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Box of delights

Get comfortable - for once it's not a load of turkeys

A friend recently revealed that her mother bans television at Christmas; the family must play games instead. Games? I don't think so. For a while, my mother, too, insisted that we hunker round the Monopoly board, thimbles of Baileys in hand. But it always ended in disaster, someone or other getting into a nark - even bursting into tears - as Mayfair was sold to a familial rival. My mother would then say: "It's only a game!" - at which point my stepfather, the most competitive man it's possible to meet outside professional sport, the Stock Exchange or the House of Commons, would shout: "Well, what's the point of playing at all if it's only a game?" The Monopoly would duly be packed away for another 12 months.

Let's face it, most families need the tranquilliser dart that is Christmas television: I, for one, am highly suspicious of any who don't. (You like each other enough to spend more than two hours together? Freaks!) This year, however, this particular anaesthetic could be rather elusive. Yes, I have shock news. I have examined the Christmas schedules, and it seems that they're rather too good to numb and sedate. The BBC, and even ITV, are screening quite a lot of television you will want to watch properly, eyes open, brain engaged. I don't know what to make of this. The prospect is delightful, of course. But won't all the unexpected stimulation also increase the risk that I'll try to throttle my mother?

So as not to alarm unduly, let's begin at the gentle end. On BBC1, Cranford is back, starring Judi Dench and a lot of other Actresses in Bonnets (20 and 27 December, 9pm) - and the news is that the railway is now just five miles away. So, too, is Caroline Aherne. Back, I mean - not five miles from Cranford. For BBC1, she has written a Royle Family special called The Golden Eggcup (Christmas Day, 9pm) and, for ITV, The Fattest Man in Britain (20 December, 9pm), starring Timothy Spall, a gentle satire on the shock docs so beloved of Channel 4. Of course, if you want real cosiness, there is always Gavin and Stacey, and the New Year's Day episode - will Nessa really marry Dave Coaches? - is the last, we're told.

Also worth a visit: the Outnumbered Christmas Special (27 December, BBC1, 10.30pm). Those kids, eh?

Somewhere in the middle, brain-wise, are two adaptations: Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw (30 December, BBC1, 9pm), starring Michelle Dockery as the governess who believes her charges are possessed, and John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (28 and 29 December, BBC1, 9pm). Remaking this sci-fi classic is clever: it will appeal to all the nostalgic fortysomethings who remember the last version (though Dougray Scott is a touch more sexy than poor old John Duttine), and to all the new young planet worriers out there.

I can't wait, though I fear that the tapping of the triffids' "clackers" won't sound half so sinister as it did in 1981. Meanwhile, on ITV, John Hurt will reprise his role as Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York (28 December, 9pm), the long-awaited sequel to The Naked Civil Servant. More nostalgia all round. Sometimes, it's great being a grown-up, even at Christmas.

Now for the shows you will need to watch far away from the sound of chuntering aunts and highly coloured battery-powered plastic. For many people, a Christmas highlight will be David Tennant's final appearance as the Doctor in Doctor Who (Christmas Day, BBC1, 6pm). For me, it will be the chance to see, on the small screen, his turn as Hamlet in the RSC production that had the critics so excited this year (Boxing Day, BBC2, 5.05pm). Or what about The Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece, a 50-minute film that unpicks Botticelli's Mystic Nativity (Christmas Day, BBC2, 6pm)? OK, so it clashes with Doctor Who: you will have to do battle for the television (or watch it illicitly later, on your laptop, in the guest bedroom).

But after all that naked consumerism (and sprout-eating), can there be any better balm for the soul (not to mention a distended belly) than the gentle contemplation of this peerless vision of maternal devotion and earthly harmony? I don't think so. Who knows? It might even help to keep your hands from the nearest relative's throat.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special