I always enjoy the hiatus between Christmas and New Year. As I emerge, blinking, into the winter sunlight, my liver throbbing and my skin an attractive shade of elephant’s-breath grey (™ Farrow & Ball), my main feeling is one of immense relief that our families have departed and I have the house to myself again.
For a control-freak with misanthropic tendencies, Christmas is a difficult time. I can be superficially gregarious, glass in hand, in short bursts of a few hours. The problem is that people pitch up for days on end at this time of year, bringing with them their relentless physical demands and irritating personal habits. My daily timetable is dictated by their round-the-clock need for plates of food, cups of weak tea and sphincter-straining visits to the lavatory. The constant throat-clearing, finger-tapping and inane chit-chat make it impossible to ignore their physical presence, frustrating my attempts to grab a few moments’ peace by reading the newspaper or dozing off on the sofa.
Visitors are programmed to inflict domestic chaos. They can’t avoid it: they pile suitcases at the foot of the stairs, festoon coats across armchairs and balance glasses of red wine within inches of my marauding children. Offers of ‘help’ are designed to salve consciences, not to result in actual assistance. People hover aimlessly at the sink, purportedly searching for the washing-up gloves, just at the moment when the potatoes need draining. Dishes are wiped with the floor-cloth; hands are dried on the tea towel. Pans are extracted from the dishwasher and randomly distributed across every spare surface in the kitchen, while a mountain of empty plastic bags appears overnight on the table like a primary-school recycling project.
Apart from my control-freakery, the fundamental problem is the gaping chasm between the Christmas that I’d envisaged and the one that materialises. The Christmas of my imagination is heralded by the crunch of gravel on a sweeping driveway; a tasteful holly wreath at the front door; and a scent of cinnamon, oranges and pine needles. Radiant friends clad in silk and cashmere step indoors, brushing the snow from their woollen coats, and gather round the hearth to exchange witticisms and gifts. Tree-lights twinkle, candles flicker and silver cutlery gleams discreetly in the firelight.
The reality offered by our downmarket house-guests is somewhat different, involving a wilting poinsettia, sachets of instant trifle-topping and a lingering aroma of sprout-induced farts. Dog poo is trodden into the carpets, while occasional gaps in what passes for conversation are plugged by my mother discussing her forthcoming dental extraction. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family, and I’m secretly grateful that they’re not the kind of pretentious tossers who aspire to a Christmas modelled on the Toast catalogue – which is to say, they aren’t remotely like me. Still, it’s great to have the house back. At least I can be grateful that we aren’t hosting New Year’s Eve.