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Evening, all.

When I was little, Christmas Eve had a pretty well-established pattern. To be honest, it still does, although this year was a bit off-point as ChrisC and I only rolled into Darlington mid-afternoon. But one of the parts of the pattern when I was small was to go into town for the Crib Service and (either before or after) to potter across the market place to the town clock.

Grouped around the base of the town clock were the people the mother always referred to as "the holly men". They were not, in fact, some kind of sinister shadow force written into existence by Mr Gaiman, but a small group of guys selling holly. Not fancy wreaths, or arrangements, just holly. We'd buy a bundle and bring it home to tuck sprigs behind pictures and - if at all possible - for general decking of halls.

At some point - I'm not sure when, or whether it was related to the re-paving of the market place and general buggering about with Darlington town centre - the holly men disappeared. There are people who sell Christmas trees, and wreaths, and various other foliate paraphernalia, but no holly. This has not been a problem, because for years my parents' nextdoor neighbour had a large hollybush, and was generous about sharing. But recently he - inexplicably - decided to get rid of it.

Yesterday, while ChrisC and I were still at his parents' house, I received a text message: were there any people selling holly in the vicinity? The answer appeared to be 'no'.

I tried a spot of Googling. There are places online that sell holly - that offer "fresh, berried holly" by the bushel and will deliver it. But 23rd of December is too late, and they were all sold out. But I also found a garden centre that was offering loose holly. It was in completely the wrong direction, but it gave me an idea.

As we tooled up the (surprisingly calm and empty) M1 this morning I consulted Google and located a large, friendly-sounding garden centre very close to the motorway. It seemed to have a cafe, and would almost certainly be nicer than a generic services. We could have a little stopover there, and examine the holly situation. After all, if they didn't have loose holly, maybe we could buy a hollybush in a pot, and thus solve the problem for next year.

So we went to Dobbie's Garden World, just off J30 of the M1. I would say that they are very reasonably priced compared to a services, but later examination of the receipt revealed they had massively undercharged us for both ChrisC's salad and my soup + sandwich combo. Then we puttered round the garden centre part. Which wasn't really all that garden-y, though if you want polar-bear-shaped tea-light holders or dolls festively dressed or ornamental statuettes, they're all over it.

ChrisC found the outdoors part, but no, there was no loose holly. In fact, the guy seemed quite bemused by the idea. They did have bushes in pots, but they were (a) variegated, when any fule kno that Christmas holly should be glossy green, and (b) they were £80, which seemed a little steep for a plant I wasn't all that sure my folks actually wanted. Ah well.

In the end, coming down from the A66 into Darlington, we pulled on a whim into the tiny garden centre at Elm Ridge. Outside there was a curious-looking lump of holly which had a definite air of having been pinched from someone's garden. Was it for sale? It was. The chap was just about to chop it up into a proper bunch. Did they have any holly with berries on? Nope, the birds had stripped the lot.

Done, I said. We have secateurs at home, so we squashed it into the back seat of the car and scarpered.

I apologised to the mother for its lack of berries. No problem, she said, and rummaged in the box of Christmas decorations. She came up triumphant with some Mysterious Items that have been in there (unused) as long as I can remember. Apparently they were purchased in the berry-less 1950's by her mother, but have basically never been used. We got busy.

Piece of holly and some fake berries, ready to be wired on to the stem

Actually, the fake berries look surprisingly good from a distance. Holly is now tucked behind every picture, plate, or other thing hanging on the wall. A small piece has been set aside to decorate the Christmas pud tomorrow. And, because actually once it was rendered into bits the piece of holly turned out to be really rather large, there is greenery sprouting in alarming profusion from behind the bookshelves.



All is well with the world. We have a real fire, some beer, and a quiz from the newspaper over which to argue. Also a Radio Times and some highlighter pens. Some of the vegetables for tomorrow are peeled/chopped, the sausages have been snuggled up in bacon, and the giblets are seething in offal-y glory in a saucepan.

That's all you need, right?

Happy Christmas, everyone.
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