It’s not too late to check the Santa clause

Every family knows there is only one way to have a “proper” Christmas Day – and that is their way.

The trouble always starts when other people show up and try to impose their own version. Some compromises have to be made, but, to avoid seasonal ill-will, it is essential to hammer out the important rules in advance.

Always make a point of drawing up a pre-Christmas Contract. Like this:

Whereas all persons participating in the celebrations held on this Twenty Fifth Day of December in the year Two Thousand and Nine have declared and affirmed that they wish each other a Merry Christmas, without prejudice, they also undertake to follow the procedures and formalities as laid out hereinafter, NAMELY: That, on the day, any children present in the household at such time may display any items from their stockings as they see fit to any adult but not until 5.45 am.

That a Sensible Breakfast shall be taken, involving toast, a hot beverage and persons seated round a table provided by the Host. Children will remain seated for a minimum of three minutes. All will attend, with the exception of the Teenage Niece (hereinafter known as “The Vegetarian”) who will be permitted to remain in bed – though not in perpetuity.

The Female Cousin from New Zealand (“The Cousin”) shall also absent herself from the Sensible Breakfast, having been up since 4.30 am and being otherwise engaged with T’ai Chi exercises, Bolivian yodelling and such activities as she may consider necessary for her spiritual renewal.

Revoking all dispositions made heretofore, it has been RESOLVED that Main Presents shall be exchanged and opened not before 11 am. This is the time at which the Nephew of the Host, his Wife and Their Various Children who have come all the way from Leighton Buzzard (hereinafter known as “The Leighton Buzzard Contingent” or “Your Lot”) have notified their intention of going to church.

It is therefore agreed that all Xmasees shall walk to church and, on arrival, “Your Lot” shall enter the church for the service, WHEREUPON all others shall run back to the house for the exchange and opening of the Main Presents.

EXCEPTIONS: the Cousin shall run both ways. Your Lot shall open their presents inside church, PROVIDED such presents do not contain any noisy electrical motors or explosive materials, whatsoever, in such a way as might cause a distraction. The Vegetarian shall remain at home at this time to receive telephone calls from the Grandparents who shall be driving down from Hampshire and who shall have lost their way.

For the purposes of this Agreement, the term “Main Presents” shall not apply to any wrapped item which may appear on the branches of the Christmas tree or thereunder. INSOFAR as there are such presents in the vicinity of the tree, they are to be opened at a time specified below in this Agreement.

We hereby appoint Your Lot to be trustees of all batteries and manuals of instruction. The oldest child of Your Lot shall video the Queen’s Speech, PROVIDED that this does not interrupt the Harry Potter video at a crucial stage in the plot.

The Christmas Lunch shall take place at 4.20 pm. NOTWITHSTANDING the arrival time of the Grandparents who shall be stuck in a one-way system (or similar traffic hazard) near Basing, Basingstoke, Basildon or Bracknell, or wheresoever.

While the Lunch is being prepared, no one shall enter the kitchen except the Host and Hostess. EXEMPTIONS: Each child shall be permitted a maximum of three visits to the kitchen for the purposes of securing a peanut butter sandwich, the peanut butter whereof shall be crunchy. The Cousin shall permit herself a glass of celery, beetroot and carrot juice.

The Lunch shall consist of a roasted turkey and such trimmings as may be deemed appropriate.

In order to meet the wishes, as far as possible of the lunchees, BE IT KNOWN that the turkey shall be cooked according to the procedures laid down by Delia Smith. HOWEVER, the bread sauce shall be prepared in such a manner as would meet the approval of Jamie Oliver.

Be it further known that a proportion of the roast potatoes (not less than 17% and not more than 23%) shall be soggy, howsoever this effect is achieved.

It shall be the responsibility of all those present (not excluding the Vegetarian) to pass the gravy on demand.

Nobody shall be obliged to try the lemongrass, bulgur wheat and galangal stuffing prepared by the Cousin from a Thai recipe.

The Vegetarian undertakes to have her mobile phone switched to “vibrate” for at least half the duration of the meal.

Refer to Annexe F of this Contract for the schedule of who pulls crackers with whom. In the event of a dispute between the puller and the pullee over the ownership of the novelty inside the cracker (or under the sideboard) it shall be decided by one of the Grandparents, or, in the event of the non-arrival of the Grandparents, by the Nephew. Should the Nephew have left the room with a headache, the matter may be settled with a fight.

All Xmasees must wear a paper hat for the purposes of the video being shot by the Cousin. After which, the Vegetarian may remove hers.

The Brother-in-Law hereby gives up his right to shout out the answer to all the riddles, absolutely and without reservation.

Refer to Annexe G of this Contract for a schedule of excuses which shall be deemed acceptable for not taking part in a brisk walk after lunch.

