This Is The Life: A family Christmas without tears

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The Independent Online

I usually feel smug when people talk of the hell of family Christmas. My four siblings and I have the rare good fortune to like one another. We even are so vulgarly good-natured as to like each others' husbands, wives, partners and children. The closest we ever get to a row is when my oldest brother wrestles control of the TV channel changer and refuses to let my sister and me watch The Railway Children. Unless you count the year I wrapped up some half-sucked boiled sweets and smuggled them down to the toe of my little brother's stocking. Or the enduring ritual of opening envelopes with cheques from our generous uncle, at which one of us will say, "Oh, did you only get £50? I got £5,000."

I usually feel smug when people talk of the hell of family Christmas. My four siblings and I have the rare good fortune to like one another. We even are so vulgarly good-natured as to like each others' husbands, wives, partners and children. The closest we ever get to a row is when my oldest brother wrestles control of the TV channel changer and refuses to let my sister and me watch The Railway Children. Unless you count the year I wrapped up some half-sucked boiled sweets and smuggled them down to the toe of my little brother's stocking. Or the enduring ritual of opening envelopes with cheques from our generous uncle, at which one of us will say, "Oh, did you only get £50? I got £5,000."

Other than that we pretty much hop around like Tiny Tim exclaiming, "God bless us, every one!" So it seemed an excellent plan when we decided to rent a holiday house for 10 adults and five children for Christmas week. Everyone involved offered heart-warming sentiments along the lines of, "I don't care where we are so long as we're all together." And, in the way of these things, the men sat back and watched football while the women of the family started a search for properties on the net.

With almost touching naivety, we didn't realise that we should have begun our quest at least a year earlier. While there are plenty of cottages up and down the country, there's a drastic shortage of large properties and most of those are already booked, or selfishly reserved for Christmas by the owning families (as if they didn't have enough cash to buzz off to the Maldives). And although you can sometimes find a mansion for 20 on Shetland, the West Country and East Anglia are booked solid by country-living wannabes like ourselves.

With five children aged four and downwards and my sister-in-law due to drop another in January, you don't want to drive beyond a four-mile radius of London. Yes, there's always the lost, last resort lands of Margate, Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe and the like, bursting with vacancies like Shane McGowan's teeth. But yesterday's Victorian pleasure palaces have become today's dystopias, stuffed with OAPs, heroin addicts and Albanian asylum seekers. However egalitarian your pretences, it takes an asbestos-coated modernising socialist of the steeliest order not to lust at Christmas for a great dollop of edible-as-gingerbread retro rural charm.

After days of searching, my sister-in-law Sally found a wing of a Victorian country mansion in Dorset which seemed to suit our needs. So she booked it, only to find that, lurking furtively beneath the "all together" bonhomie, everyone harboured deeply held prejudices about location, curtain fabric, whether the TV was compatible with DVD players and the necessity for an aga. Where Sally and I relished the idea of snuggling down in four-posters and taking our daily perambulation in a deer park, my older sister, Holly, and younger brother, Hereward (Sally's husband), thought the house a little "grand". Then it turned out that my oldest brother, Justin, and his wife didn't want to drive as far as Dorset. My youngest sister, Dorcas, didn't care either way - "I mean, I'm not sure if I'm coming anyway. No offence, but it's pretty boring at my age being stuck with you lot for a week." Right. No offence taken.

A day later alternative properties had been mooted in Norfolk and Sally withdrew from the arena, filled with rightful indignation at the spurning of her labours. I vetoed one place as the words "barn conversion" fill me with unutterable fear. The 17th-century manor house near Stiffkey, on the other hand, was ideal - except for the two cats. Two of my siblings are serious asthmatics. Then Justin and his wife said they would rather be in an adjoining property than hunker down with all the other squalling Pellings, while Dorcas booked tickets for Paris on the weekend that we planned to leave for Norfolk. My own husband started muttering plaintively, "I wish that just once we could spend Christmas in our own house."

As despair set in, Holly discovered an amply-proportioned house in Burnham Market with another nearby cottage for the semi-detached Pellings. True, the house is modern, but it looks old, and what price proper central heating in wind-ravaged Norfolk? Yes, Dorcas will have to sleep in a bunk-bed, but that's what happens when you bunk off to Paris, and you're the youngest. There was almost a minor setback this week when Justin emailed us all a web page that reported, "Burnham Market is loathed throughout Norfolk as half its population are Londoners who come up for weekends and the other half are shopkeepers and publicans who survive on weekend trade."

True, Burnham's about as genuine a reflection of small-town life as a Capra film-set. But, frankly, I don't care. I'm a Christmas tourist and proud of it.

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