It’s that time of year again. Yippee! And get your wallets out. Scrooges are no longer tolerated at Christmas, although once upon a time people were so fed up with the annual Christmas shakedown that in 1419 London biggies ruled that Christmas solicitations were banned. Servants, apprentices, tradesmen and churchmen had all become professional supplicants, and were not best pleased by the ukase. But as someone once said, it is better to give than to receive, so there. We now give to doormen, barbers, hairdressers, garage attendants, lift operators, building supers, postmen and rich tiny children with hands outstretched. You name it, they expect it. And let us not forget professional beggars outside expensive stores. One of them once threw the dollar I had given him back in my face. I pocketed it and thanked him, and he called me a fucking cheapskate. What the hell, I’ve been called worse names.
There is no more Christmassy city than New York, and no more Christmassy village than Gstaad, where I’m spending the holiest of days. The fact that there are millions of people on the make in New York and thousands in Gstaad is immaterial. Christmas puts everyone in a good mood, except for bearded types in sandy places. I think that having been sent away to boarding school at a very young age has a lot to do with the warm and pleasant feeling of anticipation that hits me when Christmas time comes around. It meant getting away from rules and regulations and boundaries and seeing up close what awaited me once I was free. (Old Dad had girlfriends galore and some very spirited friends with girlfriends.)
Even movies about Christmas are wonderful. Is there a better one than the delightful Christmas in Connecticut, shot of course in sweaty Los Angeles, starring the divine Barbara Stanwyck? There is a baby involved, a handsome naval officer, a powerful publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) and a beautiful wooden Connecticut farmhouse covered in snow. It begins in New York City. Everyone is hectic, trying to finish off before the holiday begins. The action moves to one of the most beautiful states in the union — except that it votes Democrat — and total confusion breaks out. It’s my favourite film about Christmas — that and Miracle on 34th Street.
The old cliché is that Christmas is for small children, but I don’t agree. I get more excited about Christmas than my children. Mind you, they are grown up (although I only allow pictures of them around the house taken when they were tiny). When the children were very young, Christmas gave me the opportunity to get drunk in front of them, because their Kaiser mother was always whispering in my ear that children who witness drunk parents end up being drunks themselves. An old wives’ tale if ever I heard one. Presents, of course, also help. For my first ten Christmases there were hardly any because we were at war and then occupied by the German army. During the civil war that ensued, old Dad managed to bring me a beautiful watch, crossing the communist lines to deliver it. I don’t know how many fathers would have done that. Those commies were really bad — mean and bloodthirsty as hell. Never mind, 28 years after his death I think of him a lot, especially at Christmas.
An old Greek custom was to give cakes and other goodies to the cops who, in their shiny silver helmets, used to direct traffic while perched in circular posts. This was before traffic lights arrived in the birthplace of selective democracy. Actually, the only ones who really deserve to get monetary presents are cops. People act funny at Christmas: men beat up their wives, children get high and drive too fast, muggers are out in force looking for victims. The only ones who have to remain sober and vigilant are cops, doctors on duty and ambulance drivers. Although we forget about them, they’re the real heroes. Try telling that to community leaders around the Bronx and Harlem in New York, or down the East End of London.
The Gstaad fuzz are the smartest. They don’t work on Christmas Eve or Day. In fact, I’ve never seen one of them working except when they discovered, Sherlock Holmes-like, that it was yours truly who had hit a tree and left a tiny scar on its bark on Christmas Eve 15 years ago. (You all know the story. Two cops barged into my chalet at 6 a.m., one of them a female. She asked me to follow her to the police station and I asked to go to my bedroom for a second. She followed and I asked her to remove her uniform but keep the gunbelt and boots on and get into bed. She arrested me and I was tried and convicted and heavily fined. Now she’s no longer a cop and is very friendly in town, but I keep my distance.)
So here we are, 40 years on from my first column. The only argument I ever had with a Spectator colleague was four decades ago at Christmas. He said something rude about an African statesman, P.K. van der Byl, the Rhodesian foreign minister and a great man, and I took exception. Today, with thousands dead and the greatest country in Africa plundered and ruined, P.K. looks like a giant, just as I always thought he was.
I wish a very, very happy Christmasto all Spectator readers the world over and to those who produce it every week.