Presents from the tree shall be distributed at 6.30 pm (and not after 7 pm if the Cousin has not yet returned from her run). Following this, giftors and giftees will exchange shop receipts for all their presents. This constitutes completion after the earlier exchange of presents. Giftees are now legally responsible for all items they may have received.

In the event of Charades, and in compliance with the terms of the Peace Treaty signed after last Christmas, no charade shall include the title of an opera or a Polish film or a novel written after 1996. (See Annexe H for a complete list of clever-dick titles not acceptable for Charades.)

At the conclusion of the festivities, and as guests are departing, expressions such as “You must come to us next year” or “Let’s make the next one a great big get-together for the whole family” or “Wouldn’t it be great to do this in New Zealand?” shall have no legal status WHATSOEVER and shall not bind the blurter or blurtee in any way.

In witness whereof I set my hand, and seal with a blob of mince pie filling.

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. The next posting will appear at 00:01 on 1 January (“12 useful things for today”).

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

A list to end all lists

Today, Christmas Eve, can often be more stressful than The Big Day itself, and the best way of dealing with this is to draw up a strict timetable and stick to it.

I thought my avid followers might find helpful guidance in my own schedule for the day when I last did the deed myself (a few years ago now I’m pleased to say). Note that I used the 24-hour clock in all timings as this adds a note of brisk efficiency.

05.25: get up and locate next year’s diary and open at the kilos-to-pounds conversion table. Put the diary in a prominent place so that it is easy to find on Christmas morning. Return to bed.

06.25: get up and make list of where important things are located – eg “diary on top of fridge; turkey in next door’s garage; emergency silver foil in airing cupboard; list of useful telephone numbers next to telephone”.

07.00: gather all leaflets showing the opening times of local shops over the Christmas period and pin these to the inside of the front door. Check that the “small change in the event of carol singers” is in the appropriate tin and the label is clearly visible.

07.30: pace.

08.55: transfer the remaining items on General Shopping List to the Last Minute Shopping List. Throw away the first list to avoid confusion.

09.40: mark the television programmes you want to watch in yellow highlighter pen and those you want to record in red highlighter pen. Add “highlighter pens” to the Last Minute Shopping List.

10.10: add “Discuss Christmas pudding timings” to the Things to Do List. Spend some time updating Things to Do List by ticking items you have already done. Make the first of your hourly checks on Christmas tree to ensure that it is still perpendicular. Initial the chart hanging on the tree after every check.

11.05: make sure that nobody else in the household has a list. This is very important, which is why I always underline it on my timetable, even though I normally live alone. The existence of parallel lists can lead to serious breakdowns in organisation, like multiple buying of parsley, confusion over Christmas pudding timing, location of emergency silver foil and Christmas dinner seating plan.

12.45: pk grns at CR and pdl. I am not sure now what this means, but it has been on my schedule for the past eight years, so it must be important. In 2001 it had three exclamation marks next to it. In 2002 it was in red highlighter pen.

14.05: add “Put on Christmas Carol CD at 22.30” to Things to Do List. Also make a note that it tends to go all wobbly on In the Bleak Midwinter possibly due to a smudge of last year’s marzipan.

16.00: remove half empty bottles of bubbly bath essence and shower gel from bathroom cupboard to make room for new arrivals tomorrow. Place the old ones in a box marked “Old Bath Essences etc” and store the box in next door’s garage.

19.05: make a list of all the people who sent you Christmas cards, but were not on your Christmas card list. Open a computer file of names and addresses of people you missed this year. Make different columns, according to whether the cards they sent were “religious” or “landscape” or “light-hearted”.

20.15: add “Wipe down all CDs at 22.00” on Things to Do List. Allow some time for staring out of the window. Take stock. Think of all the things you have done which were not actually on your Things to Do List, add them to that list and then tick them off.

21.25: make another spot check to be sure that nobody else in the family has started up a new rival list. Confiscate it and tear it into very small pieces. Arrange in the cartons of milk in the fridge in order of “use by” date.

21.30: deliver a Christmas card (preferably “landscape”) to the people next door to thank them for the use of storage space in their garage. While you are visiting them, see if you can get a surreptitious peep at their list in case they have put you down for a present. If so, go to the box marked “Old Bath Essences etc” and top up one of the bottles for them. It can be wrapped in silver foil. (Emergency roll in airing cupboard.)

23.00: compile a list of e-mail numbers of far-flung friends and relations you wish to contact on Christmas Day. You could also e-mail those you should have sent cards.

23.40: fit in some further pacing. And make sure the chart on the Christmas tree has been initialled regularly.

23.50: start to compile a timetable for next Christmas and, on the Things To Do List, write: “Double check, when you deliver card to next door neighbours, that they are not going away late on Christmas Eve, taking the key to their garage so that your turkey is locked away for next five days.”

I wish you a foolproof Christmas.

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Festive games for all the family

I like to think that, in spite of all the commercialisation, all the outpourings of tacky television “specials” and all the over-indulgence, Christmas is still about just one thing – fierce competitiveness.

