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.

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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!