Comfort, joy and 'Kill Bill', by Joanne Harris

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

Christmas. Each year I await it with dread. Bad light, grey weather, the mounting pressure of expectation, the promise of tensions within the family, the garishness of the shop displays, the return of Phil Spector's Christmas Album and the tawdriness of the advertising world, promising us the magic of Christmas in such questionable forms as: plastic toys, frozen prawns, cushions, air freshener, CDs and gardening implements and all for low, low prices!

And this is all supposed to be fun? The magic of Christmas? Don't make me laugh. Never has magic been so debased. Never has the gulf between reality and dream been so cruelly exposed. And as someone who prefers a small gathering of friends to a large, formal dinner party, Christmas Day can be a disappointment, too often dominated by the inevitable stress and bickering that comes of bringing together too many family members with too much bottled Christmas cheer...

The truth is, we do these things because we feel we must. And to be obliged to do anything even something we enjoy is to take away much of its charm. I like the traditions of Christmas. I like giving presents; I like to cook; I like to see my family and friends. But I also like spontaneity; I like to feel I have a choice. Which is why I find myself, year after year, wishing I could do something else.

Last year, Christmas was cancelled. It wasn't a deliberate move, but a combination of tight deadlines, bad planning and crises within the family meant that, for the first time in over a decade, nothing was organised that year, and the three of us my husband Kevin, our daughter Anouchka and I spent Christmas Day at home, alone. Several well-meaning people commented that it must have been "rather grim". In fact, it was the best Christmas that I can ever remember.

I had been working hard for the past four months, trying to finish my new book on time. It still wasn't finished; and I'd been regretting the promise I'd made to my publishers that it would be ready by January. All my energy went into work; I could hardly remember what it was like to take time out with my family. But I'd promised Anouchka that at least we'd have Christmas Day together, and that this year we'd do whatever she liked.

I just want it to be fun, she said.

Fun? OK. I can live with that.

I got up early that morning and worked until the others got up. Then I put my laptop away and made cups of tea for everyone. We all sat around the tree the tree is my favourite part of Christmas and opened our presents to each other. There weren't many, but they were well-chosen besides, I'd rather have a single present that means something to me than something expensive and meaningless, bought in haste, to impress. Then Anouchka made lunch Mexican enchiladas, which she'd just learnt how to make in cookery that term and a big dish of nachos and cheese, which we ate in front of the TV, like slobs, swigging Coke out of the can, watching Kill Bill on DVD (it is, for some reason, Anouchka's comfort movie). Then we played a game of table football before going back for Kill Bill 2 and if all of this sounds very dull and ordinary, then maybe that's the point. Maybe we should face the possibility that the idea of the ready-made, one-Christmas-fits-all doesn't work for everyone.

We didn't see anyone that day. We had no expectations. Everything was spontaneous. There wasn't a single moment of stress. We laughed like crazy all afternoon though I couldn't tell you what about. And there was definitely something in the air call it magic if you like because that was the happiest Christmas that any of us could remember, which makes me think that perhaps, like luck, magic is something we can make for ourselves. It isn't something you can buy. It doesn't come as standard. And you don't need to plan, or to overspend, or to wrack your brains trying to come up with some extraordinary way to celebrate. Because sometimes it's the little things that bring us the greatest pleasure. That's why, once again this year, we'll be making up Christmas as we go along. It may be nothing like last year. It may even be better. And if it's not, at least we'll be doing it ourselves. And if it's magic, so much the better. If not, I'll settle for just having fun.

Joanne Harris's latest novel is 'The Lollipop Shoes' (Doubleday)