Perhaps, at that First Christmas, as they were approaching Bethlehem, weary after their long journey, one of the Three Wise Men turned to the others and said: “Tell you what, let’s race the last hundred metres.”

Here is my selection of Fun Competitive Games for Christmas.  Tot up your score as you go along and check out the scorecard at the foot of this posting. So, to get the party going with a swing …

Gift Spotting. You all go out in a group on the morning of Christmas Day, look at the other people who are out for a walk and see how many presents you can identify. Win two points for a father wearing brand new gloves, three points for a scarf, four for a doll’s pram, five for a child’s new bike. A 10-point bonus if the child falls off the bike.

Roddicks. In this game, you remove the label from a Body Shop product, then sit in a circle and pass it round, taking turns to smear it on the soles of your feet, massage it into your ear lobes, dab it on your eyelids, rub it in your hair, then finally guess what it is actually for.

A bonus of 10 points if you can name the Senegalese tree from whose bark the essence is made. Fifteen more points if you can spell it.

Sniff the Soap. This is an old traditional game, believed to have originated in East Anglia as long ago as 1963. Players are blindfolded and pass round Christmas present bars of soap, trying to identify the scent.

Five-point bonus for gardenia. Three-point penalty for evening primrose. This game can also be played with bath salts, but don’t inhale too deeply.

Hunt the Sprout. It is believed that this game was introduced to this country by Prince Albert.

Find the Flange. An updated version of Hunt the Sprout. According to the rules laid down by the Flange Hunting Board of Control, there should be a minimum of 46 sheets of scrumpled up wrapping paper on the floor before the hunt begins.

For the children’s version it can be 23 sheets. Penalty of 20 points if you find Barbie’s left shoe.

Games of skill

Indoor Showjumping. Against the clock, each contestant has to go round the room and locate the Christmas card from Alison, Debbie, Dave and Jerry and All at the Woolwich. A penalty point is deducted for every card knocked over – two penalty points if the knocked over card has a Dove of Peace on it.

On a Roll. Each contestant is given a 15-metre roll of kitchen foil. The object is to see how much of it you can unroll before it splits down the middle. A point is awarded for every centimetre unrolled.

Film Buff’s Bluff. Each person in turn stands up and whistles the theme music of The Great Escape while juggling Brazil nuts. Points are awarded according to the number of nuts juggled. A penalty of 75 points for the Dambusters March.

Silly Syllables. Each player has to mime five good reasons why he or she doesn’t want to play charades. A 30-point penalty for over-acting and a 20-point bonus if you manage without using the “Rhymes with” gesture.

Intellectual games

Read This First. You are given 15 minutes each to read the instruction booklet (in six languages) for the new piece of digital/electronic equipment. Then all you have to do is see how many Japanese expressions you can recite.

A bonus of 100 points if you can say in Japanese: “When wiring the plug it is essential that you attach the yellow and green wire to the correct terminal.” This can be trumped by any contestant who knows the Finnish for “Failure to do so could be fatal.” No points for this, but a warm round of applause.

A Word for It. See how many adjectives beginning with the letter H you can think of to describe Uncle Wilfred who is coming round later on for tea. The winner is the one who has the most number of adjectives nobody else has thought of.

No Answer to That. The organiser of this game reads out the riddles from all the crackers. A 75-point penalty for anybody who blurts out the right answer.

Mental Arithmetic. Multiply the number of videos of Bridget Jones’s Diary you have been given by the copies of the Jamie Oliver book you have received (minus the number of items of Harry Potter merchandise) then divide the total by the number of Ferrero Rocher chocolates you have eaten.

The contestant whose final total comes nearest to seven gets 15-point bonus. In this game, the Shrek video may be substituted. DVDs count double.

More physical games

Frisbee Fun. In these game, you all go into the garden and take it in turns to see how far you can throw the CD with Michael Jackson singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on it.

There is a 45-point bonus for the person who throws it when the dog from next door catches it and runs away with it. And a glorious 100 points to anyone who can get the CD stuck in the branches of a tree.

Who’s the Tooth Fairy? This is a really tough and rather unpleasant game, favoured by the brasher type of City trader and by Premier Division footballers when they return from the night-club.

You sit in a circle (again) and pass round a box of glace fruits, taking one fruit and eating it. A person drops out if he winces as the glace fruit homes in on a cavity in his tooth. The game goes on until only one person remains.

Peak Viewing. Strip all the branches off the Christmas tree, so that you are left with just the trunk. Lay it out with one end on top of the back of the sofa and the other on an armchair.

Now, two people sit astride the trunk and try to knock each other off, using only rolled-up copies of the Complete Christmas TV Guide.

How did you score?

  • More than 1,000 points: it’s your turn to come to us next year.
  • Between 500 and 1,000 points: the roads are looking a bit icy so John and Marion are going to have to stay the night.
  • Up to 500 points: blizzards are forecast so John and Marion will have to stay till further notice.
  • Minus 20 points: next time you really will just go off and stay in a hotel as you have always threatened.

