My Christmas non-negotiables: After Eights, stuffing balls and The Good Life Christmas special | Grace Dent

Through headlines about sky-high heating bills and daily news of restaurant closures, the Christmas juggernaut thunders, parping its merry horn. In a land of uncertainty, here comes one definite: December and all its excess. Let’s be honest: Christmas is all about the “too much”. Its spurious charm is alive in abundance, in groaning fridges and in hands sore from carrying shopping bags. What heralds the little baby Jesus more than a vast, all-butter, ganache-smothered yule log going stale over Twixtmas, when the first pangs about over-expenditure kick in? Generally, this is when you find that a guest has forgotten to take that £20 bath cube assortment you bought them at a Christmas fayre. You resented paying for it at the time, and they forgot that you gave it to them. Happy bloody Christmas.

This year, though, I’ve sworn that things will be different. “Don’t buy me any gifts – I don’t need them. I just want to see you,” I told loved ones in October, hoping to save them from New Year debt, and the planet from choking on yet more plastic. I sounded like fanatical Puritan Lady Whiteadder from Blackadder: “At our house, Nathaniel sits on a spike … I sit on Nathaniel. Two spikes would be an extravagance!” That’s the peril in calling time on Christmas. No one thanks you. And we are, as a country, far too wedded to the wastage, the swapping of jumpers that are too small and too scratchy to suffer, the hand creams that smell of fox urine and the three-jar dijon mustard sets, each more abrasive and inedible than the last.

Any attempt to curtail this gift-giving sounds miserable and ungrateful, and I feel sheepish now about how we ribbed my old gran back in the 1990s when she told us not to buy her anything that year. She’d scraped her way through two world wars, wasn’t one for splurging, wastage or retail therapy, and definitely didn’t want any more lavender talcum powder; she especially hated pricey wrapping paper just being slung in the bin. But all her frugality did was furnish our family with a catchphrase: “No gifts for me! I’ll just stare at this wall and listen to me Perry Como tape!” we’d hoot, then buy her more chocolate-coated macadamias anyway.

Now here I am in 2022, and I’m sorry, Gran: you had a point about the array of trifles and profiterole towers that began appearing in our house in the mid-80s to furnish those family members who “just didn’t fancy Christmas pudding”. By the late-noughties, like many families, we essentially had a “dessert section”, with a different pudding for each of us lined up along the Formica like a sugary smorgasbord. Gran didn’t see the joy in the Christmas Eve supermarket reduced-price-sticker aisle, from which the Dents would lug home a “spare” eight pints of milk and a whole wheel of wensleydale with cranberries, only to store it in the garden shed for the next week because the fridge was already full of special-offer apricot stuffing.

Somewhere along the way, “much too much” became the entire point of Christmas. And, like me this year, perhaps you’d rather the money went somewhere helpful; to charity, say, or on a truly useful yet dull gift (“Happy Christmas! I’ve paid for your annual Microsoft 365 subscription!”) Or maybe you’d rather have the cash you wasted on ice-skating tickets for the sheer, wanton extravagance of keeping the radiators on from January to April. Luxury.

Don’t even get me started on those festive ice rinks: £20 a head to skid about to Moves Like Jagger on some half-melted slush next to a shopping mall, plus another £7 for a “luxury” hot chocolate. I’m binning that off this year, as well as trips to winter wonderlands with snow machines spewing out foam and the exact same ghost houses they had in summer, only with some tinsel around the “pay here” booths.

So, over the past few weeks, I have made a list of Christmas non-negotiables: After Eights, stuffing balls, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Ferrero Rocher, The Good Life Christmas special and Carols from King’s on BBC Two. The gift I’d like is a donation to my favourite charity. Tradition, though, I’m sticking in the shredder. Mulled wine? No one likes it anyway, and after one glass you’ve got a headache and a mouth like a vampire’s. Truffle oil? Tastes of feet. Spare turkeys, puddings, pies and booze? I am not saving money by ridding supermarkets of anything with a yellow sticker on it; I am merely whipped up by consumerism, allowing them to exploit my jangled emotions to rectify an error in their stock purchasing. I’m also banning any foodstuff designed by Heston that sounds as if he thought it up while on magic mushrooms. Mate, no one needs three cheese mince pies with pear and fig.

I’m also saying no to electronic games. Connect 4 and KerPlunk will suffice (though I will entertain Bananagrams if we decide to go fancy). What were the Dents thinking in 2005 when we bought PlayStation 2, Guitar Hero and the accompanying drum kit and guitar in order to spend the Lord’s birthday mastering Obstacle 1 by Interpol? We failed, and the whole shebang was then shoved in the loft with other ghosts of Christmases past: the rowing machine, the foot spa and the fold-away snooker table; also up there went the six-foot Argos Christmas tree with lights attached, which I bought in 2009 without realising that the pulsating neon display would make us feel like we were on stage with the Chemical Brothers at Glastonbury.

All this must stop. Like my gran, I just want to see people. I want the freshness of a clean house that I have mopped and dusted, and the twinkliness of my rather crappy, little tree. I want a few Christmas cards on string along the wall and 2,000 Miles by The Pretenders playing on Radio 2 while I peel potatoes and put a layer of dream topping on a boxed Bird’s trifle, which my family always eat, while the fancy salted caramel croquembouche tower gets only picked at before ending up in the bin.

I want the humiliation of being thrashed by my little brother at Trivial Pursuit and his annual yuletide reminder that I went to university and he didn’t. I want a turkey that’s just big enough for the main meal and a couple of sandwiches, then let us not think of turkey again until next year. I want enough, not too much, and to have it with people I love. I want less winter wonderland and more “I love you all, but Winter Is Coming”. I want peace and goodwill this Christmas, but I’ll settle for Jenga and Quality Street.

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