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That year, Sarah was dreading the organisation of the Christmas festivities. It always fell to her: trudging round the shops buying presents which none of the recipients liked (“just what I’ve always wanted!” uttered through gritted teeth), sending fulsomely effusive Christmas cards whose glitter somehow ended up in her underwear. One year she had ordered the turkey on the Internet, and the beast smelled bad because it had been slightly too well hung, rather like a rogue uncle. This year she had collected the turkey herself, and she groaned as she hefted it into and out of the car. It would be just my luck, she thought, to end up wearing a surgical truss instead of a paper crown.

Surely things had been more manageable in Pagan times? Sarah thought about the Yule log, brought in to share the warmth with everyone, and the Mistletoe tree, disobedient and wilful to the end. The Wassail bowl too, passed round to all. The old ways of celebrating the solstice had a lot to recommend them. It was not the fault of Jesus himself that Christmas had become so bloated. Oh well. It was as it was.

Dolefully she began to stuff the turkey and make the pigs-in-blankets. On Christmas Day itself, they all assembled at the long table: choleric aunties, squabbling children with trumpets, querulous elders, divorced friends (and others who should have been divorced). In all the kerfuffle, Sarah felt that her svelte appearance had suffered, and that her smart silk blouse now looked as though it contained two puppies fighting in a sack. Best to try and restore some order. She stood up, raised her glass, and said: “I’d like to make a toast. Here’s to all those who have helped to bring today about.”

They all cried “cheers!”. But suddenly the door gave a loud creak. It swung open, and into the room stalked an enormous turkey, the very fetch and image of the one who now lay plucked and roasted in the centre of the table. He glared at the assembled company, and noisily shook his wattles, which looked liked a dowager’s dewlaps. He hopped onto a chair behind the guests. Then in tottered a huge pig, doubtless the ghost of the one who had furnished the sausage and the bacon accompaniments to the meal. He sat down on the sofa, snuffling all the while. After him came a swarthy man carrying a stalk of Brussels sprouts. He was the man from Lincolnshire (but really from Romania) who had pulled the vegetables out of the earth in the pouring rain. An angry-looking farmer on a small tractor rolled in next. And a bevy of laughing women in uniforms rushed in: they were the shelf stackers and the checkout girls from the supermarket. Last of all, her bank manager sidled in.

The animals and the workers surrounded the groaning table. They were the ghosts or spirits of those who had provided the feast. But they were not the only ones. Sarah had unwittingly toasted others too. The door swung open again, and in trooped the deceased parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of everyone who sat round the table. To be sure, some were a little transparent, and others were a little frayed. But it was them all right. Some wore top hats, some wore clogs. Some of the women wore velvet, others wore rags. They found their kin, and stood behind them, whispering: “you are alive because we were so, once.”

Sarah looked round the room. It was full, with serried ranks round the table. And loud, with shouts, whispers and grunts. But none of the ghosts wished anyone ill. They were only a little envious of those who could eat the sausages and the sprouts. Sarah thought that it was good to discover where everything and everyone came from, and that there was a community between the living and the dead. To know that was the best Christmas present of all.

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