It’s the time of year when people suffer from Festive Stress, but I am already experiencing symptoms of its aftermath, Post-Festivity Stress Disorder.
For us, the holiday season begins with Fake Thanksgiving – lunch with my wife’s American relatives on the weekend before Thanksgiving, which falls on an ordinary British Thursday and is therefore unsuitable for celebrating. This year, I followed it up with Real Thanksgiving, flying to the US three days later. Next comes Fake Christmas, hosted annually by my father-in-law some weeks before the 25th, when he is always in Cornwall. Let’s put it this way: I’m on my third turkey, and the Christmas tree decorations are still in the attic.On Fake Christmas morning, all my children are home and asleep in their beds. I peer around the door of the middle one’s room. “Did you want me to wake you?” I ask.
“Ugh,” he says.
“Because you said you might remake that cake you burned last night, but that you needed to get more ingredients?”
“Fmmph,” he says.
Would it be helpful to let you know you have barely enough time to get to the shops and put it in the oven before we leave?”
“Yes,” he says with smouldering fury.
“Good,” I say. “I’m glad I could do this for you.”
I wait an hour, until the cake is in the oven, before waking the youngest one, because I know he came home at the crack of dawn.
“Wake up,” I say quietly. “It’s Fake Christmas.”
He rolls over. “How will this affect agricultural forecasts?” he says.
“Sorry?” I say.
“You know,” he mumbles. “Increased production in the sector.”
“Why are we talking about farming?” I say.
He turns and open his eyes. I watch his pupils slowly screw into focus. “Aggh!” he screams. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Waking you up!” I say. “It’s Fake Christmas!”
“Fake Christmas is next week!” he says.
“Incorrect!” I say. “The taxi is coming in 20 minutes.”
Downstairs, the oldest one is pulling on a pair of my socks with an unlit fag between his lips. The middle one is peering into the oven and my wife is wrapping one final present. “Is he ready?” she asks.
“He is far from ready,” I say.
“This cake is far from ready,” the middle one says.
“What’s he doing up there?” my wife says.
“I dunno,” I say. “Hallucinating about presenting Countryfile.”
“Should we leave him behind?” she says.
“How can we?” I say. “It’s Fake Christmas.”
And so, off in an Uber to grandfather’s house we go, with a sack full of presents, the middle one holding a molten cake with oven gloves and the youngest glaring at me through one red, resentful eye.
“Do you want to discuss wheat yields?” I ask.
“Shut up,” he says.
A few hours later, I find myself wearing two paper hats and getting a little frustrated with my sons’ collective inability to grasp the mechanics of a simple Christmas cracker joke.
“Cheese and onion?” the oldest one says.
“Why would a pilot’s favourite crisp flavour be cheese and onion?” I say.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Ready salted?” the middle one says.
“How is that related to aviation?” I say.
“Aviation flavoured?” says the youngest.
“It’s plain,” I say.
“So, technically, I was right,” the middle one says.
That night, I retire early, exhausted, but with a sense of accomplishment: from my point of view, the holidays are nearly over.
When the smoke alarm goes off in the dead of night, I surprise myself with my alacrity. By the time my wife is sitting up in bed, I am already on my feet, pushing through the dark in search of the door. Before I know it, I am flying down the stairs, looking from room to room for the source of the fire until I reach the kitchen, where the middle one is making toast.
“Someone turned the dial all the way up,” he says, waving a smoking slice in the air.
“It’s one in the morning,” I say.
“It’s not my fault!” he says.
I realise that, holiday-wise, I still have a long way to go.