I binned them, and shuffled back to bed.

But then, horror of horrors, at about four in the afternoon there came a loud and insistent knocking. I considered not answering it and stayed doggo, but then jolly voices were raised – calling out my name, and residual manners forced me upright. When I swung open the front door there was my girlfriend, together with her parents and her younger brother. I had requested, then pleaded, and finally insisted that she leave me alone – I wanted no part of her cheerful, cosy, loving family. She, however, had ignored my entreaties, reasoning – quite rightly – that here was a Scrooge who needed saving from himself: her family were on their way from London to visit relatives in Cheltenham, why on earth shouldn't they drop by.

I think I made them tea – but I may not have. I certainly recall that there was a cosmic awkwardness in the collision between my attitudinising and their hearty affect, just as my undress dishevelment looked worse than ever set beside their smart holiday attire. They didn't stop for long – I stuck to my guns and refused to go with them. And when they were gone I discovered that they'd done me a favour, for things were far worse than before; instead of being the heroic captain of my solitude, I was merely lonely. I like to think I understood that very day – although, it may have been a lesson it took me longer to absorb – that deliberately being alone on Christmas Day was a bad move; that it was tempting fate to toy with isolation, when life, with all its impulsive alacrity, may at any time capriciously thrust you out in the cold.

Will Self's latest novel, 'The Butt', is published by Bloomsbury

The great stocking swindle

by Kate Mosse

Memories shift, crack, slide over time. Some become more colourful, distinctive, significant. Others retain the power to sting, to undermine, to wound, even decades after. We ascribe adult motivations to childish impulses, paint ourselves in a more flattering light. We read novels, about childhood, of coming age, and are seduced into thinking of ourselves as more thoughtful, more original than ever we were.

Of all of the myths, that of Christmas holds us most tightly. Ghosts of winters past, present, yet to come, snag our attention. Chestnuts roasting, sleigh bells, all things not commonly, in truth, found in Sussex in the 1970s. But it is often, aside from the platitudes and clichés, a season of transformation in ways unexpected.

My before-and-after Christmas was in 1970. I was nine, my sisters, five and four. I was aware – I must have been, even though I didn't quite yet wish to acknowledge it, that Father Christmas was a wonderful fairytale. In public, he took up residence during December in the grotto on the first floor of the Army & Navy Stores in Chichester. In private, on Christmas Eve, I knew there was a different sort of illusion; that my mother chose, bought and wrapped the stocking presents and then, at some moment after the grandmother clock in the hall had chimed the lateness of the hour, my father tiptoed into our bedrooms on Christmas Eve and filled up the three old, woollen stockings with gifts.

And yet... I was not quite ready to let go of the illusion. Looking back, as a parent and in middle age, maybe it was deliberate, this testing of the waters? Maybe not. But, on 24 December 1970, I got myself proof positive – and was inadvertently responsible for the worst family Christmas ever.

My mother's strategy for stocking presents was simple and lovingly delivered: different, but equal. We each had a version of the same thing – pencils, sweets, socks, a new torch, stationery, this little book or that, hair slides and clothes for Sindy or Barbie – gifts appropriate to our interests and our ages; nothing too much. Proper presents came later, under the tree.

I cared only about one type of present. My October birthday had delivered to me quite the most beautiful dolls' house. It was not as grand as those I'd seen in the old toy museum in Arundel or nearby West Dean house, with several floors and central staircase and figures in period costume, mob-capped servants and whiskered men, the whole life of an Edwardian family, upstairs and down. Mine was a modern house, more modest. But it had a clever contraption at the back, where a battery could be set to fire up the lights in every room. And it had a hinged front. But I didn't have much furniture, not nearly enough, and it was two weeks of saving pocket money to buy even the plainest of beds or dining-room chairs. What I wanted most of all was the proper old-fashioned stove for the kitchen, for which I'd been saving up for five weeks already.

I'd like to think now, through the filter of 37 Decembers, that it was anxiety that was father to the deed. Given the demands upon his time, how could Father Christmas possibly know how important it was that I was given certain furnishings and fixtures rather than others? That that's what I wanted at all? Even assuming he was fair and even-handed – and my sisters were also given one piece of furniture too – they might not be prepared to swap. This was the era of Swap Shop. My middle sister, Caroline, was mad keen on Scalextric and cars and didn't really care much about her dolls' house at all. A chest of drawers, an ironing board; it wouldn't matter to her. My little sister, Beth, was already passionate about animals, particularly horses; would put whatever piece of dolls' house furniture she got into the middle of her model farm that was filling most of the playroom floor. But maybe they wouldn't want anything I had to offer?

My sisters and I always opened our stockings together on Christmas morning sitting on our parents' bed. It spoiled things to do it alone and to cheat, fumbling with Sellotape and crepe paper in the dark of one's own bedroom. But this time it was imperative I knew what lay in store. If I was to be disappointed, and not get the stove with its perfectly symmetrical cooking rings, polished rail, double doors, I wanted to have time to be disappointed in private. Forewarned. And, what if my sisters had things I wanted? A waste, surely.

I kept vigil, counting the minutes down. But, lulled by the familiar sounds of the central heating clicking off, the sighs and breaths of the house, the thumping of hot-water pipes in the airing cupboard, I fell asleep. When I woke again, all was silent and the stocking was misshapen and full.

I cannot be sure, now, if I intended to swap the presents all along, but in an old winceyette dressing-gown and bare feet, I left my room with my stocking and took those from my sister's rooms, then carried them to a corner where the light was less likely to be seen by my parents, should they have awoken. In front of the old wooden book case with the sliding glass doors filled with books from Readers' Digest, I unpacked each into three separate piles.

As I'd expected, there were absolutely equal numbers of presents, although each had different colour of wrapping paper. I do this still for my own children, even though they are teenagers. This presented a dilemma. If I wished to swap the dolls' house furniture – and absolutely I did – then I was going to have wrap things up again in the relevant sheet of blue, green or white stretchy crepe paper. They might not quite fit the original shape or size. I'd like to think I paused. We had two pieces each. I slipped from wishing only to know what was to come, to the idea that it would be all right to redistribute the presents all together, equally and fairly. Since I had thoroughly persuaded myself that my younger sisters would prefer sparkling socks, white and red Lego blocks, anything, in fact, other than dolls' house furniture, I could keep all six pieces for myself.

How long did this raid on the spirit of Christmas last? I have little sense of time passing now, even less when I was nine. I ended up with three rearranged stockings, coloured coded still, a rearrangements to suit us all.

I always loved – and do still love – Christmas. The morning of 25 December 1970, though, is too sharp, the texture of the memory too rough at the edges. My sisters, generous and excited and not expecting such treachery, didn't notice the slightly shoddy wrapping, the corners of Sellotape unstuck. But my mother did. As one by I revealed the dolls' house pieces, her face seemed to harden slightly. Confusion, surprise, realisation. I understood, then; no possibility of misinterpretation or excuse. She knew precisely what present had been put in which stocking. Without a word, my mother left the torn paper and squeals and arguments over whether eating a whole chocolate orange before lunch would spoil our appetites, and went to see to the turkey. Her dilemma, with hindsight, is obvious. She did not wish to spoil things for my little sisters, but she knew what I had done.

I cannot remember, now, when the guilt became too much and I cracked and owned up. Nor what happened when I did so, only that the sun rose the next day, and the one after, with no lasting ill effect. I think I was made to give back to my sisters the pieces of wooden furniture and glue that should have been theirs. In time, they found their way into my dolls' house. In the way of these things, it has become part of family folklore. The story became bigger in the telling, funnier, backlit and metamorphosed into "an event". But the emotion of it remains, the memory of guilt, like a scar.

And the dolls' house itself? It sits, dusty and abandoned like so many childhood things, in my parents' loft. Thebattery-powered lights no longer seem so miraculous, the furniture shoddy and workaday. It all seems so insignificant and inadequate as a symbol of a risk taken and a lesson learnt one endless Christmas Day in 1970.

Kate Mosse's latest novel, 'Sepulcre', is published by Orion

The beast of Christmas past

by Karen McLeod

I used to love Christmas until I began a job which meant I would be away for it. Ten years ago I'd started to fly for a living. I'd got my wings, a jaunty navy-blue hat and a rather out-of-date red, white and blue blouse with a matching pleated summer skirt. I had to wear navy high heels and force a natural smile over my face as quick as the clouds could move across the sun. I was an air hostess.

