Forget Santa: Christmas is a girl thing
At the Nativity Mary took centre stage and Joseph had a walk-on part. Today it's even worse - men are almost redundant at Christmas
Tuesday 22 December 1998
For the fact is that all men are the forgotten men of Christmas. There's just nothing in it for them. They must sit by ever-growing piles of socks, muttering: "Just what I've always wanted", or trying to make their faces do that thing that women's automatically do at this time of year when long-forgotten relatives appear: "light up". In the end they usually have to settle for lighting up a cigarette.
I personally am marginalised in my household from about the start of Advent. That's when my wife begins buying presents, writing cards, making lists, often while listening to loud tapes of Christmas carols to get her in the mood, which is very disturbing when you consider that she's not only Jewish but an atheist.
But Christmas isn't a religious thing any more. It's a woman's thing, and as the festival has grown, so it's become even more of a woman's thing; one big, stressful, inter-household domestic arts competition. In America, women are literally going mad while "doing" Christmas, according to the blueprint of the lifestyle guru, Martha Stewart. The centrepiece of the Martha Stewart Christmas spread is her famously challenging gingerbread house, which one of her disciples once wrote in to say - with pride and without bitterness - that she had completed after an entire year of more or less continuous work (longer, in all probability, than it would have taken her to build a real house).
In Britain, the obstacle course is laid out by Delia Smith. Consider the subtitle of her book, Delia Smith's Christmas: "One hundred and thirty recipes... for Christmas." The tension mounts steadily throughout the book, which culminates in a terrifying chapter entitled "The last thirty-six hours".
And what's happening to the men as the clock ticks towards the glorious apotheosis/ tear-stained nadir that is Christmas lunch? Well, they're sharing the highs, of course, as when the salt-crusted mini baked potatoes with cold chive hollandaise approximate to the photograph on page 146... but then again, who really cares about that?
They're also sharing the lows, which tend to be more memorable, and louder. These usually occur in our house as my wife is baking her Traditional Christmas Biscuits for serving at a soiree on Christmas Eve. Now, she's superb at most of the Christmas arts, but not great at baking, and the making of the Traditional Christmas Biscuits is traditionally preceded by the throwing out of the lot from last year.
Generally the Biscuits burn while I'm supposed to be watching them (except that I didn't hear her say that I should be watching them), or I accidentally throw out the mixture. Or whatever. The upshot is that I end up feeling like Johnny to her Fanny Cradock, George to her Mildred: a wretched lump, called on to help, yet unable to; and deep down I know that my help is in fact not wanted because my wife likes doing Christmassy things and wants to do them unaided.
That's my rationale, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. I've got enough on my hands doing the alien Christmas tasks which are entrusted to me, such as the sending of Christmas cards to those of our friends who are more mine than hers.
This year, after the usual agonising, I have selected an image of a graveyard - a little downbeat maybe, but sober-sided and dignified: a good, manly image. All the profits from these cards go to charity (I think they're in aid of the dead or something) so that's good too. But I'm worried about the inscription: "May the peace and joy of Christmas be with you through the year." That word "joy"... it's not really me.
A proper, man's Christmas card would say something cautious like: "Wishing you a trouble-free festive season", or "Here's Hoping You Can Get Away to the Football on Boxing Day". Then you might not feel that every card you sent was a betrayal of your masculinity.
Another problem area for men is the wrapping and giving of presents. There should be degree courses in this, the syllabus to include subjects such as "How to control Sellotape" and "What constitutes a nice pair of earrings?" At best, the presents I give my wife can be exchanged for something she really wants, whereas hers to me might have been the product of mind- reading. In this context it's absurd that Father Christmas - that paragon of wrapping and giving - is a man. What Father Christmas should be is a woman, which he's no doubt already become in the more PC areas of London.
That said, though, I have been on an upward curve in gift-giving ever since I was 10. In that year I gave my father a stone for Christmas. Not just an ordinary stone, of course. No, I'd taken some trouble to write his name, "Dad", in green felt-tip across the top of it. He approved of this gift because he didn't have to pretend to be very grateful (it was only a stone, after all) and at least it wasn't aftershave. (Note to gift-giving aunts: men do not use aftershave.)
My father is a kind person but like a lot of men left to their own devices, a Christmas sceptic. And he was left to his own devices, my mother having died when I was young. So when, as a small boy, I'd ask him how Santa Claus could come down our chimney when we had a gas fire pretty firmly cemented in there, he would just shrug and say: "Magic", in a take-it- or-leave-it tone. No elaborately constructed whimsical explanations; no bullshit. Of course, shopping was torture to him, which is why his Christmas present to me was usually a tenner whipped out of his wallet as he grudgingly stuffed the turkey.
"Don't spend it all at once," he'd say, as he handed it over. No "merry Christmas" or "compliments of the season", because those words are not designed to be uttered between two males.
At my wife's prompting, we strive to give our own children a cosy, magical Delia Smith-type Christmas. And one of the 50 or so tasks on her Christmas list is the leaving out of a glass of port for Santa, which I am required to down before going to bed (no great hardship, admittedly) just in case our forensically astute boys smell a rat come the morning. But still they're in tears by 8am as children always will be as long as the words "batteries not included" are part of the English language.
On reflection, I am aware that a slight note of curmudgeonliness may be detectable in this article. But I'm not entirely pessimistic. The miserableness of men at Christmas could be reduced by the simple expedient of reducing Christmas. And who knows? A lot of women might find they like it that way too.
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