Christmas stories 2006

Christmas - like no other occasion - seems to inspire the highest highs and the lowest lows. Here, six of our favourite writers relive the family arguments, defective presents and obscene commercialisation that makes this time of year so damn special.
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Santas in Manhattan, Augusten Burroughs

He is not part of "the MTV generation". He is part of "the television repairman generation". I would say he's approaching 60 and I would estimate his height to be average for a man - about 5ft 9in. But, like many Americans, he is clinically obese, weighing upwards of 260lbs. Even standing perfectly still, his face is flushed, which is the classic visual presentation of high blood pressure. Along with his cardiovascular problems, he's likely to suffer from diabetes. And when he speaks it is with the distinctive, deep baritone of a lifetime smoker, so he may very well have emphysema as well. If we are to be honest here, this gentleman is not exactly the picture of health. He's an obese senior citizen with a litany of health problems, certainly a drain on our health-care system. But he's also Santa Claus, so he doesn't have to worry about his fatty liver or having a triple bypass operation. He can just be jolly and enjoy another reindeer steak sandwich.

Walking along West End Avenue on Manhattan's Upper West Side on this crisp December afternoon, I encounter no fewer than 33 images of Santa: a cardboard portrait hanging in the window of a diner, a life-sized mannequin positioned in the lobby of an apartment building, so looming and human I momentarily mistake it for a horrendously dressed doorman. Santa, sleigh and reindeer hang from the ceiling of a Laundromat, above a sign that reads, "No Dye Clothes in Machines!" I see Santa candles, Santa cookies and Santa figurines for the table. There are dozens of stuffed Santa plush toys in the window of a pharmacy. Santa, Santa, Santa - in every imaginable (and not) configuration, made from all materials known to man. Though I count 33 different Santas during my half-hour stroll, I see only two effigies of Jesus, whose birthday it is. No wonder as a child, I always confused the two. In elementary school, I was reprimanded for drawing a picture of Santa Claus nailed to a cross, a huge mound of presents at the base, like a bonfire. I could never keep it straight. Which one shimmied down the chimney with a sack of presents? Which one rose from the dead and hated homosexuals?

Religious groups regularly complain that there's not enough Christ in Christmas. But the fact is, every year Christmas becomes less and less a religious holiday and more and more a frantic, soulless carnival of more and more. Christmas has become the holiday where we openly celebrate our insatiable greed, our bottomless gluttony. During the majority of the year we may at least make a display of caring about issues other than ourselves and our wants - some of us drive petrol-sipping hybrids, donate a portion of our paycheques to hurricane relief or Aids treatment in developing nations; a small percentage of us even vote in political elections. But Christmas is when we're finally allowed to drop all pretences of modesty, restraint and self-control and be our truest, most authentic selves. And don't mind us if we just go ahead and wipe our mouth on our sleeve while we do it.

In America, one-third of the population is clinically obese. And judging by a walk through any mall in suburbia, this figure is probably doubled for children and teenagers. It seems the modern thinking is: why give a baby a dummy when you can give it a hotdog? Extra-extra-extra large is, today, a perfectly acceptable size for a shirt. So physically, that's us. And come Christmastime, we'll squeeze the family into our four-ton SUV, drive into the woods and saw down a pine tree, which we will then strap to the roof and take home to our 5,000 sq ft house. We'll decorate it with 10 strands of blinking lights, which we will throw away after the holiday and buy again new next year. All of our "Live Green" and "Global Warming" rhetoric instantly dismissed with a hacksaw and a blinking star.

And then we will do what we do best - we will go shopping. In the US, we will spend just shy of sixty billion dollars on personally enriching and socially important items like Sony PlayStations and golf clubs. Only The Humane Society cringes in terror during the holidays, because it knows that, come January, it will be inundated like at no other time during the year with stocking-stuffer puppies and kittens that just didn't quite work out.

Merry Christmas!

Will we feel just a little bad about our conspicuous consumption? Of course not. How could we when there's a clinically obese senior citizen in a red fur suit ringing a bell in our ear and egging us on, "More, more, more! Ho, ho, ho!"

As a child, Christmas was my favourite time of the year. Christmas was the resolution to 364 days of wanting, begging, needing. It was when I finally received the fish tank, bell bottoms, gold-plated ID bracelet I'd asked Jesus for all year long. It was a time of tremendous mystery and suspense: would one of the reindeer break his leg while attempting a roof landing? Will I get to bring his antlers into school for Show and Tell?

But now that I'm older, Christmas isn't such a sparkly, joyous time. It's kind of a creepy mass-hysteria that begins earlier and earlier each year. This year? My supermarket had a display of gigantic inflatable Hallowe'en Jack-O-Lanterns side-by-side with 7ft artificial Christmas trees, pre-decorated and scented with "Fresh Tree Scent!"

Day by day, the pressure builds. Until the second week in December when the stores stay open later and later each night until finally, they remain open all night. And the city that never sleeps becomes the city that hasn't slept in three days. In people, that's medically dangerous; in a city it's plain madness. And I love every minute. I'm right there at the head of the line, sweating profusely and handing my credit card to anybody who will take it.