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 24 December – A list to end all lists
  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Even wise men make lists

The wisdom of making a list of things to do in the run-up to Christmas is acknowledged by all.

Right now, all over the country, there are lists pinned to kitchen doors and stuck on refrigerators and stuffed into pockets. There are commands, underlined, on wipe-clean notice boards, saying “get chestnuts” and there are seasonal exhortations, such as “Sellotape” and “find angel” and “defrost”.

By this time, many families will boast as many as three or four lists, scattered round the house, including an urgent top-priority master list. Tis the season of the jolly felt-tip highlighter pen. As the great day approaches, excitement mounts as more and more ticks appear on the list.

The tradition goes back a very long way. In pre-Christian times, round about the winter solstice, crude hieroglyphs, scratched on stones, said “More woad!” and “check mistletoe” and “send out invites for pagan rite”. These people are believed to have been the first to use the tick as a primitive religious symbol.

Now, the really exciting news. Archeologists believe that lists were kept by the Wise Men at the time of the Nativity. In fact, this use of this basic organisational system is probably the very reason they were reckoned to be wise in the first place. An ancient astral chart was recently discovered near Bethlehem and the experts were puzzled by two words scrawled in the margin. They were obviously written in a hurry and were difficult to decipher, but now it seems pretty certain that these words are “order sprouts”.

This was a major advance in scholarship and it throws a whole new light on what we have hitherto understood about the history of the list-making culture. Just last week the experts detected more faint marks on the back of the chart that have convinced them that it belonged to the Wise Man known as Melchior. One line appears to say: “Bear Gift – platinum? silver? bronze? ornament? gold?” Then all items but the last one are crossed out.

The discovery also solved the mystery of two other separate fragments of scrolls found on a nearby site by a different team of archaeologists. One said: “Get voucher or poss myrrh.” The other said: “Frankincense, or something equally nice and smelly.”

It seems that Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar did what many of us do to this day: they consolidated their three lists into one main list. This carried such reminders as “Borrow copy of Bethlehem Good Inn Guide” and “Caspar to bring early form of telescope for observing star” and “We need five more tent pegs”.

There is strong evidence that there was originally a Fourth Wise Man. “Contact Tarquin” appears on the list heavily underlined, then “Get Tarquin’s address”. The name then shows up several times with an increasing number of question marks. Finally, probably in Balthazar’s handwriting, the message appears: “Tarquin can’t make it – says his camel is playing up.”

We know that the Wise Men went to see King Herod from the entry saying “RSVP Herod”, followed by: “Present (bottle?) for KH”. Later on, “bottle” has been crossed out and the words “box of dates” have been put in its place. And we can find confirmation of the meeting with the Wise Men on Herod’s list where it says: “Tasteful card for WM – picture of self with family or poss young girl playing lute? Or bleak landscape with humble abode.” In what is obviously a cynical afterthought, he has written: “Pref a charity card – anything except Amnesty or Save the Children.”

Herod’s list is remarkably comprehensive. It begins “Rule despotically”, goes on to “More despotism!” then to: “consult WM” and “be troubled”. Finally, there is the chilling memo to himself: “Do something about firstborn.”

In a ruined shelter for shepherds in a remote area, an ancient calendar was found recently that could well play an important part in the story. Different reminders appear next to the different days. “Abide in fields” is followed by “a in f” and then “keep abiding”. Another entry says: “Don’t forget flocks!!!!” The four exclamation marks suggest this was a crucial part of their way of life. The next one says: “Keep w over f’s.” On what would have been Christmas Eve somebody has written “Expect g ts” which is almost certainly a reference to the glad tidings they were soon to hear.

On the shepherd’s calendar one other word appears. This may not be so important as all the others, but after all these centuries it carries a message that still has resonance with us in these modern times. It simply says “Parsley.” Put it on your list now.

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 23 December – Festive games for all the family
  • 24 December – A list to end all lists
  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Rudolf the bleeped reindeer

I am not happy about some of the words of the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and I think it would be advisable to have them bleeped out.

I am particularly worried about the line: “They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”

What exactly are “reindeer games”? There must be a suspicion that this is some coded message about drugs. It could refer to the smoking of some kind of hallucinogenic lichen or possibly the chewing of magic moss.

Rutting inevitably comes to mind. This is hardly fitting subject matter for a children’s song at Christmas. I suggest that reindeer games could refer to some rutting-related sexual activity, possibly involving antlers or snowdrifts – or maybe ice cubes.

Perhaps they are one of those services offered in mystifying cards in phone boxes, in specialist magazines, or in the dingier corners of the internet.

Here we have an obvious case where digital obliteration is essential. So let it be: “They never let poor Rudolph bleep bleep bleep.”

