Magazine article Contemporary Review

Nuts, Puddings and Crackers: Coping with an English Christmas

Magazine article Contemporary Review

Nuts, Puddings and Crackers: Coping with an English Christmas

Article excerpt

As the years pass, one thing is for sure. Resolutions are made in January merely so that they can be broken in the run-up to next Christmas. It is about Easter week that nuts bought as part of the over-abundance of festive essentials are brought out, dusted off, and busily shelled for the benefit of astonished birds, bored to death with their winter diet of peanuts.

In among the mutterings at yet another chore, each year the mind tucks away the resolve not to stock up with gimmickry this time. Items such as sugared almonds, crackers, dates, crystallised this and that, walnuts, almonds, Brazil, hazel, pecan nuts, you name it, exotica bursting with promise on supermarket shelves - this year will be passed by on the other side.

This, as a proposed line of action, is a lost cause, of course. It is on a par with the determination to reduce the overall impression of stocking for a siege, to cut down on quantities of ham, pork, brussels sprouts (nobody likes the things, anyway), to make fewer sausage rolls and mince pies. Carried away on waves of euphoria, there are added blissful ideas. Why not omit making all those puddings, refuse to produce an iced cake (which again nobody wants or likes, and which tends to linger until the Spring), and refuse to confront an enormous turkey? That will do away with the trauma of rising at dawn, after lying awake half the night trying to fit it, mentally, into the oven?

Alas and alack, woe and don't think life is like that. Any advance planning, any faint hope that perhaps, this once, it will be different, will fall when the first member of the family notes that some vital part of ritual has been missed.

'Where are the nuts, then?'

'But we always have sugared almonds on the table!'

'No ham for breakfast?' or 'fish pie', 'pickled herrings', 'pirozhki', perhaps 'carp' or 'Christstollen' on Christmas Eve? In these days of disappearing frontiers and much travelled youth, someone is bound to point out that presents in most parts of Europe are handed out the night before, so why should hard-done-by offspring in these islands have to wait until the long night passes? That is the way traditions start, they reply, should there be resistance.

Any feeble cries that general rituals associated with Christmas are of comparatively recent origin are ignored. Before Saturnalia, even, (another imported rite) the peasantry had to have something to stop them rebelling and being more than usually revolting, and when the Romans came they extended the holiday to seven days. Which, when you come to think of it, put extra burdens on the housewife even then.

Many a harassed hostess must have cursed the patrician insistence on menus including fiddly larks' tongues, baked hedgehog, fresh grapes when one or all were out of season, and anyway had a limited life-span. It can't have been easy with slave labour at its most indolent, suffering from the prevailing hang-over, and when any notion of preserving was confined to ice caves and when in doubt, treading anything available to turn it into wine. …

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