Christmas comes but once a year, takes up about a sixth of said year and half the annual budget, makes us fat, cross and compromised and leaves us stranded on the cusp of another January, gasping like beached fish and in dire need of another holiday to recover.
All of which, believe it or not, is positive, since it constitutes a gold and sparkly reason for alcoholic adventuring. Christmas may be the most boring time of the year in culinary terms – turkey being, in my opinion, a mere excuse for interesting additions, like the European equivalent of rice – but when it comes to drink, this truly is the season to be jolly. On Christmas Day, I want a big, luscious red or two, usually from the Rhône: a Châteauneuf-du- Pape, Gigondas or Lirac, full of spice, violets, pepper – and paganism. (This part of France was a stronghold for the Romans before they caught Christianity and, even when it briefly became another Vatican in the 14th century, the seven French popes who presided here “carried on the court of Avignon on principles that have not commended themselves to the esteem of posterity”, as Henry James, cardinal of exquisite condemnation, once put it.)
For the rest of this chilly and fraught season, though, I follow the lead of another set of pagans: the three wise men, who were Jews, Arabs or Zoroastrians or something else entirely (and may or may not have been kings) but were not, for obvious reasons, Christian.
As an unobservant Jew caught up in the whirligig of a western Christmas, I identify with these guys: they may not have been quite sure what all the fuss was about but they were told to turn up with presents and they picked well. Frankincense was a perfumed resin, used in Jewish worship; gold is what we could all do with more of at this time of year; myrrh, when not also being used in Jewish temple ritual, was drunk in wine to relieve pain. Those three men were wise, indeed: they spotted the star of Christmases future, neon-bright on the horizon, and before they moved towards it, armed themselves accordingly.
I do likewise, spending gold on gold: the glorious, warming glow of dessert wine. I love Sauternes but also Coteaux du Layon from the Loire, the rich, amber Tokajis of Hungary, Canada’s ice wines and the powerful “stickies” of Australia.
My frankincense and myrrh are brandy-based cocktails: a Daisy, which can also contain rum (more perfume and more pain relief), or a Sidecar, that magical combination of three wise ingredients – cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice – that is worthy of worship.
Most of the year, I am a very occasional cocktail drinker, not because I am a puritan, entertaining though fearsome gastronomic rule-makers can sometimes be (see Bernard DeVoto: “Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum”), but because the sea of wine is vast and I have a limited number of sailing hours.
At Christmas, however, I resort to stronger stuff precisely because I am a pagan, who can only see this segment of the year in friendly soft focus with a slug of liquid assistance. Yet when I do, I remember that hard liquor, with its fierce purity, is worthy of my attention too, and that – pace DeVoto – a good cocktail is as joyous a combination of different flavours, methods and beliefs as a multicultural Christmas.
So, for tolerance, however you find it, and for mercy that’s anything but mild, let us all give thanks and to you, gentle reader, a full glass and a well-fortified Christmas.