Silent knight

Many problems of etiquette tend to arise around Christmas time, so I thought it was about time I dealt with some of your latest queries that have been flooding into my inbox in recent days.

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 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 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, gentleman.” 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 of the playing of the merry organ.

Some previous Christmas posts on this blog:

  1. Get in trim for Christmas
  2. Wenceslas wishes you were here
  3. Christmas shopping ideas – Part 1 and Part 2
  4. A list to end all lists
  5. Even wise men make lists
  6. Festive games for all the family
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Post-Christmas inquiry

The public inquiry, conducted by the distinguished judge Lord Hindsight, into the Events Occurring on 25th December enters its sixth day today.

Here are some of the questions that Lord Hindsight will have to consider: when the Wilkinsons arrived on Christmas morning, did anyone notice the manner in which Marjorie Wilkinson slammed the car door? Should Mr David Truscott (the host) have spotted the door-slamming, realised that it was a sign of trouble to come and warned his wife, Julia? Whose responsibility was it to stop the New Zealand Cousin singing the show-offy descant in the spontaneous outburst of Noel Noel?

The judge will also have to consider if it had been foreseen that charades could occur and what steps had been taken to prevent them. One of the mysteries he will have to solve is, who was in the know, about the New Zealand Cousin’s second allergy? Although all relevant people had been informed of the cranberry hazard, the second allergy came as a surprise.

The judge is also expected to decide whether the remarks made by Martin Truscott (aged nine) about the gravy went beyond the bounds of fair comment.

The inquiry is expected to last several months, but, by the end of it, we should know what role, if any, was played by the Vegetarian Niece. She is, of course, the 14-year-old daughter of Julia Truscott’s sister Dawn and her husband, Clive Minter. It is thought that Clive Minter’s position as brother-in-law could be under threat when Lord Hindsight produces his findings.

Today, the New Zealand Cousin will be giving evidence from behind a screen. Yesterday the Granny spent three hours on the witness stand, but gave very little away, sticking to her story that she had spent the whole day eating chocolates and Turkish Delight and looking at family photograph albums. She strongly denied suggestions that she had been responsible for the “killer photo-message” sent from a mobile telephone in the house. She insisted that the only time she left the room was to arrange her eight new bars of soap in order of fragrance.

Supporters of Marjorie Wilkinson say that she spent 25 minutes alone, walking up and down the garden, because she wanted to have a cigarette without troubling other people. However, evidence has been given to the inquiry that she gave up smoking four years ago. One theory is that her time in the garden was a result of the notorious Stuffing Altercation. (Mrs Wilkinson had been a member of the sage and onion faction, which lost out to the campaigners for chestnut and sausage meat.)

One of Lord Hindsight’s recommendations is likely to be that, in future, the stuffing question should be negotiated and agreed by all interested parties, not later than 25th November.

It has been suggested that Mrs Wilkinson’s presence in the garden may have some connection with the earlier slamming of the car door, possibly following an in-car dispute with Mr Wilkinson.

No evidence has so far been produced to connect Mrs Wilkinson’s visits to the garden (three or four altogether) with the smuggling of mince pies and various alcoholic beverages to the five members of the Anti-War Street Theatre Group hiding in the garden shed. It remains the likeliest theory that the theatre group had links to the Vegetarian Niece.

No one has yet come forward to admit to have pulled the crucial cracker with young Martin Truscott which led to Martin crawling under the table to search for the novelty – believed to be a Homer Simpson key-ring. It was while looking for the novelty that Martin saw certain things occurring underneath the table. When he re-emerged and started to report what he had seen, attempts were made to silence him. The evidence of Clive Minter (the brother-in-law) will be crucial here. As will the testimony of Marjorie Wilkinson. Could what happened under the table have led to her taking up smoking again?

Mr and Mrs Leadbetter will be travelling from Leeds to appear before Lord Hindsight’s inquiry. They are expected to say that the Truscotts had specifically informed them that they were not invited for Christmas this year because they (the Truscotts) were having “a very quiet time” on their own.

The Leadbetters are likely to show the inquiry the “killer photo-message” they received on the day, showing all the family and guests (in festive paper hats) coming to the assistance of the New Zealand Cousin, who was just reaching the point of crisis in her allergic attack.

The Vegetarian Niece has now acknowledged that it was probably an error of judgment to invite the five members of the Anti-War Street Theatre Group into the house to join in the game of charades. It will be up to Lord Hindsight to decide if Mrs Truscott acted out of malice when “Sparky” (shawm player and leader of the street theatre group) acted out End the Occupation of Iraq and she guessed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

It will be important to establish at what point in time exactly, in the ensuing confusion, it was realised that “Sparky” and the Granny were missing. Were adequate steps taken to track them down? Did nobody report the absence of the shawm?