I can only describe Christmas like this: the retail dog of corporate America is frantically dry-humping the leg of the consumer, and the consumer is writhing and screaming with an emotion they have been programmed to believe is "joy". It's a near-obscene sort of frantic mass-mating, with throngs of hysterical people spending, consuming themselves into a debt they can never repay, while the greatest grandfather of all throws his head back in maniacal laughter and cracks the whip against the backs of his reindeer. "Carry on, Blitzen!" Last week at a Wal-Mart, somebody even shot somebody over a video game. I clapped like a maniac when I heard this.

The other day, a person I don't know very well asked me, "Have you put your tree up yet?" When I replied, "No, not yet. Maybe we won't even get a tree this year," her eyes narrowed to slits and she frowned. "You're not going to get a Christmas tree?" I could see on her face a mixture of sheer disbelief and also, rage.

She was thinking, "Oh no you don't."

And I did. We bought a fresh, tall Blue Spruce tree from the Boy Scouts. We took it home and decorated it with lights, glass balls in gold and deep red, a garland of platinum and bronze. We placed a star on top and then exchanged this for a fabric Santa with a thick, white beard. When we were done, we stood back and admired our work. I left the room to get my camera and my better-half screamed. I ran back into the room and the tree was gone. But, no, there it was: on the floor. The tree had fallen over, the glass ornaments had exploded and tiny shards were everywhere.

"Oh, God. Can we just? Let's just, let's pack everything up, everything that survived, and just take the tree outside, get rid of it. Let's just not do this."

"What? We can't do that. It's Christmas."

And that's true. It's Christmas. So we stood the tree upright again, secured it better. And we decorated it with those ornaments that survived. It was a leaner tree now, that's for sure. But perhaps it was better, too.

Augusten Burroughs' new book 'Possible Side Effects' (Atlantic) is out on 11 January

Dreaming of a Blue Christmas Marcel Theroux

It's hard for me to write this sentence without feeling like I'm bragging, but in December 1977 I appeared on the Christmas edition of Blue Peter singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" with my school choir.

Short of being called up by Santa himself to help deliver presents, or being invited to spend Christmas Eve at Buckingham Palace, there is nothing I can think of that could so completely capture what Christmas meant to me as a nine-year-old in South London. It was the apogee, the summit, the apotheosis of Christmas.

Nowadays, it's probably harder to find someone who hasn't appeared for a few seconds on television than someone who has. But in 1977 we still had a black-and-white television with an indifferent aerial. There were two-and-a-half channels, and if nothing else was on, my brother and I would grudgingly watch the test-card.

In this world, Blue Peter was the gold standard of children's television and I loved it with fierce, unironic devotion. So when Mrs Quarmby, head of our school choir, told us that we had been invited to appear on it, it felt like the greatest moment of my entire life.

Now, when I think about Blue Peter in the 1970s, and its earnest projects to save the world, and its system of badges (blue and white for a first appearance, silver and blue for a second, gold for an act of heroism) I am reminded of the youth organisations in Communist countries. The Soviet Union had the Young Pioneers, a sort of political scouting movement, whose poster-child, Pavlik Morozov, was held up as an example to the nation's youth. Pavlik, the story goes, was a 13-year-old boy who was murdered by his relatives after he shopped his own parents as counter-revolutionaries.

I'm certain that if John Noakes had asked me to shop my parents for breaking the hosepipe ban in the drought of 1976, I would have done it unhesitatingly. And when I walked to school on the morning of 22 December, 1977 to get on the coach to Television Centre, I went with the same unwavering loyalty in my heart that a nine-year-old North Korean schoolboy might feel as he marches past the reviewing stand and prepares to hold up a card showing a bit of Kim Jong Il's eyebrow. It didn't matter to me that I would only be on television for a fraction of a second, if at all. I was about to be on Blue Peter.

We were bussed to Television Centre and given 15p in Luncheon Vouchers to buy food from the canteen. Then we assembled outside the fire exit of the Blue Peter studio. Some of us were given woolly hats and lanterns. We had one run-through, processing in through the vast double doors with the Chalk Farm Brass Band. I ended up directly in front of John Noakes, who didn't know the words and rested his hymnal on my back.

Then we were repositioned outside the studio, and waited for the cue to begin marching in for the carol that would close the live programme. They gave us plastic cups of hot Ribena to drink while we waited.

This time, I didn't end up by John Noakes. But during the climactic final verse, the lights dimmed, and artificial snow began falling from the ceiling as the trebles sang the descant part. Allfarthing School had a great choir, and I was conscious of some indefinable frisson that my dad said later was Christmas Spirit.

I felt sure that I had seen myself briefly on a monitor. My parents said that they had seen me. So did my second cousins in Eastbourne.

The choir's appearance provoked widespread envy in the rest of the school. All the participants received cards from the Blue Peter presenters and Blue Peter badges - the blue and white ones. Mrs Quarmby was inundated with applicants who wanted to join in the New Year, including my brother.

The choir had done so well that we were asked to return the following year and sing "O Come All Ye Faithful". Our excitement was huge. The children who had been on the previous year could expect to receive the rare silver and navy blue returnee Blue Peter badge.

So the following year, I set off again across the Common with my brother just as the morning Elvis Presley movie was starting on BBC One.

