Here are two seemingly unconnected stories which together add up to an alternative Christmas parable. The first concerns my daughter Eleanor, 16, and her friend Annie, who have just been on a school skiing trip to the French Alps. They flew from Heathrow and they and their classmates were all told beforehand that their check-in luggage could not exceed 20kg.
Before Elly left home, we checked her bag on one of those clever luggage weighing devices, which flashed up 18.7kg. So even though I practically slipped a disc getting it from the house to the car, we knew her luggage did not exceed the weight limit. Meanwhile, a similar scene was unfolding at Annie's house. But when she weighed her bag, the clever device showed 30kg. She duly took out everything she considered expendable and weighed it again: 25kg. So she took out loads more stuff she really felt she could hardly do without until, eventually, the weight slipped just under the magic 20kg mark.
When they got to the airport, Elly hauled her case on to the scales. It weighed 18.7kg. Then Annie effortlessly placed her case on the scales. It weighed just over 8kg. Either the device was faulty or she'd been doing it wrong. Either way, she had a jumper, some underwear and a hairbrush to last her the week.
Last Friday, our friends Sian and Paul came from north London to stay with us in Herefordshire for the weekend. At about 5pm, long after they were due to arrive, they phoned to ask directions. Their trusty satnav had delivered them to a village between our house and the Welsh border. They had driven 20 miles out of their way, yet Sian has been to our house at least 10 times before. Paul has been only a couple of times but he is a much garlanded documentary film- maker who can navigate his way, with a camera crew, through the African bush. He's good at reading maps. Yet in choosing to rely on the satnav to do the work they could comfortably have done for themselves, they ended up lost.
I do not tell these stories in a spirit of superiority. It could have been Elly going on a skiing trip with hardly any clothes; it could have been me driving cheerfully in the wrong direction. The point is that gadgets, increasingly, erode simple human initiative. Annie could have double-checked on the bathroom scales; Sian could have used her memory to get here; Paul could have used the time-honoured combination of an atlas and road signs.
There, but for the grace of God – and that's God, not iGod – go all of us. So how about embracing the original Christmas story and resolving to replace gadgetry with basic endeavour or common sense this festive season? Instead of relying on the microwave to defrost the chipolatas, take them out of the fridge the night before. Rather than Sky-plussing the big Christmas Day film, try to catch it live.
It's Christmas, a time for simplicity. Mind you, that brand of simplicity still involves fridges and televisions; I'm not saying we should wind back the clock 2,000 years. And I suppose it's worth remembering that Joseph and Mary would have got in at the inn if they'd been able to email ahead.