‘Tis the season when all the things you avoid all year round have to be not only encountered but actively enjoyed: the nuclear family, bigoted relatives, light entertainment.
This is why I still maintain an Elizabeth David-type fantasy that I will elegantly take to my bed on Christmas Day with “a cheese omelette with some buttered toast and a glass of Alsatian Chablis”. But the reality is Quality Street and a vague sense of disappointment. Like everyone else.
So I was happy to arrange to do the whole thing with a friend who asked if she could bring the old lady she visits as part of her voluntary work. Of course she could. A lonely old lady? This is just the sort of thing we should have at Christmas, I told my children.
My friend phoned. “There is something I have to tell you about my little old lady. She says things.”
“She’s totally racist. She says stuff all the time about Jews and black people taking over the world.”
“OK,” I said, but felt I must warn my children.
“What? No way! I’m not having dinner with a racist,” said one of my daughters.
“But she’s lonely,” I said.
“No wonder. That’s because she’s a racist.”
I felt proud of my kids but simultaneously appalled at their refusal to tolerate this. I remembered my eldest calling me up from university, whispering on the phone, “Mum, you never told me about these people.” She was living in halls during an election and had discovered some of her fellow students were voting Conservative.
“Mum, you never said they look just like us.”
Yet another parental failing. I haven’t brought up kids with enough right-wing nut jobs in the house. Perhaps because, when I was little, they were everywhere. My Aunty Margaret was so vile that her budgie pecked out its own breast feathers. The only time I ever saw her happy was when her husband, Stanley, got massive compensation for chopping off two of his fingers in an industrial accident. This meant they could go to live in South Africa. She would often turn up at ours at Christmas going on about “blacks” and my mum always said I shouldn’t argue with her, “because she’s had all her insides taken out”. It was horrible.
But my own children remained firm.
When the lonely little old lady turned up she seemed fine. Everyone was getting along and I was massively relieved in my live-and-let-live, befuddled liberal state. I began thinking how beautiful it all was as we got the chocolates out, when suddenly she piped up, apropos of nothing: “Well, if that Elton John can get married there truly is no God.” I had to agree with her, hoping no one else could hear, “There is no God.”
Christmas is the time when you know that for sure.
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special