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It's probably the biggest holiday in the Christian calendar, but the perils of Christmas are many for your hapless host...
I hate Christmas. I hate the commercial bastardisation of a once deeply religious festival. I hate the guilt-inducing media manipulation. I hate the forced pleasantries we are expected to indulge in with family members we never see outside of the festive season, I hate the broadcasting companies for a television schedule dominated by repeats...
While I don't want to be perceived as some kind of Victor Meldrew wannabe, I can't resist this opportunity to vent my Christmas frustrations on you, dear reader. I will try to balance these with some of the rewards of Yuletide too, so it's not all doom and gloom.
December 25th is a great day for children. Watching mine as they opened their presents (at 5am), I shared in the magical atmosphere they were caught up in and, for long moments, all seemed well with the world. However, I must admit that the growing mound of torn paper (think medium-sized decidious forest) began to dampen my enthusiasm after a little while. Having spent long hours meticulously wrapping ridiculously-shaped packages in dead trees, I could only shrug mentally as they tore off the garish wrappings and cast them aside without even noticing how much effort had been invested in their presentation.
While we're on the packaging theme, I would like to formally condemn the reinforced twist-tie. Most of us are familiar with the twist-ties one uses to seal an opened loaf of bread, or to tidy the cabling at the back of a hi-fi stack. Packaging people use a similar twist-tie to secure a product in its box so that it looks good on the shelves of Toys-R-Us. The twist-ties used in toy packaging, however, don't play by the rules. They are virtually indestructible. They defeat ordinary, household scissors, they laugh in the face of industrial-strength wire cutters, they positively mock any attempt by mere mortals to untwist them manually. In the end, I used an oxy-acetylene torch to remove them. The resulting chaos was not pleasant. The fire-brigade were very understanding, but the smell of molten plastic is probably going to take a while to dissipate.
So, several refuse bags later and with the batteries removed from the smoke alarm, the real fun began: assembly. Now I am not an engineer, but I can say with some authority that putting together a General Electric two-spool, afterburning, turbofan engine for an F16 "Fighting Falcon" is almost certainly easier than putting together a "Sylvanian St.Francis Schoolhouse and Library". We've all learned to check product packaging for the infamous "batteries not included", I have now added the phrase "some assembly required" to my list of products to avoid. Manufacturers take note, children don't want to build their own toys, parents don't want to do it on their behalf (Lego, you can ignore this sentence). Supply your product pre-built or perish.
Once the children were happily locked in the cellar with their new possessions, I sat down to open my presents. Usually, this is where the joy of Christmas begins to collapse, as one unwraps yet another gift that will be immediately consigned to the bin once the benefactor has left. You know the sort of thing I mean, the pack of handkerchiefs (which, in our disposable society, no-one ever uses anyway), the bottle of aftershave that renders its user repulsive to members of the opposite sex, the Jeffrey Archer book, etcetera, etcetera.
If you received presents of this ilk I can offer only a few suggestions:
Speaking for myself, I am delighted to report that I was extremely lucky as far as gifts go. I used Amazon's wonderfully implemented "Wish List" system to advertise my preferred gifts to friends and family in the run up to Christmas. I was reticent at first, as it seemed very rude to issue such a list, but the feedback I had from the recipients was very, er, positive and bruises do heal. Amazingly, the wish list worked, with almost all of the gifts I received chosen from it. It's a terrible shame that nobody bought the Apple iPod that was at the top of my list though - oh well, I can try again next year.
During dinner I found myself contemplating yet another annual disappointment, the cracker. Why, oh why do we buy these cursed things? A cracker is so tempting, the promise of the mystery gift and the anticipation as to whether you'll actually win it or not (hint: surreptitious sabotage beforehand can swing the odds in your favour, if that fails - a baseball bat is quite persuasive). Ultimately we end up disappointed even if we win. The "gifts" aren't worthy of the trashcan, the stupid paper hats condemn the wearer to abject humiliation and the jokes are so damn politically correct that they aren't even remotely funny. Mine read, "What do you call an underground train full of professors?" and the answer, "A tube of smarties!" I need write nothing more.
In response to the deflating cracker experience, we ate and drank far too much. So the joyous possibility of thrilling after-dinner conversation, accompanied by cigars and sherry, was transposed into a grim reality of shell-shocked, bloated numbness punctuated by grunting and, in some cases, snoring. Or perhaps it was the Queen's Speech that rendered my family catatonic?
So it went on, day turned to night and the lethargy slowly abated. This being Christmas, one of my brothers suggested that the whole family participate in the traditional entertainments of board and card games. I decided to pass. The stresses of the day had taken their toll on my psyche, I opted for blood, guts, extreme violence and wanton destruction, retreating to another room to watch the Terminator 3 DVD I had been given... ah, what a great way to end the day, thank you Arnie.
If all else fails, detonate the small, but perfectly formed thermonuclear warhead you've been saving for a rainy day...