That year, just so I didn't miss out on any of the traditional treats with my family, we began a new tradition: the fake family Christmas Day. We all put on our best clothes, Mum wore dangly reindeer earrings and we got drunk on ginger wine and snowballs with maraschino cherries. I was given free rein of the nut bowl, the family size tubs of Twiglets were drummed out and in the evening there was the traditional endless loop of "Give us a clue" performed in the style of Lionel Blair, until we all felt sick from guessing and went to bed.

Having been pleased with my first faux Christmas, the real thing was to turn out rather more unusual during an eight-day trip to the city of Kampala in Entebbe, south west Africa. I'd asked my old friend Sue if she'd wanted to come and she'd jumped at the chance. We were both excited by a new type of Christmas in a hotel with a pool and bellboys. It would be so unfamiliar, no hope of snow, just intense sunlight and strange birds with pink throats that swooped from the trees above.

It was 80 degrees in the shade on Christmas Day. We were sitting by the pool when a black Father Christmas in a white beard on a sleigh was pulled by hotel staff round the sun loungers. He was sweating in the heat and there were dark marks under his arms in his red jacket, spreading. He was saying, "Ho ho ho and merry Christmas." We sat there in our bikinis looking on, feeling weird, wanting to laugh.

Ask anyone who does shift work or lives abroad and they'll tell you how much Christmas isn't Christmas when you are not surrounded by all the cosy customs. You might as well forget it. So we did forget it, by doing the old airline customary thing of getting drunk. Somewhere during this drunken day we organised a trip to go on safari to Bwindi National Park. Only two months later several British tourists would be killed there with machetes, but we were oblivious.

The six of us consisted of Eric, a French steward and his dad, Flore, a French stewardess and her boyfriend, and me and Sue. We went in a wooden benched van on a six-hour drive down red-earthed, uneven roads. At first it was all jolly as we passed over the Equator. It became less jolly as we began to see the poverty and even less so when we finally got to the park and there was no accommodation for us. They'd sold it all to the highest bidder, but there were dorms where students stayed. We walked in the dark to the dorms and had to pass by a group of guerrillas in their army gear and big dark hobnail boots. They went quiet as we passed. We were given one oil lamp each. I let Sue have the bed with the mosquito net as she was getting bitten more than me and we went to bed, locking the door, but, when all went quiet we could hear the men's boots crunching about outside our window in the gravel.

It wasn't much longer before Sue was out of bed running to the end of the corridor with a funny tummy. She'd taken the lamp with her and I lay under my sheet in the dark, shaking like I used to as a child after a nightmare. Then she screamed and I ran down the corridor to find her sat on the loo, white-faced after confronting a bat which had flown out at her face. We went back to bed. Sue was feeling worse. We locked the door and then, like in a horrible film, we could hear the guerrillas start walking up the corridor with their boots squeaking on the lino. In the light of the gas lamp I could see the door handle turning, I screamed out and Eric's dad came out and started swearing at them. They left, thankfully.

We didn't sleep and were hardly looking forward to the safari the next morning. Sue had a toilet roll in her hand when we boarded the bus. We were in the middle of the bush and at first it was pleasant enough; a few wild boars here, a group of gazelles there. We had almost forgotten the night before when suddenly Sue shouted "STOP!" and jumped out, squatting behind a bush. We all looked out the other side, pretending it wasn't happening. The driver suddenly lifted up his gun and opened his door. He was aiming at a lioness who was padding over in the distance, her nostrils twitching at the smell of Sue's shit. We starting shouting at Sue to get back in and she was saying she couldn't stop. When the lioness was near enough for us to see the flies on her back Sue's buttocks finally clenched and we were out of Africa.

Karen McLeod's debut novel, 'In Search of the Missing Eyelash', is published by Vintage

In search of the last turkey in Ireland

by Sebastian Barry

Here we are in the 1960s, old Victorian terrace house facing the storming sea, the crackle of December greys and changing browns and touches of pitch moving across the water. The seaside hotel across the road stands all its feet in darkest shadows, a startling ghost in every room. Even my grandfather, who is a painter, couldn't capture this violently altering scene. I am about 11, standing at an upstairs window. There is snow all along the top of the granite wall that fringes our terrace, very very white and burning but for all that like the crust of an endless loaf. The glass gives me back a version of my face, the eyes floating in a ruined whiteness.

I can see trouble below. My father is just arriving back from town but he is stopping the white Volkswagen in the middle of the road, not pulling into the curb. He gets out ' and falls towards the pavement, a splash of sudden green ink on the snow, in his green coat. Then rises more or less to his knees and starts the tricky climb up the stone steps, vanishing from sight under the canopy of the front door.

When I go out on to the landing he has come surprisingly quickly in from the outer hall and has already begun the ascent towards me. Eventually he passes in a compressed storm of huffing and bluster.

I have shrunk back into the blankness of the bathroom. The tap is dripping, dripping. Then he is gone and I take the easy route down, sliding sideways on the banister rail. Whoosh, whap as I hit the first landing, whoosh, whap.

My mother is also a storm of sorts, banging about in the kitchen. She's looking to see what she has. My father was commissioned to bring home the turkey, the pudding, the ham, the spuds, the chestnuts, and all the other devious whatsits of Christmas. My big sister is sitting on a stool looking like something has hit her in the face, but only shadows have. My father never hits us.

My mother looks at me with her nice face all worked over by panic. It's about five o'clock on a dark Christmas Eve. Even the storm at sea has turned up its volume, or maybe the front door is still open and the storm is creeping in to see how we live. "All right, all right," she says, "get on your coat. We'll run up to Dunleary." On with our coats, out into the painterly storm.

She gives a vague glance at the white car, being covered with a further coat of white. The coat of the sky is a savage procession of devil-dark cloud and streaking yellow and blues. Nothing will stand still. The long curving road goes blackly up towards Dunleary. The snow wants to cover your face with a million sharp cold kisses. Goodbye, goodbye, hello, hello.

We reach the dark precincts of York Road. The river of this road rises in the corporation houses, and to serve them are a few decrepit Victorian shops. My mother is scanning them for light, and though she doesn't go to church and curses the priests for their sins, she is praying. Maybe pagan prayers, because she is from Sligo.

We find a lighted shop, it is a cluttered little place, and in it she discovers the last plum pudding in Ireland. With directions from the startled man behind the counter, we go to a famished butchers shop, and she nearly falls upon the breast of the last turkey in Ireland. The ham must be foregone. The lights are going off all over Dunleary. We make our way back down the hill, with our treasures.

My mother is amazed, almost silent, almost all noise in her silence, we don't know if we are the luckiest family in Ireland or the unluckiest.

"What in the name of God would have happened to this turkey if we hadn't come in to buy it at the last minute?" she says, not really asking me, but asking the bushes shrugging in the luxuriance of the storm wind, asking the sky with its pristine riot of yellow and blue, asking the driven specks of snow, crash-landing on the concrete pavement but not sitting now, because the world is no longer cold enough for the snow to sit.

Sebastian Barry's latest novel, 'The Secret Scripture', published by Faber, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008

A festival of misery and waste

by AL Kennedy

Well, Dawkins bless us, every one, and here it comes again – Christmas: season of cultural insecurity, financial strain and family meals involving tensions, posturing, lies and menace worthy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, sis, or even something of true historical import – like the outcome of Strictly Come Dancing.

I'm always puzzled when people react to the savage perils of Christmas with variations on a theme of wounded surprise. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas is bound to be appalling. It is, after all, the celebration of a woman giving birth without anaesthetic in a draughty cave surrounded by donkey poo. Her husband wasn't the father, so you just know he'll have been really helpful with the boiling water and towels. (Although he was a chippy, so he'd probably have string – but not clean string.) The country had been occupied by a foreign power – and now that Obama's nearly in charge we're probably allowed to admit this isn't something every civilian population really enjoys.

It's Bethlehem, it's small, it's provincial, there aren't any curtains and a heaving great star has taken up residence outside, so no one's getting any sleep – even though no crying he makes. Then the weird strangers turn up – three posh blokes and some shepherds, who bring lambs. Exactly what you'd need: more unhousetrained livestock. Plus, the flock-watchers are probably completely freaked out and babbling – "Yeah, there was this light and singing and this herd of angels... a what of angels...? A host? Really? That doesn't sound right. But OK, a host of angels. Weren't we the host of angels, though, because they were visiting us...?