The next words to consider are “red” and “nosed”. Will members of the sniffling community be offended? My instinct is to say that we all know people with colds and they are quite resilient about jokes being made about the affliction. In our modern outspoken age, after all, sneezes are treated as lightly as hiccups.

A red nose which is the result of consuming too many units of alcohol is quite another matter. How did Rudolph acquire his rubicund nasal organ? Sadly, the song does not tell us.

We could adjust the wording to: “Rudolph, the reindeer with a nasty cold, had a red nose,” but this would disturb the scansion. There is also the risk that people, just to be mischievous, will sing the original ambiguous version.

In the current climate we cannot allow it to be thought that we approve of people (or animals) drinking so much that their noses turn red. And we cannot allow the message to be put across that alcohol will help you “go down in history”. I have therefore decided to semi-bleep the line – ie to blur the words “red-nosed”.

The song goes: “Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say…” I think we are all agreed that the “f consonant” is best avoided in songs for children at any time in December when they are more excitable than usual. We could perhaps replace “foggy” with “soggy”, but this would involve a major overhaul of the lyrics to suggest that Rudolph had a waterproof nose. As we have already blurred “nose” in the first line, this would only add to the confusion. So bleep the “foggy”.

I’m also unhappy with the first syllable of the reindeer’s name. It looks as if it is supposed to be a signal that something suggestive or rude is to follow later in the song. So we’ll blur the “Rud”. I think this actually improves the song. Olph is a good name for a reindeer; it has an authentic Lapp ring to it.

So it’s: “Olph the blur blur reindeer had a very shiny bleep.” The trouble is, if you bleep the “nose” the rhyming word “glows” in the next line could easily give the game away. So let’s bleep them both.

It astonishes me, when there is so much concern about bullying, that anyone could even contemplate singing the line: “All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.” I suggest the whole of this line is left out if the song is sung before the watershed. When it is played later in the evening there should be an advance warning that the verse contains hints of bullying, with a statement stressing that we do not condone the calling of names.

Santa says: “Olph with your bleep so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Could it be that the brightness of Olph’s bleep is actually an illusion? Maybe it only appears bright to Santa because he has been experimenting with hallucinogenic lichen or dabbling in moss. Out with this subversive message.

We now come to the line: “Then all the reindeer loved him as they shouted out with glee.” We certainly don’t want anyone to get the idea that they loved him in a “reindeer games” kind of way. And, speaking personally, I’m not all that keen on shouting out with glee if it encourages rowdiness in our town centres. So we’ll bleep the “loved” and blur the “shouted”.

I think, as it’s Christmas, we can hold on to the glee if it’s sung responsibly. After these minor amendments the song is now perfectly acceptable.

I now turn my attention to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus“. There are one or two points…

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 22 December – Even wise men make lists
  • 23 December – Festive games for all the family
  • 24 December – A list to end all lists
  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Chill after reading

I always like to pay tribute to some person who will be working over the Christmas holiday around this time of December, and today I am talking to someone very special to all of us, an unsung hero. Without the work of this one man, none of us would be safe. He is Fergus Callender. Good morning to you Mr Callender.

“Yes, I suppose I can accept that. It is a good morning so far, but I don’t think we should assume it is going to remain good beyond 11.34 today. And, of course, the afternoon continues to be a grey area.”

You, I believe, are the Government’s Senior Anticipatory Optimising Officer, which means, to put it in layman’s terms, that you are the man with the job of deciding all the best-before dates for the things we eat.”

“When I say that is correct, I mean it is correct until 17th June 2033 when I reach the age of retirement. I believe it will be a Thursday. As there is the possibility that I could be struck by a satellite dish blown over by the wind or might fall victim to the flu epidemic of 2020, it would be better to say that you can’t really assume that I will be the Government’s Senior Anticipatory Optimising Officer beyond, say, 9th February 2021.”

I see that you are surrounded right now by thousands of jars of grainy mustard. Are these what you will be working on over Christmas?

“Yes, they will all be individually ‘best-befored’, to use our jocular expression, in order to protect the public, so that we can tackle the traditional lemon curd influx on 3rd January.”

“Do you have a particular date in mind for them, Mr Callender?”

“It’s a matter of intuition, mostly. At the moment I am toying with 4th September 2013, but I’m also very drawn towards 9th October.”

What would happen if I ate some of this grainy mustard a day after its best-before date?

“Within about half an hour you would develop a mould-like grey-green rash, your limbs would swell up, your tongue would turn black, then you would writhe for 17 minutes before expiring.”

What if I ate some a fortnight after its best-before date?

“The writhing would be more extreme and the hallucinations more colourful.”

Can you explain the difference between a ‘best before’ date and a ‘use by’ date?

