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Christmas 2021: Some thoughts…

It’s just gone 3am on Sunday 26th December 2021 and despite a long Christmas day and the fact that I could have crashed out on our settee at around 4pm, I am still very much awake. I think I dropped off into a fluttery eyed sleep of sorts somewhere between quarter past midnight and quarter to one in the morning, but after that I was wide awake.

My wife chatted sleepily to me for a short while, but then as her deep breathing told me that I was now alone, I just got back out of bed and headed downstairs.

And then I wrote. A long poem that on first read back seems like something that I really like, another that I’m not that sure of, the premise for a children’s book about Santa and Christmas – because I’m told that the two generally go hand in hand – and then an A4 page of bullet point notes about Christmas that will make up the bones of this very blog. After that, at around 3.20am, I went back to bed. I was still awake enough to glance at the clock later and see it reading 3.45am. Suffice to say, I’m a tad tired this Boxing Day morning.

So far, it’s been a strange old Christmas. Some family – and some people in general – are insisting that visitors take a lateral flow test before visiting, emphasising the odd shift that Christmas has taken in the past couple of years. I think they’re right to do this, by the way. If you’re shielding someone vulnerable then why put them at risk? And if you’re unwilling to take a test in order to see family, then what kind of person are you? After all, Christmas is about family, so if sticking a glorified cotton bud up your nose is enough to put you off, then I hope Santa avoids your house just to make a point.

For me personally, I’m left questioning what will happen with my parents once again. In summer I saw them for the first time in over 18 months, thanks to Covid and now, having tentatively planned another post Christmas visit, it looks likely that we won’t get to go. My mam and dad are just getting over some kind of winter bug – referred to by my mam as ‘this chest thing’, like I’d be fully acquainted with it already – and combined with the omicron variant currently doing the rounds, visiting them seems a bad idea for all of us. But then, can we afford to wait? Not really the thought process you ever want, let alone in the season to be jolly.

When we visited in summer I had a moment of clarity while out on a walk with them and started taking furtive photos of them both. I didn’t want anything posed, just images of them chatting, looking at each other and things like that. And I got some lovely ones, but now, in the very early morning, thinking about everything while wide awake, I regret not taking dozens more.

Away from the serious stuff about Christmas we had a lovely moment yesterday that really took me back. My son – aged 12 – burst into tears upon opening a present. It was a gaming desk – or as people of my vintage call them, a desk – and he was so delighted and so surprised that he ran across to his mum, hugged her tightly and just sobbed. It was the kind of thing that would happen every year and on birthdays when our kids were younger, but not so much anymore and I must admit, it brought a tear to my eye. As commercial as Christmas is, it was just a really lovely moment.

Christmas takes a lot of balancing. As someone who didn’t always have a lot when I was a kid, I always vowed that when I had my own they’d always have good birthdays and Christmases to remember. But I never wanted them to be spoilt. So we’re always working with a balancing act in that aspect of Christmas. So the joy brought about by some flat-pack furniture made the day, really!

Another area of balance is with the indulgence of the whole period. The chance to eat and drink a ridiculous amount of deliciousness is almost too much. But then I think about fitness and my middle aged body as well as heart health and Christmas becomes a real battle between my ego – I mean, you try catching sight of your little fat, hairy belly in the bathroom mirror – , your health – I still want to be able to exercise regularly – and temptation; show me someone who can resist pigs in blankets and I’ll show you a wrong ‘un! So the past two days, with their wine, Christmas dinner, cheesecake, chocolates and crisps and the next week or so of all the same stuff and then some, is going to be difficult, especially when quite a few of my presents have been either alcohol or chocolate related!

The lead up to Christmas continues to be a royal pain in the backside. It shouldn’t be. We should finish work and be able to take ourselves off out, doing bits of last minute Christmas shopping and maybe rounding things off with a visit to the pub or a meal out. In actual fact though, what happens now is the ‘deep clean’. And judging from things others have said, it’s not just us. Everyone is working day and night to get their house spotless…in order to then scatter wrapping paper, boxes and opened presents all over the place.

In the lead up to Christmas we washed the windows, transported all manner of stuff to charity shops, recycled like never before, scrubbed floors, made every part of the bathroom shine, washed down walls and kitchen cupboards, hoovered repeatedly, dusted, wiped down skirting boards and just generally found new homes for all manner of things. As a consequence, I’m absolutely shattered by the time we get round to Christmas morning. Is it any wonder that I’ve not exercised since Tuesday and that in actual fact, indulgence is winning when it comes to what I’ll be doing with my days!

So now, on the evening of Boxing Day, it’s all well and truly over. And there are a couple of things remaining to tell you about in terms of stuff I realised or discovered yesterday. The first was that Christmas crackers are utter rubbish and almost a complete waste of time. I’m not a party hat wearer, the jokes are awful and the gifts are an absolute waste of time. I got yet another set of tiny screwdrivers yesterday and they now reside in a cupboard with all the rest.

The other thing was the realisation that charades is an absolute winner. Inhibitions suitable loosened by a glass of wine, I get to show off and act like a knobhead, thus playing to all of my strengths without ever having to truly exert myself. And all within arms reach of another glass of wine!

