Growing up in America, Christmases in our house were always very “lively”, says Bill Bryson in his new audiobook The Secret History of Christmas. This was because whenever my father put up the Christmas tree lights, “there would be a terrific bang, a searing flash of light”, and he would be thrown “backward, at speed, on a more or less horizontal trajectory”. This, of course, was back when the lights had “bulbs the size of acorns” and the wires “positively crackled with energy”. Sometimes, if we were lucky, his body would “light up like a medical X-ray”. After all that, Christmas Day was “something of an anticlimax”. Americans don’t take it that seriously anyway – we’re generally still full from Thanksgiving. Plus, where I lived there was “always about six feet of snow outside”, so if you got a bicycle or roller skates all you could do was “ride around in tiny circles in the living room”.
But then I moved to England, and “discovered an entirely different kind of Christmas”. I had never heard of Boxing Day, or pulled a cracker, or watched “grown people scramble with something approaching violence” to claim the contents of said cracker. I learned that mince pies, bafflingly, contained no meat; that there was a magazine called Radio Times which “wasn’t about radio at all”; and that the only person who got to be comfortable was my father-in-law, who had an armchair “about the size of a Morris Minor”. Oh, and I discovered that everything – the whole country – completely shut down, meaning “one zillion children were stuck with presents they couldn’t play with because Mummy and Daddy had failed to buy batteries”. And, of course, I grew to love every bit of it. Christmas Day is “by far and away the best day we have” – and “not just because now I get the comfy chair”.