The older I get, the more Scrooge-like I become. I’m dyspeptic, misanthropic, curmudgeonly, parsimonious and unsentimental. Caroline, by contrast, is even-tempered, sweet-natured, charitable, generous and easily moved. Yet paradoxically, I love Christmas, whereas she regards it as a time of year to be endured rather than enjoyed. This inevitably leads to a number of arguments and, as with everything else connected with the festival, they’ve become ritualised. So here are the rows that are guaranteed to occur in the Young household at this time of year.
The season always begins with a heated discussion about external lighting. My ideal is to go Full Chav, with a giant neon-lit Santa plastered over the front of the house, along with sleigh, reindeer, elves… the lot. Caroline, on the other hand, would like absolutely nothing. We usually end up compromising on some discreet Christmas lights on the magnolia tree in our front garden — and by ‘discreet’ I mean soft, yellow bulbs that don’t flash. I then sneak down in the middle of the night and hang an electronic ‘Merry Christmas’ sign above the front door, and if she’s feeling tolerant she pretends not to notice it.
Next on the agenda is the tree argument. No, this isn’t about the size — after years of being worn down, she now grudgingly accepts that anything less than eight feet is pathetic — but about when to get it. If it were up to me, I’d stick it up straight after bonfire night, but Caroline’s preference is last thing on Christmas Eve. This year, I agreed to delay it until 19 December on account of the new addition to our household — an incontinent Vizsla puppy. God knows, Leo doesn’t need an excuse to do his ‘business’ on the floor, but having a large tree in the sitting room won’t help.
I’m a member of Bafta and one of my favourite things about this time of year is being sent DVDs of the year’s best films in the run-up to the awards. This always leads to arguments with Caroline about which films are ‘suitable’ for the children. I’m not completely liberal about this — I won’t press the case for the new Tarantino movie, for instance — but I’m a lot more relaxed than her. We normally fight over the 18-rated comedies and I’m anticipating a big bust-up over Spy. The kids absolutely love Melissa McCarthy so I’ll probably win this one.
My father was fond of inviting waifs and strays for Christmas lunch, and even though I was slightly irritated by this as a child, I’d like to do the same. I did have some success in persuading Caroline to let me invite my bachelor friends when we only had one or two children, but as our family has grown she’s put her foot down. Since she’s the person doing all the cooking, and our combined families mean there are never less than 12 seated round the table, I’ve had to concede on this one.
Caroline insists on cooking a large Morrison’s turkey each year, even though turkey is my least favourite white meat. Whenever I complain about this, she immediately fires back with ‘but I thought you were the one who wanted a traditional Christmas’, an example of her mastery of the jujitsu move. My preference would be two large roast chickens, but my offer to cook these are always rebuffed by claims that our kitchen isn’t large enough to accommodate both of us. Either I do everything, or I leave it to her and that means turkey. This is particularly sadistic given that she’s a vegetarian.
It’s not enough to steer well clear of the kitchen on Christmas Day — Caroline says the stress of preparing lunch means the kids and I have to be out of the house between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Our ideal Christmas morning would be spent in front of the telly watching a Melissa McCarthy comedy, but she won’t have it. This year I expect she’ll insist we take Leo for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Given the kids’ attitude to walks of any kind, even ones to the local branch of Londis, I may need five leashes.
The only job Caroline entrusts me with is buying the booze, but even this requires a good deal of micro-management. Left to my own devices, I’d buy a case of vintage champagne, six bottles of Chablis Premier Cru, some good Californian Pinot and a couple of bottles of Sauternes. Caroline’s view, by contrast, is that spending more than £5 on a bottle of wine is a waste of money. I once made the mistake of telling her that the reason professional wine tasters spit rather than swallow is because after a glass or two it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad wine. She is now guaranteed to bring this up every Christmas, regarding it as a copper-bottomed argument for buying plonk.
After everyone has arrived, but before lunch, we ‘do tree’, which involves opening all the presents beneath the Christmas tree (now covered by a sheet of waterproof plastic, because of Leo). Everyone has a job — someone to hand them out, someone to read the cards etc., and my job is ‘paper elf’ which involves disposing of all the discarded wrapping paper. This is Caroline’s revenge for my insistence on a traditional Christmas, and she enjoys nothing more than pointing to some tiny scrap I’ve missed and saying, ‘Paper elf! Paper elf!’ After years of trying to persuade her that I’d be better suited to another role — fire elf, for instance — I’ve concluded that resistance is futile.
As soon as the last guests have left, we swap places. Caroline wants to collapse in front of the telly, watching unsuitable films with the children and gorging on chocolate, while I become a whirlwind of wholesome activity. I want to go for long walks in the country, eat lots of vegetables, and go to the local health club to try and ‘run off’ the extra pounds I’ve gained.
Her standard response is to say that the only way to get her to sign up to a frenetic round of post-Christmas activity is to spend the entire holiday period in some hot country, like Thailand. That would never do, obviously, so I’m resigned to rehashing all the same arguments again next year. In truth, I quite enjoy them. And that’s probably another respect in which Caroline and I differ.
Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator.