Christmas trees. Fairy lights. Crap movies. Chocolate coins. The Queen's speech. Heston Blumenthal's orange-orbiting pudding. These are all things that unite people at Christmas. Such commonalities lead us to believe that everyone who celebrates Christmas does so in a similar fashion. I'll let you into a secret: they don't.
This discovery was more perturbing to me than the realisation that the lack of functioning chimneys in my house meant that Santa couldn't possibly get in without breaking and entering. That's why I wholeheartedly believe that couples should spend Christmas separately until they have children, unless they want to be severely disappointed. They'll still be disappointed when they do have children, but they'll have their hands full and less time to dwell on it.
For my family, Christmas (which I define as including Christmas Eve and Boxing Day) has remained largely unchanged throughout my lifetime. Sure, the numbers of people around the table goes up and down, as does the number of people who can get served in the pub, but the timetable is constant: Beef Wellington on Christmas eve, followed by the pub for those who can get served; pre-bird-singingly early wake-up call on Christmas morning (orchestrated by me) for stockings, even though we are all either nearing or in our thirties); few presents before a late lunch followed by the bulk of the unwrapping; vowing never to eat again; then snoozing in front of a bland and yet somehow polarising film before getting peckish about two hours after proclaiming not to need feeding for a week.
We don't tend to have Christmas pudding because no one likes it, however we do eat sprouts, but only if shredded and cooked with bacon. We drink too much: Bloody Marys, fizz and red wine. We don't go to church (even when we used to live in an old rectory). My mum always tries to put a festive bow on a skittish dog, and we all take the piss out of each other in a distinctly uncharitable way.
Other people don't do all of these things. For some it may be about a different present-opening time (or, more perturbing, a different day). For others it's going to Midnight Mass, or wearing black tie for dinner, or playing parlour games or drinking champagne with jelly tots in it (yes, really). These differences are the festive equivalent of noticing that your little ceramic penguin is no longer facing due South. It's unsettling. It's not right. Someone will get hobbled.
I've had partners in the past trying to convince me to go to theirs for 25 December. Not so fast, soldier. Not only do I have to be subjected to an alien Christmas, but my absence from my own family's Christmas means two families are blighted. If I'm not there to wake my siblings up at 6.30am it won't be proper Christmas. They might say they enjoy the lie-in, but they'll be weeping on the inside.
So next time your other half invites you for Christmas, think long and hard.
By Olivia Solon
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