This time, however, there were no coaches waiting for us outside the school. Instead, a teacher stood in the playground explaining to groups of parents and their crestfallen children that the joyless, grinchlike unions at the BBC were taking industrial action and our appearance had been cancelled.

Oddly, I don't recall being hugely disappointed. Perhaps my parents had prepared me to expect the news. Or maybe, at 10, I was already less ardent in my love for the programme. Blue Peter had by then entered a Silver Age which would be characterised by Simon Groom's pointless, knowing ironies ("What a beautiful pair of knockers!"), the revelations about Peter Duncan's soft-porn past, and the vandalism of the Italian sunken garden.

In the New Year, they sent us the badges and Mrs Quarmby read us a letter from the BBC apologising for not having us on the programme. In retrospect, I think only being on the programme once helped crystallise the occasion as the single most luminous Christmas moment of my life.

It seems to me that the basic emotion of Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, is pure joy. Ostensibly, it's the joy that Christ's birth brings to the world. But Christmas is, of course, an older festival. And behind the Christian message of redemption is another kind of joy: the defiant communal celebration of light and appetite in the teeth of darkness and winter.

Now, I don't know what joy is exactly. I have a hunch that it's a short-lived and intense emotional peak, where the pleasure centres in the brain are flooded with feel-good chemicals and go off like Roman candles.

But whatever the biological basis for pure, ineffable joy, a pretty good working definition of it in my mind, is to be nine years old in December 1977 and singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" live to the nation on Blue Peter with three days to go before Christmas.

Many years later, for my 30th birthday, my brother, then working for the BBC, gave me a VHS taken from the master tape of the programme. It turns out that virtually all Blue Peter programmes since the dawn of time have been recorded and archived at the BBC. I was reluctant to watch it at first, expecting the reality to pale beside my enhanced recollection of it.

But seeing it now, I find it extraordinary and quite moving. It's the closest thing I will ever have to a Time Machine. From the turning of the pixellated BBC globe that introduces the programme, to the drabness of the set, and the slow delivery of the presenters, to Lesley Judd's burqa-like caftan dress, everything brings back nuances of the 1970s that I seemed to have forgotten.

The presenters spend about 10 minutes reading Christmas cards to themselves. Two policemen show up in a squad car straight out of The Sweeney to make a donation to the Key Note appeal. (How flipping enormous must that pile of used keys have been to be worth almost two million quid in 1977 money?) Then there's an interminable pre-recorded pantomime, and Noakes, Judd and Purves give each other Christmas presents: rainwear for Judd, an umbrella that you could buy in the £1 shop for Purves, and a foghorn for Noakes that looks like a rape alarm.

Right at the end of the show, Allfarthing School and the Chalk Farm Band come marching into the studio just as I remembered. We look like children from some rather poor country that's been belatedly admitted to the EU -- which, of course, we are. Most of the boys are wearing parkas. I still recognise some of the faces: Michelle Gill, Stevie Heard, Darrell Simmons, Daniel Kahn - and then there's me, in my green parka from the Marks and Spencer's in Clapham Junction, slightly out of time with my singing, but looking utterly involved in the moment.

The Christmas I see on the tape is taking place in a distant foreign country. And yet, just for a moment, I'd give anything to go back there, to its drab, irony-free world of the Key Note Appeal, cups of hot Ribena and Luncheon Vouchers.

Marcel Theroux's latest book, 'A Blow to the Heart' (Faber & Faber), is out now

The thought that counts Hermione Eyre

The ability to give presents runs through families, like the ability to catch a ball. It was last Christmas that I decided our gifting gene was slightly defective.

My mother abruptly stopped what she was doing (which, incidentally, was weeding the "boring" ready salted crisps out of the multi-pack so she could feed them to the neighbours), looked intently at me, as if remembering something long forgotten, and disappeared into the room that used to be my bedroom. There were sounds of rummaging, a small thud, more rummaging. She re-emerged looking crushed. "Darling, I was going to give you musical socks... But I can't find them."

Emotions conflicted within me. One, the sensation of relief that always accompanies the non-appearance of musical socks. Two, the sensation of concern that always accompanies a parent's senior moment. Three, bafflement. What are musical socks? Who wears them? Do they play of their own accord, or only on contact with a foot? Is one required to remove them upon entry to a theatre, say, or cinema? But my mother was scanning my face for disappointment.

"It doesn't matter, Mama."

"But they came with a miniature teddy bear inside them, too."

"Oh."

"And you could call out for them and they would play 'Jingle Bells'..."

"Ah."

"So you would never lose them..."

"Right."

"It's just that I can't find them..."

"Maybe another year, Mama."

It was just one episode in a long family history of dysfunctional gift exchange. I have been lucky enough to receive many Christmas presents, most of them more or less unsuitable. They tend to be either disconcertingly glamorous (when I was three, my Gingold godmother sent me an ermine cape) or ruthlessly practical (Gee, Santa, a three-way adaptor?)

Wrapping paper was almost entirely absent from my childhood. I assumed, reasonably enough, that other people also used wallpaper and string, like us - though probably not as beautiful as ours, a silver and orange 1970s take on Art Nouveau that adorned our bathroom walls as well as the presents under our tree. I thought it was gorgeous, but even at my tender age I recognised it was unsuitable for the purpose it had been put to, with its resistance to Sellotape, its tendency to burst open at crucial moments and so forth. But man hands on wrapping style to man and I, in my turn, have encased presents in the stylish and practical medium known as aluminium foil.

