David Bouchier

Spying is a very ancient profession. Two thousand years ago ancient Rome was full of spies, employed by emperors, powerful senators and priests to keep a secret eye on the population and sniff out any hint of treachery or unorthodoxy. They were kept busy, but they had limited techniques at their disposal: listening at doors, bribing informers, and simply watching the people they suspected. It must have been hard and unproductive work to be a Roman spy, and everybody hated them.

It’s January, it’s a New Year, and the bills for the holidays are beginning to come in. All those happy credit card purchases that seemed so effortless at the time now, suddenly, have a real price tag attached. We often hear how much simpler and less expensive The Holidays were in “the old days,” and it’s true, I was there in the old days, and I remember that Christmas gifts in particular were annoyingly small and cheap. Children naturally prefer flashy and expensive, and I can’t help feeling some envy for the kids of today.

This strange, unfocussed interval between Christmas and New Year seems to depress and disorient a lot of people. In the not too distant past, when we were not expected to be so frantically busy, this whole period was an extended winter festival dedicated to family visits, religious observances, and just having fun. In England in the Middle Ages it was a time of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which never stopped until Twelfth Night, January 6th, the traditional end of the Christmas season.

We drove out along the north fork of Long Island last week, passing a steady stream of cars and SUVs heading the other way, loaded with Christmas trees. They were tied on to roofs, hanging perilously out of car trunks, and even protruding from side windows. Pumpkin madness is over, and Christmas tree madness has arrived.

Only ten shopping days until Christmas, and panic has set. Not only do we have the impossible task of choosing gifts for others, but we have to face that most dreaded and unanswerable question: "What do you want for Christmas?"