"Anyhoo, they're talking about love and peace and biscuits – something like biscuits – and all this hippy stuff and we're bloody terrified and they're saying be not afraid, except in these big, boomy voices, so we're thinking maybe if we can't get relaxed, they'll just kill us and so that's making us incredibly more tense and round about then some of the sheep fainted and, I mean, it was just really messed up and crazy – we're still in a right state. Angels dropping in and monkeying with your life, you don't expect that, ' do you? Although obviously, it could be worse... could be that we'd ended up... how is the baby, anyway? Not crying – that's a blessing, eh!"

The three kings, of course, bring along the world's first rubbish Christmas presents – each one heavy on the symbolism. Frankincense would make the cave smell slightly better, but mainly has religious associations and can also be chewed like gum – possibly implying that Jesus would become something in religion, or a bit of a slacker, or make scented candles – definitely not something sensible like a carpenter. Myrrh is used in funeral rites – presumably they'd also considered offering Mary a tiny child's coffin, perhaps with some tinsel on it. I'd guess considerations of space ruled that one out: you can only get so much loaded on a camel. Then there's gold, a great big sparkly casket of gold that will ensure you'll be burgled, if not mugged while you huddle, knackered and unarmed in your vile and quite possibly front- doorless shelter.

Now does any of that suggest that Christmas wouldn't turn out to be an elf-haunted, witch-melting festival of bickering, misery and waste? I think not.

Of course, I principally associate Christmas with being – in one way or another – close to death. This began when I repeatedly witnessed the arrival of The Turkey, specially sent by train from Great Uncle Edgar's Turkey Lagoon. (Or whatever collective noun would be more appropriate.) Edgar being a generous man, the avian cadaver unloaded from the luggage compartment was, for many years, much larger than myself. The body would then rest – very much like a dead, decapitated child – in the bath as a kind of combined appetiser and threat. I already knew about the Massacre of the Innocents and was unclear whether this led to outrage and woe, or huge dinners with lots of little sausages and evil sprouts. Hideous midnight hacking – à la Jeffrey Dahmer – would ensue and then on Christmas morning the oven would be packed with flesh and only 18 or 20 hours later a selection of genetically similar strangers would be forced to stare at each other round a groaning board, while remembering, in vivid detail, why they had promised themselves last year this would never happen again. (The massive binge-eating component of Christmas is, of course, not Christian, but was imposed by the Romans as a cunning plan to eliminate the Druids through cholesterol poisoning.) A sometimes chillingly intelligent child, I quickly noticed that feigning serious illness was a good way of avoiding one's festive relatives. By the age of eight I managed to fling myself from a speeding horse as it proceeded rapidly up the wrong side of a dual carriageway. The resulting head injury allowed me to spend much of Christmas in a children's ward with a viciously illuminated Christmas tree and a number of other restlessly not-at-all-ill-enough children I would have been happy to see covered in bacon slices and served with roast potatoes. They and the apparently endless broadcasts of Perry Como singing in a golf sweater may have damaged me emotionally in a bad and wrong way.

Since then I have – like you, dear reader – realised that merry carolling, romping in snow banks, patting impish tykes, hugging and shoving satsumas into used socks are all activities which expose the immune system to unreasonable stress. Last year – as usual – I spent Christmas crawling between the sofa and my bed, unable to hear, breathe or see. In the few moments every day when I could speak, I begged for death. Sadly, no one else in the house, or my mother's village, or indeed the region was well enough to even hit me with a cracker. So I'm still here. Looking forward to Christmas. Don't say I didn't warn you.

AL Kennedy's latest novel, 'Day', won the Costa Book of the Year Award 2007

Oh come ye, oh come ye to Dublin

by Barry McCrea

The Dublin of my childhood in the 1980s was the capital of a collapsing economy, a twilit abandoned bus-shelter at the edge of the world. Mass emigration affected everyone then, including the middle classes. People in their twenties vanished automatically from that damp world, and would reappear at Christmas, like ghosts, before evaporating again. For a child, oblivious to the rhythms of adult time, and a stranger to the pain of prolonged physical absence, these shadowy figures were part of a purely Christmas reality, exotic attendants in the background of the celebrations, like the Three Wise Men.

We know nothing from the Gospel about the Wise Men's lives back in the "Orient", only their short role in Bethlehem: their awe at finding the miracle they had hoped for, their joy at being in the right place at the right time, and, one imagines, their giddy excitement at being there together. In the same way, Dublin's Christmas travellers, after paying quick homage to the families they had come home to see, raced out to find each other in the pubs and streets to recreate the Dublin they had lost – not only the separation from individual loved ones, but also the general sense of being surrounded by faces and bodies you have known at different stages of life, that sense of time and change you lose when you emigrate.

The boom years, which lasted from the mid-1990s to yesterday, changed everything about Ireland, in now very well-known ways: dank alleys became smooth granite thoroughfares, petrol stations became apartment blocks, no money became loads of money. When I emigrated to the US in 1997, for the first few years the Aer Lingus flights back at Christmas were mostly populated with two types: weather-beaten old couples, shy and patient, who had left in the 1950s, and still-young 1980s immigrants who would run into old friends and arrange to meet up for drinks on Christmas Eve. Somewhere around 2002, to these two groups was added another layer of "returning" Dubliners – the throngs who lived at home but came to New York to do their Christmas shopping, 10-year-old children laden with boxes from FAO Schwarz and bags from Sachs Fifth Avenue, wielding twee candy-canes and faux-Victorian teddy-bears as they pushed past into the Premier cabin (one imagined them reclining in the Premier seat and demanding a Cosmopolitan).

This new group of travellers caused confusion among the rest of the returning emigrants. The boom had changed everything, even the Dublin accent, which had gone partly global. My old Irish "t" in words like "butter", for example, sounded ill-equipped for our new fast-paced economy next to the Celtic Tiger couples bring back "compuders" from New York "Siddy". For the rest of us on the plane, eager to go "home" from America, it could feel like we had no home to go to, as though with our hissy "t"s and damp, grey memories, we had become citizens of a forgotten island, now vanished beneath the waves forever.

But this uncertain overlap of different times and different worlds was always part of Christmas in Dublin, and, in fact, still now "everyone" is there. In Matthew's Gospel we learn the place of Jesus's birth only in the context of the Magi's journey – the pilgrims partially make the destination. Boom or no boom, Irish people still have a tendency to move abroad, and to come back for Christmas; and, since Ireland and Dublin are so intimate and centralised, going into town for the shopping rush means to be confronted with a parade of schoolfriends, former neighbours, cousins, enemies and old flames all reappearing, older, fatter, greyer, kinder. "Everyone" is there, those who live abroad, those you have not seen in years, those you love and those you try to avoid. As the season pushes on, and the planes from New York and London and Frankfurt keep pouring into the city ever more characters no longer part of its daily life, it is no longer clear to those who live in Dublin who is back from abroad and who "really" lives there too, but who have been out of sight or mind. Since any of the forgotten faces might be emerging either from foreign places or from the past, the dead may as well be there too, mingling with the harried crowds on Grafton Street.

Joyce's Christmas story in Dubliners is called "The Dead". "Snow was general all over Ireland," its last paragraph tells us, "faintly falling... upon all the living and the dead". Indifferent to happiness or sorrow, finding expression in consumerism or Catholicism or in neither, Christmas in Dublin is "general", covering all of us, and collapsing all times into one. Those who return from abroad bring with them the Dublin of the past which, for good or for ill, they carry with them in their hearts; newer Dublins appear in the changed faces and streets they encounter. This one time is all times, happy or unhappy; home is abroad and abroad is home.

In late December, Dublin is dark, each day a long night broken only by a few midday hours of viscous, longshadowed light. It is like the span of an individual life, a momentary, pale interruption in a blackness stretching out into infinity on either side. The emigrants who come home leave behind the streets and accents and labour of their day-to-day lives, and for the city as a whole, as December pushes inexorably onwards and Christmas approaches, it gradually effaces the ins and outs of regular daily life, like Joyce's snow, slowly but unstoppably covering everything. The rest of the world recedes, global connections fall away; Dublin is suddenly linked not to other places but only to other times, and thus becomes the only place that feels fully real.

The anthem of this annual, timeless world is "Adeste Fideles", an exhortation to the faithful to all gather together in a miraculous place. The "faith" in the song is nominally a Christian one, but Christmas was there long before Christianity, and it flourishes still in post-Catholic Ireland. The true faith is in the endurance of this recurring moment outside the ordinary progress of our individual days. For this the faithful find themselves called back to Dublin every year, bust or boom or bust again: for the festival of light in the blackest depths of the year, to step outside the march of time and keep each other company against the looming darkness beyond.

