An Almost Perfect Christmas

By Nina Stibbe

Viking, £9.99

Review by Allan Hunter

IS it too late to bake your own Christmas cake? Is it too early for a visit to Santa’s grotto? Which set of in-laws are due to be fed, watered and entertained this year? Were the tree lights still working when you put them away last year? Is Black Friday the most soul-destroying manifestation of human greed and capitalist exploitation? There are all kinds of little conundrums posed by the inexorable advance of the festive season and, ironically, that’s before stepping into the minefield of modern religion. Nina Stibbe’s jaunty, pocket-sized bauble An Almost Perfect Christmas attempts to offer comfort and a modicum of joy to all of those who consider Christmas the most stressful time of the year.

Best known as the author of Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe establishes herself as a suitable Christmas agony aunt by identifying all the universal worries that she too has experienced from not wishing to upset beloved relatives by anything bordering on honesty to the eternal quest for the elusive, perfectly moist turkey. No matter the cause of your panic, Stibbe has been there, survived it and lived to tell the tale.

Stibbe’s short stories and cautionary tales are as feather-light as a perfect mousse and lead to modest punchlines. She is not really one to give advice but is willing to break that rule when it comes to presents, a subject on which she is an expert. Heed the sound words of someone who knows what she is talking about when she suggests that you “don’t start a funeral plan for anyone or buy them a carpet shampooer. Death and hard work are unChristmassy and upsetting". Wonder what she would have thought of the rather fetching set of fire-irons purchased one year that were clearly not quite what the other half had been expecting.

The pitfalls of hosting a Christmas party, the etiquette of proper thank-you notes, the sigh of longing for the days of informative round robin missives and the importance of honouring traditions are constant themes of a book that often feels as if it is celebrating a sense of Christmas that has already started to fade. Thoughts on whether there is ever a genuine appetite for Christmas pudding or her determination never to serve a turkey have a feel of nostalgia to them as potent as a Morecambe And Wise special or an annual viewing of the James Stewart classic It’s A Wonderful Life.

Stibbe’s humour is as dry as many a slice of turkey and the whole book feels like a bumper Christmas edition of a monthly magazine, assuming there are still such things in print in this digital age. If Stibbe had been asked to write and compile a Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping or The People’s Friend, you suspect it would look a good deal like An Almost Perfect Christmas. Fortunately, she is smart enough to dispense with recipes or knitting patterns and wise enough to avoid entering one of the most contentious Christmas issues of them all – whether a traditional trifle should or shouldn’t include include a layer of jelly. Solving that question to everyone’s satisfaction requires little short of a miracle.