Tales of lust abound at this time of year. There's really nothing quite like Christmas, in part at least because it's the only time when we're all meant to be happy. "Goodwill to all mankind" actually means over-indulging and throwing caution to the wind - sod the diet, fall off the wagon, steal a sly snog under the mistletoe.
We Brits are renowned for being a trifle strait-laced, so it's no wonder that Santa is synonymous with a bit of slap and tickle. The stiff upper lip trembles a little at the best - and often only - excuse of the whole damn year to get out our glad-rags and reveal as much flesh as we can. Women cultivate their cleavages, spilling out of silk and satin - the allure of unwrapping them is the ultimate present. Men preen like peacocks in their best clobber. Never mind your sexual status - if your partner's not invited to the office do, or you're single and finding your solitude a little overwhelming, it's the one time of year you can be assured of not going home alone. So are normal rules suspended come Yuletide?
"Of course morals change," says 29-year-old Alex. "The two infidelity rules my boyfriend and I have are that it doesn't matter if it's someone famous, doesn't matter if it's Christmas." My friend Larry agrees that we operate under a different moral code as the sleigh bells sound. "Women are more compliant at Christmas because of the booze," he suggests (shockingly un-PC for a Nineties new man), "whereas men only need half a chance to shag anyone whatever the season. So if two people are half-cut, well, they just don't care."
He talks of being the office junior and pulling the receptionist. "After the Christmas party we spent two whole days in bed doing everything except the actual 'act'. She had a boyfriend and she surmised that if we didn't actually do the deed, she wasn't really being unfaithful." Ah, that old cracker. "I wish it could be Christmas every day" takes on a whole new meaning!
Actor Keith Allen has even released a seasonal single, "Naughty Christmas", celebrating the whole ethos of trying to snog your boss at the office party. Time Out magazine asked readers whether this really does happen, and four out of seven admitted they'd tried it on at Christmas. All the factors are there - you relax with people you're normally sober with, you get very drunk and so you fancy people you wouldn't usually look twice at. Sex is most definitely on our brains at Christmas.
Thirty-two-year-old David has a seasonal story from his twenties. "At my Christmas party I got it together with the company accountant - whom I'd been fantasising about all year, and who was 18 years my senior. I was so pissed that I drove her home with one eye closed, and willingly got into the bath she ran for me." David remembers being "a little taken aback when she flamencoed into the bathroom naked except for a garter and a glass of very expensive Claret, but we had a lovely bath together and then went to bed. As I dived beneath the sheets she shrieked 'I'm old enough to be your mother', but it didn't dent my passion. I'd told my girlfriend that I'd be staying at a mate's house and in the morning I woke with the most terrible hangover and a mixture of emotions. I felt guilt and shame, but I admit a part of me also went 'Yessssss'!!" When asked, David contemplated the moment he'd crossed the line between flirtation and actuality. "After my third flaming Sambuca I really didn't give a toss."
Not every tale of Christmas ends so happily. It can be both the best and worst time to be on your own. As David - now (unsurprisingly) single - points out, there's a certain Morrissey aspect to the party season - The Smiths' lyrics can be very poignant... "and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die".
Sadly, I know the feeling. We had a boat party for our sixth-form Christmas disco and stupidly I invited my beautiful ex -boyfriend. On the big night I poured my 17-year-old puppy fat into my best dress and donned my highest heels. "Your legs aren't that bad," he smirked with a glint in his eye as we shivered on the pier, awaiting our floating palace. A couple of hours and several Malibu and cokes later (well, I was only 17), we found ourselves entwined under the dirty London stars on the prow of the boat. Rapturously, I agreed to wait whilst my amour disappeared to get drinks. Twenty minutes later and shaking with cold, I traipsed upstairs to find him. Oh horrors - there he was on the dance-floor clutching one of my best friends. But no - it was worse. They turned and as they kissed I saw it was actually my arch-enemy in his arms. Stranded in the middle of the Thames, I couldn't get off the bloody boat. Mortified, I sat on the mock-leather bench and prayed for us to dock so I could run home and sob all night. The moral of the story is that Christmas is not always the time for sexual reconciliation. There's nothing quite so lonely as rejection at Christmas.
Alcohol has much to answer for. At no other time of the year do we get so collectively drunk. Last week the Health Education Authority published a report on young people and sex after drinking, showing that 75 per cent of youngsters drink heavily at Christmas parties (the rate no doubt increases with age!). Other results included one in five admitting they regret sex they have whilst under the influence.