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed Christmas, the holidays, the festivities…whatever you refer to it as. All in all, as the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of year; I wish I got to see more people, but I know I’ll still have a lovely time! See you in the New Year!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Lights

So this is a poem I wrote a few weeks back. It’s seasonal and inspired by the sights around the town where I live, particularly in the centre where the Christmas tree was put up and decorated a few weeks ago now and the town had its annual ‘big’ lights switch on.

I think the other thing that inspired it – apart from Christmas itself – a time that I’ve always loved – is the way that people celebrate the festive period with lights on houses, trees visible in windows and various ornamental features around the gardens. I know some may think it’s tacky and cheap, but for me it’s always felt just a little bit magical. As I say though, I’ve always loved Christmas.

Anyway, it got me thinking and then inspired me to scrawl down some stuff in my notebook. From there, well it became a poem.

A Town at Christmas

For weeks the town's lights shimmer a symphony,
spotlighting the drizzle of a northern sky and somehow warming the air of frozen nights.
The town hall clock seems to reach for the sky even more keenly than before at this time of year,
its stately architecture contrasting sharply with the fact that spirits are lifted more by oversized, synthetic snowmen, baubles and Santas 
flanked by grinning cartoon reindeers.
Every walk home brings a new discovery, 
a rueful smile and outside, adults are kids again, footsteps lightened, strides widened by this special atmosphere.

It’s funny how, the same old places and the same old sights can be transformed at this time of year. There are certainly more beautiful places and even at Christmas, more beautifully decorated places. But I don’t think it matters. Wherever you live can feel utterly transformed as each day of December passes and more decorations appear. Throw in the sound of Christmas songs and what I suppose we have to refer to as a dollop of Christmas spirit and it really is the best time of year and you could be living anywhere.

Well, as I write we have a few days until Christmas. In our house there’s still a lot to do in order to be prepared for the big day. Family to visit, tidying to be done, last minute shopping and wrapping and of course relaxing and watching Christmas films. Hopefully, if you’re as flat out as we are, it’ll all be worth it and you’re still finding time to enjoy the kinds of things I’ve written in the poem!

Have a great Christmas everyone!

Christmas Gift Guide: What the middle aged man about town might want this Christmas.

I’ll be honest with you. I have no real idea what the typical middle aged man might want this Christmas. So, if you’re looking for a guide that might prove to be of some use, this might not be the read for you, although as a middle aged man I may be able to offer some useful advice. I mean, I’ve been middle aged for a while now and run a blog called Middleagefanclub; I can hazard a decent guess, right?

My first gift recommendation can be both practical and stylish. It’s slippers. Now, I know, I know, I know that slippers seem to be the most stereotyped middle aged man gift going. And perhaps they are. But I’ll tell you what; they’re practical too. In fact, all you need to get some use out of slippers is feet. On an even more practical level, us middle aged men have gotten to a stage in life where circulation isn’t quite what it used to be. And it’s our hands and feet that will suffer, so in order to keep some feeling in those feet on those long Winter night, you could do a lot worse than buying the middle aged man in your life – dad, husband, brother, uncle, whatever – a nice pair of slippers.

Now slippers can range wildly in price. Like anything, really. So, if you’re working with a budget, you could pick up a pair in a supermarket such as Asda or Sainsbury’s – or whatever the popular supermarkets are in your country, global ‘fanclub fans – for as little as £7 and even get the more toasty warm boot style slippers – you know, if the target of the present has literally no sense of style whatsoever – for around a tenner.

However, there is a luxury end to the slipper market as well. I spotted some online recently and, as a confirmed slipper wearer they got my interest. For starters they didn’t really look like your traditional slipper. There was a bit more style and originality and the colour choice was a bit more daring too. But the price was an immediate stumbling block. Howver, dear reader, if you’re feeling flush and have enjoyed my writing over the last few months, well a pair of Mahabis at up to £75 would be very much appreciated and they’d keep my toes from getting numb too!

Books are always a good purchase for the middle aged man in your life and especially at this time of year. And fortunately, there are a lot of books released at this time of year too. A trip to your local supermarket over the next week or two will reveal all manner of newly published work and the good thing seems to be that the quality of these books seems to have improved in the last few years. A book isn’t a very difficult present to buy either and while it’ll give the middle aged man in your life something to concentrate on for a while and an excuse to sit on an armchair or lie on the bed, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, as once read it can be passed on to charity.

A quick look at the shelves of my local supermarket revealed the scope of choice, just for non fiction. There were books by Mel Brookes, Will Smith, Billy Connolly, Bob Mortimer, Louis Theroux, Freddie Flintoff and Dave Grohl. And for those who aren’t really that big on reading, there were also books by the likes of Paddy McGuiness, Alison Hammond and Ant Middleton (who has a disturbing amount out, as it goes). I imagine there’s more pictures in these ones.

Boxer shorts/underwear are always a sure fire winner with your middle aged man. Now, It’s not an area I’ve surveyed a lot, but I’d like to think that the majority of discerning men of a certain age are in favour of boxers. Without putting you off your next meal, I know I certainly do. Much more comfortable. And while I’m not being paid to mention them, my recommendation would still be that you try http://www.myoddballs.co.uk as their range is excellent. They’re also very comfortable, make donations to testicular cancer charities as well as raising awareness and their designs are such that it’s safe to say they’ll put a little more funk around your junk, so to speak. And it should still be important to look good at our stage of life. Oddballs also do other products such as socks and sportswear too, so you could find yourself really treating that middle aged fella!

