Yule rules: Your guide to having a middle-class Noël
The authors of ‘The Art of Being Middle Class’ present their essential guide to surviving yuletide, from what gifts really mean to which guilty pleasures are socially acceptable (...and which most certainly aren’t)
Sunday 23 December 2012
It's Father Christmas, Not Santa, Please
How outrageous that Father Christmas is fighting the North American character Santa Claus for rights to the British chimney. And it's not even Santa Claus any more, just Santa – a horrible diminution of historical characters into one brand-like entity. It's cringeworthy when a British person says it – adult or child, but especially adult, actually; we should know better.
Father Christmas is an altogether lovelier name, and lovelier concept. The daddy of Christmas. The guardian of gift-giving. How can "Santa" compete with that? CS Lewis preferred Father Christmas for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The illustrator Raymond Briggs preferred it for his graphic novel Father Christmas, which depicts the big man as a grumpy old git who's more interested in drink than presents. Ideal for British sensibilities! Apparently, in some spheres he's known as Kris Kringle, which sounds like a budget cereal. We'd be best off ignoring that one.
Equally Hard to Give as to Receive: the Not-so-Secret Anxiety of Secret Santa
At work, it has become commonplace to buy gifts for colleagues. This is yet another source of festive angst for the middle classes; should you buy presents for your colleagues? If so, which ones do you include and which ones do you leave out? How embarrassed will you be if you buy gifts but they don't buy you one in return? Or, worse still, if they buy you one but you have nothing to give them? You would think that the Secret Santa option in the workplace would be an ideal solution to the problem. But no – Secret Santa brings with it a whole range of snags both for the giver and the receiver of the gift. They can be summarised as follows:
Main worries for the giver (who is paranoid that everyone will realise their identity)
1. What if everyone else has bought more elaborate gifts and yours seems a bit tight?
2. What if everyone else has bought something small but meaningful while you've bought something far too elaborate?
3. What if everyone else has bought gifts that are funny, quirky or really say something about the person, and your gift is boring and impersonal and shows your lack of imagination and understanding of your workmates?
4. What if you buy something that is too boring and you offend the receiver by implying that they are dull?
5. What if you buy something that is a little risqué and you offend the receiver by implying that they are common?
Main worries for the receiver (who has it relatively easy)
1. The gift you receive is boring and completely impersonal. You think this means that everyone in the office thinks that you are boring and have no interests.
2. The gift you receive is rude/suggestive in some way. You think this means that everyone in the office thinks you are brazen or vulgar.
3. The gift you receive is clearly meant to be personal to you, yet is something unpleasant. You think this means that everyone thinks you have bad taste.
4. You receive alcohol. Secretly you're quite pleased, but then you worry that everyone thinks you are so dull and insular that they just couldn't think of anything interesting to get you.
To assuage these fears, here are three things that will convey a neutral message:
• Fudge. But artisan, preferably. You don't want it to say "You like eating, so here's some average fudge" but rather "You really appreciate fine foods, here's some quality fudge."
• A scented candle. Go for a proper luxury one, though, not one that could be mistaken for an air-freshening device.
• Some sort of trendy kitchen accessory such as salad servers in bamboo or something.
Acceptable Christmas Guilty Pleasures
Christmas is about the relaxing of taste. For a few days, you can enjoy things that at other times of the year would seem a bit naff or not even particularly appealing. In some cases it's to do with nostalgia (you might even fancy a sugared almond or a Meltis Newberry Fruit), but more often it's just a combination of indulgence and the Christmas spirit. Here are the top 10 acceptable slightly trashy guilty pleasures:
1. Singing along to "Stay Another Day" by East 17.
2. Listening to Classic FM as you cook Christmas dinner.
3. Drinking Dooley's Toffee Liqueur while watching DVDs. And Baileys, of course, but that doesn't count, as it's relatively tasteful.
4. Tijuana Brass Christmas albums.
5. Quality Street. And Roses, if you're hardcore.
6. Tinsel. Not the modern, wide-cut variety, but thin, old-fashioned stuff. In red.
7. Paxo Sage and Onion Stuffing for nostalgic reasons. Though families have been known to split up over less.
8. Giving yourself a day off from recycling everything, so it's easier to cook.
9. Watching Home Alone and other 1990s children's classics. And Jason and the Argonauts, if you're male.
10. Staying in bed for most of Boxing Day morning, if necessary by feigning sleep.
The Christmas Stress Goes on: What is the Last Posting Date for Festive Thank-You Cards?
There are some activities that very simply distinguish the middle classes from other people – and one of them is the sending of thank-you cards after receiving presents. And there is an angsty politeness that accompanies the ritual. Now your children's birthdays and Christmases are not complete without you sitting on the sidelines and noting down givers and gifts given so that you don't forget. Sending letters is a jolly nice thing to do, and we all feel terrible if we forget, but goodness, the stress that it can bring!
Inevitably there are one or two gifts that have no tags – does one guess, or try to work out a tactful way of enquiring with the suspects? Is it OK to use "Thank You" stationery, so it's quicker? And how long is it acceptable to take to reply?
Of course more efficient friends have done theirs long ago, their promptness reminding you of the devastatingly impressive organisation of those supermums who get their child's post-birthday Thank Yous off within 48 hours of the party ending. You, though, will be doing the last batch at 10 o'clock on Sunday evening in a perfect vignette of British middle-class life, ie secretly driving yourself mad with the effort of appearing perfectly calm and civilised.
Right – did James and Charlotte send the Jellycat bear or the Usborne Snakes and Ladders?
The Law of Diminishing Fridge Returns
Isn't it lovely when the fridge is full of fresh festive food? The shopping's just been done and you're not allowed to touch any of the new stuff until whoever's in charge in your house declares the official start of Christmas. And once you've started, the Law of Diminishing Fridge Returns kicks in: over three days, you bring out the same foods – cold cuts, potato salad, pears in red wine – not quite finishing them up, storing them in smaller containers, bringing them out again at the next meal, trying to make them presentable and appetising, still not finishing them, and so on. You spent time and money providing this bounty, damn it. It would be criminal to throw it away.
But, quite honestly, by the 27th, you hate the sight of that potato salad. If anyone says "cold cuts" one more time, you won't be responsible for your actions. Your voice trembles with barely suppressed rage as you encourage your loved ones to "please finish up the pears". Come the 28th, everyone's gone home, the house is quiet and it's just between you and your fridge. Time to take the law into your own hands. You fire up the waste-disposal unit, send those leftovers to a grisly end – and gleefully get on the phone to order a pizza.
The Back-to-Work Question: Did you Have a Good Christmas?
You'll definitely have been asked the great early-January question "Did you have a good Christmas?" before and expect to be asked many times more in the future. There are two points to note about this. One, how the word "good" is slowly edging out "nice" (American influence, we think), and two, how awkward it is to say that actually, your Christmas wasn't particularly good or nice. Unpleasant things often happen in the festive period – but with middle-class and professional people you tend to feel you'd be dragging the conversation down a bit if you said, "No, my uncle died on Boxing Day." The thing to remember is that the question is really just a "hello" in disguise, and it doesn't warrant an actual answer. In fact, to give an actual answer is quite grotesque, and would show that you have no idea about middle-class social laws. Just as you should always answer the "How are you?" question (also not a real question) with "Very well, thanks" even if you are horrifically ill/heartbroken/bereaved/whatever, you should always, always reply to the Christmas question with "Lovely, thank you," then let everybody move swiftly on.
This is an edited extract from 'The Art of Being Middle Class', published by Constable & Robinson, priced £9.99
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