“If a product has a ‘use by’ date of 13th January, like this tin of asparagus soup here, it means that at midnight on 13th January it will explode in your store cupboard or on the supermarket shelf. With ‘best before’ you get the writhing, with ‘use by’ you get the explosion. We find that asparagus soup is particularly volatile. Then there’s the ‘sell-by’ date. If your tin of anchovies, for example, is still on the supermarket shelf after its ‘sell by’ date, it will form a chemical chain reaction with household items in the store, such as fabric conditioners and toilet cleansers, to form a cloud of choking fumes.”

What will your own special Christmas treat be this year?”

“I’ve always been fond of dates, so I’ve bought myself a lovely five-year desk diary.”

Do you have any children?

“I have a son, Horatio. He is due to reach the awkward age on 2nd April 2017. Probably at about 10.15 am.”

And on Christmas Day?

“It will be lovely. I’ll wear a paper hat while dating the grainy mustard. It’s the same paper hat I wore last Christmas and I’ve worked out that it would be safe to go on wearing it until 16th June 2014, or 16th June if I want to be daring. After the mustards, I might treat myself and assess a consignment of frozen meatballs. Then I’ll read my horoscope. It’ll be great, especially as I don’t expect this building to collapse until the second half of 2020.”

May I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year, Mr Callender.

“Steady on!”

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 21 December – Rudolf the bleeped reindeer
  • 22 December – Even wise men make lists
  • 23 December – Festive games for all the family
  • 24 December – A list to end all lists
  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Wenceslas wishes you were here …

Their Good Majesties King Wenceslas and Queen Berta are currently on holiday in Barbados and will not be back in Bohemia until early in the new year.

They take this opportunity to wish all their friends a very happy Christmas. Even though they are far away, their thoughts will be with their people, especially on the Feast of Stephen.

Instead of sending Christmas cards this year, King Wenceslas is making donations to a number of charities. A full list of these can be found on his website (click on “Good” and follow the links), but here are some of the main causes the King and Queen are supporting:

Hither and Yonder. This is the umbrella organisation for a number of self-help groups undertaking community projects in the St Agnes area. A great deal of work still needs to be done to restore the fine old St Agnes fountain to its former glory after it was saved from the developers by an energetic local campaign. It also hoped to build a community centre for peasant mothers and toddlers. Money will also be used for essential repairs to the forest fence.

Give a Boar. Once again, King Wenceslas is supporting this admirable scheme started by Bohfam, to donate wild boars to the poorest inhabitants of the forest region to help them support themselves by raising livestock. There were teething problems with the scheme last year, but now the important stretch of the forest fence has been repaired and most of the victims of mauling have recovered from the worst of their injuries. Lessons have been learnt and it is time to move ahead with this scheme.

The Campaign for a Sustainable Bohemia. Thanks to the wonderful work of the popular singer Krok, awareness has been raised of the problem of depleting stocks of pine logs. The only solution is to turn to some form of sustainable energy, and that is why it is so important to support the plans for a wind farm a good league hence from His Majesty’s castle. More needs to be done to win over local objectors. Some dwellings will have to be demolished.

Deep and Crisp. This is the charity founded by that wonderful organisation Snow Concern and it is, of course, closely tied to Their Majesties’ other environmental interests. Do you remember when the moon shone brightly, the frosts were cruel and the wind blew stronger? All that could disappear if we don’t do something urgently about climate change. Pretty soon there could be no snow to lie dinted. Scientists say that, if nothing is done, by the year 989, flood water could reach the level of the turret of the castle from which King Wenceslas usually looks out on the Feast of Stephen.

Stand by Me. We all know about the growing problem of delinquency in the St Agnes area, having seen it with our own eyes. Many theories have been put forward to explain this. Some say it is boredom, because peasant youths don’t have enough facilities, while others claim it is the result of being exposed to the constant violent spectacle of vicious wild boars rampaging and goring people.

King Wenceslas had personal experience of the problem when, last Feast of Stephen, a guest of his (a yonder peasant, as it happens) was mugged while making his way home from the castle, somewhat inebriated after a convivial night. In July their Majesties held a charity ball in aid of Stand by Me.

Tread Thou Boldly. Queen Berta is patron of this charity which runs a retirement home specially for former pages with frostbitten feet. Alas, inadequate footwear for manservants is a long-standing problem in Bohemia, and they are often expected to go out at all hours of day and night. Tread Thou Boldly offers them expert nursing care and treatment by the nation’s top chiropodists. Before they left for Barbados, King Wenceslas and Queen Berta donated a substantial amount of flesh and wine for a charity auction to raise funds to buy a mini-sledge to take patients on outings round our beautiful forested region.

Coming up next …

I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).

  • 20 December – Chill after reading
  • 21 December – Rudolf the bleeped reindeer
  • 22 December – Even wise men make lists
  • 23 December – Festive games for all the family
  • 24 December – A list to end all lists
  • 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
  • 01 January – 12 useful things for today

Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.

Silent knight, holy knight

Many problems of etiquette arise at Christmas time, so today I am dealing with some of your recent queries.