Lord Hindsight is also expected to rule on the legality of the Druid-style marriage of “Sparky” and the Granny solemnised in a woodland clearing in the vicinity of the M4. Finally, he will draw up a list of recommendations to ensure that such Christmases never occur again.

A selection of emails sent in preceding days

From truscotts@btinternet.com: dear wilkinsons, so glad you can come. must warn you that zinnia the new zealand cousin is descending on us … wont let it spoil things. remembering last time, we are removing all cranberries within a six-mile radius.

From cminter@aol.com: hi, bob and sue. sorry, am doomed to go to dread sister in law this xmas. Used singaporean yuppie flu excuse 3 years running and car packing up on motorway twice before that. Let’s do a proper christmas on dec 29th. will have to bring dear daughter. she’s still vegetarian but sometimes almost human.

From marjwilkinson@hotmail.com: dear truscotts, as you know, george is an extremely nervous driver so I am afraid we must refuse to pick up your granny on the way to you. am absolutely adamant about this.

Some text messages sent from the Granny’s mobile

It’s gr8. I am now entirely au f8 with this text messaging business.

Sorry can’t come and celebr8 with u. I will have to 4go that pleasure. I had completely 4got10 that I am going to truscotts. I feel very upside down smiley about this. It puts me in a satur9 mood.

It will be most un4tun8 if Marjorie Wilkinson is there on Christmas Day. I h8 her. She always makes me feel totally and utterly discombobul8ed.

Answers to the cracker riddles

  1. A 23-carrot gold ring.
  2. Because he knows his plaice.
  3. A kangaroo with a speech impediment.
  4. One is in the know and the other is in the nose.
  5. A Chinese taxidermist.
  6. Because he saw the butter fly.
  7. One tests watches and the other watches Tests.

12 useful things for today

1 There is an ancient tradition that cake, eaten in the dark, “never happened”. It is believed that this dates back to a special concession granted by Henry VII in 1489 to the Guild of Master Bakers and Tart Mongers to help them in the hard times brought about by the First Great Tudor Obesity Crackdown (1487-1491). Over the centuries, it has come to be generally accepted that the same rule applies to double cream consumed in a dimly lit room or sweetmeats eaten by candlelight, and, more recently, ice cream with your eyes closed.

2 As far as resolutions are concerned, the New Year does not actually begin on 1st January. They don’t become operative until you have filled in all your personal details at the front of your new diary.

3 The rules of good manners always override promises made in late December. Cigarettes, sausages, gin and tonics and roast potatoes should always be accepted when it would be rude not to do so. In a restaurant, spurning rich sauces may easily offend the waiting staff.

4 The second Thursday in January is known as Void Thursday. This day marks the end of the cooling off period for rash New Year decisions. Newly-purchased trainers and tracksuits may be returned to shops with no questions asked and many gyms hold special farewell parties for all the people who signed up for membership on 2nd January. Four days later we celebrate Null Monday. This is when, traditionally, we tell the new personal trainer that it’s not working out.

5 If you can say “good morning” and “thank you” that’s all the conversational Mandarin you really need. In fact it is sufficient attainment in any language.

6 Lambert & Butler Green, not enjoyed, do not count as smoking.

7 It is essential to save up some self-denial for Lent which begins early this year on 6th February. It would be foolish to find on 5th February that you were just too virtuous already. Many sensible people believe that it is a good idea to take on a few extra self-indulgences in January just to make the Lenten self-sacrifice more worthwhile.

8 Most lawyers agree that resolutions made under duress (that is, in the presence of one or more other people also making resolutions) are not binding. Indeed, even to remind a person of a resolution made under these circumstances could be regarded as a breach of their human rights.

9 If you have made a vow to be an all round nicer person, it would be a mistake to combine this with a New Year DIY blitz. You would be a danger to others if you lifted a hammer, spanner, power drill or other heavy implement before you were certain that you had made progress with the being nicer thing. This is a gradual process. (It is advisable to wait at least 12 months to be sure that the all round niceness has “taken”.)

10 A wise man once said: “A half-decorated kitchen is worse than no kitchen at all.” He also said: “There can never be a right colour for the spare bedroom” and “Wallpaper in haste, repent at leisure.” I can’t remember who he was, but he was exceedingly wise and his hair was flecked with magnolia.

11 So what if your novel is only four pages long? This could be a whole new genre.

12 A new year resolution should be regarded as a work in progress. There is all the difference in the world between breaking it and doing a certain amount of fine tuning. You may wish, as the months pass, to add footnotes, to point out that white wine does not count as alcohol and that it is acceptable to take a sabbatical from a dieting. Remember, Britain is noted for its EU opt-outs. So the way to keep resolutions alive is by continuous improvement. I often find that one doesn’t achieve the optimum, finished product resolution until about 30th December and there’s one day left to keep it.

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.