SO how did your big shop for the Christmas foodstuffs go?

Even though we have been fortunate enough to be invited to enjoy Christmas dinner with family over the past few years, Mrs Hextol has always been one for filling Hextol Towers with enough festive food to cater for the entire crowd at St James’s Park, plus away fans, just in case they decide to drop in over the season.

When our four sons were all at home, Christmas dinner was always a major occasion, when Hextol Towers was filled with fun and jollity all day long.

As well as the four boys, we would have many other diners, with up to 15 people sometimes sitting down to turkey and all the trimmings.

Some even brought their own chairs to augment our emergency chairs from the garage, and no one ever went hungry.

We had to join several tables together to accommodate everyone, and what wonderful times they were, even though I was usually left to do the washing up afterwards as everyone else was too full, or did not want to miss a moment of the Queen’s Speech.

The day itself was great, but getting ready for it was sheer torture.

I have spent many hours in the run up to Christmases past in queues at supermarkets in Hexham and beyond, where giant women with corned beef legs piled their trolleys dangerously high with all manner of provender, with a small child perched on top, wailing and dribbling over everything.

While Christmas dinner is always one of my favourite meals of the year, I hate the hysteria involved in getting together the turkey, sprouts, the Christmas pudding and all the rest of it.

The shops are closed for just one day, but shoppers seem to think they will never open again, and sweep the shelves clear of everything edible.

Mrs Hextol is usually a sensible shopper, but even she can be overcome with festive madness, as she buys things that neither of us like - like coleslaw, stuffed olives or sweaty feet cheese - or adds to things we have already got, such as unopened jars of cranberry sauce, Santa festooned serviettes and boxes of Christmas crackers.

But this year, it’s all been different, thanks to the pandemic.

Actually going into shops has become just a memory for Mrs Hextol, even though she has more masks than the Hole in the Wall gang.

She is so worried about the perils that may lurk in the land of commerce, that since we came back from the Canaries in the very first lockdown in March she has only been shopping in person about four times.

She has bought most of her Christmas presents online, with few days going by without a man from Amazon, Hermes or the Royal Mail sending the dog into delirium by ringing the doorbell with one parcel or another.

Once they arrive, the parcels are treated like radioactive isotopes, carried into the garden in gloved hands to be sprayed with disinfectant, bleach or other sanitising fluids before being allowed back in the house.

There, they continue to be regarded with the deepest suspicion, as though they are about to spawn millions of microbes, for several days before being opened with all the caution of Howard Carter opening King Tut’s sarcophagus.

She sends me to the village for the likes of bread and milk and other essentials such as Vale of Mowbray pork pies on a semi-daily basis, but has resorted to the click and collect service of one of our supermarkets for our big food shop.

I was frankly amazed by this transformation, as she has always been a dedicated palpator of vegetables, squeezer of sliced loaves and sniffer of sausages to ensure their freshness, and I never thought the day would come when she would entrust a shop employee with the task of filling her shopping trolley.

I was more than a little wary of the scheme, for I have always harboured a notion than supermarkets use click and collect to get rid of bruised fruit, and close to sell by date goods that would otherwise be left on the shelves by discerning shoppers

I have to say that generally though, the remote control shopping experience has worked reasonably well, with one or two notable exceptions.

Mrs Hextol ordered a bottle of glycerine to prevent her Christmas cake icing going hard, but was given gelatin - an entirely different substance - instead, and we have had to throw a punnet of satsumas and another of grapes straight into the bin as they were green with mould.

The supermarket would doubtless have changed them had we asked, but we were not willing to trail all the way back to the shops to make the switch.