For several years before she died, my granny used to stay with us every year for Christmas. I’m sure this was generally very helpful for my parents, what with three children who’d all been up and excitable since 6am. My granny being religious and my parents not, I’m sure there were many aspects of our Christmas that she disagreed with, but she never mentioned them. What she did take issue with was the time we ate at – she favoured an afternoon Christmas dinner, whereas we always eat it after six. There was also that time when our oven broke, and we ended up having an Indian thali-style dinner instead, but let’s not go into that now.
Before we go any further, I just want to mention that I come from a family of vegetarians, so I’m aware that my experience of Christmas dinner is different to most people. However, where Christmas is concerned (and especially Christmas dinner), it’s all about tradition, and even if those of my family are different, we have them nonetheless.
I find it hard to rationalise my affection for our Christmas dinner, usually made up of a nut roast, a mustard-potato gratin, and root vegetables in crème fraiche. We generally have other vegetable dishes too, although these change every year, leaving room for experimentation. Dessert is always a chocolate Yule log (my mother doesn’t like Christmas cakes or puddings). Any other time of year, I’d turn my nose up at the plain and hearty flavours, wondering where the spices were, and adding liberal amounts of crushed chilli to my own portion. So why is it that at Christmas I shun the spice rack and insist on the hearty sort of fare that the Hogwarts house elves would be proud of? I can’t explain it myself, other than a feeling of ‘that’s what you do at Christmas’.
That being said, the rest of the year, I rarely eat traditional British food, sticking instead to more exotic cuisines which are more interesting and kind to vegetarians. A traditional Christmas dinner feels novel, a fun departure from the norm. Would I feel the same way if I’d been raised on a one meat-two veg diet? That’s heading into alternate reality territory, but I’m not sure that I would. There’s also the fact that my mother and I are big foodies, and put a lot of effort into thinking, talking about, and preparing our weekly meals. Our meals are generally delicious and impressive (and not seldom extravagant either). I can understand that for people who usually shun the kitchen, pulling out all the stops once a year for something really sumptuous is an attractive idea.
Time is another factor of tradition with the Christmas dinner. I mentioned above that we’re evening diners, although last year we experimented with having dinner in the afternoon – much to my sister’s chagrin. None of us really enjoyed it – dinner is so filling that I just wanted to go to sleep afterwards, and I was saddened to see that I had a whole four hours (maybe more) left before the Downton Abbey Christmas special even started. What do you do in the time between? Of course, afternoon eaters could criticise eating in the evening for much the same reason (what do you do all afternoon?). The truth is, Christmas day is structured around dinner, so for us, the day lost all its structure once we changed our mealtime. We’re returning to tradition this December.
I immensely enjoy Christmas dinner every year, but for my family, it’s a very laidback affair. We don’t have turkey or Christmas cakes which need preparing a long time in advance; we usually make a Yule log the day before, and we start making our nut roast after lunch. We like to give the potatoes a nice long time to cook and the medley of different vegetable dishes takes time and effort to get ready. But it’s very much the work of a few hours, and then you get a break between cooking and eating while everything roasts in the oven. To put days – even weeks – of your life into Christmas dinner is something that even I (who am not exactly the speediest of chefs) can’t imagine enjoying. Christmas dinner is worth the fuss only as long as it stays fun, and I’m glad to say that our fuss/fun ratio works out pretty well most years.