As for buying budgie smugglers for middle aged men; listen, if you know anyone still wearing them, run!

Alcohol is always a good gift, although it’s obviously dependent on a middle aged man’s relationship with booze, I suppose. But, if you know someone who likes a drink – occasional, steady or just a raving session drinker – then these days the choice is amazing. It’s fair to say that beer has undergone a bit of a revolution in the last 5-10 years with the emergence of craft beers. Small, independent breweries, tap rooms and beer shops have sprung up regularly and there are some real gems to be tasted. It might be that you simply buy a gift pack or hamper online from a site like Honest Brew, Flavourly or Beer52 or one of the craft breweries. Even if you’re not sure where they are, a quick Google search of ‘local craft breweries’ should do the trick. And even if they don’t do some type of pack or bundle, you could always just put a hamper together yourself. You could revolutionise someone’s tastebuds.

If beer isn’t the thing for the middle aged male target of your gift giving, how about whisky, gin or rum even? There are always packs of small bottles available in supermarkets and of course online and a bit like with beer, the emergence of many small craft distilleries over the last few years means the choice is great. Failing that, your local supermarket will most likely have a vast selection of all manner of spirits and you can usually pick up a decent bottle for somewhere around the £20 mark. If you’re not sure, go online and look for reviews.

If the middle aged man in your life likes to exercise, then there’s always a gift to be had. Maybe it’s something they’ve been doing for years. Maybe, they’ve decided to look after themselves a bit better and want to embark on some exercise. Or maybe they’re just having a mid-life crisis and have decided to launch a crusade to look better and – in their dreams – snare themselves a younger partner! Whatever the reason, exercise gear could make a great gift. As with a few other of the suggestions above, there’s a huge range of things to choose from and a huge range of brands too. Whether it’s a new pair of trainers, an exercise top, a base layer for those colder times or a pair of shorts, there’s plenty of choice and gear to suit all budgets. If you’re in the UK places like M and M Direct always have sportswear at decent prices and even shops like B&Ms and The Range do exercise gear. You’d be surprised what you can find. You never know; your gift of some sort of exercise gear might just open up a whole new world for your middle aged target!

If you’re going down the exercise road with your gifts then one thing I can highly recommend is a massage roller. These are brilliant for soothing those aching muscles and, as a middle aged man myself, I can vouch for their positive effects! My wife actually bought me one last Christmas as I was having problems with my calves after running and it was an absolute revelation. You put the roller in the freezer and when you need it, it’s ice cold and ready to work its magic. Roll the metal ball over your aching muscles and it will really help recovery. And believe me, us middle age geezers need all the help we can get! The two that I’d recommend would be the Murlien Massage Roller Ball (the one I’ve got) and the Fitness Cryosphere Cold Massage Roller. Both are available in various online outlets and are reasonably priced too!

My final recommendation is ideal for the middle aged man who’s just waiting to move into the realms of being a pensioner. Get him a pipe! If he doesn’t use it now, he’s sure to reach for it within the next few years!

Well, I hope my gift guide gave you a little bit of good advice. If not, well I hope it gave you the odd chuckle. Happy Christmas to you and the middle aged man or men in your life!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Do

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Where entire offices, factories and other work places worth of people pour into bars and clubs to celebrate the festive season together by getting drunk beyond belief and ending the night making friends with the toilet. If they make it that far. Because, of course that would be what Jesus would’ve wanted.

And although these ‘dos’ are under threat again as yet another variant of Covid rises and takes hold, some people still won’t be stopped in their quest for Yuletide humiliation. Some in fact, will have already set off on their quest having been out for the first, second or even third of many such ‘dos’.

It’s been years since I bothered. So many in fact that I genuinely can’t remember the last one I went on. I’ve been on loads of them though, so speak from experience, but I think I just got to a point where I couldn’t be bothered any more. I know in part this was down to the fact that where I worked and where I lived were just far too far apart, making going out with those I worked with impractical at best. Maybe I just grew up a little bit as well.

Anyway, I wrote a short poem about them.

Christmas Do

For one night only, rival factions might just lose their friction,
conversations blossom, gropes and saliva are traded with imperfect strangers.
All in the name of the Christmas Do.
In a corner Elsa from Frozen snogs the face off an elf
as different office fancy dress parties collide,
and while love won't blossom, regret will thrive
as, in another part of the bar, a wobbly one-kneed proposal is hugged away, laughed off in the hope that all the morning brings is amnesia and a sore head,  perhaps, at worst, an oh-so-distant memory that will remain unspoken.
In every corner someone is crying while no one really knows why,
but despite the season to be jolly, tears will flow like waterfalls
Elsewhere, the inevitable scuffle jars against festive frivolity,
briefly shattering the good will to all men, until all unwise men are dragged away to consume even more of what seasoned their aggression in the first place.
He's not worth it, Darren, because it's Chriiiiistmaaaaas, Darren
As tradition demands, the night will end with a raucous singalong as groups come together to link arms and drag each other around the dancefloor roughly and without any sense of rhythm or in fact any more than a quarter of the right words to the song.
And then, it's off into the night, until next year when they'll Christmas Do it all once more.

