It's Christmas: So don't say, 'Can I help?'

It’s a funny time of year. Somehow the absence of visitors makes the landscape quieter. In the season it is as if the hum of their activities transmits even at night to the moors. Down at the Old Doom Bar we regulars retreat to the snug in small numbers and the landlord or his wife sometimes join us, though willing to knock out scampi and chips if we fancy them.

The women are less in evidence. This is because they are busy with seasonal preparations. As well as list-making, baking and provision planning these include two day excursions to favoured shopping centres such as Bath which is a smart city with spas and high end hairdressers.

We men all agreed that the domestic weather is very variable; veering between irritability and excitement depending on whether our partners are domestically engaged or off on a jaunt. The farmers in our group have the easy escape of an agricultural pretext for getting out of the house. Others among us have either to retreat to their dens or offer to help. Neither of these tactics is certain to be well received.

It seemed to us that Christmas had the effect of highlighting female discontents. Whether with an outside job or not all of them had a narrative of what the Victorians perceptively called (albeit from a servant’s view) ‘being put-upon’: or in contemporary terms, absent domestic staff, ‘having to take responsibility’. If this was not about male shortcomings in various tasks (either incapable or not as good as women) it was about the family, its needs and demands and the stress of caring enough to cater satisfactorily for them.

Honesty compelled us to admit that we were often less thorough (because less bothered) than women in general domestic chores. This had to be set against our abilities to resolve problems with technology. Some of us had the esteem of being the household cook. That we failed to worry about Auntie May or the families of our married children was not about caring (we would go very far in crises) but about recognition that they were grown-ups. To preside over genial hospitality, fund generous gifts for the grandchildren as briefed by the parents, was surely enough. What is to worry about?

Our landlady, listening to our discussion from the bar suggested that two things in particular made women cross. The first was men asking ‘can I help?’ which showed lack of engagement with the issues. The other was that the whole Christmas exercise was a patriarchal affront to women. God was a man, the central woman had to be a virgin and the wise men were blokes. Ever since then women have done the cooking and caring especially at Christmas. Strapping the Christmas tree to the car and fixing the lights to it was insufficient. We reflected on this and concurred we were probably not good enough for our female partners – as we have learned to call our wives. Indeed, when the topic arose we agreed that partnership was very much what our marriages were based on.

A thoughtful present was of course a means of showing caring. It turned out that everyone found sourcing an appropriate gift a problem. Self-evidently, one purpose of the girls going to Bath was to choose a delightful Christmas surprise. That is, they would be delighted and we would be surprised – and of course, delighted as well.

We finished our last pint having decided that although it got a bit wearing, the whole feminist crusade had a point and a benefit for everyone. Women deserved to be treated with regard and proper deference. We contemplated our renewed sense of appreciation and resolved to be ever more worthy of our partner’s approval and respect. Someone said it reminded him of the Australian joke about the bloke trying to chat up a girl on Bondi beach. After a series of increasingly hostile dismissals of his blandishments he asks: ‘I suppose a fuck is out of the question?’

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