There was a commendable sense, in my family, that presents should be useful and/or improving. Hence the electrical lead, the acne treatment lamp and, one year, courtesy of Mama, 33 pairs of pants (the best that money can buy from Bhs). Hence, when I was 16, the IOU note for Botox (prevention is better than cure). Hence the tool kit, the oil paints and all the books. Oh, the books. It seems strange now, to think that at age six I was given the presentation hardback Shrubs for Connoisseurs, and to be honest, it seemed strange at the time. The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, however, while not immediately appealing to a nine-year-old, would obviously mature with time - or rather, I would.

I had the comfort of knowing I was not alone in finding my presents uncongenial. My grandfather was shocked, once, when he tore off his wallpaper and found a bottle marked "Brut". "Is that what you think I am, eh?" The traditional British aversion to continental aftershave strong within him, he held the bottle at a safe distance and intoned with great suspicion: "'Pour Homme'? I'm not one of them."

My grandmother, for her part, was less than pleased to find I had written in her card "Happy Christmas, and may you have many more." I didn't understand what the problem with it was, really. But I could see why Uncle Harry might be disappointed when his beautifully wrapped package from Auntie Mary contained a single Jiffy cloth.

Many families consider otherwise, but we thought pleasure at Christmas really ought to be deferred. I wanted a Bonsai tree so I was given a "Grow Your Own Bonsai From Seed" kit. By New Year I had managed to cultivate a tiny, tender shoot. But that night my new hamster escaped from her cage and, like a small furry juggernaut, ate everything in her path. My Bonsai shoot was a stump in the morning. You know your gifting rituals are cursed when your birthday present escapes and eats your Christmas present.

And the moral behind all this? Every seasonal tale should have one. So the moral to this story, really, is that none of us ever minded one little bit how strange our presents were, because happy families tend not to.

Stocking trade, Tom Hodgkinson

It was Arthur's fourth Christmas and he was three years old. This year, as usual, we were going to his aunt's house, where all the cousins would be. Father Christmas knew we wouldn't be home because we had told him. We would hang our stockings out with the cousins' stockings in front of the fireplace.

Victoria had put quite a lot of thought into what Father Christmas would bring Arthur. He had a lovely selection of presents, including a cap gun, Pokémon cards, chocolate coins, a cup-and-ball magic trick, pens and wind-up toys. We'd also prepared a more girly stocking for his younger sister, Delilah. My own view was that we really shouldn't waste any money on her as she was too young to have developed an acquisitive streak. Victoria, though, felt that she would enjoy opening some presents.

Anyway, we packed the car with our bags and all the presents for our Christmas jaunt, and set off on the two-hour drive to Wiltshire. There was a nice festive buzz in the car as we drove, and we arrived at Aunt's oozing merry cheer. Or perhaps the children screamed all the way and Dad lost his temper and banged the windscreen. I can't quite remember.

Well, at Aunt's, all the little cousins were there and the children vanished off with them, merrily playing. Everything seemed to be going well. That evening we were treated to a grand feast with plenty of red wine. Aunt does Christmas particularly well. It's like being in the manor house in 1480. Candles, huge long table, piles of meat and sweets.

Our children hung their stockings over the fireplace - their old socks looking a little "poor relation" alongside the vast and fancily embroidered pillow cases of the cousins - but festive nonetheless. They put out a mince pie and a glass of port for Santa and his reindeer to enjoy on their visit. Arthur, in particular, was excited. The children eventually went to sleep and so we sat down for another glass of wine. All there was to do now was to stuff the stockings to bursting, and go to bed.

But what happened next threw us into a frenzy of guilt, worry and self-recrimination. We couldn't find Arthur's presents. We searched high and low, emptied the car, wandered around in the cold outside with a torch in case we had dropped the plastic bag that contained all the carefully chosen nick-nacks - no sign anywhere. Eventually, we had to face the brutal truth: we had left all his presents back at home, two hours away. It was just past midnight.

"Well, I'm going to have to drive back," said Victoria.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," I countered. "You'd be driving all night, you'd only get back here at 5am."

"Well, what else are we going to do?" she said. "He can't be the only one without a stocking. It's too cruel... Oh, how could we do it!"

It was indeed a tricky situation. His pile of presents was sitting at home 100 miles away. I thought of Arthur asleep upstairs, dreaming of reindeer, happily oblivious to the blunders of his slapdash parents.

"Make up a stocking now," suggested Aunt. "I'm sure we could cobble something together." So it was decided. We would wander round the house and put a few things together, so he at least had something to open in the morning.

Arthur's stocking that night consisted of one orange, one apple (wrapped in tissue paper), one mince pie, some walnuts, a pencil, and a balloon.

Actually, it sounds like Mean Dad's ideal stocking. After all, surely any child would have been happy with such a collection 100 years ago. It's only recently that we've wasted money on piles of rubbish for Christmas, 90 per cent of which will be in the landfill within the month. Hmmm, maybe we could start a trend for back-to-basics, eco-friendly stockings. But then one might reach the logical conclusion: that the most eco-friendly present would be no present at all.

So, despite these rationalisations, as I saw the cousins' stockings hanging there, bursting with Scalextric and whatnot, and compared them to Arthur's forlorn, fruit-filled offering, I did feel slightly sad. Did I say slightly? Very sad. And scared. How was Arthur going to take it? Had he been corrupted into cynical materialism by all that awful telly we let him watch? Would he realise that he had the worst stocking in the Western world and throw an understandable tantrum?

In the morning, I woke early with a start, suddenly remembering the horrors of the previous evening and the trials that awaited us. I crept into the children's room. Not yet awake. A floorboard creaked underfoot. Arthur stirred.

"Look! There's my stocking! Father Christmas came!" he shouted, seeing the bulging sock at the end of his bed. I smiled weakly. Victoria came in and we sat watching Arthur emptying his poor boy's stocking.

"Oooh! An apple!" he said gamely, grinning and holding it up to us. "Oooh! An orange! And some nuts! Ah! A mince pie!"

If he was disappointed then he was certainly hiding it well. I wondered if it were possible for a child of that age to act with tact - was he trying to spare our feelings?

Actually, I think he was genuinely pleased with the offerings. Victoria and I smiled at each other. If only I could get away with such budget stockings in the future.

On the day after Boxing Day, we drove back home. There remained the question of how to explain to Arthur that he had further stocking fillers waiting for him there. We hit on the idea that we would keep it a secret, then put the toys in front of the fireplace, to surprise him.

When Arthur stumbled on this unexpected bonanza, I was ready with the explanation: "Father Christmas must have brought them here first, before he remembered that we were staying at Aunt's," I said. "Perhaps that's why the stocking at Aunt's was a more simple affair. So you've had two stockings this year!"

In my own mind at least, tragedy had been turned into a triumph.

Tom Hodgkinson's latest book, 'How to be Free' (Hamish Hamilton) is out now

It was 50 years ago today... Christopher Ralling

During the dying days of 1956, I found myself at a Christmas party in a rather smart bit of Chelsea, not far from Sloane Square. It was a typically festive affair, with booze and decibel levels both rising together. The name of the host was Noel. I didn't know him personally at the time; only by reputation. A doctor by profession, he had just featured in a radio programme I was working on for the BBC External Services, as we called ourselves in those far-off days. It was about relief work for refugees on the Austro/Hungarian border. People described Noel as the kind of person who gets things done. I was about to discover something else about him. Some people called it the gift of persuasion. Cajolery might be a better word.

A few days later, I was driving a lorry across Europe heading for that same border. And a matter of hours after that, I was inside Hungary itself, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

None of this would have happened if I hadn't been working in Bush House at the time, for the BBC European Service. It had been a fairly tumultuous year, leading up to the two events that really defined those times: the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Almost simultaneously, those simmering pots began to boil over. Provoked by Colonel Nasser's seizure of the canal, Israel invaded Egypt. And just a few days later, Hungarians openly defied Russian tanks on the streets of Budapest. The BBC soon found itself at loggerheads with the Government about what it could, and could not, say on the subject of Anglo-French collusion with Israel. As for Hungary, once the uprising looked like turning into a full-scale revolution, Bush House became the nerve centre for receiving and disseminating information about what was happening inside that beleaguered country. Throughout those crucial weeks, Budapest was listening to London.

October 23rd is usually regarded as the start of the uprising. It ended just 12 days later, when Russian tanks rolled down the main streets to regain control of the capital. To make our lives in Bush House still more complicated, on the very day that resistance crumbled in Budapest, British and French paratroopers were falling out of the sky over the Suez Canal. Shortly afterwards another story began to develop. Large numbers of refugees began to head for the Austro-Hungarian border, intent on making their escape to the west.

It became part of my job to write talks and features about the impact this great exodus was having, not only in Austria but throughout Europe. One of them, a half-hour radio documentary, was called A Light in the West - and it led me straight to that party in Chelsea. In the programme I described the work of a British doctor called Noel (we tended to avoid last names in our broadcasts) who had made friends with the monks in a Franciscan monastery in the Austrian town of Gussing, very close to the Hungarian border. From there he had been organising field kitchens and first-aid stations for the fugitives, as well as a system of guides to bring them to safety. On that one sector of the border, as many as 500 refugees were coming across in a single night. Most of them were cold, hungry and dehydrated. Sprained ankles and twisted knees were quite common, and some had gunshot wounds from the fighting in Budapest.

Noel was back in London for a short time with a long list of supplies that he needed urgently to keep his operation going: clothes, food, babies' bottles, tents, torches, blankets, stoves, cooking utensils, plus first-aid and medicine of various kinds. From the moment Noel produced his list, the party turned into a frantic game to see if we, the guests, could produce a lorry-load of supplies that might be on their way to the Hungarian border by the end of the year. One person had access to a department store that must surely have some clothes and blankets to spare. Someone else knew the manager of a pharmaceutical company.

