Sarah Sands: Oh, tidings of discomfort and compromise

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The Independent Online

When Nigella Lawson said, slightly biblically, that the best type of Christmas lunch allowed for strangers at the table, she was being seasonally prophetic. Christmas ended up being a great rush to get home, and, like a child's party game, some people simply ran out time and took the nearest available seat.

The break down of order has been a theme of the Christian calendar. Easter travel was disrupted by a volcano, Christmas by Arctic winds. It was not the feared strikes that brought us to a standstill, but the earth itself. A friend's politicised son tried to argue that natural disorder was a metaphor for the toppling political establishment. This pathetic fallacy was undermined when his was almost the only plane leaving Heathrow last weekend. Women, children, and revolutionaries first.

Despite the claims, by students and Julian Assange, of a new dawn, the mood this Christmas has been far more KBO. It was not radicals so much as plumbers and motorway rescue men, whom we sought. Ideology has mattered a good deal less than keeping warm.

Our Christmas gathering was not unusual. Our hostess, my sister-in-law, reported, as we prepared to set off, that the boiler had died, the pipes had burst, and that she was cooking mince pies under a layer of soot. I offered to help, but was hampered by a second-wave cold with hallucinatory side effects. Instead of dreaming of being chased, or falling into an abyss, I developed a bone-aching empathy with stranded passengers at Heathrow. After a feverish night, this turned into Stalingrad.

And yet, of course, I have never been really cold. What must it be like for the homeless? What of the street cleaners, police and security guards? The many East Europeans in London have the necessary training in meteorological stoicism. The Salvation Army put aside saving souls to give hot drinks to rail commuters.

This Christmas we have become creatures of the North star. Not far from where I am staying in Norfolk, is Julian Assange, photographed last week with his angel-white hair against a snowy backdrop. I wonder if his host is climbing up the walls by now.

We have heard the wretched travellers' tales from those separated from loved ones, but what of those who are cooped up together until the weather changes? The shotguns being polished in kitchens across Norfolk today may well have a secondary fantasy purpose. A brisk, Boxing Day walk loses its appeal when you are facing Siberian winds, so there is more time for fractious families to discover further faults with each other. The model for this year's family Christmas has been less Nativity and more coalition, a day hatched in compromise that ended in resentment and furtive conversations.

Separation strengthens bonds. Kate Middleton and Prince William may be longing to see each other, but the Prince, reporting for duty as a search and rescue pilot on the Welsh coast is pretty heroic. I hope he doesn't think he can pull that one every year. In future, he will have to hunker down with the in-laws, like the rest of us.

It has been a discombobulating Christmas, full of uncertainty and stop-start preparation and Boxing Day sales on Christmas Eve. Nothing is straightforward, a bit like the South Korean Christmas tree. If it were not a birthday, we might like another go at it.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'