When I initially wrote the poem I was quite happy with it. I liked one or two of the reference points and thought that in some places I’d nailed the idea of the Christmas Do. However, a few days later when I came to look at it again, I was unhappy with the length of it. So – and I must say it was in haste, so forgive me if it doesn’t quite work – I added some lines and fiddled around with others. This was all done while various family members kept asking me to do stuff, so maybe the thought process wasn’t particularly flowing either. As a result, I’m not quite sure about some of it, especially the end, which changed on more than one occasion. But, if I continued drafting it would likely be January and what use is a Christmas themed poem at the start of the year?

So there you have it. Hopefully I’ve captured most, if not all of the horror of these nights. All in the name of Christmas, but often without even a hint of good will in sight. I think that many of the references in the poem are very British. Certainly, I hope that other countries don’t do Christmas nights out in the same fashion that we do.

Teaching: The Worst Things About Christmas Half Term

Recently, I wrote an article about the fact that this time of year is nothing short of arduous and painful for us teachers. I know it’s difficult for a lot of people at this time of year, but having done other jobs in my time, I’d definitely say it’s tougher than most places in education. I haven’t worked down a pit or anything, but I’d hope you take my point. With this point in mind, I got to thinking about the kind of things I dislike the most about my job at this time of year. And so, in no particular order and with more than a hint of sarcasm and tongue firmly tucked in cheek, here you go!

The constant question – “Can we just watch a movie?” For starters, we call them films where I’m from, so no, we can’t. However, from week 1 right the way up until the last week before Christmas, at least one of your classes will think that the time is just right for watching a film. They’ll cite the number of days until Christmas, the terrible weather and tout the blatant lie that all the other classes are watching films…anything that might just make you budge. And the cherry on top of this particular cake is that when you finally do put on a DVD – on the last day, bosses – your students will generally sit and talk through it! Well my wonderful students, I’m afraid you’ve just met DVD Scrooge and instead we’ll be doing that far more traditional English Christmas half term activity of writing lots and reading a bit. Bah humbug indeed!

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

The other popular question – simply because the first question wasn’t annoying enough, students will then turn to another, genuinely more offensive question. And all in the name of Christmas. And it’ll often be the first thing they ask as they walk through the door. In fact, sometimes, as a Christmas treat, they might ask you it before lesson as you’re passing on a corridor. The question? ‘Are we doing anything fun today?’ Now there are several levels of offensiveness to this question. Firstly, is there a veiled accusation here that our lessons aren’t fun? Task-wise, I might take their point here at times. Maybe writing an analysis of how a writer creates tension isn’t that much fun in a world where we have the internet, X-Box, Love Island and erm…fidget spinners (look it’s spinning on my finger…), but we’re in an English class; what did you expect? Secondly, I try to run a relaxed ship. I like a little bit of a lighter atmosphere and a bit of a joke now and again (a bit of ‘daft carry on’ we’d call it where I’m from), so the suggestion that my lessons aren’t fun is actually a personal affront. Or maybe I’m just not that entertaining? *Dismisses such a ridiculous notion with a smug little chuckle and moves on.* And of course there’s the fact that the study of English has been pretty much a constant in my life. It was an important GCSE for me, then an A-Level, then I did it as my degree! Fun? Bloody fun? Bollocks to fun, pal. Appreciate my expertise! Feel my love for the subject! Then get your 18th analysis of the half term written up! And look forward to re-writing it, in PURPLE PEN no less once it’s marked and I’ve demanded improvements! Then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to write a diary entry from the point of view of one of the characters in the play we’ve been studying! Don’t worry though, I might just dress up as a clown and do some juggling for you if the fun’s really getting ramped up as well. (I won’t. Ever.)

Christmas Cards – it’s not that I don’t love getting them; I do. I think it’s a lovely traditional gesture and I always enjoy taking them home to put up round the house. However, I am utterly rotten at remembering to write my own and send them/bring them in to school to give out. Cue a cringeworthy few moments every time I get one while I meekly explain that I keep meaning to write mine, but I’m an utter shambles of a man. Cue also me rushing around on the final morning of the half term delivering my cards – if I’ve remembered to get them out, write them up and then put them in my bag – like some kind of apologetic, pathetic Christmas loser. Oh, the yearly shame!

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

The final lessons before the Christmas break – it’s not the lessons themselves. They’re fine. Granted, I’m practically on my knees by this point, exhausted and steeling myself for finishing work and heading home to face the onslaught of pre-Christmas jobs that will inevitably only get finished some time mid morning on the 25th. No, it’s the fact that even though I’ve finally relented on the film question, my classes are still not satisfied with such wonderful Christmas benevolence. And why? Because my colleagues – God bless them, every one of them (to paraphrase Dickens) – have brought in snacks – snacks I tell you! – and are holding some kind of bloody party in their rooms! Well sorry kids, but ‘The Ghost of that Shit Christmas When All You Got Was Socks and Pants’ here didn’t get that memo. You know the drill…altogether now…Bah Humbug!

Christmas Jumper Day – or as I see it, the chance to look like a tw*t for a full day. That might not be everybody, by the way. Some people can look quite cool in their Christmas jumpers. Allegedly.

Can you turn the heating on?/It’s so cold! Another question that makes my internal, scarcely dormant volcano start to rumble. Not a day goes by at this time of year when I don’t have to go through my early morning in-school routine with a class. And they’re always told that the very first thing I do when I unlock the door and come into class is to put the heating on. If only they could remember. They also always fail to notice that the heating is actually on, despite the lit up display which again, is pointed out to them every day. Come in at 7.45am kids, I’ll allow my room to demonstrate cold for you! As for the fact that it’s cold; of course it’s cold. We live in northern England and our school is on the top of a great big hill; of course it’s cold!

