I approached Christmas Day, as I imagine many New Statesman readers did, with my eyes smarting from a swab up my nose, and an imaginary two-metre force field around my 89-year-old Nana. It was a jollier, better-attended celebration than the inaugural St Scrooge’s Day of 2020, but the build-up was laden with doom. Not only did the memory of the previous year’s 11th-hour lockdown weigh heavy, but warnings of a Brexit/Covid mix of supply-chain bottlenecks, rising prices and food shortages “cancelling Christmas” haunted the headlines.
As a rush on petrol caused chaos, Boris Johnson promised the nation we would “get through to Christmas and beyond”. It was a myopic approach to planning. Emergency visas for foreign lorry drivers and poultry workers (“truckers and pluckers”) – vital for keeping shelves stocked and solving the poultry shortage that closed around 50 Nando’s branches in the summer – were supposed to expire on Christmas Eve. (Eventually, they were extended until 28 February and New Year’s Eve respectively.)
Urging the public to book their boosters to “save Christmas”, the Prime Minister appeared to be fixated on staggering on until the big day – and not much further.
For the first time, I found myself looking forward to Armenian Christmas more than “English” Christmas. Armenians celebrate Christmas on 6 January. Until the fourth century, so did all Christians. When the Roman empire adopted Christianity, the date was changed to replace a pagan feast day on 25 December known as “Saturnalia”, which marked “the birth of the sun” – the days growing longer. Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion (in AD 301), already had an established church calendar, so stuck to the original day.
All this really means for my family is more hoovering, as our Christmas tree stays up longer than everyone else’s (alas – my sister and I never managed to wangle two sets of presents).
Although as a baby I was fully baptised as Armenian Orthodox (and they really dunk you in; home videos show my English relatives looking politely concerned amid the incense and chanting of St Sarkis church as I’m immersed, wailing, in holy water), our celebration of Armenian Christmas was always an improvised hotchpotch of tradition.
We’d pull leftover crackers, eat home-made Lebanese mezze, barbecue lamb and chicken kebabs – my dad brandishing tongs in the snow – and for pudding share galette des rois, a pastry cake served mainly in France for the Epiphany.
Even the language we use for the Armenian Christmas table is uniquely ours. Lamb kofte (spiced minced meat on a skewer) is “Armenian hamburger”, khobez (classic Lebanese flatbread) is “Arabic bread”. I describe lahmajun (a thin dough base topped with mincemeat, herbs and tomatoes) as “Armenian pizza”, and nickname loubia b’zeit (green bean and tomato stew) “bean surprise”. My dad’s signature aubergine dish is “the priest who fainted” (more commonly known by its Ottoman name imam bayildi, it is so delicious it supposedly made the imam/priest – delete according to heritage – who first tasted it swoon).
On 6 January 2019, the first Armenian Christmas after my dad died, we scrambled to establish a new tradition: I would now host the meal at my flat in east London. I lack winter barbecuing skills but I’ve taught myself some dishes over the years. Our smoke alarm regularly sends my boyfriend racing into the kitchen to find me charring four aubergines on the open flames of our gas hob, feeling connected to my roots but apprehensive about how net zero will affect the depth of flavour in my moutabal (smoky aubergine dip).
We had to skip this nascent tradition in 2021 during the January lockdown, so I’ve been tentatively planning a feast to make up for it this year, which includes both staples and innovations. Vegetarian and vegan guests mean no meat kebabs, and a huge pot of “bean surprise” becoming the focal dish. Tahini for hummus and pomegranate molasses for muhammara (a walnut and red pepper dip) will double up as ingredients for dairy-free brownies. As a stereotypical millennial observing Dry January, I’ll be toasting with Middle Eastern mint lemonade instead of the customary arak (a fiendishly strong aniseed spirit). Armenian coffee remains Armenian coffee: strong, thick and, once drunk, tipped upside-down to read fortunes in the grounds.
An estimated 700,000 Brits isolated over Christmas in 2021, resulting in new festive routines (I know a house-share of 30-somethings who made Mexican food together for “fajismas”). British Muslims have had to adapt to celebrating Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha under restrictions, unable to break their fast with friends and family. Open-air prayer services established during lockdown continue in some local parks.
The “rule of six” in 2020 arrived days ahead of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), and some families attended an outdoor synagogue service, isolated in their cars, honking horns instead of the traditional blowing of the shofar(ram’s horn). Diwali fell in the second lockdown of November 2020, leaving Hindus, Sikhs and Jains to celebrate virtually – even turning to TikTok to watch and share Bhangra dances. Some parents, still fearful after restrictions were lifted, sent parcels of homemade Indian sweets instead of hosting their children the following year.
Customs change as we move away from home, lose those we love, or, nowadays, bump up against public health restrictions. Yet the old impulse to make a virtue of necessity thrives across Britain’s patchwork of communities. It is this spirit, every year, that saves Christmas, Eid, and maybe even Saturnalia, somewhere, too.
[see also: The right’s war on Christmas virtues]
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance