Don't eat in the living room

NS Christmas - From the time of day you open your presents to the wreath you hang, everything you do

At Christmas people reveal their homes, their best clothes, their personal aesthetics - and their class. When I was a boy we had a green, tinsel Christmas tree on a plastic base. Every year it came down from the loft - not, sadly, the attic - wrapped in a year-old copy of the Sunday Express, which, at that time, was a broadsheet that could encompass our tree in its entirety. I was quite happy about this for a long time. The trouble with real Christmas trees, to my mind, was that they weren't necessarily Christmas tree-shaped. They bulged strangely, and their greenness did not have the midwinter intensity of tinsel green. But by my mid-teens it began to occur to me that the bigger the house I visited, the more likely it was to have a real tree.

I began to look out for certain other indicators of a middle- class Christmas, as opposed to our own lower-middle or upper-working one. For example, middle-class people actually would eat a dinner before having their after-dinner mints. Speaking of which, I long thought that Rowntree's After Eight Mints had been around for hundreds of years. I pictured people like Disraeli or Lord Salisbury eating them in country mansions, whereas in fact, they were invented in 1962, and marketed brilliantly. I was about 16 before the illusion cracked. A television advert for them contained, as Clive James pointed out in his TV review column, a grammatical error. Over a shot of sophisticated types passing around the After Eights, a voice murmured something like: "A person's choice of after-dinner mints is always a good judge of their character . . ."

The posh people would have their Christmas dinner at a time when southerners think dinner ought to be eaten: in the evening. And they would have a dining room in which to eat their big meal, whereas we pushed the sofa back and ate it in the living room as a concession to the occasion. (Normally, we ate in the kitchen.) We had stuffing with our turkey but not cranberry sauce, which began to bother me over time. As we ate, we would listen to the Christmas Top of the Pops. Until I was in my mid-twenties, I knew which song was the Christmas number one. Thereafter, I considered it a hallmark of the sophisticated person that he or she did not know it.

Top of the Pops was one of the programmes I would circle in our copy of the Radio Times. Until the Broadcasting Act 1991, this told you only about BBC programmes, while the TV Times told you only about ITV. I would sometimes walk into a house - gaudy lights blazing on tinsel tree - and be disturbed to see that only the TV Times had been purchased. We took both, and I used to marvel at the contrast between the elegant, filigreed logo of the Radio Times and the ugly, blunted one of the TV Times, the letters of which leaned to the right to imply speed and excitement, a subliminal message that I rejected with contempt from the age of six onwards.

In my late teens, I had a friend who - a great novelty - had a spare bedroom in his house. This was how I defined him, although another salient characteristic was that he used to refuse to come out for a pint on Christmas Eve because he would be "staying in with the family" - a phenomenal martyrdom in York, a city with more than 250 pubs. Then again, there always seemed to be something austere about the traditional middle-class Christmas: the large, jolly families would not put up their trees until about four days before Christmas, and they would eat even those pock-marked, orangey-coloured nuts that no one liked. They would practise strange forms of self-denial - "Oh, we never open our presents until 5pm when Grandma and Grandpa arrive" - and make their own entertainment: charades, or that game in which you invent full, dictionary-style definitions of imaginary words. Alternatively, they would play their own games, invented by some ancestor and passed down through the family, with names like "Johnny go first in the chimney" or "double the thrimble".

Another schoolmate lived in a Georgian house in the middle of the city; not a modern house on the edge of it, like most of us. His door had a knocker on it, big enough to hang a wreath, which his family always did. (Ever since then, I have felt that if you have to bang in a nail to hang your wreath, then you shouldn't bother.) He went to church on Christmas Eve, and again on Christmas morning. I was always slightly in awe of people who participated in events other than school assemblies. I myself once went to a midnight Mass at York Minster, and I'd never seen so many fur coats in one place until, last winter, I went to Milan.

You could argue that there has been some lessening of the class-bound nature of Christmas. Today, the listings free-for-all has taken the starkness out of the choice between the TV Times and the Radio Times. A tinsel tree has cachet as something camp and convenient. Even the wealthy no longer require dining rooms. They'd rather have a gym, and the fashion is to eat in the kitchen - albeit one that is ideally the size of a village hall.

But social ambition clouds many a Christmas. How many parents can honestly say that the presents they choose for their children are unrelated to the quest to move their kids to the top of the class, or to help them get into that good school? A chemistry set for young Tim, who's showing unexpected promise at science. A warlike computer game by all means, but preferably one which also outlines the collapse of the Roman empire. Books that pushy parents might wish to look out for this Christmas include The British Museum Pocket Dictionary of Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses by Richard Woff (minor deities included), or Katie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew, the fourth in a series, and in which young Katie encounters major post-impressionist works.

To many middle-class couples, the year is one long lifestyle epic, with Christmas as the grand finale, seeming to require, like any stage show, a designer, properties manager, lighting director, casting director, front-of-house personnel, and so on . . . Because, after all, one is fearful of bad reviews. One doesn't want people saying that the white wine was served in red-wine glasses. I've been serving white wine in red-wine glasses for years, I found out last week at an off-licence - sorry, wine merchant's - in Crouch End. And one doesn't want people saying that there were just not enough Beautiful Christmas Ideas on display in the house. Ideal Home magazine's "Complete Guide to Christmas" will supply you with 397 of these, and if you buy the current issue of Red magazine you will get another 599.

Above all, one doesn't want to give the impression that one is spending the entire holiday at home. If somebody asks: "Are you around for Christmas?" the correct answer is "No".

When I was a boy, it was all downhill after Christmas Day, or at least back to playing in the street with my mates. (We congregated near a certain drain at the start of every day off school.) But the upper classes, now more than ever, go away after Christmas Day, often to second homes in snowy Scotland. I myself managed to get up to Scotland after last Christmas - a little village in the Borders. It was not to my second home (I am still stuck on one property in north London) but the house was very pretty and remote. The snow fell continuously, so we were threatened with being snowed in, and I spent much of the time lying on the high, Victorian master bed, looking out at white fields and thinking: a) that I'd finally got Christmas right, and b) that I was bored to death.

On New Year's Eve we walked through the snow to a dance that was held in a marquee on the edge of the village. I'm not saying there weren't any Scottish people there. The man who looked after the coats was Scottish, as was the man who supervised the gas heaters. But at least two-thirds were from west London and most, from what I could tell, attended the dance every single year.

It was like a veil being lifted.

Andrew Martin is our Class Conscious columnist