So there you have it. The bane of my life at this time of year. Just as I’m feeling like I could sleep for a week, tweens and teens are busily digging the same old ways out in order to make all of our teaching lives just that tiny bit more stressful. Christmas can’t come soon enough!

I hope you enjoyed the blog and if you have any irritations at this time of your work year, whether you’re a teacher or not, feel free to let me know in the comments.

I’ll end on a big thankyou to the friends who got in touch to remind me of some of their own personal lowlights of teaching at this time of year in order to help with this blog. It’s late in the year, I’m tired and was flagging in the ideas department. Not for the first time the English Department at our school helped me out. I work with some truly wonderful people (although they always forget to bring me cakes and biscuits when they’ve been left in the staffroom as a reward for our hard work), so once again, cheers!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Quiz

There’s nothing overly complex or clever about this poem. Put simply, I wrote it after conducting a Christmas quiz with one of my last classes of the term just gone. It just struck me as such an excellent scene in the classroom – loud, tense, excited, never still. A bunch of children working together in teams and despite the fact that some of them would rather appear anything but excited, the element of competition is absolutely impossible to ignore!

So while acting as the showbiz style quiz master, I realised that this was an atmosphere that was too good to miss out on; so I wrote some notes and then sat down later and threw them together as something a bit more poetic. And here’s the result.

Christmas Quiz

Catching them unawares is the really fun part. In fact, you could argue it’s downhill all the way after that.

As the quiz is announced the air crackles with a tangible excitement that is momentarily pierced by the feigned boredom of the cool kids. It won’t be long though, before they’re animated in glorious technicolour, shouting out, competitive as Olympians and quietly singing the words to Christmas carols in the missing words round.

With each question the tension builds and instead of ‘Lords ‘a leaping’ we have boys ‘a bouncing, girls ‘a screeching in teams competing and by question ten the chatter has become a rabble, has become a riot and we can no longer truly claim that all we have is a quiz.

This, in fact may well be a matter of life and death.

By the end of the quiz we’ve seen and heard it all. The careless calling out of what is very definitely the ‘right’ answer with a wink, the throwing up of arms, the almost audible straining of brains as the tip of the tongue is explored for an answer.

This is the chaos of the circus, the madness of rush hour and the irregular noise of the orchestra warming up all mixed together in the same bowl. This is the Christmas quiz.

If, like me you’re a teacher or you work in some capacity in a school, you’ll no doubt identify with the chaos of the Christmas quiz. If you’re not, then imagine a child’s birthday party, but with questions. The two will have much in common.

With the poem I wanted to capture the chaos and the noise, but also the subtleties – things like boys (and it’s always boys) pretending they’ve called out their right answer just a little too loudly in order to convince a rival team to write it down and thus lose a point. Sat at the front of the class with a blank sheet of A3 paper, I was able to note all of these things down; the attempts to cheat, the confidence even when it’s very clear that you’ve got completely the wrong answer and the looks of concentration on faces when kids search for an answer that they know, but haven’t the slightest hope of committing to paper!

The Christmas quiz has that element of fun that something like a revision quiz doesn’t have, but it still retains the desperate will to win in all who compete. And for that matter, despite the irritation of the rules being completely ignored within seconds, as the excitement kicks in, and all Hell breaking loose by about question three, it’s a whole load of fun. It definitely merits having a poem written about it…maybe not in your book, but very much in mine! I hope you like it and I hope, with some of my younger readers, it’s inspiration enough to join the teaching profession!

Seven Reasons Why This Grinch Loves Christmas!

I’m going to start this post by addressing a little gripe of mine. It’s about my reputation. Or at least the reputation that I feel like I’ve picked up over the years. It seems that some people – colleagues, students, even some friends and family (even my wife) – regard me as a little bit grumpy. And when I say a little bit, I just mean grumpy. Very grumpy.

Personally, I don’t think I deserve my reputation. I’m not grumpy. Not anymore than anyone else I would imagine. I’m not relentlessly happy either, but I certainly wouldn’t refer to myself as grumpy. In fact, the fact that people refer to me as grumpy simply makes me feel…well…grumpy.

I think my problem is that I’m more of a realist than some would like. Maybe even too honest, when honesty is not what people are looking for. So if someone asks how I am, while most of the time I’m happy to toe the line and tell them I’m good, there may well be other times when I’ll tell them that actually I’m really tired, or that I’m sick of work, or that I just can’t be bothered to be doing what’s asked of me – I’ll always do it though. Similarly, as a coach or at work, if something needs to be pointed out to a kid as a bit of a target I’m not afraid to let them know.

I don’t believe in relentless positivity for relentless positivity’s sake. and I don’t walk around whistling show tunes or constantly grinning. But that doesn’t make me grumpy.

I’m writing this blog the night before our last day at work before the end of term break for Christmas. Tomorrow will be Christmas jumper day, so at this point I should add that my Christmas jumper features a huge picture of The Grinch on the front. Consequently, and no doubt also because people have just got the wrong impression, it has been known for a few people to actually refer to me as The Grinch. And yes, when they joke about it and point to the image on the front, I don’t laugh. It’s not a lack of a sense of humour and it’s not being grumpy; it’s just that stating the blindingly obvious isn’t very funny. In actual fact, the joke is on those who make the joke.

