Friday, 11 December 2015

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 11 December

Thomas Blaikie reminds us that Christmas comes but once a year, so present the best side of yourself to family and friends

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
We often hear about all the things that are wrong at Christmas – too much eating and drinking, too much TV, family rows. So I’m asking a simple question: how can we be better people this Christmas? Jenny Booth, Tenterden

Dear Jenny,
Be a better person and have a better Christmas! Do we need a self-improvement course to limber up? I read one of those lists: 13 habits of exceptionally likeable people, created by Forbes magazine. Exceptionally likeable people smile a lot, ask questions, aren’t attention seeking and listen, among other things. The  nished product sounds like a ghastly Goody-two-shoes. However, without being fantastically controlling and grotesquely pleased with ourselves, we can be better people this Christmas.

One thing is: have some conversation. Too often, at this time, as the ‘real’ world recedes, we slump into inertia. The overwhelmingly festive spirit can also induce paranoia: what topics can ever rise to the glory of the occasion? So, take a purposeful interest in your younger or older relations who you haven’t spoken to since last year. Ask questions and be ‘an exceptionally likeable person’. But it mustn’t be an interview. Often forgotten is that Christmas has a melancholy side (In The Bleak Midwinter, etc): cheering subjects are called for, looking forward to spring: spring planting plans (if you’re a gardener), spring cruises, new ventures. Carols that aren’t Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or O Come, All Ye Faithful is another good avenue to explore. Also the Christmas traditions of other countries, such as Greece where they have a simple biscuitcum- cake with a clove stuck in it, or Denmark, where they set a wooden ring with candles around the cake. Adventurous Danes put the blazing ring on their heads and parade through every room in their home.

Do not fear controversy, either: politics even. A good argument might be bracing as well as a reminder of the real world, provided the hosts choose the right moment to change the subject if necessary.

When conversation is exhausted, there must be activities, not just TV. Old-fashioned games, such as Smell It, Smell It are ideal. Shove an ammonia bottle or soy sauce under the noses of the blindfolded contestants. Can they guess? After that, there should be a bracing walk. You must visit your tenants, if you have any, and those less fortunate, bearing gifts (you, that is).

Often people read in the papers that families loathe each other at Christmas – so then they do. If there is an issue, clear it out of the way beforehand. We mustn’t be so sel sh and spoilt: just because our family are given to us, not chosen, doesn’t justify sulking. Everyone is interesting and likeable in the Season of Goodwill.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


Much Christmas strain is induced by fear of something going wrong – hence all the frantic preparation. But my friend, Alastair Hendy, the food writer and stylist, always strolls into Sainsbury’s at closing time on Christmas Eve – great reductions on turkeys! When my mother was a girl in the 1930s, her grandmother’s maid set fi re to the Christmas pudding with meths, rendering it inedible. More recently my uncle’s geese got covered in soot – something wrong with the Aga. You may recall a Christmas episode of Till Death Us Do Part when a large turkey wouldn’t fit in the oven. Dandy Nichols sat slumped over the raw bird and remarked, ‘No wonder there was no room at the Inn. It’s always crowded round Christmas time.’

A few years ago, some people suff ered electricity cuts over Christmas but it was not la fi n du monde in every case. Those without power bowled round with their birds and trimmings to those with gas or Agas. Or they lit fi res out of doors. They had an adventure.

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