The whole Christmas caboodle


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. My editor asked all of us contributors to the Weekend magazine for what Christmas means to us… 

The big difference between Christmas now and the Christmas of my childhood, enveloped in nostalgia as it is, is that it used to be reliably cold. If not snowy then at least frosty and icy, which meant that my mother was even more nervous than usual about whether the car would make it up the hill on which the nearest church was built, on the site of a turret on Hadrian’s Wall. 

This became an even more acute concern after a rector introduced a midnight carol service. And once having got to the church, my poor mother was almost certainly distracted by worrying about the forthcoming encounter between Aga and turkey.

Cold turkey and lashings of its sausagemeat and chestnut stuffing was one of my father’s most keenly anticipated treats of the year, so the turkey had to be a good size. And Christmas lunch in our rarely used dining room was almost a dress rehearsal for what we all agreed was the even better feast on the leftovers that night in the kitchen or, later when we had a television, on our knees watching Morecambe and Wise.

Try as I might, I cannot recall wine at Christmas dinner while I was growing up. Gin, and a suggestion of vermouth, was very much my father’s beverage of choice, and that of my grandmother until, in her eighties, she heard that too much gin was bad for you, so switched to whisky. My mother might allow herself a Christmas treat of a small glass of amontillado, but only once the gravy had been made.

Christmas is quintessentially family time. (I have no memory of the Christmas when I was five, my brother two, and our parents were in their respective sanatoria recovering from TB, although I’m sure the godmother who took us in so kindly would have done her best.)

Once I moved away, to Oxford then London, Christmas in our Cumbrian village (population 40) felt a bit like a rest cure. Then, once married, we trekked north to recreate the Christmas of my childhood (one of the benefits of an interfaith marriage being that there is no dispute about where Christmas should be spent).

The most dramatic arrival in Kirkandrews-on-Eden from the London fleshpots was our first as parents. On Christmas Eve we braved the traffic on the M1 and M6, only to find as we approached the Lake District that our car battery was about to give up the ghost. We had to turn off the heater to get over Shap Fell as the baby and I huddled together for warmth. Never have a coal fire and Christmas tree lights seemed so welcoming.

Two children were one too many for such a journey so my parents started to come south. Not having seen them for many months, I remember how shocking it was to meet what seemed like such an elderly couple on the platform at Euston (they flank me in the old photograph above taken at a book launch in London). They were almost certainly younger than we are now. Nowadays we make sure that our lives intersect with those of our three children, all living close to us in London, as often as possible to prevent this sort of shock.

One year in our old London family house our toddler son was so fixated on the mound of presents under the tree that we had to enclose the lot in a playpen to keep him not in but out.

In the mid 1990s we spent two Christmases in a row at Windjammer Landing on St Lucia – and were surprised to find several of our children’s London classmates on the same narrow beach. I would take a case of wine (supplemented one year by a bottle of underpriced Dom Pérignon from Windjammer’s list) and packed a small collapsible plywood Christmas tree in my suitcase. Windjammer would put a Father Christmas on a banana boat. But it definitely wasn’t the same. In fact the children reckoned so little of a tropical Noel that after the second such trip they pleaded, ‘please don’t take us to the Caribbean for Christmas!’

So it was back to the more familiar rituals of carol service, giant (real) Christmas tree carried back from the local veg shop, last-minute panic about tree lights, and stockings.

Our family always had stockings and, along with sewing name tapes on to school uniforms, inheriting the mantle of filling Christmas stockings seemed like a significant milestone in maturity – however much long-term effort is required to put together a truly varied and personal selection of small objects. There was one year that our children cunningly persuaded both Nick and me to put together a stocking for the other, thinking ours was unique.

The opening of stockings in front of the fire on Christmas morning (in a room whose door was locked overnight; we once forgot where we had left the key) is the real start of Christmas. It is only now that grandchildren have arrived that I have been excused this annual duty.

To our children’s dismay, we tend to invite non family members to our Christmas (invariably extended) dinner table – often foreigners who need driving back to their lodgings. Like my parents, we extend the celebrations into the evening with leftovers from the giant, generously stuffed turkey that Nick always seems to manage to cook to perfection. The annual drama is whether we have muslin for the top and a suitably big needle to sew up the neck of the turkey.

My contribution to Christmas dinner is shamefully slight – especially now that the daughters have taken over decorating the table. Food processor plus unsalted butter plus icing sugar plus hooch of some sort magically produces brandy butter (usually on Christmas Eve), I find. My sister in law often makes the Christmas pudding. Nick makes Christmas cake long in advance. Our younger daughter, a pâtissière manquée, ices it.

All I really do is choose and serve the wine – which is probably what my editor was expecting me to write about. The truth is that there is no rule about which wines to serve at Christmas. Well, only that seriously good, almost certainly vintage, champagne must be served late morning – preferably with top-quality smoked salmon on the thinnest slices of brown bread and a generous cull of the packages under the Christmas tree.

And as for the wines with Christmas dinner, they should be very good – better than most people round the table drink usually – but, with big numbers, small children, tantrums, and candles constituting fire hazards, this is not the time for the grandest of wines, I feel. Pinot Noir or red burgundy often seem best with turkey and its sweet trimmings. I don’t want anything too alcoholic with the main course, but Christmas more than any other time seems the season to open as many special-treat bottles as possible, so there is always an ongoing roster of sweet wines, sherries, ports, madeiras and anything else that is sweet and/or strong open in our household at Christmas.

Indeed sweet and strong are two good epithets for the whole heart-warming caboodle.