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

The Surprise Seasonal Quandary, by Sophie Hannah

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

I find I respond best to an impending Christmas if I regard it as a puzzle: "This has to be the case, and so does this, and so does this, so what combination of circumstances is going to make all these details work together to form a coherent whole?" I plan my crime novels in exactly the same way.

Christmas is a brilliant opportunity to get to know those close to you a bit better. It acts as a showcase for people's true personalities, the ones they might be able to hide quite effectively the rest of the year. Your actions, the way you behave, count for more on this one day than on any other. Everyone's sitting around eating, drinking, unable to escape from one another, focusing on what it's like to spend an entire day in the company of X or Y. Do you want your relatives to say, "Did you see what a fuss she made about nothing? And on Christmas Day, too!"? Or, "Notice how even at Christmas he's incapable of putting a smile on his face."? The basic rule is: if this is what you're like on Christmas Day, then this is what you're like.

Another thing I love about Christmas is what I call the Surprise Seasonal Quandary (SSQ). It's different every year, which adds an element of suspense. Last year, the woman who runs the crche at my health club told me that, although the crche was officially open for two hours on Christmas Eve morning, no one else had booked their children in, and if I also refrained from booking mine in, she could have Christmas Eve off, which she would really, really like to do. I really, really wanted to have a nice, relaxing swim on Christmas Eve before a 10-day full-on hosting stint with children dripping from my every limb, but I didn't want to ruin her Christmas. On the other hand, the crche was open, and she was supposed to be working in it. If she'd wanted the day off, why hadn't she booked it as holiday and given the health club time to replace her? I consulted a few non-experts (the problem with the SSQ is that you can never find an expert; the issues aren't the sort that anyone really wants to specialise in) and before I knew it I was embroiled in a heated debate about oppressed workers and middle-class complacency astonishingly, the name "Bob Cratchett" was dropped into the dispute more than once.

In the end, I dealt with it in the most immature and unhealthy way possible: I didn't send my kids to the crche, but I resented the (as I saw it) political-emotional blackmail so much that I spent months nurturing a grudge and plotting to oust all my significant others in favour of people who were much more right-wing.

This year, the SSQ is a particularly tough one. I haven't yet consulted anyone about it. My daughter Phoebe has been invited to a girls-only party on the day you are reading this. Trouble is, the party is at the home of friends of ours who we normally visit en famille. There are four of them and four of us, and it would not occur to my son Guy that he is any less a friend of the two Cookson girls than Phoebe is. If I tell him that Phoebe's invited to a Christmas party and he isn't, he'll be outraged. To be honest, I don't blame him. If he were older and had reached the "I hate girls" stage, it would be no problem he wouldn't want to go anyway. But he's only three, and wouldn't understand why suddenly there was a special treat for Phoebe and the two Cookson girls from which he was excluded.

Trouble is, if I don't let Phoebe go to the party because of the random sexist edict, then I'll feel I'm depriving her. So the only option, as far as I can see, is for me to host a lavish kids' Christmas bash on the same day, open to children of all genders. This is what I'm going to do, but I can't help thinking it's a bit of an odd way to arrive at the decision to throw a party. Am I just a nutter, seeing real life as if it's an episode of The Moral Maze, or are other people also forced into behaving weirdly as a result of SSQs?

Sophie Hannah's latest poetry collection is 'Pessimism for Beginners' (Carcanet)'

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