There I was, thumbing through the Chicken Soup For The Soul Book Of Christmas Virtues, when I ... what? What are you looking at me like that for? It was research. Don't go thinking that the holiday season is immune from self-help's relentless promises of life-enhancement. You may be planning to spend the next few days in a turkey-induced haze before flinging yourself into New Year's resolution mode, but the publishing world has other ideas. For a start, there are three Christmas books in the Chicken Soup series, not to mention Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways To Reduce The Stress And Recapture The Joy Of The Holidays, and Transforming Scrooge: Dickens' Blueprint For A Spiritual Awakening. With this in mind, now is an appropriate time to take stock, adopt the annoying voice of a Radio 4 bishop, and remind ourselves of the real meaning of Christmas.
After all, the nativity is, ultimately, a story of poor time-management. If Joseph had used a "tickler file", as recommended by home-organisation guru Julie Morgenstern, the whole no-room-at-the-inn fiasco might have been avoided. By taking 43 square-cut folders, 12 for the months of the year and 31 for the days of the month, he could have created a system for reminding himself of future events. Bills, invitations and demands to return to your birthplace for a census could all have been filed in the appropriate folder - then, at the start of each month, redistributed according to the day on which he needed to start thinking about them. Check the correct folder each morning, Morgenstern says, and you'll never miss a deadline, misplace an invite or leave it too late to find a place to stay.
Anyway, back to the Book Of Christmas Virtues. Like all the books in the series, it's a compendium of heartwarming tales, in this case testifying to the joy to be derived from dedicating Christmas to helping others. It's as syrupy as you might imagine, but the message, of course, is unimpeachable. Presumably, it's meant to inspire readers to emulate the example of those in the stories. Yet one can't help but imagine it being smugly digested by those who already see themselves as pillars of the community, while the genuinely selfless are busy in soup kitchens. The most charitable explanation of its raison d'être is that those suffering from loneliness and depression might use it as a spur to finding absorption in social action. But I'd forgive any depressed person who found its peppy tales profoundly grating.
Perhaps we need to lower our expectations of Christmas, whether as a time for family togetherness, consumerist gluttony or grand acts of social service - and meanwhile perhaps Radio 4 bishops could stop going on about the festival's real meaning. That way, if we did end up experiencing a tiny bit of the glow of satisfaction promised by the Chicken Soup stories, at least we'd stand a chance of appreciating it.