Charles Dickens knew what he was doing by stitching past, present and future together and then using that great marker of them all — Christmas — for a final jolt of existential oomph to really get Scrooge going. Today the Christmases that many aspire to seem firmly divided between two ideals that are getting more distant every year: the stately Victorian Christmas (bowls of punch, plum pudding) and the idyllic post-war Christmas (think Bing Crosby and scrubbed children whose expectations did not even warrant a wish list). It’s becoming a challenge to maintain tradition without it becoming meaningless.
Indeed, Christmas stress is the easiest of all annual customs to perpetuate, and it’s not being Grinchy to say so. In Victorian times those who were having swanky, opulent dinners usually had at least some hired help, and when Bing was crooning most women were not working outside the home and nor were they miles from their extended families, so there were many hands. Nowadays the holiday expectation is ramped up high, yet both parents are working (if they are fortunate!) and are somehow still expected to cram shopping and wrapping into the day and ultimately, may also have to travel to join their families. Yes, it’s a wonderful life — but it’s not easy.
I definitely don’t recall all the presents I received as a child, but I do remember carefully rotating the tiny handle on a wee nut grinder in order to dispense the finely flecked powder into a little bowl for marzipan. I was made to feel that my role was a vital one. I also recall coconutty “Coppers’ Hats” which my mother created using a buttered egg cup as her mould, expertly running her finger round to release them. There was also the dark smell of rum as it glugged into waiting mincemeat. There was a “Money Bag” cake too — one year with a golden cord, a pound note symbol piped neatly on the side, and a ruched opening at the top, housing golden-wrapped chocolate coins. (Interestingly, this cake only ever appeared once but I have never forgotten its elegance).
The very best traditions sometimes evolve on their own. One Christmas Eve, desperately sad and exhausted, I went against history and took my sons out for Chinese food. We were the only ones in the restaurant and shy, smiling staff made us feel especially welcome. We ate steaming dumplings greedily and enjoyed heartfelt conversation and laughter, our chins sticky with sauce. That was ten years ago and we’ve done it many times since, (minus the sadness and exhaustion) with great enthusiasm.
As families absorb new members (some of whom may have dietary preferences) menu plans have to be modified. This can be rattling but the show must go on. The person that I love and live with (usually known as sane) was specifically dispatched last year to procure some last minute appetizers for vegan guests. Upon his return, I watched incredulously as he displayed on his forearm, not one, but three flats of cocktail sausages.
“You bought three trays. Of sausages?”
“Well yes!” he beamed. “They were on sale!”
This same year, I had carefully made vegetarian stock for soup and a pie brimming with root vegetables only to find a veggie guest tucking into seconds of the roast potatoes. “So crispy!” she enthused. “How do you get them like this?”
Sadly, the answer was duck fat — but since the deed was done, I just brayed with laughter and topped up my glass. It’s only once a year.