This could be the worst one ever, I told myself, terrified, as I dug out a moulded bag of tinsel from underneath a heap of builder’s rubble.
I always fear I won’t make Christmas come up to scratch, because it has to be perfect, doesn’t it? So if it feels like it is going to be anything short of that – never mind a long way short – I start to get the heebie-jeebies.
This year, I am renovating and it is touch and go whether I will have a kitchen. If I can’t negotiate belligerent builders, malfunctioning kitchen plans and warehouses short of stock, I will not be able to host a fabulous Christmas dinner in my wonderful new home at which everything is declared a huge success.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who mistakenly builds Christmas into a deadline by which everything that is wrong must be put right. Why else would they bother with those ads offering people shiny leather sofas or reassuringly thick oak dining tables delivered before December 25?
But really I should know better than to get sucked down the path of solving my life’s problems in time for Christmas.
Every year, God laughs at my Christmas plans. Thank goodness. When I look back over my best and worst Christmases, I find it is incontrovertibly the case that the ones that have surpassed all expectations and been a true delight, packed with love and meaning, have been the ones that had evaded my control.
The worst Christmases, the real Yuletide slow car-crashes, are thankfully few and far between.
I remember one particularly fractious year when a wealthy boyfriend turned up on my doorstep on Christmas Eve with so many presents it took an hour to unload them from his Porsche.
He was in a state of near apoplexy, having evidently worked himself into a frenzy in Harrods during the preceding days, high on his end-of-year City bonus and not being able to stop himself buying me everything he thought would make my happiness complete.
This was really sweet, of course. But he was puce in the face. What goes up must come down, I thought. Sure enough, Christmas Day found him slumped on the sofa next to his heap of brightly wrapped gifts. He was too excited, he said, to eat much at lunch and so the feast passed him by. And because he couldn’t enjoy it, neither could I, which made my poor mum, the chef, stare down into her plate disconsolately.
The present-opening started after half-eaten puddings in my tiny living room, heated up to about 50 degrees Celsius by my dad nervously heaping the open fire too high with logs.
I sat next to the gift pile and sweated my way through it. La Perla pyjamas, Tod’s handbag, Chanel perfume, Cartier jewellery, a limited edition semi-acoustic guitar … each box yielded ever more extravagant luxuries.
And as I ripped open each one, I had the distinct impression I was failing to come up with a big enough gasp. On Boxing Day the poor chap declared he had flu and he disappeared back to his apartment.
We all breathed a sigh of relief and settled down to eat turkey sandwiches and watch drivel on television.
The good Christmases, thankfully, are too numerous to recount, but the winning formula is always the same. The fewer presents I buy and receive, the better I feel. The less money I spend, the better time I have.
The essentials are Midnight Mass in the small chapel I grew up worshipping in; lighting two candles for my Italian grandparents who first took me to church; freshly roasted pork batches after Mass; and a small exchange of gifts with my mother – we buy each other pyjamas and open them the night before, then sit up into the small hours talking. Then there’s a long walk on Christmas morning with the dogs, tracing the route I have walked every year around a ruined medieval castle; carols on the radio during breakfast; texts and phone calls to friends I’ve lost touch with; arrangements made to drop by; and through all the peeling, slicing, dicing and, yes, arguing, that old staple from my childhood, Andy Williams on the CD player, bringing timeless memories of every Christmas I have known. Somehow, when he sings it, I believe it. It’s the most wonderful time of the year…