To me, the most unexpected item was the need for rubber dinghies. Apparently, along one section of the border there was a broad canal. Many of the would-be refugees had trekked all the way from the capital, only to find their way barred by this formidable water obstacle. Hungary being a land-locked country, very few of them could swim. To everyone's surprise, one of the guests thought he might be able to lay his hands on some inflatable assault craft. He had some sort of connection with the Territorial Army, and felt sure they would be "surplus to requirements" until spring.

By the party's end, it was pretty clear that the guests had pledged a full lorry-load of supplies. But where was the lorry? It was then that I thought about my father. He was a Kentish apple grower, and I knew he had a medium-sized lorry that he used to deliver fruit to the market in Covent Garden. But the English apple season was almost over. I saw Noel watching me. How could he possibly know I had a lorry up my sleeve? Nevertheless I felt a strong compulsion to tell him about it, adding that it was a very slim chance indeed. Noel didn't deal in slim chances. He announced to the assembled guests, "We've got our transport!"

Within a few days a chap called Mike and I had obtained leave from our respective jobs, in my case very easily granted, and were on our way across Europe, bound for the Hungarian border. Anyone looking for a modern Scarlet Pimpernel would have cast Mike in the role rather than me. He had a debonair recklessness about him, combined with supreme confidence. As we said at the time, he looked as if he might have been thrown out of a rather good cavalry regiment. We didn't really have a lot in common, but for the next few weeks we were to be comrades in arms.

My chief memory of that journey is how easy it was. Both of us knew how to drive large trucks. It had been part of my basic army training during my national service. I don't know where Mike picked up his skills; he was more aggressive behind the wheel than I was. My father's precious lorry was flung round corners as if we were engaged in some mad race with destiny.

Our instructions were to head for the small town of Andau, south east of Vienna, within a few kilometres of the Hungarian border. It was dark when we arrived, though not late. We hadn't had much sleep since leaving England, and we were extremely tired. But then, so were the charity workers who were there already, and had been for a number of weeks. There were very few words of welcome. The unspoken message was "Dump your load and be gone. We know what we're doing - and you don't."

There were indeed plenty of people down on that border who were, quite simply, in the way. The largest group were young thrill seekers from western Europe, a good proportion of them from England. There was no such term then, but nowadays we would call them Hooray Henries. They offered to help, but as soon as they were shown a sack of potatoes to peel, or a bundle of filthy clothes to wash, they tended to climb back into their fast cars, and move on. Another group were Hungarian exiles who had escaped to Austria years before, when the Communists first took over. For a time, they thought the uprising might give them a chance to reclaim their lands and titles. Russian tanks had long since put an end to such hopes.

Mike and I, meanwhile, were in no particular hurry to return home. But what could we do to transform ourselves into useful helpers instead of gawping bystanders? Limp, lifeless and seemingly useless, the answer was lying in the bottom of my father's lorry. With the aid of an electric pump borrowed from a local garage, we re-inflated the rubber dinghies - and immediately became very popular indeed. Everyone knew about the canal just across the border. It was proving to be one last, seemingly insuperable barrier between the fleeing refugees and safety.

I became the self-appointed captain of one dinghy, and Mike of the other. We each took one other volunteer paddler, leaving as much room for the refugees as possible. The canal was about a hundred metres wide. To make matters worse, along the towpath on the western bank, the side nearest to Austria, the AVO (Hungarian secret police) had built watchtowers at intervals of about 500 metres, from which they could scan the banks of the canal, with binoculars by day and powerful searchlights by night. It was part of the Iron Curtain. But fortunately, on that particular section, there were no mines or barbed wire. I suppose the canal was thought to be barrier enough.

There was no moon, but on that first trip we both felt very exposed crossing those dark waters. I think we expected a burst of machine-gun fire to suddenly cut through the night sky at any minute, ripping our fragile craft to shreds. But nothing happened. As quietly as possible we paddled across to the eastern bank and found a place where we could secure the dinghies to some overhanging vegetation. Then it was up the bank to the top of the dyke for a reconnoitre.

It was decided that Mike, who had a small torch, would stay behind on the dyke. After half an hour he would make a discreet flash, one a minute, shielding the bulb with his hand, so that it could only be seen from one direction. Meanwhile I set out across the squelching terrain. The mud came over the top of my boots, but I was much more concerned about the noise I was making than the minor inconvenience of wet feet. The night was oppressive and windless, but in 10 minutes I reached a pond sheltered by tall reeds.

Almost immediately I realised I was completely surrounded by people, dozens of them, all huddled in groups, hoping to remain undetected. From their point of view I was obviously a policeman or soldier of some sort, with orders to round them up and march them back towards the east. My first thought was that they might overwhelm me, perhaps even kill me.

With absolutely no Hungarian, I began to whisper "inglesi", "Englander", "anglais' in every language I could think of, and reached out to see if anyone would shake my hand. There was one old man who got the message very quickly. He said something in Hungarian, which must have indicated that I was to be trusted. Then he came forward, gave me the most enormous hug, and presented me with a small plastic pin with the Hungarian flag embossed on it. I have it still.

