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17 December 2009

Yule only regret it

By Will Self

I’m not altogether sure Christmas dinner is a meal at all, let alone a real one; rather, it is the focus of all the faith, hope and joy – as well as the transgenerational neuroses and psychic dyspepsia – that we load on to that already heavily freighted barque “the family”. Granted, not everybody who eats Christmas dinner does so with their family, but even childless friends who refer to the rest of us – not a little contemptuously – as “breeders” seem to end up pulling crackers and donning paper hats, thereby making up for a lack of infants by infantilising themselves.

No one really likes Christmas dinner. It squats dumpily in the middle of the festive season, a throwback to an age before all of East Anglia was given over to factory turkey production, and when gorging yourself stupid was a rare event, combining both the attributes of a heartfelt orgasm and spiritual ecstasy. In the pre-Christian era, winter saturnalias involved a social bouleversement, and this endured until the early modern era.

Nowadays, however, far from the masters serving their servants, we have all become the slaves of an appetite we no longer feel.

Fowl mood

Voided of its nutritious purpose, Christmas dinner’s other role as the pinion of family unity becomes still less tenable. After all, what can you say of those who celebrate their consanguinity by ingesting lots of food they don’t want? No wonder people have to get drunk in order to cope with it, and no wonder the laborious – and, in many cases, deeply unfamiliar – act of roasting fowl and potatoes, boiling vegetables and plum pudding, becomes imbued with all the bad vibes that are flying around the house after the morning’s frenzy of materialism.

But it’s for the kiddies, you cry, to which I reply: set before me a Tiny Tim who wants to stuff his face with antibiotic-laced fowl, stuffing, roast parsnips, bread sauce, chipolatas and Brussels sprouts, and I’ll show you the morbidly obese Timothy of a few short years hence. Besides, with the family-mangling British divorce rate, there are all too many waifs and strays getting bundled from one home to another over the holiday, with the terrifying prospect of serious abuse: two Christmas dinners. Anyway, I know what my kiddies want, and that is to gorge themselves on sugar and then fight like crazed baboons. They’re normal children, as yet uncorrupted by all the cod-Victorian sentimentalism that jigs attendance on fool Yule.

Yes, it’s the Victorians – and especially that fraud Dickens – we have to blame for many of the seasonal trappings. The Christmas dinner as it now appears to us is a recent phenomenon but, oh, how it’s become carved in stone. Try breaking away and you’ll see how peculiar it feels. One year, I opted for goose, the staple before the advent of Bernard Matthews and his ilk; another, I essayed beef, as we were staying in Orkney, a region that produces the finest in the world.

Food fight

There was nothing wrong with these meals, but there was a curious sense that we hadn’t actually had Christmas dinner at all, that somewhere waiting in the wings was a second, “authentic” Christmas dinner, and that until we’d managed to cram it down our gullets, we wouldn’t have placated the Spirit, whether of past, present or future.

There are other futile evasions, such as changing the time of day at which the dread dinner is consumed. Let’s have it early! Let’s have it late! As if these feeble stratagems could possibly change anything but the time at which the indigestion commences. Or some bright spark will say, “I know, let’s not have Christmas dinner at home this year. Why don’t we go to a hotel or a restaurant?”

Brilliant idea! Instead of watching your own family get gnawed apart by the intestinal parasites of its own misery, why not take in the disintegration of several more as well? Schadenfreude is so nutritious.

As for the food being better on commercial premises, recall the way your own roast gets basted with frustration, then just think of the rancour flying around that kitchen on Christmas morning in a recession.

No, when all’s said and done, you cannot fight the dead hand of tradition, you can only endure it. So, get out the eggnog! Roll out the Yule log! Crank up the thermostat! Tie up the mistletoe and sling down the Viagra! Put on the Bing Crosby album and light the oven. Be not afeared – there’s
always the Queen’s speech to look forward to.

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