I used to spend a small part of every Christmas season worrying that perhaps that year, the particular year in which I was worrying, wasn’t quite as Christmassy as all the others. Generally speaking, I can take all the cinnamon and cloves and ching-chingy shop music you can throw at me, even the colossal seasonal uplift in general wassail-ment, without so much as a prickle of Nowell-feeling making itself known in my breast. Don’t for a minute think that I’m any kind of non-Christmas person — nothing could be further from the truth. The season of roaring fires, mince pies, seeing your breath, carols, frost, shooting, presents, booze, decent telly, family and more booze combines the very things I was put on this planet to enjoy the most. It’s just that Christmas Day will inevitably dawn unremarkably, averagely overcast and — just to make its point — at about room-temperature. There’ll be no angel choirs (I predict) and the walk to church, or to the bottle bank, or to fill the log-basket, will feel very much like any other day.
I daresay I could hire small itinerant groups of scarved Edwardian carol singers and dot them about the place under swinging lanterns (which I imagine they’d supply themselves), but even this wouldn’t do it. The truth is, it’s only ever in looking back on Christmas that it takes on any magic, only then do the headaches of ill children and underslept nights get swept away by the prevailing sense of triumph: we negotiated the coldest and darkest recess of the year, warm, well-fed and in good company, and we filled the wintery silence with loud and happy noise. And you don’t get that view of Christmas until you’ve rounded the bend of January. As with Advent calendars, I have learned that the glitter is applied long after the actual imprint.
Isn’t it strange how quickly things become Christmas customs? And how piously we then uphold and embellish them until they’ve become almost doctrinal? When we were little we used to gather for tea in the hall at home for the ninth, St John, lesson as it was broadcast from King’s on Christmas Eve. Every year throughout my teens I’d stare hotly at my Christmas cake avoiding the misty eyes of my parents as we all sang along to the last two carols and stood reverentially for the blessing. And no matter how strongly I feel that each generation must find its own traditions, or however evasively I’ll reply when my mother asks where we’ll be for ‘The Carols’, I will be listening from the beginning. And I will remember those ‘who rejoice with us but upon another shore and in a greater light’ and will look with misty eyes at my children as they stand awkwardly by.
Every December three friends and I put on a carol service at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. Unlike all their others, this one doesn’t raise money for any famous charity, just for St Paul’s itself. In its 170 years of standing grandly in Wilton Place it has never actually had any capital. Pew rents (long abolished) and the collection plate (albeit quite a generous one) are all that have kept it going. So when the ancient boiler conked out in 2004 the church was down to its last bean. After eight years of stalwart support — notably from Sir Terry Wogan who reads so wonderfully each year — and abject begging and press-ganging by our committee members to put some people in the pews, we have finally arrived at a point where the carol service is full to bursting. And with diarists and photographers turning up this year for the first time, it feels like we’ve managed to break on to some kind of calendar. It’s like putting down a decoy pigeon and seeing a hundred coming in to land. Most satisfying…
It’s six years since my friend Kris Thykier gave up his normal job to announce that he was becoming a film producer, and it is now time to admit that this was in fact an absolutely spectacular career move. There are very few job titles that carry such glamorous clout without always necessarily warranting it, but in Kris’s case the cachet is hard-earned. Irritatingly, he has had an unerring record of hits: Stardust, Kick-Ass, Harry Brown, The Debt, and last night we went to a screening of his newest, I Give It A Year, which comes out in February. It’s the kind of comedy that is normally only made by smart young Americans and I suspect it is going to be a monster hit. In fact, worse, I know it is. It’s going to be another of those moments when a friend suddenly becomes colossally successful and no, I don’t think a piece of me will die. But quite a lot of me hopes that I still get invited to his parties.
The 100 Most Pointless Things in the World by Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, published by Coronet in hardback is out now.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012