IN the hairdresser's, the talk was only of Christmas.
One client was off to Tenerife, so had bought and delivered all her presents early; another was going to her father and his wife for Christmas Day, and celebrating a second Yule at her mother's on the 26th. A bashful young woman admitted she'd left the office Christmas party halfway through, thanks to starting pre-prandial drinks late in the afternoon.
It was the usual merry seasonal chat, but the more they talked, the more obvious it became that Christmas 2012 is nothing like it used to be. Come the 25th, we all still behave like homing pigeons, but for many families the number of dookits has multiplied. First-class navigational skills are now necessary to make sure all members of extended families, with ex-partners and new spouses and their relatives are catered and cared for. In some clans, the family tree's roots are so widely spread, the day is turned into a Formula One race as people are shuttled at top speed between canapes and mince pies at different addresses, as if the drivers were auditioning for It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
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And in many ways it feels as if it is. Compared to when I was a child, Christmas is almost unrecognisable. Where turkey used to be obligatory, and nobody fussed if the brussel sprouts were not drizzled in virgin olive oil infused with juniper berries, now, thanks to national brainwashing from our television chefs, it is a day for haute cuisine, for truffle foam and pears poached in Marsala wine. Those who thought it was enough simply to serve a tender fowl and tasty trimmings are soon made aware of their inadequacies. Indeed, true sophisticates prefer lamb or venison, and the very posh eat Christmas dinner and open their presents on Christmas Eve, thus keeping the big day free for-well, what precisely? They might as well go back to work, since the festival is all over for them by midnight.
Only for a diehard remnant is church a part of the day. A few carols will be heard in some households as carrots are julienned and eggnog stirred, but for most of us the soundtrack of Christmas is not the King's College Chapel Choir but the schmaltzy compilations of Christmas hits that dog your every step in supermarkets, banks and departments stores from bonfire night onwards. If I hear Walking in a Winter Wonderland one more time, I may commit myself to a trappist nunnery.
Everything, it feels, conspires to erode the spirit of this supposedly most compassionate of seasons. The world-weary flee the country, the parsimonious wait for the sales to buy their presents, even if they fall on Boxing Day, while, if the Sunday supplements are followed to the letter, the concept of stocking fillers has evolved from tangerines and chocolate coins to bijou little gifts that would not be out of place in a Faberge factory.
Meanwhile the actual business of shopping is getting grimmer by the year. No longer a time for browsing and deliberating, it's more like a competitive sport, on a par with a triathlon, with only the fittest and most indomitable – and badly mannered – reaching the tills unscathed in body or mind.
You can argue that e-cards are ecologically sound, but they are a dismal substitute for those you can prop on the mantelpiece. It's almost as if their senders want to remove all trace of festivities from our homes.
In fact, the only part of Christmas that has not changed is the round robin. With every post another missive arrives, studded with exclamation marks and implying that nobody's family is doing quite so well as theirs.
And there's one other thing that is a constant. Long before Charles Dickens became patron saint of the season, nostalgic onlookers have bemoaned the waning of Christmas as it used to be. Each year they urged people to bring back old-style celebrations, which they believed were in danger of disappearing forever.
So consider this column part of that glorious tradition, as necessary to the day as tinsel and brandy butter. You might say a good grouse is the only bird that's always on the Yuletide menu.