Barry McCrea's debut novel 'The First Verse' is published by Brandon

What is myrrh anyway?

by Henry Hitchings

I was brought up to say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Christmas". "Happy" was supposed to be kept back for birthdays and the New Year. But now, I've noticed, my mother insists on "Happy Christmas". Challenged about this apparent volte-face, she cites the tweeness of "Merry", an adjective which, as she points out, has also been tarnished by its association with drunkenness.

The history of merry suggests another reason for finding it inappropriate. Merry is the modern form of the Old English myrige, meaning "pleasant". So far, OK. But further back its roots are in Sanskrit, the ancient ceremonial language of India, in which muhur meant "for a moment" or "suddenly". Something of this endures, I think, in the texture of the English word and in its archaic offshoots merry-begot, a term for a bastard child, and merry-bout, slang for a brisk sexual coming-and-going. Merry retains an air of the blithely yet brutishly ephemeral. Now that I reflect on it, I'm sympathetic to my mother's case – a sure way of ensuring we enjoy a happy Christmas.

Whereas merry is a word that perhaps only offers up a hint of its long past, much of the language of Christmas has a distinctly venerable look. Take, for instance, wassail. The word embalms the Old English salutation wes hal, an instruction to "be in good health". It has been used since around 1300 of the spiced ale drunk on Christmas Eve, and since 1600 as a synonym for "partying" or "carousing". Its historical interest lies, though, in the Normans having found it peculiarly redolent of the English view of the world, which is to say a kind of hard-drinking parochialism. Some sources suggest that the night before the Battle of Hastings the Normans prayed while the English stayed up boozing and crying out "wes hal". Wassail is a word tainted by Norman contempt for Anglo-Saxon licentiousness. In passing, I should add that if you see a pub called The Pig and Whistle (there's one in Benidorm), its name is a corruption of Byggen Wassail, a festival that used to be held to celebrate the barley harvest.

Older even than wassail is yule. Yule logs, mistletoe and holly are all pre-Christian appurtenances of the season, and yule is one of many Christmas words that reek of pagan practices. Its root is the Old English geol, linked to the Norse term jol which denoted a 12-day period of feasting around the time of the winter solstice.

Rather less obvious is the pagan past of carol. Because of the content of most of the familiar Christmas carols, we tend to think of carols as intrinsically Christian. Yet although carol has been used of Christmas hymns for roughly half ' a millennium, the word was current for a couple of centuries before that. When caroling comes up in Chaucer, it's something almost sexual. Carol derives via French from Latin, relating to either the word for a garland or the name for a dance accompanied by a flute.

Of course, much of our Christmas vocabulary is Christian. We all know about the three wise men who brought the infant Christ precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (We also know that these wise men are sometimes called Magi, which was originally a technical term in Latin for Persians who belonged to the priestly class.) In Monty Python's Life of Brian the mother of the Messiah asks the wise men the quite reasonable question, "What is myrrh, anyway?" Told that it is "a valuable balm", she is not impressed, and when she ushers the wise men away she says, "Thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but don't worry too much about the myrrh next time." As a child, I found it was the myrrh that most impressed me – even though I once embarrassingly got it muddled with catarrh. Etymologically, it's this aromatic gum that is the most interesting of the three. Gold is a good solid Germanic word. Frankincense for its part is simply franc encens – literally, in Old French, "incense of high quality". The story of myrrh is less straightforward. It may get its name from Smyrna, the Turkish town now called Izmir, where it was believed to be sourced, or from a word for a ritual medicine in the Akkadian language of ancient Mesopotamia.

Yet for all the curious poetry of myrrh, my infant self was more taken with seasonal ornaments and the opportunity to gorge on sweets. Part of Christmas – especially as promoted by that great inventor of Christmas traditions, Charles Dickens – is an affirmation of one's inner child. For a short while we embrace kitsch items such as baubles – a blend of babyll, a medieval word for something that oscillates, and babel, a term in Old French for a child's plaything. The bauble's familiar accompaniment tinsel gets its name from Old French, too, but ultimately derives from the Latin scintilla meaning "spark", which is also, thanks to a bit of creative misspelling, the source of stencil.

Tinsel and mistletoe notwithstanding, the highlight of my early Christmasses was chipping the icing off the cake to get at the marzipan underneath. Little did I know that I'd later savour the word as much as the thing. For marzipan has an especially odd etymology. The city of Martaban in Lower Burma, now known as Mottama, was once noted for the jars it used for exporting sweetmeats. The fame of these jars led to the vulgar Latin coinage maczapanum, meaning a box for storing jewels – and later a place for keeping confectionery. Over time, the sense narrowed further: first to the confectionery itself, and then to a specific kind of confectionery.

The way we spell marzipan is indebted to German, and the Germans, I've noticed, do Christmas deliciously, with their Stollen and carp and stuffed goose. Sadly, we've yet to latch on to the delightful German slang for Christmas Eve, which is Dickbauch – a word that means, with more than a touch of both the happy and the merry, "pot belly".

Henry Hitchings won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize 2008 for his book 'The Secret Life of Words' (John Murray)

Hanukkah with bells on

by Neil Gaiman

I do not recall lobbying for anything, as a boy, as hard as I lobbied, with my sisters, for a Christmas tree.

My parents objected. "We're Jewish," they said. "We don't do Christmas. We do Hanukkah instead."

This did nothing to stop the lobbying. Anyway, Hanukkah was no substitute for Christmas. My parents, unlike my grandparents, didn't always remember to keep Hanukkah, and even when my mother remembered the festival, we children could see that a menorah and candles were not a Christmas tree. My parents kept kosher, went to shul on high holy days but that was the extent of things in our house. My grandparents were properly observant Jews. My parents were not particularly observant Jews, while we children were, quite simply, bad Jews. We knew we were bad Jews because we wanted a Christmas tree.

We were surrounded by Christmas, after all. When I was eight I was offered the choice of playing a shepherd or wise man in my school Nativity play. I was a precocious child and I had read widely, so I argued with the primary school teacher, pointing out that you could choose either to have wise men or shepherds, but not both, as the gospels of Luke and Matthew contained accounts of very different nativities. Wisely, she declined to argue theology with an eight-year-old, and instead pointed out to me that, as first shepherd, I would also be the narrator and would read from a scroll, and, fearful of losing what was going to turn out to be a fairly good part with no actual lines to learn, I stilled my tongue.

Christmas presents, that was a battle we had already won, my sisters and me. It didn't matter that my mother wrote "Happy Hanukkah" in my Doctor Who annual with William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton on the cover: the book still arrived on Christmas day, in a pillowcase filled with gifts. What the present was called was mere semantics: as long as we got the swag we did not care what was written on it.

We were not jealous of friends who got Christmas presents. We were jealous of the friends with Christmas trees. Having a Christmas tree was what Christmas was all about. It had nothing to do with mangers and shepherds and (more properly, as I would no doubt have told you at length back then, or) Wise Men. Not as far as we were concerned. It was trees all the way, properly decorated ones, with tinsel and glass balls and a star on the top. We lobbied and we lobbied hard, and we would not give up. My parents would not countenance it. They had not had Christmas trees when they were children; instead, they had parents who disapproved of Christmas trees. You couldn't, my mother told us, be Jewish and have a Christmas tree.

I was a precocious child, and I had read widely, and I struck. "But it's not Christian," I said.

"I think you'll find it is, dear," said my mother. "That's why they call them Christmas trees, after all."

"They are actually," I told her, proudly, and precociously, "a pagan relic. The trees. The thing of people bringing trees into houses at the winter solstice and decorating them has nothing at all to do with Christianity. It's from pagan times."

I'm not sure why it was better to be a pagan relic, but I hoped it was, and it seemed to shake my mother's certainty. Like my teacher, she knew better than to argue theology with an eight-year-old.

Whether it was, as I thought at the time, my precocious argument or (more probably in retrospect), my sisters' huge, pleading eyes and trembling lower lips, I do not know, but my father went to the local market and picked out a Christmas tree for us and brought it home. We decorated 'it, and were content. Having won the Christmas tree battle, we had, somehow, won the Christmas war. My father even dressed up, that Christmas Eve, as Father Christmas, with an enormous cotton-wool beard, to place our presents by our beds.

We pretended to be as asleep as we could.

"What was that about?" I asked my sister, after he had gone.