I'm not sure how many refugees we brought across the canal that first night. It must have been about 50 or 60. There were families with quite small children, groups of young friends, the odd elderly couple, and a handful of freedom fighters who were probably fleeing for their lives. As soon as they were safely across the border, they were ushered into makeshift soup kitchens for some hot food and, if needed, dry clothes. The men and women who had taken part in the battle for Budapest were the genuine asylum seekers. Some of them were still carrying primitive weapons; a knife, a cudgel or even a pistol. Some of the young men were still treated with considerable suspicion. They may have been freedom fighters, but they looked like brigands. The great majority of the refugees on the other hand were what, today, we would call economic migrants. With the uprising, they saw their chance for a better life - and took it.

Over the next couple of weeks, whenever there was no moon, we made more sorties across the canal. Occasionally we came across refugees wandering about in the open, but for the most part they were hiding in the reeds, almost as if they were waiting to be discovered. We saw several AVO patrols, usually about 10 men armed with sub-machine guns, but they only seemed to come out along the towpath at dawn or dusk. They didn't like being observed by the Austrians in broad daylight, and it seemed they didn't like the inky blackness of the night. The AVO had a reputation for ruthless cruelty, but most of the ones we saw down on the border looked like very frightened young men.

There was no shortage of passengers for our ferry service. The refugees kept coming and coming. But there was a limit to how long Mike and I could stay. We felt we couldn't try the patience of our employers for very much longer. So we handed over the two dinghies to some grateful charity workers, and made our preparations for the return journey. By then I suppose we had ferried between 300 and 400 people to safety, with no real risk to ourselves - or so we thought.

About two weeks after we arrived back in London, a message came through from the Austro-Hungarian border. Both of our precious dinghies had been machine-gunned and sunk by the AVO. That was all. Had anyone been killed or captured? In spite of our frantic efforts to find out, we never discovered what had happened. The people to whom we had bequeathed the craft had passed them on to others shortly afterwards, but then the trail went cold. My father's lorry was safely home, but the dinghies were rotting at the bottom of a Hungarian canal.

There was a sequel to the story. By 1966, the 10th anniversary of the uprising, I was a television producer in the BBC's documentary department. That year I got my bid in early to make an hour-long programme called simply Revolution in Hungary. To this day I have never been to Budapest, but with the aid of street maps, and a lot of research, I scoured the film archive libraries of Europe, and built up a pretty accurate picture of what happened during those momentous days.

James Mossman was the narrator, and with the help of the Hungarian Service in Bush House, I tracked down half a dozen freedom fighters who had played prominent parts in the actual uprising. Alas, when the time came to escape, none of them recalled being ferried across that canal in a rubber dinghy. But for a number of years afterwards, when the Hungarian refugees in London held an anniversary party to commemorate the revolution, my documentary became an essential part of the proceedings. I felt pretty good about that. I still do.

Christopher Ralling OBE joined the BBC in 1955 and went on to be a producer of 'Panorama' and head of television documentaries

Christmas mysteries of the Chicken McNuggets as explained by macrobiotic star people and Aunt Harriet's magic Ouija board, Sufjan Stevens

Two weeks before Christmas, my parents read a pamphlet on the industrialisation of food and told us from then on we would eat macrobiotic. The next day, my father showed us the menu for Christmas dinner: kale, Chinese lettuce, Shiitake mushrooms, seaweed crackers and a tofu roast. I was eight years old, my brother was nine, and my sisters were 10 and 11. All we wanted was a Charleston Chew and a bag of Twizzlers. But these were now off-limits. My parents read somewhere that food colouring in breakfast cereals promoted hyperactivity in children; my mother served oatmeal and salty bran flakes with flaxseed. If we begged for sweetener, she gave us sliced bananas. My parents joined the natural food co-op and signed up for colon cleansings. We were no longer allowed soda pop, potato chips, fast food, or chewing gum. My mother told us that corn syrup caused cancer. "It's in everything!" she said, reading from a can of spaghetti sauce. Soon after that, she stopped shaving her legs. She stopped wearing undergarments, bras, or anything acrylic. Our Christmas stockings had to be knit from sheep's wool from Switzerland. My mother was convinced that tinsel was radioactive. My father bought hemp baseball caps and organic cotton dental floss for stocking stuffers. We decorated the tree with organic popcorn and orange peels. My father burned incense and read selections from Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.

At night, I prayed to God: Please send me a candy bar! Please send me Laffy Taffy. I wrote a desperate letter to Santa Claus. "Dear Santa: My parents have become hippies. I don't want ginger gum and miso soup packets for Christmas. I don't want bee's wax hair treatment or a silica face mask from the hot springs of Iceland. I don't want a home enema kit or a toothbrush made from recycled newspapers. I just want some Chicken McNuggets."

I got my wish. After Christmas dinner, my mother had an allergic reaction to the tofu roast. She had hot flashes, her skin broke out in hives, and her throat swelled up. My father flipped through the book of homeopathic remedies and told her to suck on a stick of liquorice root. It didn't do a thing. He told her to bite the rind of a grapefruit. It didn't do a thing. He finally took her to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach, and made her sleep next to a man with dementia. The next morning, when she came home, bleary-eyed and white as a ghost, my mother broke down and begged for a milkshake from McDonald's. My father shrugged. We climbed in the car and got Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets from the drive-thru.

