Christmas decorations of more than common tawdriness already disfigure the centre of the city where I work, a city centre that arguably is soulless enough without these great dusty bows and bells festooned across the pedestrianised streets, looking like knock-off from a disbanded circus. We’ve had George Michael singing ‘Last Christmas’ in Smiths now for two weeks. Soon we will have Wizzard and ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day’ (Be grateful that wish can never be granted) and Slade thumping out ‘Merry Christmas, Ev’rybody’s havin’ Fun’, and you will inwardly be screaming ‘I am not having fun, to hell with fun, let us have joy, let us have beauty, let there be mirth and reverence within us, but fuck fucking fun.’
I’m not anti-Christmas, not really. I still get same the sense of something magical about to come upon us as I did when I was five. It might have failed to materialise for the last forty years, but I still fall for it. It’s like Linus’s unshakeable faith in the Great Pumpkin.
When I lived in Athens, from 1990 to 2002, the build up to Christmas always seemed promising. The decorations are genuinely pretty, being simply thousands of little white lights in the trees, none of your crappy Snowmen and Santas gibbeted on lamp-posts. In Kolonaki, the district in the centre where I lived, the owners of the posh shops of Haritos Street would, on the last Friday afternoon before Christmas, place tables in the street and offer wine, beer, roast ham, spinach pies, cheese pies and kourabiedes (crescent shaped shortbread biscuits) for passers-by. You could begin at the top of the road and spend all afternoon wandering slowly along in the cold and the waning light, emerging with glowing winter cheeks and pleasantly pissed at the other end. Before our flights back to the UK, colleagues and I would have dinner out two or three nights on the trot. I would get mildly slooed on the flight home – easy to do on BA, where British staff instinctively know you need two vodka miniatures per order, but requiring more determination on Olympic Airways, where staff see no pressing need to serve you at all, still less to allow you extra rations.
Syntagma Square, tarted up for Xmas
Then suddenly, here’s England.
After all year in Greece, everything here seems quieter, damped down. You notice it the moment you walk into the airport building. Everyone has smaller features and smaller teeth. Passport control officials smile and say hello: they have a peculiar bouncy cheeriness that is profoundly irritating. You get your train. Railway officials have this same jolly, verbose obsequiousness. You show them your ticket and they say ‘that’s lovely’. What do you reply? ‘Glad you like it’? Some bloke pushing a drinks trolley down the carriage is twittering ‘any refreshments today for anybody at all?’ which surely is six words too many? Later, in Marks and Sparks, check-out persons will parrot ‘thank you for waiting’, as if you had had a choice. Then they say ‘any cash back for you?’ and you are truly stumped – what the hell does that mean? Then you hear Noddy fucking Holder warbling on about ‘everybody having fun’ and you think, sod it, that’s killed it for another year.
TOWARDS A COOLER YULE
I will have Christmas on my terms sooner or later. There will be no other houses and no TV within a ten mile radius, and no music heard that is less than 200 years old. (Special requests will be considered, however, submitted in good time in your best joined-up writing.) Electric light will be kept to a practical minimum, and instead there will be candles, candles, and again candles, and pine incense. Food will be plentiful, but not in such quantities as to make you sick of the sight of it by the end of Christmas Eve. There will be wine, champagne and brandy available at all hours, and although I do not partake myself, I will be encouraging the smoking of vanilla-scented tobacco, because I love the smell. I don't do lunch, so forget about mountains of turkey and stuffing on the afternoon of the 25th, and bring sandwiches if you can't wait until seven or so, when the leisurely approach to dinner will begin with talk, drinks and Nigella-inspired nibbly things. Forget about the turkey-and-trimmings as well, because I loathe the dry meat, gluggy gravy, soapy veg and starchy spud type of meal, and know too that I have made it an offense to grow and traffic brussels sprouts. Expect something much lighter and spicier - I haven't decided what yet. You have permission to mull your own wine, but not mine. I can't see the point of making good wine taste like cough syrup. I will have arranged for temperatures not to rise above freezing, so bring warm clothes if you want to go walking in the nearby frosty woods, which I have laid on specially by demolishing all houses within the ten-mile radius already mentioned. And there will be no Noddy Holder, no George Michael, no Bruce Forsyth, no old movies, no Matchmakers, no After Eights or Quality Street, no paper hats, and absolutely NO fucking family fun.