"It was just Dad," she whispered.

"Are you sure?"

"He was wearing Dad's dressing-gown," she said, sensibly. "Of course it was him."

It seemed to be one the best things about having a good Jewish Christmas: we were never obliged to believe in Father Christmas, and the experiment was never repeated. But the Christmas trees were there to stay. A Christmas tree was bought, normally on the last Saturday before Christmas, for the rest of my childhood.

Our more orthodox cousins, profoundly treeless, were both scandalised and impressed by this. But we were happy. We had a nice Jewish Christmas. We were content.

Neil Gaiman's new novel, 'The Graveyard Book', is published by Bloomsbury

A walk in the snow

by Raffaella Barker

"Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat / Please to put a penny in the old man's hat / If you haven't got a penny, a ha' penny will do / If you haven't got a ha'penny then God bless you."

This rhyme, relegated to the bottom of my Christmas stocking of memories, is suddenly current this year, and it will be a Christmas again like the ones in my childhood. It was the stricken 1970s, the recipe book of the day was The Pauper's Cook Book, and in my family, where money was always short, our festivities were big on ritual and home-made decoration. I still have some interesting glitter flowers made of tights stretched over wire from that time, and they will take their place on the tree this year.

Our Christmas stockings, filled with brazil nuts, tangerines, bags of gold-covered chocolate money and topped always with a balloon, were the highlight of the day. At that time there was no such thing as the "must-have" handbag/Play-Station/iPod, or if there was, we didn't know about it. At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python sketch, our lack of cash enriched us. We may have been nerdy, and I remember wearing stripy jerseys from C&A over my favourite torn Biba velvet dress, but we were happy.

All my early memories of Christmas are fused with rhymes, bad jokes and flurries of snow, and are peopled with carol singers and fathers coming back from somewhere tough in big coats to be hugged by armfuls of happy children. These admittedly are not my own memories, but are images from the black-and-white movies my brothers and I watched on Christmas morning. This was in a hour snatched between our pre-dawn raid on the stockings and the sprawling lunch my mother, largely without assistance, created for us all in the kitchen of our ivy-clad farmhouse in Norfolk. In the days leading up to Christmas, we were all sent out to gather holly and ivy, and to quarrel over who would climb the apple tree for mistletoe. Barrowloads of greenery came into our house and we put it up to the accompaniment of the King's College choir on full volume on my father's gramophone.

I feel about 1,000 years old as I write this but I have to confess I was obsessed with the idea of snow shoes, without really knowing what they were. My aunt Finella lived a gratifying "good league hence", so every year I prayed that we could walk there on Christmas Day with snow shoes on to deliver her family's presents.

Christmas has a wonderful way of meeting our deepest dreams, if only we know where to look, and lo! in the year I was 11, magic struck. It snowed heavily, our car was stuck and we walked through the fields to my aunt's house with the basket of presents. I was breathless with anticipation as we got ready, imagining that snow shoes would appear along with sledges and ice skates and maybe even the Snow Queen, all these being vital ingredients of Christmas Past. My father who had been listening to my mutterings about the snow shoes for years, suddenly appeared at my side with two tennis racquets and a quizzical look on his face. "This I'm afraid, is the essence of the snow shoe," he said apologetically. It was a bigger let down than realising who Father Christmas really was. Obviously I rejected them, even though the alternative was my leaking wellies complete with a dead field mouse in the left one.

Walking to my aunt's house in the sunlit snowscape, my siblings and I were all bundled in bright bobble hats and scarves, our laughter echoing among the silent trees. I remember the warm glow of happiness inside me and the sense of joy that walk gave me, and it is that which is among my most enduring Christmas memories.

Once I left home, I had a couple of independent Christmasses which were very unsuccessful. The Christmas I spent on a Canary Island having eggnog and schnitzel with my boyfriend and a selection of the resident German hippies was my least favourite ever. Luckily my thoughtful mind has blocked most of the experience out, leaving me with little but a residual loathing of even the words "eggnog".

Back to the bosom of the family I scuttled as soon as my own children were born, and more rituals and family traditions seeped in to make our own version of my childhood Christmas. Divorce knocked Christmas sideways for us all for a while, and we went for the alternative hot version in Kerala, with fireworks like cartoon-bombs as presents and the smell of cardamon replacing our home scent of pine tree. Now though, we are back on course, and the things I always loved become ever more significant with the passing of the racing years.

In the end, for me, nothing beats the look of wonder on a child's face as the magic essence of Christmas breaks at dawn with a squeal of excitement and the rustle of a stocking laden with memories in the making.

'Poppyland' by Raffaella Barker is published by Headline Review

How to survive your relatives

by Catherine Blyth

As yet, conversation has no patron saint. When the beatification committee get around to it, however, I doubt Santa will reach the shortlist.

What makes Christmas good is also what makes it bad: déjà-vu. The Groundhog Day of family life, it reunites us with phantoms from childhood, then adds alcohol, cardiac assaults of grub and rollercoaster blood-sugar levels. If your role was "difficult daughter" or "oafish son", no matter that you're now a yogi: you'll soon morph into a panto version of yourself, aged 12-and-three-quarters. Rows with the rellies seem almost inevitable.

You could turn on the TV and tune out. But why not hone your conversational skills? Here's a list of potential pitfalls, and what to do about them.

Grumpy great-aunts

Great-Aunt Ethel can't forgive you for growing up, or herself, for growing old. So, to winkle your way into an elderly relation's heart, relate to her. Seek her opinion, sift her memory bank (gold for future family disputes), admire the warp and woof of her heirloom tweeds.

As GK Chesterton wrote, there's "no such thing as an uninteresting subject; there are only uninterested people". So be nice. One day, the old dear will be you.

Boring cousins

There are many varieties of bore. At one extreme, those experts (special subject: "Myself") who could talk a tape recorder to death. At the other, stealth bores who say nothing. Yet anyone seems tedious if you don't extend imaginative hospitality, since conversation thrives on common ground and enthusiasm. Heed Sir Walter Scott: "There are few persons from whom you cannot learn something and... everything is worth knowing." Find out what interests the other person, then make it interesting to you.

Interrogate a stealth bore and he'll clam up. Instead, strew topics in his path, with open questions and observations ("Isn't this delicious? Mum's always telling me to cook, but I've got enough hobbies, haven't you?"). When his face lights up, pounce.

However, if your cousin is an "expert" bore, deploy tactics you'd use to bamboozle a bullying brother-in-law. Flattering interruptions can redirect talk: "I so agree. That's why I do X..." Seek advice, offer praise. If the ranting continues, smile and, as China's hallowed Thirty-Six Stratagems advises: "Relax while the enemy exhausts himself."

Similarly, to neutralise a nosy uncle, meet question with question, or like a politician, preface responses with "That's a fascinating question." Then say whatever you like.

Other "expert" bores include patronising matrons and elder statesmen. These regard conversation as a party political broadcast, for boasting or denouncing the youth of today. Beware spouting endless "reallys?" while your mind roams. It feels easy, but you will be trapped for longer.

Minds worn shiny by prejudice offer few conversational footholds for those who don't mirror their opinions. Nonetheless, some sure-fire acts of provocation are, occasionally, just the thing to pep up talk. These include: generalisations, personal remarks, unsolicited advice, enquiries after health-wealth-creed, moans, boasts, bitching and teasing. Sensitivity is required, since Christmas is a munificent host to covert insults. One friend's annual treat is the moment when the family's wine snob pokes his nose into a proffered glass, sniffs and sets it down.

Awful presents

It's hard to be gracious in the face of incomprehensible gifts – so often, forms of passive-aggressive criticism. I'm talking about the gizzard-gusseting pants, size XL; the scented notelets with "Thank you" printed in bubble script ("I know you mean to write..."). Just keep it simple: "A lovely thought."

Rude guests

Don't assume they're arrogant: they probably lack conversational experience. So focus on them, be positive, and you may be surprised what lies beneath that concrete coat of a personality. With whingers, however, venture a silencing platitude ("Life isn't a bed of/bowl of..."). Or one of these sympathy shutters, which appear to hold out comfort but, like a cross brandished at a vampire, drive others' woes away: "Poor you!" (Subtext: Victim again – do we detect a pattern?) "You are in the wars!" (Why pick fights?). "The same thing happened to Y..." (You're not the only one with problems.) "I understand." (And have for 20 minutes.) "Why would he say that?" (Look in the mirror, honey.) "That must have been hard." (Note my use of the past tense: move on.) Stroppy sisters

Feuds are cherished sibling keepsakes, due to competition for parental resources, and many of us ding-dong merrily. Still, sniping may injure bystanders, and, fuelled by booze, teeter into war. You can absorb insults (hypnotist Paul McKenna disarmed a critic by taking "pretty much everything I said as a compliment"). Alternatively, talk on, as if deaf, or deflect the attack with creative interpretation. When a courtier told Elizabeth I she must go to bed, she replied, "Little man, little man. The word 'must' is not used to princes."

