A Very British Christmas is a twelve-stage sleigh ride through the best, worst, strangest and funniest aspects of the Christmas holiday, with cultural icons saluted, national habits dissected and personal reminiscences from those who’ve eaten all the mince pies and lived to tell the tale.
I’ve always been interested in the small stuff. I’m fascinated by things that people consider inconsequential, but when examined reveal everything about who we are: subtleties of communication, impulsive choices, ingrained behaviours. When the idea was floated of me writing a book about the way the British celebrate Christmas, a load of obvious stuff came to mind, you know the kind of thing – turkey, Baileys, Love Actually, tinsel, Santa, Mariah Carey… but it quickly became clear that these are just the hooks on which Christmas is hung. The real British Christmas is about our emotional response to all that stuff, a potent combination of nostalgia, boredom, anticipation, excess, conflict and love. As a result it’s almost impossible to define, because it’s different for us all.
The only way you can get a handle on the British Christmas is to speak to hundreds of people about the way they celebrate (or not). So that’s what I did. Often, I’d be told that “Oh, we just have a normal Christmas”, but on closer questioning it turned out to be anything but. They might hang an Action Man on the Christmas tree, or have an annual family sausage roll eating competition, or perform a festive Zombie Apocalypse play in the living room, or celebrate the December 25th birthday of footballer Gary McAllister rather than Jesus because they don’t believe in God. People would, mid-story, suddenly realise that their Christmases were nothing like the picture-postcard version, and were actually rather unusual affairs, unique to them and their kin. They’d suddenly remember the time they swore at their devout grandmother when playing Trivial Pursuit, or the year when their brother revealed his negative AIDS test result over the figgy pudding, and they’d get a new insight into what Christmas might be. They passed that insight on to me, and now I’m passing it on, in the form of a book.
Christmas celebrations are, by their very nature, pretty intense. And because it’s Christmas, people tend to remember all the details. Collecting all those stories, and trying to make sense of why we behave the way we do at the end of December, was hilarious, fascinating and frequently very moving. I’ve done my best to capture all the small stuff about Christmas, and in turn I hope it sheds some twinkling light on the broader meaning of this mammoth, absurd, indulgent and very special annual holiday.
Rhodri Marsden is a writer and musician based in London. A columnist for The Independent for more than a decade, he writes features, books and opinion pieces about subjects as varied as bad dates, rude place names, USB cables, crumpets, perfume and anxiety. He plays in hardy perennial post-punk band Scritti Politti and Britain’s best-loved TV theme covers band Dream Themes, and he won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival with a scintillating performance of a piece called “Silver Trumpets”.
2nd November 2017