Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Welcome to the real Twelve Days of Christmas ... and not a calling bird or a piper piping to be had

It's the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes; fortunately, the next one is 12 months away, says Gail Walker

Regulatory alignment ... No regulatory divergence ... Regulatory alignment ... No regulatory divergence ... Regulatory alignment ... After days of falling in and out of hypnotic comas due to last week's Brexit furore, I've only realised that there are just 12 days to Christmas. And they're the real 12 days of Christmas, not the ones with lords-a-leaping, calling birds, or a French hen (what is that exactly? A chicken with a Gauloise moodily dangling from its beak?). Still, thankfully considering my mentally befuddled state, they are the same every year.

Day 1: The man of your life will be wrestling with a tree - the tree - flexing his muscles and giving out his very best Bear Gryll vibes. This is man against nature. (You're betting on nature, of course, but you can't injure his fragile male ego, so keep schtum). Then he visits the attic and comes back blinking in the glare of the living room light wrapped helplessly in a line of thin green cord. No longer a poor man's Bear, he is now Harry Houdini. He asks with apparent innocence: "Who put away the lights last year?" Beware. This is a trap. Deny. Deny. Deny. And in the middle of your denials, you realise that this isn't the best way to start Christmas.

Day 2: The battle of the sexes slips into another gear as you realise that no man needs anything. Anything whatsoever. Go fishing for a hint and all you get is a Burt Lancaster-ish bark "Ha. Ha. Ha," followed by "Me? I don't need anything! Nothing at all! What would I need?" Er, you tell me. They then proceed to tell you exactly what they don't want and precisely why they don't want them. All the items on your mental list - watches, gadgets, subscriptions, books, boxsets - get pooh-poohed as if you are somehow faintly "rid-dic-hic-u-lous".

Day 3: Already despairing, you spend most of the day watching a satellite channel called something like Christmas24, or That's Christmas, drinking in American made-for-TV festive films starring such luminaries called Tom Snurz and Barbara Grinf. As night falls, you have no idea why you have wasted another day when you could have been getting presents. Later that evening, you spend five hours on Amazon. In the end, you treat yourself to a really cool phone charger - one with lights and everything.

Day 4: Today's the today you will get things done. Put your head down and run at it. Don't think, just shop. Keep focused. Don't get distracted. And then as you pass Tesco, a Salvation Army band strikes up the opening chords of We Three Kings. You are instantly undone, transported back to a time when you first heard it as a little girl with your little mitt encased in your father's hand. Your eyes well up, which only makes the Christmas lights even blurrier, even more beautiful. You decide to leave it for another day ...

Day 5: Realise just over a week to go. Buy Radio Times and become overwhelmed by existential ennui at the prospect of Jools Holland and his dreadful Hootenanny. Spend a few hours flicking through the pages trying to figure out which alleged sex pests have been banished from our Yuletide screens with the thoroughness of a dissident in Stalin's Soviet Union.

Day 6: Begin making food list. Vegetable soup mix, turkey, stuffing, potatoes, sprouts, carrots, Christmas pud. And then you find yourself driving off-road as it were. Why not try some duck and quail eggs this year? Or maybe wood pigeon? And maybe a wheel of blue cheese and some fancy water biscuits? And what about those little Dutch mini-pancakes? Poffertjes ... ah yes, that's it, poffertjes. Then you imagine your family's faces. Vegetable soup mix, turkey, stuffing, potatoes, sprouts, carrots, Christmas pud ...

Day 7: The broadsheets publish their 100 Books of the Year. You realise you have had time to read only one. (Two if you count that new Moomin book). Spend rest of day in Waterstone's buying exciting new Commonwealth fiction, satirical American masterpieces and emotionally devastating novels about lonely Irish farmers in the 1950s. Never to be read, alas ... never to be read ...

Day 8: Come on - just plunge in! And so you find yourself in your local shopping centre when it hits you. You're actually in a retail edit of Leo and Kate's Titanic. Everywhere you look people are holding onto rails muttering to themselves in shock, "This wasn't meant to happen". Young families are looking terrified and then you overhear the husband saying with bravado "You go on - I'll be okay and we'll meet in a couple of hours just outside River Island." Your eyes lock. You both know that will never happen. In select boutique cafeterias everywhere middle-aged men are meeting their fate stoically with a - what the hell? - peppermint latte and bakewell tart. Over in the far corner just outside the bargain perfume shop a clergyman is leading an impromptu congregation in prayer. And in the midst of the mayhem and despair you hear a busking string quartet scraping the first bars of Nearer, My God, to Thee. Your eyes moisten, not for yourself, but for humanity. Soon it will be every man (and woman) for his or her self (curse you, political correctness). And the wails go up - "I hear Fitbits are going cheap". (For some, this turns out to be a terrible disappointment, it's a fancy watch, not a ripped wannabe model called Antonio).

Still, you're making progress. Many presents bought. Admittedly, you're not sure what that neon thing is, but sure it will do somebody. You also have a vague, discomforting thought that you've actually bought yourself a few wee presents too many ...

Day 9: You are in a menswear store, back on the quest of the gift for He Who Has Everything and Wants Nothing. The shop assistant looks at you smugly and says: "Last-minute Christmas shopping? I finished in October. See the shops in the run-up to Christmas? I hate them."

You will, of course, just buy anything now. Six rolls of 3 for 2 wrapping paper? Yep, need that. Get home. Discover all the unopened rolls from previous years reproving you like ghosts of Christmas past.

Day 10: Three cards arrive from people who are not on your list. Dig out charity cards from last year and spend early evening driving around the suburbs hand delivering them - plus cheap bottle of wine. (How's that for one-upmanship). Wrap the presents. Forget to label them. Rip them open and start again. Gift tags, woman, gift tags!

Day 11: Not long to go now. Have lunch with friend. Her present is wonderfully quirky and personal. She gets a voucher in return. Lunch topped off with prosecco. On way to bus when accosted by various, er, slightly under-the-weather citizens of our fair city. One wishes you a %@q£&*% Merry Christmas with all the innocence and sincerity of Tiny Tim.

Day 12: What was all that about? All that fuss over nothing. It's only one day of the year. It's as far away now as ever. It's Christmas, after all. Next!

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