If sis has a serious beef, listen artfully, respecting the 10 commandments for emotional ventilation:

1. Explore, don't ignore, feeling ("I see you're upset.")

2. Acknowledge the problem must be addressed (even if .........it's not a problem to you)

3. Don't react emotionally or judgementally.

4. Don't finish the other's person's sentences

5. Offer opinions only if sought

6. Neither agree nor disagree until you must

7. Limit interruptions to supportive statements

8. Repeat key words to re-route rambling

9. Display listening: face them, maintain eye contact and an open posture

10. Question, summarise, ask how to proceed.

Maddened mothers

How many Yuletide kitchens resound with the matriarch's curse: "He. Does. Nothing. What is he for?"

To mollify your mum, recall that each year she is revisited by hopes that have long since cindered, like the overspill at the bottom of her oven. So coax her to another view with words that hostage negotiators use to imply: "We're in this together." As in, "we" not "I"; "our" not "my"; "here" not "there"; "these" not "those".

Making a dignified exit from family lock-ins is challenging. If you've no neighbours or imaginary friends to see, there's always that re-run of The Great Escape...

'The Art of Conversation', by Catherine Blyth, is published by John Murray

Get that tree out of my post office

by Jonathan Trigell

There is a Christmas tree in my local post office. You might think that the most unusual part of that, in these days of closures, is that I have a local post office. But I live in France, where religious symbols are strictly banned from state institutions and so I can't really see how they can get away with it. If you don't think that a Christmas tree is really a religious symbol, ask yourself how comfortable you would feel decorating one in Iran?

Perhaps the eyes of French secularism are elsewhere: focused on schools at the moment, quite rightly. Teenagers don't get away with wearing those chastity rings in these parts. Good. As Marcus Brigstocke put it: "If you want a ring to show you're not having sex, get married like everyone else!" One Christmas, when I was a teenager, a group of my female friends gave each other little chains to wear. They were also virginity symbols, but the antithesis of those popular now. The idea was that the girls would, eventually or shortly, give them to the person who took their virginity. I like to think this made them think a little bit more carefully about who that would be, and maybe even dignify that decision with a sort of ceremony. Though it probably didn't and I never got close to finding out for myself.

Christmas was even more important, of course, as a younger child. I went to a Christian primary school. We all did back then; it was called "school". At Christmas time, we prayed little-children prayers and sang jolly songs about Jesus. We were credulous children and we believed what the teachers told us. We believed in baby Jesus and we longed for Santa's coming. Christmas was a lively, lovely time of year; for me, for most. But the problem is that Santa wasn't as generous with all the children. One year, a girl at my school – the same said to have fleas – got a single, naked, second-hand doll for the entirety of her Christmas spoils. It could almost have been looted from the cardboard manger of the nativity play, except that it was smaller, cheaper and older. This was treated with derision by the rest of us, in carefree, childish, cruelty. If the presents came from Santa – from God by proxy – then "God hates you too" seemed to be the message to her. God hates poor kids. God save the Queen.

Which is strange because Jesus loved the poor: he was mad for them, the poorer the better. He said the rich would never get near heaven. Jesus would not have been keen on the Queen. Jesus had a lot more than just looks in common with Che Guevara: he was a revolutionary; a redistributor. But that's not the holy infant we were taught about at Christmas: the blessed baby with more than his fair share of dads.

Jesus existed; probably not even Dawkins doubts that. But he wasn't really born in Bethlehem. His biographers – various artists, ghost-writing God's bestseller – were faced with a big problem: their boy was very widely and well known as Jesus of Nazareth, but the Prophet Micah specifically stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. To say that old Joe and his perilously pregnant wife were visiting relatives almost 100 miles away because it was Christmas would have thrown up further queries. So the writer we call Luke invented the only slightly more credible conceit: that the Romans had insisted everyone went back to the town of their birth to be counted, wives in tow. We do the same thing now, of course – en masse, we return to the town of our births every Christmas – and even with cars and trains and planes, the country grinds to a halt and loses millions upon millions in lost work days. But at least now we have the gift-giving industry, which boosts consumer spending in compensation. The Romans were meticulous record-keepers and it is quite clear that no such census was taken. Of course not, since it would have been a doubly pointless exercise: devastating the economy and providing not useful data on where their subjects lived, but irrelevant data on where their ancestral homes once were.

So every year, throughout much of the world, we celebrate a fictional story. As a novelist, I really enjoy that. The quality of writing and characterisation in the Bible doesn't compare to Joyce, but the main event is so much bigger and better than Bloomsday.

I came home, too, last Christmas, to the town of my birth, for the first time in quite a few years. And for the first time since I was a child, I spent Christmas with a child: my nephew, Alex. It was precisely what Christmas should be, full of laughter and innocence, not just whisky and turkey. It was my best Christmas since the year when I got a US cavalry outfit and a rifle and soldiers for my wooden fort and quite a lot more besides, because my parents, both in good jobs, loved me very much. But, more importantly, so did Santa.

Alex believes in Santa and I don't have the heart to dispel that magic. Not only because of the pleasure it brings him, and through him to us. But because I know that one day it will be dispelled anyway. The rumours will come, as they always do, from the older kids. The first trickles of uncertainty will in time lead to a complete debunking of Father Christmas. And perhaps the throwing-off of that early, easy myth is a step on the path of rational thought, of the reasoning which will eventually debunk all the other ' nonsense too. For now, I suppose it makes him happy. But then, he would be happy anyway: the toys and our love would be much more than sufficient. And I still worry that the Santa story, such a tiny, temporary, extra joy for him, must be making other less-fortunate children even sadder.

Either way, Santa should be a home-time pleasure, as should all matters of faith. Religious education is an oxymoron. Instead of building more faith schools we should be campaigning to leave that divisive, dictatorial, genocidal, sod, God, at the school gate. We should be following the French example – they're not wrong about absolutely everything – and keeping out the chastity rings and rosaries and headscarves too. And since here in France those laws already exist – and this isn't humbug, I just hate the hypocrisy – get that bloody Christmas tree out of my post office.

Jonathan Trigell's latest novel, 'Cham', is published by Serpent's Tail

I'm dreaming of a medieval Christmas

by Tom Hodgkinson

The medieval culture as a whole was less work-oriented, and the whole point of Christmas was to follow the injunction in Ecclesiastes to "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die", and work was cancelled for a full 12 days or more, from 25 December until Plough Monday, which next year falls on 12 January.

We developed the Christmas tradition also because we needed cheering up in the depths of winter. To take 12 days off for drinking, watching plays and general partying was a way of coping with the hardships of the season. So it is this year, too: when times are hard, money is tight, and we are constantly told that there is lots of "gloom" ahead by newspapers, there is all the more reason to eat, drink and be merry.

The work-loving Protestants and Puritans of the 17th century, though, hated feasts, fasts and old-fashioned festivals like Christmas, which they saw as superstitious, Popish, heathen. The feasts got in the way of productive activity. Indeed, one of the new freedoms that the Protestants insisted upon was the right to work over the Christmas holiday. The feasting culture, they felt, also led to drunkenness, debauchery, riots and casual sex, and if there's anything that got a Puritan really riled, it was the sight of people enjoying themselves. In 1643, a London newspaper complained that Christmas commemorated "an idol of the mass" and also that it was "frequently abused to carnal liberty". Therefore MPs cracked down on it. I think this sort of approach to things persists today: Parliament by its very nature is against fun and frivolity, and would prefer an orderly, hard-working populace. With very few exceptions, MPs are not the feasting type. They are Malvolios rather than Toby Belches.

Well, during the Commonwealth, that brief triumph of grey Parliamentarianism, Christmas was more or less banned. In 1643, an alliance between Parliament and the Scottish government called the Solemn League and Covenant was signed, which led to a Christmas crackdown. London shopkeepers began to keep their shops open on Christmas Day. On Christmas Day of 1643, the miserable, "Bah humbug!" Parliamentarians went into work as usual.

The following year saw a set of reforms that effectively put an end to old-style communal feasting and dancing. In the 1650s, laws were introduced that made it compulsory for shops and markets to open on Christmas Day, and you could be fined if you were caught celebrating Christmas. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the reforms were abolished and Christmas once again was celebrated openly.

In essence, to get the spirit of Christmas right we need to go back to 1450 or before. For a very modest outlay, we could literally celebrate like kings. It's possible to live very well on small amounts of money: you just have to go back in time. The necessary elements are: huge quantities of booze, preferably spiced wine or punch from a communal punch bowl, large quantities of people, a complete suspension of work for at least 12 days (and that means switch off the BlackBerries) large numbers of candles, and lots of dancing and singing.

As far as food goes, how about that exotic fruit the "orange"? Swans were a common feature of the medieval banquet, as were venison, goose and woodcock. If you have the funds, then hire a musician. But better still, gather round the piano, bring the ukulele or ask the guitar-playing teenager to learn some Christmas ditties so everyone can have a singsong. Fill the house with holly, ivy, rosemary and bays. Play cards. Play board games. Pass round the wassail bowl. Be generous. As the early-Tudor husbandry expert Thomas Tusser put it: "At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor, Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?"

Open your doors, be merry, dance, drink too much, fall over: it's the true spirit of Christmas.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler' and author of 'How to be Free' (Penguin)

Santa Claus isn't coming to town

by Paul Burston

I used not to believe in Christmas. I mean, I knew it happened. The fake tree and the silver tinsel saw to that. And I can't pretend that I didn't like the presents. What child doesn't? But I never believed that any of this really meant anything. Long before I stopped believing in Jesus, I'd already given up on Father Christmas. My mother has a photo, taken when I was six, with me sitting on Santa's lap surrounded by toys in plastic packaging and looking less than impressed. Mum says I was a difficult child even then. I say I was too clever to be taken in by such an obvious fraudster. Any fool could see that this wasn't Father Christmas at all, but a man from down our road in a cheap beard.

Looking back, I think my disenchantment with Christmas began when I first realised that I was different from other boys. You internalise a lot of negativity as a queer child, and by the time I was six I'd internalised more than my fair share. I didn't know that I was gay – I didn't know what "gay" was – but I knew that I was different. The boys who bullied me at school knew too. They were calling me a poof long before any of us understood what a poof was. My father understood, though. If I came home crying because some lad or other had beaten me up in the playground, he didn't offer to visit the school or talk to the boy's parents. He threatened to hit me too. That was the extent of his parenting skills. I don't know how good a dad Father Christmas was supposed to be. Was he even married? Did he have children of his own? But he couldn't have been any worse than mine. My parents' marriage was not a happy one. Not for them, and certainly not for me.

It wasn't all doom and gloom, though. At the age of seven I appeared in the school Nativity play dressed as one of the three wise men. By now, I was wise enough to know that the tale of the Virgin Mary was about as believable as that of Show White. But I did like the costume. My mother was a whizz with the sewing machine and had run me up a red velvet robe from one of her old dresses. I liked the way the cuffs hung over my hands. I liked the crown, too, even if it was made from cardboard and covered in tin foil. My mother could be very inventive when she put her mind to it. She was skilled in the art of making something from nothing. I like to think that I did her proud that night. I wore the robe well. I recited my lines. One teacher told me I gave a good performance. Another found it a little too "festive".

Back at home, the festivities were left largely to my mother. It was her job to create the illusion of a happy Christmas, and to play the part of Santa. When I was a boy, strange men didn't come sneaking into the house in the middle of the night bearing gifts. They went sneaking out of the house having affairs. By now my father was a stranger to me, and getting stranger all the time. Once, when I was eight, I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified and alone. My mother was a nurse, and was working through the night at the local hospital. My father was nowhere to be found. I searched the house, careful not to wake my six-year-old sister. Panic-stricken, I ran down the street to a neighbour's house. A few hours later my father appeared, insisting that he'd been at home all along. I didn't believe him. Neither did my mother. He left shortly afterwards, and moved in with another woman and her teenage daughter. I can't say I envied them much.

My fondest Christmas memory came when I was 10. My parents were divorced, my mother had remarried, and we'd moved out of our smart bungalow and into a dilapidated terraced house purchased for the grand sum of £3,500. It was what was known as a "fixer-upper", and fixing it up took a little longer than my stepfather planned. As Christmas approached, the kitchen was far from complete. One "wall" consisted of a plastic sheet, and the floor was dug out to a depth of three feet to allow for new pipes to be laid. We ate our turkey dinner off garden furniture suspended on scaffolders' planks. It was the best Christmas I'd ever had.

Paul Burston's next novel, 'The Gay Divorcee', will be published in May by Sphere

Do you call that a Christmas present?

by Ali Smith

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me: a whole month whose daylight ended at roughly half past three. I looked out the window and watched it fall.

Great, I said. Really cheery present. Thanks.

Pleasure, my true love said. On the second day of Christmas, my true love dragged into the house a skeletal-looking tree with its roots all earth and almost all the leaves already off its branches. What was left of the leaves, dry, near-dead, spent the rest of the afternoon dwindling off it on to the living-room carpet.

You know me so well, I said.

My true love looked pleased, tucked its roots into a pot of earth and filled the saucer at the base of the pot with water.

On the third day my true love came into the house shouting, close your eyes! close your eyes! put your hands out, both your hands, palms upwards, flat!

Another of your so-called presents? I said, eyes closed.

My true love put something so cold into my arms that it was as if I'd just been gifted coldness itself. It was heavy, and slippery, and it burned cold all through me wherever it touched me. It was like holding pain. I opened my eyes. I was holding a large slab of white ice about the size of (and a lot heavier than) a West Highland terrier.

Do you like it? my true love said.

Your retail talents are dreadful, I said. Darkness. A bare tree. Ice. Can you maybe next time buy me a jersey or a scarf or socks or a hairdryer? And look. This present is melting all over the floor. It isn't going to last half an hour, even.

Well obviously. I mean, that's the whole point, my true love said.

You are joking, aren't you? I said.

On the fourth day, my true love stood outside in the cold and dark and sang a song at our house. "Then why should men on earth be sad?" my true love sang. "The holly bears the crown." My true love's gone mad, I thought. I was worried. We were new to each other. Maybe it wasn't true love after all, I worried. Then I went through to heat up some wine and sort out some cakes or something; it was cold out there. On the fifth and sixth days, one after the other, my true love took me to the theatre, to two full houses of roaring laughing children, and adults who'd been changed back into raucous children, by a man dressed as a woman and a girl dressed as a boy. Then the girl dressed as a boy suddenly rose off the stage on a wire and soared up into the gods of the theatre. I put my hand up and felt my own face. It was wet with tears. I was embarrassed. I looked round to see if anyone had noticed me crying. All the faces round me were shining too.

See? my true love said in my ear.

On the seventh day, my true love kept me up really late watching films one after the other. One was about a family who are supposed to move house, but the plan changes on Christmas Eve, when the father suddenly understands that they're all happier where they are. The other was about a ruined, desperate man with no money who is given a lot of single-dollar notes by everybody in the town he lives in, so that his business will be saved. My true love and I went to bed at four am, dizzy with tiredness and happy endings, singing a song together. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Can we do this again some time? I said. Yes, my true love said. Every Christmas. On the eighth day we stayed awake late, telling stories of Christmases past. We told each other about Christmases we'd spent with family, and with other lovers, and Christmases we'd spent alone. I thought about the old, old story, about the cold birth of the outsider, no room at the inn, the poor people and the rich people bringing the right gift, and the kindly animals too, and all of them following nothing but the light of a star in the night sky.

(On the ninth day I cancelled the things I'd ordered online so proficiently in October: the new widescreen TV, the Estonian turtle doves, the iPod, the specially flown-in Brazilian calling-birds, the hens from France (very expensive) the geese and their eggs, the noise-cancelling headphones, the oven-ready roast swans, the performing lords, ladies, drummers, pipers and maids and the second DAB radio (for the kitchen; there's one in the bathroom already). On the tenth and eleventh days I wrote many emails in an attempt to get my money back for the cancellations. I got most of it refunded; I'm hopeful about the rest.) Meanwhile we hung lights and decorations in the bare branches of the tree in the house. They looked like a promise of leaves, or fruit. Then out we went for a walk in the dark. It was frosty. It was the time of year when things could change their nature. When we looked down we saw the streets beneath our feet were paved with scattered constellations. The windows of the houses we passed gave yellow light out into the darkness. And already, my true love said taking my arm, we're past the shortest. Light is shaving the darkness off already, a couple of minutes a day. Have you noticed?