So then, now we’ve shattered the illusion, it’s time to let you know why this Grinch loves Christmas. Some of the reasons are predictable and obvious and others aren’t, but here we go.

  1. Christmas films. (Or Christmas movies if your grasp of English isn’t that great or your American) Not exactly a revelation this one, eh? I mean lots of people love Christmas films., so maybe I’m stating the obvious here. Christmas films are truly special though. You only watch them at Christmas, unless you’re trying to gain a reputation as a bit of a ‘character’ and they’re about the kind of stuff that we’re all doing anyway (apart from Home Alone and Die Hard – although I’ll put it on the record right here and now that the only time I run riot in a white vest is at Christmas), but still surely everybody gets at least a bit of a warm glow when watching them. Some of them aren’t even that good, yet we’ll sit through them and maybe even get a little teary-eyed at what’s unfolding in front of us. The Polar Express is a prime example here. I have to admit that while we watch it every Christmas Eve and it’s an obviously lovely film, there are periods of that film where I’ve just lost track and it’s just dragging. It genuinely feels like a 7 hour film. But if I’m cuddled up with one of my children, maybe sipping on a hot chocolate and watching some feel-good Christmas film (it might even be The Grinch, just for the sake of irony), I’m relaxed and I’m very, very happy.
  2. Decorated Houses. Now, to be clear, I’m not one those people who has every inch of the house covered in lights and twelve foot tall Christmas figures stood in the front garden. However, there’s definitely something about houses in the street or those around us being lit up that will make me feel a lot more festive. It’s genuinely astonishing the amount of effort that some people go to and I for one appreciate it greatly. Over the past few years, largely driven by my wife, we’ve gradually built up the lights and decorations around our house. We have lights in the tree in our front garden, others in some of the shrubs and we have light up candy canes bordering the drive. Or at least we did have light up candy canes until the whole unit dropped from the box as I was putting them out this year and broke. So now we just have candy canes. They still look great though. On top of this we also have a new addition; a projector on the front lawn that casts festive images on to the front of our house. Tacky? I’m not sure, but as I park the car on the drive after a long day at work and see it all in full flow it’s a sight that gladdens my heart. And it’s another reason to believe that perhaps I’m not the Grinch after all.
  3. Squinting at the Christmas tree. Yep, you read that right. It might seem a bit weird, but it’s something I always do and it always makes me feel happy. There’s no great explanation here. When it’s night time and we have the Christmas tree lit up, I like to stare at the lights and find that if I squint a bit it makes them appear a bit bigger and brighter. I just think it’s a lovely sight. Just me? I expect so, but if you’ve never tried it then give it a go. And if you don’t like it then maybe it’s you who’s the Grinch!
  4. Giving Gifts. Firstly, let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love getting presents. Me and my wife still spoil each other rotten at Christmas and I still find it very exciting seeing what I’ve been bought. That might seem a little bit immature, but personally I think it’s just very normal. Surely we all like opening presents? I genuinely prefer giving though and it feels like I always go over the top. We’re lucky enough to be able to treat our children well at Christmas and it’s always a lovely feeling watching them open their presents. I still get a lot of pleasure out of shopping for my wife though. We have a budget, but I think we both overspend anyway! I like planning what I’m going to buy and trying to come up with things that my wife wouldn’t suspect she’s going to get and I feel like after all of the years we’ve been together. more often than not, I get it at least reasonably right! I still, as any bloke should, make sure that I ask for gift receipts though!
  5. Family. Again, nothing too startling here. Christmas is well known as a time for family and like lots of people, I enjoy getting together with mine. I’d include friends in that as well. I’ve lived away from my home city of Newcastle since I was 23 – so a long time! I love going home though. Every Christmas we visit family and friends and it’s always fantastic. It’s nice sitting in my parents house and just chatting and it’s lovely being treat like a bit of a kid again! We usually go out for a family meal and it’s brilliant seeing my kids with their grandparents as it’s something that doesn’t happen that often. We also always visit our oldest friends in their home and again, it’s lovely just to sit and chat (we usually do a lot of festive moaning about our families and children, but that’s besides the point) and always a bit of a tragedy when you realise how late it’s got and that it’s time to head back down the motorway to home. In fact, it’s almost the final sign that Christmas has come to an end and who wants that?
  6. The Annual Trip to The Panto! Now pantomime is a particularly British tradition, so it might need a bit of explaining. Panto (or pantomime to give it its full title) is best described as a play, but with more songs, farce and general silliness! It’s an occasion for the whole family and they are always hugely popular. They often involve celebrities playing handsome princes or beautiful princesses who have got themselves into a bit of trouble. There’s always a bad guy or two, but with a bit of singing, dancing and audience participation, everything gets resolved and often the handsome prince and princess live happily ever after together. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a recipe for a brilliant festive night out. We’re lucky here i Yorkshire as we have one of the best pantos in Britain at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford and for the last six or seven years we’ve gone along on the first Saturday of the Christmas holidays to watch the evening show. Over the years we’ve watched a Nolan sister, one of Steps, Christopher Biggins, Gareth Gates, a Chuckle Brother and Simon Webb of boyband Blue fame; all throwing themselves into a bit of panto fun. But they all take second place to the true star of the show, the legend that is Billy Pearce who always gets the audience shouting and singing along as well as laughing uproariously with some of the daftest jokes you’re ever likely to hear. It’s always a brilliant evening – I even enjoyed the one where I spent most of the evening in the foyer with my son who was sick all over my shoes and had to leave the auditorium in a bit of a hurry! Still, even the actual Grinch would love the panto.
  7. The Last Day of Christmas Term. As a teacher, I love the last day of any term, but the last one before Christmas always feels particularly special. It’s generally just a hugely relaxed atmosphere and there is little if any teaching attempted, with watching Christmas films being more the order of the day. It really feels like everyone is happy and with staff in Christmas jumpers and snacks galore to go around, it’s always a fantastically enjoyable day.

