'Tis the season for Noelology

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IT'S BEEN a good Christmas for Dr Leo Ventura. It always is. Christmas is the best time of the year for Dr Leo Ventura. Actually, Christmas is the only time of year for Dr Leo Ventura. That is because Dr Leo Ventura is a Noelologist - a man who studies Christmas. And that means a man who gets consulted a lot at Christmas time. A lot more than at, for instance, the midsummer equinox.

'Just as psephologists pray for elections, because they are consulted a lot at poll time, so I look forward to Christmas because that's when people ring up and ask my advice. Or, even better, ask me to go on television and hold forth. Being rung up by a newspaper such as the Independent is not so good and not so well paid, but at least it gets my name in the cuttings file.'

So what kind of a Christmas has it been this year, Dr Ventura? 'Very interesting. It's been the second year in a row in which Michael Palin and Peter Mayle have been hovering around the top of the best-seller list.'

Oh. Is that interesting?

'Now, don't be cynical. Just think for a moment. Why do you think Palin and Mayle's books are bought in such numbers?'

For people to give to each other? 'Go on.'

And read? 'Possibly. But why?'

Well, because both write about places that are hot and far away, and give us a bit of escapism at Christmas time, so we can lie back and imagine ourselves in a far off, lazy environment . . .

'Hold on, there, hold on. I don't know if you have read any books by either Michael Palin or Peter Mayle, but there's nothing relaxed in any of them. Palin is always frantically trying to get to the next train or plane or something, and Mayle is always worrying himself sick about whether the new bath will fit through the front door or whether the plasterers will turn up sober or if his friends from London will come and stay, all that sort of thing. Their books are among the most stressed-up ever written.'

Hmm. Which means . . . ?

'That Mayle's and Palin's books actually reflect our Christmas experience directly. Over Christmas we worry constantly about whether there will be enough for people, about who is coming, about getting to the in-laws' on time, about wrapping, cooking, milk running out before the shops reopen . . . Michael Palin doesn't represent any escape from that. He is exactly the same. Except in a warmer climate. But then, the original Christmas was in a warmer climate.'

So we buy a Palin book because it deepens our understanding of Christmas?

'Of course. Palin is always saying it is very important to get to a certain place by a certain time. Although a moment's thought will tell him, and us, that it is the opposite of essential. Who cares whether Palin catches a boat in Mombasa or Cape Town? What effect will it have on history whether he reaches the South Pole or not? Similarly, does it really matter whether we get to our in-laws', or drop in on those people for drinks? When Palin says, 'I wonder if I have enough local change for breakfast', it is like us wondering if there will be enough bread over the holiday period. Only he is having a worse time than us.'

So, in a very real sense, Michael Palin is taking on the suffering of Christmas for us?

'Yes.'

But isn't this all very far from the original spirit of Christmas?

'I don't know when you last read the Bible, but the Christmas story is all about stress and hassle. Getting home to Bethlehem at the very worst of travelling times, finding somewhere to stay, wondering what to give the Three Wise Men to eat, having a load of shepherds drop in unexpectedly - if all that doesn't echo familiar Christmas experiences, then I'll eat my hat.'

And Peter Mayle?

'Mayle's books may appear to be about Provence, but this is an illusion. They are about the difficulty of getting anything done, mended, built or supplied. There are three main ingredients in the original Christmas story: hassle, foreign parts and having a bit of patience. Same with Mayle and Palin.'

So what would you see as a best-seller for next Christmas, assuming Mayle and Palin don't produce more books?

'Well, if anyone produced The AA Book of the New Testament, it would make a fortune.'

Thank you, Dr Ventura.

'Not at all. Let me have the fee in used fivers, if possible.'

No problem.

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