To “Puzzled of Bohemia”: have you thought of making a donation to a peasants’ charity? Perhaps there is a fund for the restoration of the St Agnes fountain, for example. This way, you would avoid any possible misunderstanding about going out and inviting a perfect stranger back to your house for flesh and wine. As you say, it could be seen as patronising. In any case, yonder individual may be quite well off and just collecting logs for the wood-burning stove in his bijou second home in the countryside.

One has to be so careful in one’s dealings with pages, so I think your treading in footsteps idea is a non-starter. My advice is: if in doubt, don’t dint. You could give your page a bit of cash and ask him to go to the charity shop and choose a pair of stout boots for himself. And on the Feast of Stephen this year you might think of organising some sort of entertainment, like a game of charades, to help you resist the temptation to look out.

To “Sleighsick”: tinnitus is a distressing affliction and I’m sorry people are not being more sensitive about it. If you don’t want to offend your in-laws, why not accept the offer of a lift in their sleigh but specify that you want to jingle only half the way?

To “Mortified”: yes, I think you may have committed a faux pas. The word “deck” in this context must have meant “decorate” and was not being used as a slang expression for knocking someone to the ground. Your friends the Halls must have been alarmed to see you advancing on them with a holly bough. I can only suggest that you try to make light of the incident and hope they will come to see that it was a lot of Fa la la la la, la la la la about nothing.

To “Flustered”: if your tidings really can’t wait, it would be OK to interrupt the night-time gathering of the shepherds. As you say they are all “seated on the ground”, it’s obviously an informal “pot luck” occasion so I don’t see how you would be regarded as a gatecrasher. I would try to draw one of the shepherds to one side and discreetly pass on the news. Avoid any kind of a fuss, and, above all, don’t disturb the flocks – shepherds are touchy about that sort of thing.

To “Dismayed”: you are being over-sensitive. Your feud with your neighbours is based on a simple misunderstanding caused by faulty punctuation. You wrongly assumed they were suggesting that you and your flatmate were drunken gays when they referred to you as merry gentlemen. There was a comma missing and it was actually “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” Why not invite them round for cheese and wine and comfort and joy?

To “Landlubber”: dropping in unannounced on Christmas Day is really not acceptable and you are entitled to be annoyed if you see three ships come sailing in without so much as a by-your-leave. Why not get yourself some semaphore flags and signal to them that it is just not convenient this year? If you have issued a general “O Come All Ye Faithful” invitation, then you have told everyone it’s open house and you have to take what’s coming to you.

To “Worried Red Berries”: you must insist on your right to bear the crown. And, while there’s not much you can do about the rising of the sun, the running of the deer should be kept within reasonable bounds and you should try to reach some agreement over the playing of the merry organ.

Finally, I have a reminder about an important matter of etiquette which I always pass on at this time of year: it is “not done” to sing the descant of The First Noël unless specifically invited to do so.

Who to tip?

For many people, this can be a worrying time of year.

I believe I can help by answering the question that bothers them most: “Who am I supposed to tip at Christmas? And how much?

Incidentally, the tradition of the “Christmas box” goes back to Victorian times, when tradesman used to call on customers who would then literally box their ears to encourage them to do even better next year. So you would give the paper boy a hearty cuff and say: “Take that, you scallywag. That’s for failing to deliver my copy of the lavishly illustrated souvenir pull-out supplement on the Repeal of the Corn Laws.” Then the poor boy would go, hot-eared, to the house next door to take his punishment for scrunching up the Horse & Carriage section of the Saturday paper in the letterbox.

Cuffing tradesmen has mostly died out now. Today, the Christmas box is more likely to be the cardboard container covered with colourful wrapping paper, marked “Wishing All Our Customers a Merry Xmas”. It has a slot carved in the lid and it is placed next to the cash-till in the dry cleaners, the vet’s surgery, the DIY shop and the Indian takeaway. This can lead to tricky situations, but you just have to decide how good a customer you have been over the past year and then help yourself to what you consider is the appropriate amount.

Here is my handy guide to seasonal tipping:

Dustmen. Now that most councils have farmed out refuse collection to private companies, the dustmen who come to call at this time of year probably just want to express their gratitude for getting the contract. You can expect them to pay each household about a fiver. Refusal to accept this can offend.

Carol singers. These days, they usually use their mobile phones to ring you up and give you one-and-a-half verses of Away in a Manger. If you have a star button on your telephone, press it twice, give your credit card details, and the appropriate sum will be deducted from your account.

The ISP 24-hour help desk. These people who talk you through your online crises certainly expect a token of your gratitude on Christmas Eve. You should go round and see them, shake hands and leave a present. The normal gift is a haunch of venison. Or a brace of pheasant, at a pinch.

Postmen. They appreciate the personal touch. Make them a Christmas card collage out of some of the mail-order catalogues you have received.

