'Tis the season to be some place else


So what exactly are you up to this Christmas Eve? Frantically wrapping up loose odds and ends at work, so you can get those vital necessities you forgot before the shops close? Looking forward to a long trek along what is laughingly called our national road network to be with family or friends? Elbowing your way into an overcrowded hostelry in search of someone you foolishly promised to have a drink with before Christmas? Wrestling with unfeasibly large hunks of meat in a steamy, overheated kitchen? Sweating with some nameless, indefinable panic? Reaching for the paracetamal?

Well, by the time you read this, barring natural catastrophes, I'll be sitting in a place where Santa Claus has no landing rights. This year we've decided to evade the spirit of Christmas altogether by spending the allegedly festive season in a non-Christian country, Morocco. There's nothing philosophical or political about this decision. It's not due to any particular animosity towards Christianity, which, anyway, seems to have as much to do with Christmas as sushi does with plum pudding.

Christmas, in practice, is a pagan celebration of the Dionysian spirit, of our capacity to consume absurd quantities of alcohol, poultry and individually wrapped miniature chocolates, in defiance of the general godawfulness of the Northern European winter.

Which all sounds fine to me. I can't be doing with these New Puritans wringing their hands over the commercialisation of the whole thing, which, after all, in its modern form is largely the outcome of the entrepreneurial inventiveness of Mr Dickens and Mr Coca-Cola, with added contributions these days from Messrs Time, Warner and Budweiser. I certainly have no recollection of any golden era when simple folk exchanged handcarved gifts and apple-cheeked children did whatever it was they did.

Christmas has always been a tacky, overblown festival of Western consumerism, forced jollity and unabashed sentimentality, and where would we be without those? There's just one problem: the whole thing is so damned long. We're told that as we get older, time compresses. Summers, which seemed to last forever, now pass in the blink of an eye. Years go by in a blur. So why does Christmas seem to get more and more interminable? It doesn't help that most of November and all of December are defined by retailers and advertisers as "Christmas", of course.

But the worst part is the truly hardcore bit: Christmas "week". A week usually comprises seven days; this year, I estimate Christmas week began on Friday, December 20th and will run until Thursday, January 2nd. That, dear reader, is no week, it's a fortnight. And what a fortnight - a sort of anti-holiday forged in hell by a diabolical Big Brother, who locks up a group of contestants in a house, with the added twist that they're related to each other.

I should hastily add at this point that I am a fortunate man, blessed with a family characterised by its charm, generosity and easygoing nature. I only mention this because, well, as I said, I should. And all of this is, of course, doubly true of my in-laws. So why, by December 27th, at the latest, am I haunted by waking dreams involving chainsaws and dismemberment? It can't just be indigestion.

The Americans have it right; they shift the burden of all that family reunion stuff onto Thanksgiving. They can then go totally overboard on the iconography of Christmas, complete with real snow, but with the family boil already lanced.

And then - this is the genius part - they go back to work on December 26th. Just think about this for a minute. Something is seriously wrong when you get a bunch of days off and only halfway through find yourself thinking wistfully of getting back into the office. But that's what happens to me and, I'm absolutely positive, to many others. Suddenly, even your whey-faced co-workers seem like better company than your alleged nearest and dearest, and the limpest, vacuum-packed shop sandwich is preferable to yet more bloody turkey.

Ah yes, turkey. Whoever thought that this enormous lump of bland protein was a suitable centrepiece for a Dionysian feast? You can pack it with chestnuts or lemons or herbs, you can laboriously insert mushrooms under its skin. You can swathe it in pancetta. I've done all of these things, and more, and the damned thing still tastes of absolutely nothing.

I know of a family who sit down to exactly the same dinner on the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th. They just cook up a new batch of veg every day to go with the two increasingly tedious meats. If they could get a big enough turkey and ham, I think they'd keep on with it for another week. But they don't need to, because on New Year's Day, they cook another turkey and ham and do it all over again. This would seem to me to be evidence of terminal Christmas psychosis, were it not for the fact that they're my in-laws (see above).

But not this year. I shall celebrate in style and on my own terms. I shall eat figs and drink overpriced, mediocre wine. I may pop down to the souk for a browse and a pathetic attempt at a haggle. I'll listen to the muezzin call the faithful to prayer, and I'll know I'm not missing anything more exciting than The Lyrics Board Christmas Special.

I will miss the sprouts, though.