Mr NorthernReader has pointed out to me that my advocacy of a one-frock wardrobe last week leaves my male readers rather denuded. Sorry, chaps: but I know you know the answer. Red trousers. Or salmon pink, or yellow at a pinch. Think bright: children’s crayons bright. Yes, I know you feel awkward and uncomfortable in them, but your strong suspicion that they make you visible from Mars is in fact an illusion. On the contrary, they are your camouflage kit for social mingling. It may, or then again it may not, cheer you up no end to listen to the truly wonderful John Finnemore (surely National Treasure status can be only just around the corner?) and his helpful Red Trouser Song.
As well as you and every other man in the room, your taste in trousering is shared by F. Christmas Esq. Yes, yes, heated debates break out at this time of year about whether or not the pushers of hideously sugary carbonated drinks invented the outfit, and certainly Clement Clark Moore’s St Nick is ‘a right jolly elf’, presumably despite rather than because of being ‘dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,/ And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot’ – although, come to think of it, we all know men who have to be spoken to very sternly indeed not to pitch up at a party looking like that. But for a very long time now, Father Christmas has been recognisable by his sturdy build, comfortable waistline and flashy taste in clothes. Oh, and a beard and coiffure only really given a run for its money by our previous Archbishop of Canterbury. For lots of us, the picture in our heads is of Raymond Briggs’ deliciously irascible doler-out of presents: if you have very small people on your present list, make all possible haste to your favourite bookshop (Cogito Books of course if you are lucky enough to live here) and get hold of his Father Christmas. And, if you are feeling generous – and let’s be honest, if not now, then when? – Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. There is already an enchanting animated film and at least a couple of theatre versions doing the rounds. The ballet cannot be far behind. The Ghost of Christmas Past in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol appears in the 1951 film Scrooge (A Christmas Carol if you are reading this in America: and thank you for doing so, by the way) as a clear and obvious Father Christmas, but Dickens imagined the Ghost quite differently: in fact, this is an admittedly rare instance of the Muppets being more academically rigorous and truer to their source material than their competitors. Their spookily ethereal child-spirit is pretty much exactly what Dickens described. You can see where this is leading. Instead of heading out to the shops, scrubbing the oven or whatever pre-Christmas hell you were about to embark upon, you are now going to have to settle down cosily in front of the television, purely in the interest of academic research, and decide for yourself whether Alistair Sim or Michael Caine is the better Scrooge.
Should any man getting ready for the Christmas festivities be assailed with self-doubt as he eases into his red corduroys, behold! I bring you tidings of great joy: for where Babar the elephant led, you can follow with confidence. You have to admit, Babar brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the get-up, and even manages – unlike very many human impersonators of Santa Claus – to avoid looking sinister. Babar and Father Christmas – or, to give the book its original title, Babar et le Père Noël, first appeared in the France of 1941, where he must have been a very welcome arrival indeed. In his kindliness and readiness to muck in and help, regardless of his position as king (oh, what a treat you have in store if you haven’t come across Babar before), we could all do a lot worse than adopt him as the patron saint and role model for monarchs, presidents, prime ministers and supreme leaders everywhere. And if Babar alone is not enough to convince you to wear your red trews with pride, take heart from the dauntless crime-fighting teddy bear, SuperTed, whose red outfit may owe a little to his proud Welsh nationality.
But whatever your sartorial choices, or items of clothing foisted upon you by remorseless spouses, at this time of year, remember to count your blessings that (probably) you do not have to haul on the whole crimson outfit, unconvincing cotton-wool beard and all, and pander to a bunch of self-centred and acquisitive children (of course, if the fates have decreed that you do have to do this, and you are the designated Father Christmas for your family/ school/village/department store/steam train trip – and how did that one ever get to be a tradition? – my sympathies are entirely with you and I hope you manage to maintain iron self-control and kindliness throughout the long wearying hours). This was never meant to be the time of year to arm-wrestle fellow human beings in your quest for a thousand inch television. Peace on earth and goodwill: remember? Many years ago, I read an article by Libby Purves so wise and so helpful that I kept a copy and make it a habit to re-read it at the start of the festive season. Its essence is a timely reminder not to try to be magic and not to star in your own consumer-driven fantasy advertisement. Who cares if you have turkey, or goose, or a turkey inside a goose inside a flamingo? If you have family, or friends, or a dog – or better still, family, friends and a dog, rejoice. And, whatever your beliefs or lack of them, cast off your sophistication just for a night and a day and enter into the spirit of Christmas. That lovely Christmas blessing, hoping that we might experience the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds and the perseverance of the wise men, can be our lodestar. Have a wonderful Christmas, everyone.