As many of you probably know, my dad is sadly no longer with us. He passed away sudddenly in 2005. And as all of you probably know, when the Christmas season hits, most people's minds turn to loved ones, lost or otherwise.
When I was about fifteen, my dad came home from work one evening with the Diffney quiz. Do not ask me what made him go into Diffney (he was a marine engineer, so he tended to buy very functional clothes rather than stylish ones. They tended to get covered in engine oil and dust very, very fast).
My dad loved crosswords, brainteasers and puzzles. His evening ritual was to sit with the Daily Mirror Quizword and work his way through the general knowledge clues. The Diffney quiz might as well have been designed for him.
Anyway, the entire family became addicted to it. Not just my parents and me, but the extended family. My mother posted a copy to one of her sisters, and the other sister saw it when they were having coffee together.
Slowly, it took over our December.
Right up to the February deadline, we were calling and texting back and forth from Dublin to Wexford to Scotland to Nottingham, with clues and suggestions and debates. Once you've done it once, you learn a few tricks - there is usually a clue about Diffney itself, for instance, and at least one Dublin placename and its postcode (Dublin has one-digit postcodes, the rest of Ireland doesn't, which makes internet shopping all kinds of fun). There is usually a film or two, a song lyric as well as some song titles.
Like a crossword, you eventually get into the mind of the compiler. Over the years, we have all got better and better at the Diffney quiz. It is no longer the absurd challenge it was that first year (and of course, we all secretly believe it's getting easier, in the same way exams were harder when we sat them, young people today have it so easy, etc. /end old person rant).
But the Diffney quiz is addictive. It has an odd siren song - most people can answer a lot of the questions in one sitting, easily. But the ones that you can't get nag at you and gradually take over your life so you are a mere husk of your former self.
Over the years, I've shared it with friends and family, and most people who enjoy puzzles get quite sucked in. Sometimes you get texts at 2 a.m. that merely say 'Amazon River - 3976 miles long!!!!!!' or, if you know someone really sadistic (or sensitive about spoiling your fun) 'I got number 23. Call if you want the answer.'
I got the 2011 Diffney quiz on Friday when I was starting my Christmas shopping. Two copies go in the post, one is left blank for photocopying, one will get filled in bit by bit over the next few weeks.
It's not quite the same without Dad, becayse he was the most enthusiastic Diffney quiz lover of us all. But it is nice, every year, to watch a little of Dad come out in all of us as we trade clues and answers, jealously guard our hunches, argue for our own suggestions and shamefully resort to Google when we're desperate.
For me, Christmas starts with the Diffney quiz.
Any odd holiday traditions in your family?