The bank manager. In the old days, you sent him a bottle of medium dry sherry. Now you have an interactive personal banking account supervisory team, consisting of Doug, Sue, Rick, Trish and Jojo, and they are expecting you to show up at lunchtime on 22nd December, take them to the pub and get absolutely smashed. If not, some time next year you’ll find a lot of your old bank statements dumped on your front path and your lawn.

Traffic wardens. Traditionally, the BMW owner (as the unofficial squire) living in any street is obliged to invite the local traffic wardens in for mulled wine, mince pies and carols round the tree. Owners of other vehicles, parked at a safe distance, may then arrive bearing gifts.

Television repair men. The tradition is that the first television repair man to cross the threshold between 18th December and 6th January receives a slice of cake and £75. This is known as the “call-out charge” and dates back to the 18th century, when officers of the watch used to patrol the streets at night calling out seasonal greetings.

If you want to give a more imaginative token, you can follow the custom of pagan times when, at the winter solstice, they gave presents of bunches of beech twigs and rushes smeared with clay and bound together with crude twine. These were supposed to have the power to ward off boils and foot rot. They are fun to make and will be appreciated by the delivery man or the hairdresser or the paper boy.

And certainly better than the boring old fiver in a Christmas card!

Christmas shopping ideas (pt 2)

Here’s the promised sequel to my recent posting about ideas for Christmas presents for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life:

Why not buy your loved one a seven-day intensive course in tweeting? Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa, in the New Forest, now combines these advanced Twitter classes with its health and fitness regimes, so he/she can learn the art and etiquette of tweeting from the comfort of his/her mud bath. Learn to tweet in Spanish and French. At the end he/she gts a beautfl inscrbd dplma on prchmnt. The cst=£5.2k 4 the wk. Non-veg opt avail.

The must-have executive toy this year is the Hume Patented Paperclip Straightener. Simply place the paperclip in the elegant box, covered in hand-tooled leather, and, after 30 second it pops out perfectly straight. It can take 100 paperclips at a time.

Also, for the man in your life, the Pezholio Enlarger. This is a special magnifying glass for reading his tabloid/compact newspaper and making it appear to be broadsheet.

Malvern woman now carries a neat pearl-handled tranquiliser dart gun in her handbag at all times. She knows that, if an enraged bull bursts out of John Lewis and comes charging towards her, she will be able to fell it at 20 paces. Also works on elephants requiring surgery. The Williams Ladies’ Dinky Tranquilizette is available by mail order at £149.99, including p&p.

Why not give your ever-lovin’ guy “Slurp on a Rope” and keep him happy in the shower for hours? This ingenious gift consists of the traditional soap on a rope, but with a brandy flask inside, so he can tipple while he lathers. Also available in Bailey’s and Advocaat. On sale in the off-licence section of most branches of Boots, price £18.99.

Do you ever find yourself, at the end of a dinner party, longing to leave but unable to communicate the fact to your partner, who is chattering away at the other end of the table? This is your answer – the Bijou Distress Flare. The size of a cigarette lighter, it fires coloured lights into the air. Choice of orange or green flares. Explosions optional. If this does not attract your partner’s attention, you could always shoot him with your Ladies’ Dinky Tranquilizette.

Has your man got a mini Armani jacket for his iPhone?

If you want to give a friend a present for the house, the Wind Chimes Boxed Set CD gives hours of soothing wind chime sounds from varying wind strengths. The last track on the fourth CD is entitled Chimes in a Hurricane and in the background, behind the tinkling, you can actually hear the noise of a roof being torn off. A great conversation piece.

For the person who says he/she wants “something useful” the solution is the Conran Reminder. This beautifully finished maple wood tray with silver rods holding different-sized coloured balls, with fine wires stretched between them, can be placed on a table or a shelf and it reminds you to go and have a look round the Conran shop some time. Special offer price: £707.

The Gentleman’s Garlic Room Spray, in the form of a fountain pen, is the perfect stocking filler. Two bursts and it neutralises the un-pleasing niff of scented candles at Christmas time.

Don’t forget the Cosmetic Surgery Vouchers.

Presents for the kitchen

The Personalised Brillo Pad Container stops your scourer making rusty marks on your work surfaces. Send your photograph to the manufacturers and it will be printed on the container. Or you can have it decorated with a Lord of the Rings motif . . . Or, having a problem with things dropping off the fridge door? Get a Fridge Magnet Re-Charger. Simply plug it in and leave the magnets in it for three days.

The Mini Kitchen Camcorder allows your boyfriend to film himself successfully getting the top off the marmalade jar, so he can keep the evidence for posterity.

Have you thought of cranberry tongs?

Following a fascinating first visit to a YO! Sushi recently, this year I am buying my housemate the brilliant Lotus Garden Telescope, a snip at £90. This ingenious device is a telescope, disguised as a chopstick, which will enable her to see what other people are having to eat at even the most distant tables in a sushi bar. There is also a Chinese restaurant model.

Merry shopping to one and all!