Philip Hensher: Christmas puts us all on a stage. Is that why we've come to dread it?

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Somewhere in one of Elizabeth Taylor's novels, a character makes the cardinal error of alluding, casually, to Christmas in the middle of November. "Oh, don't," her friend responds with, Taylor says, "all the English dread Christmas".

If only it were possible to distinguish between Christmas and Christmassiness. Many anthologies have been put together of the literature of Christmassiness. They generally include an impenetrable metaphysical lyric called something like "On his Saviour's Nativitie" and comparing the Virgin Mary to a scrubbing brush. There is Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas In Wales and Christina Rossetti. And there is, of course, A Christmas Carol.

Brilliantly done as A Christmas Carol is, you can't help feeling that it has put rather a burden on English literature and the English Christmas. Of course, Christmas was almost always celebrated in England, but it was only really with Dickens that the more impressionable of his readers started making noises about "the true meaning of Christmas", and suggesting that it was the time when we tell each other how much we mean to each other. A Christmas Carol, surely the most universally known and retold work in the whole of English literature, made us put too much weight on Christmas.

The inadvertent result is another sort of anthology which could be put together of English Christmas refuseniks. Sometimes it's just jolly well Not Joining In – in Robert Liddell's lovely The Last Enchantments, the narrator and his brother retire to bed with bowls of bread and milk and David Copperfield. In George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter, the awful headmistress Mrs Creevy "produced some sprigs of holly that she had saved from last year, dusted them, and nailed them up; but she did not, she said, intend to have a Christmas dinner ... Dorothy [her employee] ate her Christmas dinner – a hard-boiled egg, two cheese sandwiches, and a bottle of lemonade – in the woods near Burnham".

There is a memorable scene in Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head in which an evangelical neighbour bursts in on a perfectly respectable agnostic family's Christmas dinner "to bring the simple meaning of Christmas" and is thoroughly ripped to shreds. In Kingsley Amis's Ending Up, the grandchildren come to visit and hold their grandmother at arm's length when they meet – the guests would have embraced their host properly "if Adela hadn't smelt so old". A particular joy, I think, is Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air, a nightmarish melange of a Christmas, with paedophile publishers, clinically depressed aunts, kleptomaniac teens and monstrously showing-off little girls all confined under one roof.

The literature in English against Christmas is a long and distinguished one. Probably, there would be much more if most of us did not feel, with some force, how threatening the Dickensian label of "Scrooge" is. And yet still, the vast majority of people in this country make an effort, every year, to spend Christmas with their relations; to re-enact rituals that have probably not changed within families for decades; to bond or bicker over far too much food.

Personally, I totally love it all, and the moment when the taxi drops us off at my parents' suitably Victorian house with the Christmas tree shining out of the dining room window is always a very happy one. To my husband, who grew up in a Muslim society and never experienced anything remotely Christmassy until he was over 30, the festival is very slightly baffling. It doesn't help that the rules and customs around it are not up for discussion.

"Can I go upstairs and have a nap this afternoon?" "No – you're allowed to fall asleep in front of the telly, but you can't have a siesta in bed." "Can we watch a DVD?" "No, you've got to watch the Christmas movie." "Can't we have something hot for supper – I don't mind cooking some pasta." "No, it's got to be cold meat and game and cheese and pickles and salad."

For some reason, my family has never eaten turkey for dinner as long as I can remember. It's thought that my dad, around 1967, just looked up and said "I loathe turkey", and it's never appeared since. My days, we've been through the roasted birds in the past 40 years, with rather a posh pheasanty patch with bigarade in the late Seventies. There is a ritual raspberry yoghurt for my sister, who used to cry at the idea of Christmas pudding in youth and never got to like it subsequently. Other families, I know, go to midnight mass, religious belief or none considered quite irrelevant. We never have, though I happen to know that my husband simply longs to. Why? Because we've never done it, of course.

It must be admitted that not everyone fits cosily into these annual rituals. As a nation, we probably spend much less time with our families than most world cultures. A British family with more than two generations living under the same roof, or even within two miles of each other, is now a rarity – in most cases, such set-ups probably have recentish origins in non-British cultures. And then we come together in confined spaces for one extended period, once a year, and expect the product to have at least a tinge of Dickensian warmth, redemption and filial love.

A sociologist of the Erving Goffman school would say that Christmas within the family is supremely a moment of performance and the management of impression. Goffman makes a distinction between two sorts of behaviour. There is on-stage behaviour, which constitutes the managed impression we present to the world, even in our own homes. Then there is offstage behaviour, when the doors are closed and we can let our hair down, either with licence or quite inadvertently. Christmas within the family is, surely, for many people the most taxing of on-stage occasions. The bar is set terribly high, and we feel an obligation not just to love our family members, as we probably do anyway, but to demonstrate that love in showy and often opulent ways. There is a pressure to produce a Nigella-perfect dinner: to exchange the familiar foul-mouthed and inadequately grateful loved ones of the rest of the year for some well-groomed and charming relations. Of course off-stage behaviour tends to raise its head over the boiled sprouts as a few home truths are quietly dealt out between aunts at the far end of the table.

And of course we cling to home-made ritual to get us through the day. You'd miss it if it ever went – if the nation stopped closing down for a couple of days of mass getaway. The blessing is that, for many people, it is a perfectly secular occasion. What it means is, often, comfortingly, what it always used to mean. And that doesn't happen very often any more.

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