The highlight of Christmas Day in the UK (after the seasonal TV ‘special’ Stars In Their Eyes, featuring pets of the rich and famous, and Susan Boyle singing a novelty version of ‘We Three Kings’ especially written for her by Richard Stilgoe) is the Great British Christmas Dinner, and it is this repast upon which this piece will focus as, to be brutally honest, I simply do not know what is eaten elsewhere in the world, although I would be delighted to hear, should anyone wish to fill me in.
The traditional Christmas Dinner contains sufficient calories to see the average Blue Whale through the winter, but it does not usually begin with any form of appetizer as most celebrants are already stuffed to the gills with candied fruit, chocolate covered nuts, mince pies, sausage rolls, buck’s fizz, cream sherry, glacé cherries and eggnog by the time they sit to eat. It is entirely normal for over-imbibed members of the family to have to be woken in order to be brought to the table, whereupon they immediately fall asleep in the chestnut stuffing and dribble gently into the gravy.
At this early stage, instead of eating, the Christmas crackers are usually pulled. The ‘crack’ associated with these sparkly seasonal tubes will inevitably make the babies scream and the elderly momentarily lose control of their bladders. Disagreements over the ‘prizes’ in the crackers, and whose flew where, may persist well into the New Year. The wise host will have a carrier bag full of crap with which to pacify the dissatisfied. The contents of the cracker usually consists of a paper crown which splits into two as soon as you attempt to put it on your head; a plastic novelty that flies across the room, ricochets from head and ornament before settling somewhere unseen, where it remains lost until a week later when it is sucked up with 3cwt of pine-needles and a half-eaten coffee-cream which jams the Hoover, having smeared itself over a six foot strip of mushroom shagpile. Finally, there is a joke, written, I believe, by a robot in Taiwan, which proves beyond doubt that there will never be an AI comedian. Never-the-less, it is not considered good manners to begin the meal until everybody has had the opportunity to read out their joke – even if a packing malfunction at the factory has resulted in everybody having the same one.
The traditional ‘bird’ of Christmas Dinner is, I think the goose, but this has now been firmly superseded by the turkey, due largely to its greater post-Christmas adaptability in sandwich, curry and rissole. Henry the Eighth, it is said, was the first person to eat Christmas turkey in the UK and, looking at some of the sandwiches in the shops around this time of the year, the same bird is still doing the rounds. It is traditional to concur, when taking one’s first mouthful, that it is a bit dry and ask for more gravy. As a non-meat eater, I will traditionally be asked at this point if I would like some ham.
Christmas Dinner is, in effect, a standard Sunday Roast with knobs on, separated from ‘the normal’ by volume and accoutrement:
• Brussel Sprouts are, for many people, a once-a-year veg. Traditionally boiled for approximately three weeks before the day and hidden under the table during the meal.
• Bread Sauce – follows the English tradition of taking something relatively bland and stodgy and transforming it into something even blander and stodgier.
• Pigs in Blankets – pork sausage wrapped in bacon (so, more correctly Pigs in Pig, I would argue) presents the UK diner with the unique opportunity to accompany a meal with the sensation of inadvertently driving a cocktail stick through the hard palate and into the nasal cavity.
• Cranberry Sauce – this is most un-British, like having gravy on your pudding. Tolerated only on this one day of the year. For the rest of the year such gastronomic eccentricities are left to the French.
• Wine, both red and white may be served. Grandma, robbed of her mug of tea, will reluctantly agree to have a glass of port and lemonade (‘More lemonade than port, please. Well, perhaps just a splash more port…’), before falling to sleep and coughing her false teeth into the mash.
After the meal has been eaten, the plates have been cleared and the worst of it mopped off grandad’s shirt, comes the Christmas Pudding: the densest duff since Cnut. The glistening globe is placed, steaming, in the centre of the table before being doused in brandy and set alight, to shrieks of admiration from everyone around the table, except for grandma who has woken to find her hairpiece is on fire. The brandy soaked pudding is usually served with brandy butter, brandy sauce and brandy – or perhaps that’s just our house. In the past, the pudding would contain a silver sixpence, which the lucky finder would use to get their teeth fixed.
Only the hardiest of souls, and those desperate to avoid the washing up, will attempt to tackle the cheese and biscuits after all of this. Those wishing to have a cigar will be sent to the bottom of the garden as the smell makes Auntie Vera nauseous. Unfortunately, the bottom of the garden contains a compost heap that makes the smokers nauseous.
When the traditional moaning about who always gets landed with the washing up has subsided everyone settles down for an afternoon doze.
The first to wake opens the window and lets it out.