So there you have it. Although I might well have a reputation for being a tiny bit Grinchy, I still very much love Christmas and I’d love to hear what everyone else’s favourite parts of the most wonderful time of the year are, so let me know in the comments!

Happy Christmas everyone!

What do you do when Santa Claus no longer exists?

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Santa was made redundant for being too wooden, leaving his mate, Santa, feeling all deflated.

So Christmas has been and gone, over for another year and ‘all that fuss for just a day’ as my mother used to – and probably still does – say. If you’re like us that would mean months spent planning, reviewing, buying, wrapping and then placing ‘just so’ around the front room, or if you’re very traditional, underneath the tree. The Christmas one that is, not the silver birch in the back garden. Christmas is stressful enough for all without turning it into some kind of treasure hunt. But it’s been a few weeks now and so we’ve all had ample time to recover, right? Well that depends on how you do Christmas, I suppose.

In our house this Christmas has been fairly monumental. I say fairly because there’s no telling whether next year will be just the same or in fact completely different. So already I’m thinking about next Christmas and as a result I don’t feel like I’ve adequately recovered from the one that’s just gone. The problem? The question of Santa.

We’ve brought our kids up to very much believe in Santa which has meant an enormous amount of lies and subterfuge. But, as they say in Hot Fuzz it’s all been for ‘the greater good’. Santa’s been a magical presence in all our lives, because of course, Santa is magical. As disturbingly perverse as a white-haired, well upholstered old man sporting a great big white beard and wearing a red velvet suit might be, we’ve all grown up to be touched by him, in the right way. And if you haven’t, then this probably isn’t the article for you. And if you’ve grown up with Santa and he’s touched you in the wrong way, well this isn’t going to help either.

Think about it. He lives at the North Pole. He’s in charge of a veritable army of elves. He’s quite the snappy dresser. He only works one night a year. He organises an enormous fleet of Coke trucks. He delivers presents to children all over the world, having watched them all year, placed them on a list and then assessed whether or not they’re worthy of his gifts. He flies around the world on a sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeer. One of his reindeer may or may not have ‘a very shiny nose’ which is also red. He gains entry to your house via the chimney, whether you’ve got one or not. And depending on where you’re from on the planet he has different names including Kris Kringle, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Black Peter and Babbo Natale. Now if that’s not a magical man, then I don’t know what is.

And now, we’re faced with the question of whether or not he’s actually real. I know. Ridiculous right? But in all seriousness, this is something that will hang over our family – and countless others all over the world – for the next year. My kids have reached the ages where they’re going to be exposed to the ugly truth. A truth so ugly that I find it difficult to speak it here. Suffice to say that they’ll come to their own conclusion about Santa.

My children are now 12 and 9. By the time Santa’s sleigh is being MOT’d in readiness for the next night of Christmas madness they will be 13 and 10. In short, it’s likely that either one or both will simply not believe any longer. The signs are already there. My daughter, the eldest actually found out ‘the truth’ a couple of years ago, but with a lot of guidance from us has retained at least some element of belief. She was angry at the time, threatening to tell her brother and declaring that she couldn’t believe we’d lied to her for all those years! That viewpoint was quickly talked out of her – it’s amazing how a cocksure side to someone can disappear when you threaten the existence of their Christmas presents!

I’m sure she’s in possession of the facts though as she’s now in Year 8 of high school, but it’s safe to say that there’s still a little bit of her that clearly believes, or at least doesn’t want to stop believing. This year she wrote a Santa list and she’s never explicitly told me that she doesn’t believe, which is all this dad really needs to know to convince himself of her continued innocence. But deep down, with my rarely seen sensible head on, I know she knows. I teach kids of her age and they’re simply not as innocent as you’d like them still to be.

My son, on the other hand, still seems to believe. He understands that the Santas in the shops aren’t real, but thanks to Christmas films such as Polar Express and Elf and a certain level of innocence that he’s always had, he still buys the whole Santa thing. But it’s definitely on the wane. This year, he mentioned to my wife that some Year 6 boys at school had been telling people that Santa wasn’t real. And he actually asked whether the Tooth fairy was made up. As a result it’s made me think that Christmas 2018 may have been the last of a certain kind. The last of the magical kind. And it breaks my heart to think of my children not believing any more.