So Jane's story is not that surprising. She took Colin, her long-term boyfriend, to her trendy Christmas party. They all got rollicking drunk and she stopped to chat to an old acquaintance. "John started to try it on with me - saying 'C'mon darling, just a little kiss', and pawing me. I couldn't believe his nerve - especially since my boyfriend was on the other side of the room. Finally disentangling myself, I made the big mistake of telling Colin what had happened. The next thing I knew he had John up against the wall, who gibbered apologies, but when the bouncers moved in, Colin was blamed. We left pretty quickly." Christmas is undoubtedly the one time of year when other people's partners are seen as fair game.
News of the World agony aunt Jane Butterworth thinks the world goes mad at Christmas. "People abandon all principles and do a lot of things they're not always proud of," she says. "You may be off the leash for one night and one night only, so it's not surprising that all the repressed lust comes seething out!" She is inundated with letters after Christmas from guilt-ridden readers who cry "it never would have happened if...". She also notes that "an awful lot of affairs start at Christmas". It's as if the nation desperately holds on until things just explode during the festivities. Christmas also marks the passing of another year and reminds us of our mortality.
Salsa-dancing Jenny would agree. "Christmas is the perfect time to settle things which have been brewing all year. My marriage was going stale and I really fancied this guy Dan," she remembers. "I managed to arrange the Christmas do in the club where he used to drink. On the night lust overcame us, and we spent the whole time dirty-dancing - in front of all my colleagues. Then I slipped off home with him. Three months later I left my husband, and Dan and I are still very happy." For some, Christmas is only the pretext for making things happen - a premeditated immoral lurch.
Whilst accompanying your partner to the Christmas do may seem a good way of preventing any hanky-panky, it ain't necessarily so. Adam thinks Christmas is the perfect time to pounce because we loosen up at Christmas and therefore become more promiscuous. "I went to one office party with my girlfriend Mary, and then danced with a colleague I'd fancied for ages," he says. "Suddenly we found ourselves kissing in the middle of the dance- floor until Mary dragged me off. But I just got carried away." Mary forgave Adam, but "at the next Christmas party she sure kept tabs on me".
Not everybody has fun under the mistletoe. There is often a palpable feeling of desperation in the brandy-soaked air, and as David remarks, "the one time you should be snogging is often the time you go home with a cup of tea." Jane Butterworth points out that single people are often acutely aware that they're surrounded by couples having fun, and it's a period when people are prone to confusing sex with love in the hope of a little intimacy.
It's also the time of year when Granny can put paid to your sex-life, as you give up your room for her and sleep on the sofa. Other Christmas nightmares can include far too much family in the house, paper-thin walls, or protective parents who pretend their offspring never do "it" and won't let you share a bed, although you've co-habited for the last five years. Amanda moans "I never have sex at Christmas because my boyfriend and I can never agree where to spend it so we're usually at opposite ends of the country. I admit I've been tempted by old flames because I feel like I'm single again." Other friends nearly ended up in an orgy when they rented a holiday cottage over Christmas. "We'd been with our partners for some time, and the other two were bored with each other," says Heather. "We joked about a foursome, or swapping partners, and we did all end up snogging. But Mike and me just wouldn't go the whole hog - which put a spanner in the works. The other two split up soon after, so thank God we didn't act in the heat of the moment." Despite the romance of crackling fires and the smell of the tree, it never would have worked after Christmas.
Lots of my friends were born in September, suggesting that some people do keep doing it in the bleak midwinter. It's surprising since the thought of basting the turkey, entertaining the in-laws and being broke until Easter seem enough to put paid to any thoughts of deep passion. On the other hand, perhaps bed is the one escape from it all - and it's totally free.
In Germany the period after Christmas up until Lent is known as Fasching - it's a celebration of ancient Pagan rites such as fertility. People get up to all sorts of mischief, and at least one Bavarian court has refused to acknowledge adultery which takes place during Fasching. But we British have no equivalent of the mad carnivals that take place in Brazil, Venice, Trinidad and world-wide. Our one chance for spontaneity comes at Christmas and, as David says, "you may be so drunk, what you're doing seems normal". Christmas, in all its glory, is the one time of year you may just get away with displaying a voluntary lack of judgement. Just beware that final glass of mulled wine.