The following year, my parents read too many Anne Rice novels and brought home bags of garlic cloves for stocking stuffers. They put up mirrors in every room, just to be safe. My father watched a TV special on Celtic myths and superstitions and decided to laminate four-leaf clovers and give them away as Christmas lanyards. He encouraged us to wear them around our necks, like ID tags, to usher in good fortune. Each one had our name and a famous quote from a James Joyce novel. Mine said: "Hi! My name is Sufjan. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." When my mother accidentally broke the mirror in the coat closet, she made us each wear a lucky rabbit's foot on our belt loops. But on New Year's Day, my oldest sister broke her arm sledding down the hillside gardens and my father was laid off from his job at the state park. A few weeks later, our dog was run over by a snowplough, and my mother said enough is enough. She asked that we give back the rabbit's foot key chain and the lucky wheat penny and the yin yang talisman bracelets and the four-leaf clovers. She burned them in the wood stove. My father took out a life insurance policy and started buying lottery tickets and my mother used the garlic cloves in her egg frittata.

A few years later, everyone was talking about the Christmas lunar eclipse. My parents considered this rare celestial phenomenon an important sign. They had begun to prescribe to the notion that they were "Star People", space aliens from another planet temporarily inhabiting human bodies. There were millions of Star People on earth waiting for the Universal Power Source to end all the nonsense of war and suffering once and for all. There was a paperback book frequenting our kitchen countertops (Are You a Star People? Am I a Star People? by Curtis Leopard) with illustrations of crystal shapes, interplanetary objects, illuminated faces with concentric eyes and first-person accounts of past life experiences on other planets. There was a description of one man, a short-order cook named Garth from Cleveland, who recalled having once been a Martian king with a harem. Santa Claus, the book claimed, was a Star Person with intimacy-displacement issues. He went around giving gifts because he wasn't shown enough affection by his space mother.

My own mother was certain that, in another life, on another planet, she had been a witch. She pointed out residuals: her proclivity for sweeping the floor with a medieval-like broom she had bought at an antique shop; she also claimed to possess the powers of telekinesis. We had yet to see her move anything, not even our disbelief. My mother's evidence was an inventory of rhetorical questions. "Have you ever felt out of touch?" she read from the book cover. "Have you ever felt restless and homesick for no apparent reason?" She pointed out other symptoms: acne, headaches, an interest in learning foreign languages. This made me worry. I had just started high school and my face was breaking out, little ruddy patches around the flat face of my chin, where I was starting to grow stubble. I was also taking first year German. My mother gave me a look over her reading glasses. "You seem to fit the bill," she said. "Do you ever get migraines?" For Christmas that year, I got a copy of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and a telescope from Sears, but it was too overcast to see anything through it, not even the lunar eclipse.

Then there was the Christmas when Aunt Harriet got divorced and moved in with us for a few weeks. My parents put her up in the living room, in a cot next to the Christmas tree. "Don't bother Aunt Harriet," my mother warned us. "She is going through menopause." I was only seven years old; I thought menopause was something like a very long vacation you take when you have been working too hard. "That's about right," my mother said. "But maybe keep that to yourself."

Aunt Harriet smoked unfiltered cigarettes and read Vogue magazines cover to cover. At night, after a few drinks, she would call us to the living room and pull out the Ouija board, which she used for spiritual guidance. We all circled around her, me and my brother and sisters, touching our fingertips to the heart-shaped pointer as if we were praying in church. Aunt Harriet asked the spirits if there was life on other planets, was there any meaning in life, was there hope for Ethiopians starving in the desert, who would be the next president of the United States of America? After each inquiry, the pointer would seamlessly slip and slide, spelling out ominous answers, and I felt my hands turn hot. "Go ahead and ask something," Aunt Harriet nudged me. I racked my brain, rummaging through a catalogue of the world's mysteries, unanswered questions, the secrets of the universe. I decided on something less grand: "What will Santa Claus get me for Christmas?" My sisters snorted and snickered, rolling their eyes, poking my gut with their pointer finger. "Santa Claus doesn't even exist!" they hollered, and right then all the powers of the Ouija board had left us.

On Christmas morning, our mother told us the news: Aunt Harriet had packed up her suitcase and taken a bus to Canada, where she wanted to teach yoga classes to disabled children. "She is having a midlife crisis," my mother said, passing out gifts from under the tree. "God help her!" Aunt Harriet had left a few things next to her empty cot - a shoe box of New Age crystals, a carton of cigarettes and the Ouija board, bent and frayed at the corners like a dog's toy. After presents, after Christmas dinner, and after our parents had gone to their rooms to read the newspaper, me and my brother and sisters tiptoed down to the living room and pulled out Aunt Harriet's things. My brother emptied the cigarettes on the carpet and built a Civil War fortress out of them. My sisters made earrings out of the crystals using sewing thread and fishhooks. When no one was looking, I took the Ouija board to my room and propped it up on the pillows on my bed, concentrating on the mysteries of the universe.

"Will Aunt Harriet be OK?" I asked, resting my fingertips on the pointer. "Will she ever remarry? Will she find peace and happiness? Is there any meaning in life?" Slowly, the pointer trembled awake, inching over the alphabet like a slow-motion hockey puck. "Yes, yes, yes," the board assured me after each question. "Everything will be just fine!"

Sufjan Stevens' new five-CD collection 'Songs for Christmas' (Rough Trade) is out now

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