miserable party? let's do it all over again

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"So where are you going for Christmas?" I ask a friend of mine. "Texas," comes the unconventional reply. "I went there last year and it was really brilliant." And what was so great about it, I enquire? "It's just incredibly relaxing. I've got these friends? Who work over there? And I slob around in their house? Playing with their children?" She's already got the rising inflection off pat. Then she says, "There's nothing much to do, because you can't go out, see."

I express some puzzlement.

"Well, there's absolutely nothing where they live, it's just a giant suburb, and they won't let me take the car, because all the streets look exactly the same and you can easily get lost and stray into a horrible area where you'd get shot or kidnapped. That's in the day; you definitely can't drive about after dark. Last time I went there was this gang who had this initiation rite. They would cruise around with the headlights off and if anyone flashed at them they'd kill them. So the police were going round telling people to ignore anyone they saw driving with their lights off. But I don't mind staying in the house all the time. I can really chill out, that's the great thing about going there."

What about the nearest town, I ask. There must be window-shopping, strolling, hanging out in the bookstores ... And I have this vague idea that Texas is filled with huge modern art galleries founded on the oil dollars of Mr and Mrs Hiram P Hiramburger. "Oh no, you never walk anywhere," she says firmly. "If you did drive to town, you couldn't park. Your car wouldn't be there when you came back. You wouldn't even park your car for a few minutes in the street outside your house. It's so unusual to see anybody on foot that people would stop their cars and ask you what the trouble was. That's if you're white. If you're black, the police just arrest you. I'm making it sound really horrible, aren't I? But it is relaxing, I just love it."

Yeah, great, if you like spending Christmas in a open prison, I grunt.

"Oh, we go out sometimes," she says airily. "You have to get in your car in the garage, open the doors with the remote control, drive out and don't stop for anything till you get to the mall, or the cinema, which all have armed guards roaming the car-parks. It sounds a bit grim, I suppose, but honestly! I have a great time!"

Some people will go to the ends of the earth to escape a family Christmas, even if it does mean adding the risk of drive-by shooting to the usual litany of festive hazards. I'm sorry to see my friend bottling out in this fashion, though, because I had one of the best Christmasses ever with her family, when we were both poor students. Already grateful to have been taken in by a family I had never met before, I certainly didn't expect any presents, but her schoolboy brothers, for the grand outlay of around pounds 2.50 per head, had scoured Birmingham's Bullring market for plastic toys, milk chocolates in which cocoa butter seemed to have been replaced by paraffin wax, and cards made from such anorexic paper that they sagged and splayed like drunks trying to do the splits. We spent most of Christmas morning weeping with laughter.

Most of my favourite memories are more to do with the generosity of strangers than the comforts of family. The most spectacular example of this occurred the year I nearly missed out on Christmas dinner altogether. Due to some complex custody arrangements, my siblings and mother went to a huge Christmas Day party and meal, given my her boyfriend's family who lived in far-off, wealthy Maple Ridge. I, meanwhile, went on Christmas morning to spend the day with my father and his girlfriend, and was taken aback to find a kitchen spattered with turkey scraps and two bilious-looking adults. They'd had their meal on Christmas Eve, and I poked my turkey rissoles with a martyred air. Mother went ballistic, I sniffed dolefully while the siblings smirked greasily after two giant dinners in a row. News of this outrage filtered back to Maple Ridge, whereupon those wonderful people rang up and said, "Let's do the whole thing again on New Year's Day." And so this family, whom I had never even seen before, re-invited all their friends (the only one who couldn't make it was Santa) for a sumptuous recreation of Christmas: dinner for 14, a garlanded table and tree, crackers, carols, wild party-games, and a little pile of presents by my plate. We could all do with a bit of Maple Ridge spirit this Christmas.

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