No, I said. (I was almost sorry; the windows lit up in the dark looked so fine.) So this, in the end, on the twelfth day, is what I gave my true love for Christmas: several logs of wood and a small wrapped box, smaller than the palm of a hand. My true love took the logs and put them down, looked at the box, looked suspicious and said, What is it? It'd better not be five gold rings. I hope you know me better than that.

Open it, I said.

Perfect, my true love said.

My true love shook out one of the matches. We lit a fire in the hearth. It started small and grew good and strong. The light it gave off made our shadows move companionably all night behind us on the warm walls of the room. '

And a partridge, I sang (and my shadow did what I did, but as if I had a larger self).

In a pear tree, my true love sang back in the light and the dark.

Ali Smith's new book, 'The First Person and Other Stories', is published by Hamish Hamilton

Fight germs: eat mince pies

by Tania Sanchez

In the month leading up to the 25th of December, a woman who lived the first half of her life in tropical Saigon – and who happens to be my mother – will drag a purchased fir tree into her cosy California home, where winter weather means a millimetre of morning frost on the windows that disappears by 9am. With that alpine fragrance bracing her spirit, she will fill the house with smells of clove and cooking sugar, and bake enough gingerbread to construct a vast edible metropolis, its masonry mortared with white frosting and inhabited by two-dimensional biscuit men, whose homes she will buttress with red-and-white peppermint canes and bejewel with gummy fruits.

She will fumigate the bathrooms with the hissing spittle of some red-topped limited-edition aerosol can covered in pictures of holly, which will reek of cinnamon, apple, and evergreen forest, or worse, an eggnog sludge of synthetic vanilla and nutmeg, or maybe that wonderful fruity-clove-menthol thing they call bayberry when they're not calling it wax myrtle. It is the soul of Christmas, the one odour that belongs solely to Christmas, not because of anything to do with Christ, but because they make candles out of the berries' wax, and Christmas is about candles. That is because at Christmas, every Christianised household, regardless of climate and technological progress, becomes medieval Germany in deepest winter. Below the equator, Argentinian households enjoying the roasting glare of summer watch their living-room pines, exhausted after their long descent from the Andes, helplessly, leprously shed their luxuriant needles by the armful. Children in swimsuits tweak bells attached to artificial mistletoe. Plastic reindeer go soft in the noon sun. For a month the house must be made to breathe the air of a Saxon winter, brought by Spanish missionaries.

These peculiar scents, so season-specific that many candles fragranced with some permutation of evergreen, fruit and spice are merely labelled "Christmas" with no further explanation, make up a standard suite of sensations with origins all over Europe, but crystallised into their current, apparently unalterable fossilised form in the romantic 19th century, when German Prince Albert set his Tannenbaum up in England, and on both sides of the Atlantic, everyone who was anyone set out with a hatchet for a vital bit of holiday décor.

These pagan pongs of puddings and pines are naturally nothing to do with the precious perfume resins – frankincense and myrrh – given to the infant Christ by the Oriental kings, who had different ideas of what to give a baby than we do. Now the standard conical Christmas tree, scaled to a normal ceiling, is perhaps the largest home fragrance diffuser in existence. Its hale, stirring odour not only smells clean, it is cleansing, since pine oil is a powerful bacteriostatic, good for the tree fending off micro-invaders, and good for the household detergents that include it.

In fact, as we look harder at what seemed the traditional smells of Christmas, their affinity for each other begins to seem not so arbitrary at all. A secret something links the aromatic riches of the table with the greenery festooning the room: an invisible and constant battle against germs. As my mother dances through the halls blasting cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, plum and caramel through every doorway, as if to run off some invisible devil with a hatred for pastry, she has no idea she is scenting the place like one gigantic mincemeat pie or Christmas pudding, for she has never seen a Christmas pudding and wouldn't know whether to eat it or shoot it if she did.

These dense, dark cannonballs of long-cooked sugar and treacle, dried fruit and spice didn't start life as holiday sweets. The word mincemeat reveals all: these dishes have their origin in the preservation of meat in the days before refrigeration, say the 15th century, when animals slaughtered in autumn were macerated in this archaic chutney, made hostile to bacteria with an enormous dose of sugar and salt, stuffed with currants and plums, spiced, and left to hang in mummified glory, to nourish people through the long starved winter. Those delicious mulling spices are death to bacteria: for instance, the molecule known as eugenol, the main component of clove oil, and the molecule cinnamaldehyde, ditto in cinnamon, are both enthusiastic enemies of nasty bacteria such as listeria, staph and e.coli. And what bacteria hate, we love instinctively; we have kept the spice and sugar and now we put the meat in the fridge.

'Perfumes: the Guide', by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, is published by Profile

We can be film stars, just for one day

by Sue Townsend

I grew up in a prefab with an asbestos roof and breeze-block walls. On winter mornings I would wake up, crawl from beneath my army greatcoat blankets and marvel at the frost patterns on the inside of my bedroom windows. It was so cold that, apart from the living-room where there was a coal fire, in every other room in the tiny house, our breath was visible. The cold was an icy curse that fell on us from November until April. Is it any wonder that I immediately felt at home when I read my first Russian novel?

However, Christmas Day was quite magical. When my sisters and I were allowed into the living-room on Christmas morning it was like entering Aladdin's cave. Streamers and home-made paper chains were hung from the ceiling, bunches of balloons were drawing-pinned in each corner, and a Christmas tree twinkled with glass balls and novelty ornaments. The sideboard was piled with plates of mince pies, sausage rolls, Cox's Pippins, tangerines and dates. The centrepiece was a home-made Christmas cake covered in white icing that my mother had fashioned to look like snow. On the left was an artificial slope that Santa and the reindeers appeared to be galloping down. On the right was a tiny church and towering over it a Jolly Snowman wearing a black top hat.

The coal fire would be banked high and would be throwing out a terrific heat, but best of all were the presents. Each of us three girls had our own filled pillowcase and for a glorious half-hour we would unwrap them in a frenzy of excitement. Then, as the turkey cooked in the oven and the Christmas pudding was steaming on top of the stove, I would collect up my presents and take them to my icy bedroom, put them on my bed and gloat over them. I would always be given lots of books from the Woolworths Classic book collection. It was in these editions that I first read Little Women, Kidnapped, What Katie Did, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin etc. I would start to read immediately, breaking off reluctantly to eat my Christmas dinner, which we ate wearing paper hats from the crackers that had been placed beside our plates.

As soon as dinner was eaten and the washing-up had been done and put away, I would resume reading. Sometimes I would be called to play one of the board games that had been given to one of my sisters. I was not a good games player. I was not competitive, I did not pay attention and I didn't care who won or lost, I just wanted to get back to my reading. A few hours after dinner my mother would start to prepare the Christmas tea. The table would be re-set with cold turkey, pickles, salad, cakes, trifles and fancy biscuits and we would start to eat again. Sometimes relations joined us for tea. Alcohol would be drunk and everyone would be expected to do a turn: sing a song, tell a joke, dance or recite a poem. It was the only time during my whole childhood that I refused to do as I was told. I found out then that I was not good at parties. I was the type of person who was happier sitting in a distant corner watching, rather than taking part. In other words, I was starting my apprenticeship to be a writer. I would remember the exact shade of red that my auntie's neck would turn after a few gins and how my mother's body would be transformed into the sinuous curves of a Middle Eastern maiden when she took to the floor and sang Salome.

In my position from the corner of the room, I marvelled at the transformation of my relations. These ordinary-looking people, who worked long hours in Leicester factories, now looked as handsome and beautiful as film stars. The men were in their best suits with brilliantine'd hair and shiny shoes. The women had lost the wrap around aprons and turbans they usually wore and reinvented themselves with Max Factor make-up and Twink home perms. Where had they been hiding their lovely figures and creamy skin? Why were their shapely breasts and legs hidden away for most of the year?

For my family, Christmas Day and Boxing Day was a time of enchantment when they, the working poor, enjoyed the illusion that they were rich, carefree, good-looking and could put as much coal on the fire as they bloody well wanted. Because on the 27th (unless it fell on a Sunday) they had to rise in the dark, put on their work clothes and go back to their factories making the nation's socks, underwear, boots and shoes.

'The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001', by Sue Townsend, is published by Michael Joseph

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