YOU know it's coming. One can hardly escape. Come the first week of November, the shopping malls echo to the sound of seasonal carols. It's enough to make the most hardened Hong Kong shopper hop on a jet for some remote island without electronic amplification and with no snow on which red-nosed Rudolph and his comrades could possibly land their sleigh. Ah, the festive season. It is time for goodwill where beaming smiles gleam over the cheery tinkle of bells on the cash register and gold AmEx cards in Tsim Sha Tsui flash like snowflakes over the toy factory on the North Pole where old Santa is toiling away with the gnomes making Christmas goodies. Everyone has a good time, although the religious significance of the season probably means little to anyone other than Christians. Does this matter? Probably not. Anything that brings goodwill and cheer to the world is welcome. For those with no particular religious belief, it is still a time to celebrate, to draw near to friends and family, to exchange gifts and think of absent friends. It is also time for a toast and it is here that Hong Kong comes into a Christmas class of its own. The celebrations for the hardy start traditionally in mid-November, when the Beaujolais Nouvelle arrives. This is a ceremony that has, thankfully, palled over recent years as people have woken up to the stunningly-successful con trick of the French country farmers who convinced the world for a decade to pay good money for bad plonk. About the same time, hotels begin thawing turkeys and rubbing mustard-honey mixtures over hams and mixing sticky puddings by the tonne. And it is time for that most vexed of tasks; gift-giving. This is where the smart people come into the act. I start buying gifts in January. Throughout the year, one every journey abroad, I hunt for unusual items. If there is an election in Sri Lanka or an earthquake in the Philippines, I make a point of going to local markets to stock up on batiks, pottery, table cloth and T-shirts. Come December 24, these are all wrapped and delivered by the loyal Hong Kong postal service, not a gnome on a reindeer. 'Oh, you're so thoughtful,' my friends' wives say. Not a bit. It's just that I loathe shopping and have taken the easy way out. The major hazards of a Hong Kong Christmas are the office parties. The sweet (and cheap) bubbly pops, the office boys go red in the face and rush for the toilet and mature secretaries get the giggles. Even those with totally no religious sensibilities go weepy and sentimental. And why not? It's that one time of the year when even Scrooge has a heart. The hotels go mad with culinary passion. American turkeys by the flock and German hams by the tonne roast slowly as festive diners throw back gallons of champagne. Not me. I never venture outside the front door. Christmas Day is time for family, and it starts early. Why is it that seven-year-olds who cannot be prised out of bed before noon on 364 days of the year are up before the sparrows on December 25? And how do you explain that Father Christmas has come down the chimney when you live on the 27th floor of a building where to light a log would cause firemen to douse you with their hoses? And how, logically, can one explain to a child that some overweight old gentleman at the North Pole works all year with a bunch of elves to make computer games which they find in their festive stockings? The answer to these philosophical questions can be best resolved in the kitchen where the really vital matters of Christmas are being whirled around in the blender - making eggnog. It is an art that helps adults escape children's queries about antelopes being able to fly and the tricky issue of virgin birth. That's sufficient to drive anyone to mixing rum or brandy with whipped cream and then drinking the end product. Christmas Day has many imponderables; why is it the only day of the year that you eat parsnips? How come lunch is never ever cooked until 3pm? What moron writes the Queen's speech? Above all, who composed the world's most ridiculous song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? And why isn't this person being dragged through the snow by his heels in punishment? These thoughts whirl through the mind as the eggnog is whipped into suitable smoothness. Christmas is family day. Although the children are adults, it's tradition that after the scrambled eggs and first slice of the Christmas ham, we sit about and open presents. But it's all fun. The eggnog goes down, the ham is sliced, the turkey is carved, the roast pumpkin is cut and the heavy, solid pudding is dished out. Break open the once-a-year bottle of Lafite. Drop over the road to have a drink with the neighbours. Phone the relatives and friends scattered around the globe. And raise a glass to make the classic Christmas toast. Absent friends, Merry Christmas.