So what do we do if and when Santa no longer exists? I’m kind of stumped. As I say, with my daughter it’s been a strange kind of transition and I can’t honestly say whether she still believes or not. She probably doesn’t, but she’s the pragmatic type who seemed more angry that we’d lied to her than about the loss of a cuddly white-haired old man who she’d never actually met. But I fear it will be a different story with my son, who is much more emotional and clearly more the type to believe totally in a cuddly old gentleman, however. The lead up to next Christmas could well be messy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m adult enough – despite my age – to break the news. Or to deal with the question of Santa’s real identity. I mean, imagine the poor boy’s disappointment when he’s exposed to the shocking truth – no reindeer, no magic chimney, no sleigh and certainly no portly old man bedecked in red. And then the further disappointment of the fact that it has been me and his mam buying everything, hiding everything and wrapping everything, all along. It’s a lot to take in. The truth is about as far from fiction as you could hope for!

Our kids’ Christmas has always been a huge deal. The precision planning means that December has been a nightmare for years and that every Christmas Eve has been frantic and exhausting. Coupled with their belief that if it’s on Santa’s list that they can have it, it can make for a stressful time.

We’re both the product of traditional working class families, so the idea of budgeting for our kids has been high on our list. Every year we set a budget, but every year we try to spoil our children. It’s a tricky balance. For me in particular, although I loved Christmas as a child, it was often a bit of a disappointing time. My parents have often since admitted to the fact that there wasn’t enough money to give me and my sister what we wanted, however modest our lists might have been. And so, for a lot of Christmases I’d be willing Santa to bring me the things I’d put on my list, only to find that it wasn’t there on Christmas morning. Don’t get me wrong, I never let this disappointment show, but it was disappointment all the same and it’s certainly spurred me on in terms of the kind of Christmas I want my own kids to have. Within a budget, of course!

The point with the budget and the balance is that we end up doing a lot of online research – comparing prices, reviewing etc – in order to maximise what our kids get for their ‘money’. And when I say lots I mean months’ worth. Modern day shopping means that, as a parent, you have options. Amazon prices and Black Friday/Cyber Monday are there to be exploited as well as the many and varied sales that seem to crop up every other week. And, mainly due to my wife, we exploit them all!

Then there’s the twin terrors of hiding and wrapping presents, both of which end with you having to retrieve said presents from their hiding place on Christmas Eve! And all in the name of Santa Claus and the magical Christmas he brings! Presents have been bought and stashed in the boot of our cars for ages before being furtively moved into the house under the cover of darkness. Our loft has been crammed with stuff, but for some reason I’ve never been able to keep it all together, leading to many a frantic Christmas Eve spent scrambling about up there trying to track down one or two final elusive gifts for Santa to lay out. And then there’s the downstairs bathroom. For years my children seemed to just think this was a door that led nowhere, mainly due to the fact that it was always full of things being stored for another time and was thus out-of-bounds; from Autumn onwards these things would be Christmas presents. Needless to say, it was a revelation when I cleared the place out earlier this year and they realised that there was an actual toilet in there!

It’s a well-known fact that Santa’s elves wrap presents with precision following their many years of training in order to hone this skill. Now in my wife’s eyes, this has meant that in order to make the whole Santa experience as genuine as possible, our wrapping must be perfect! And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much rules me out. I am not a neat wrapper, meaning I’m solely responsible for the presents that the kids receive knowingly from us, but not Santa!

Wrapping also can’t be done in front of the children or within their earshot. So again, in the name of Santa, for years December evenings have been spent quietly and frantically wrapping after both children have gone to bed and have had enough time to be safely asleep! And always in the same paper so that our kids would never be able to suspect that it was us (the wife’s idea)! And then when it’s wrapped and brought out of its hiding place there’s the job of setting it all out just like Santa would’ve – we all do that, right?

So having written those last few paragraphs I can see that one of the things I’ll definitely do when Santa doesn’t exist is to do less! What has become a matter of routine that has grown and grown with each passing year actually seems like some kind of bizarre obsession when you read it back! But everyone will have their own ways and routines over Christmas and this simply multiplies if you’ve got children of a certain age. Even leaving things out for Santa can become something to think about. Do you just leave the whisky or milk and cookies out in a specific place? Do you have a special plate and cup? Do you leave something for Rudolph? Do you trail crumbs around to look like he ate and left in a hurry? Are you one of the people who leaves fake snow footprints as evidence that Santa’s been? The devil is in the detail and it’s the detail that adds to the magic of Christmas. Admit it, you’ll miss their faces full of wonder when they notice the crumbs or the half-eaten carrot? I know I will.

For all the work, planning, reading, wrapping and hiding that we do as parents, there will always be at least a moment that makes it all worth while. This year, at the sight of a carefully wrapped bike propped up on our settee, my son let out a series of squeals and ‘yeses’, punching the air and stamping repeatedly in unison. Genuine happiness that genuinely touched my heart. Similarly, my 12 year-old-too-cool-for-school daughter reacted with uncharacteristic glee when unwrapping small gifts like make-up and again my heart swelled just a little bit.

It feels fairly certain that next Christmas will be at least a little different in our house. Santa may well become just a decoration – a clockwork man who sits on the hearth and used to dance until my son’s curiosity got the better of him as a toddler. A bauble – of sorts – on the tree or a light up decoration stuck to the window. I’ll miss the strange reality of Santa and the hope he brings, but I hope it doesn’t make anyone sad. I’d like to think that rather than being entirely spoiled, without him Christmas will just be a bit different, but ultimately still Christmas and as the song says, ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ Still exciting, still fun, still a time for excess – in moderation of course – but different.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Now, how many days is it until Christmas?