For reasons I'm still trying to fathom, my wife and I are having a no-holds-barred family Christmas this year. Somewhere in rural Rutland, within staggering distance of at least two half-timbered pubs, we'll be sharing tomorrow's cranberry sauce with my mother-in-law and brothers- and sisters-in-law. There are a lot of them, so there's plenty of scope for festive friction.
Family Christmases haven't been our habit over the past 15 years or so. If we've been in Britain, we've generally stayed at home, barricaded the front door with a pile of ready-frozen turkeys and rearranged the fairy lights in the bay window to read "Bah, humbug!"
I tend to get weepily nostalgic about my childhood Christmases in the 1960s ("Dad scoured the city for my Hornby Dublo shunting engine on Christmas Eve...") so it's best to keep it low-key. We hire a car, go for long drives on empty roads in the Peak District, drink the odd bottle of Co-op claret, and watch Sherlock Holmes videos. When I start trying to remember punchlines from 1970s Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials, my wife says "Time for bed", meaning "Time for you to do the washing up."
More often than not, though, we've spent recent Christmases in India, with American friends in Delhi. They do Festive in a big way. They decorate an eight-foot tree immediately after Thanksgiving (November 25), insist on party hats and crackers, and serve port and Stilton as though it's snowing outside and jingle-belling reindeer are prancing up the drive.
Some years, we've all taken the train up to one of the old Raj hill stations, which still stage Christmas morning services in freezing Victorian churches. You wrap yourself in a blanket, sing hymns in dirge-like slow motion accompanied by a wheezing harmonium, and listen to a rambling sermon from a vicar who takes his text from Narcoleptics 2, verse 15. You might almost be in Amersham, or at any rate Amersham with a backdrop of Himalayan peaks.
Nowhere does a better "traditional" English Christmas than Darjeeling's Windamere Hotel, the chintziest, most time-warped outpost of Empire, where until recently the last British tea planter used to slap on Santa's cotton-wool whiskers and boom "Ho ho ho" whenever necessary.
Tibetan maids deliver knitted stockings stuffed with presents, a children's choir sings Nepali carols and there's high tea in the music room, with a cabaret of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. The first bowl of punch is served shortly after breakfast and topped up regularly until dinner at 8pm. One year I have a vague memory of bumping into the towering, tartan-kilted Sikh bagpiper who was due to pipe in the plum pudding and slurring "My, but aren't you a fine figure of a man!"
Over dinner, Miss Chandryka, the resident pianist, led community singing of Keep the Home Fires Burning and Pack Up Your Troubles, which a party of Germans took in good part. And, shortly before midnight, I stood up a little unsteadily and, led a bleary chorus of Land of Hope and Glory. My wife, as it happens, was making a radio feature about Christmas at the hotel. With touching matrimonial loyalty, she ended the programme with my performance.
YP MAG 24/12/10