CHRISTMAS IS THE biggest national festival in Britain. We don’t have a national day and our other public holidays have almost lost their religious associations, and even names: only us ancients speak of ‘Whit week’ (Pentecost). Easter is a long weekend but much less of an event than Christmas. I don’t think the message of death and redemption speaks to people as much as the miracle of birth and light in the darkness of a north European winter.
The seasonal associations mean it should be dark and cold with celebrations designed to comfort in these bleak times. Some of this is not dissimilar from the Scandinavian ‘hygge’ (pronounced to rhyme with cougar, I’m told), a buzzword this year, making fashionable the sensible idea of staying indoors in the evening and cosying up with an open fire, glowing candles and comfort food.
Childhood memories of Christmas may be false, but they give us a sense of continuity, a time of year when we link back to our past. In later years we may be able to afford all the things we want, but the idea of the family coming together and performing the same rituals again and again is part of who we are. The smell of mixed spice, cinnamon and nutmeg trigger these associations, prompting our wish to return to and re-enact our cherished rituals.
Everyone says that Christmas is being overtaken by commercialism, but this is an old chestnut (sorry). In the 1960s, when I was growing up, we were desperate for presents and some excess which were in rare supply from grandparents born in the Victorian era and parents who had lived through rationing in World War II, which didn’t end till 1954. I don’t want to sound like Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’, but getting a few satsumas in a sock were not the delights we girls hoped for, namely a doll. My grandfather’s red bicycle disappeared one autumn. I received a black bicycle for Christmas that was the same size and shape as the red one. Even as a child I saw through the trick. Now I allow myself excesses including Christmas china and all manner of extravagances despite—or because of—imagined disapproval.
We all celebrate multiple Christmases. The British Christmas itself draws upon many traditions which have all merged into one. It is the time of the Pagan Solstice, so we bring in evergreens, including holly and ivy, into the house. Thanks to Prince Albert, we have the Germanic Christmas tree. The traditional Norwegian spruce smells wonderful and has almost layered branches but quickly sheds its needles, so we now have the rather boring Nordmann fir instead (little or no needle drop). Decorating the tree is a great opportunity to allow a seasonal special outing for the British obsession with class, defined of course by the always relative merits of good taste. Should one be ironically kitsch, relying upon multi-coloured flashing lights? One must never try too hard to be tasteful, hence single-coloured matching ornaments are shunned by the cognoscenti. And God forbid should one opt for an artificial tree. I don’t know when poinsettias, mostly imported from India, became so popular, but they are undeniably jolly. A more secular, perhaps American, Christmas tinge has been added with Christmas songs, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, more lights and our Father Christmas becoming Santa Claus.
One of the high points of this special season is how we change our diet, not just to eat more—the average Brit consumes 6,000-8,000 calories on Christmas Day—but also seasonal food, a mixture of medieval dried fruits and spices, with the turkey (or the ‘Indian bird’ as it is known in France, the dindon). I don’t know when pumpkin became traditional for vegetarians, but it seems well established now. I start my cooking the Sunday before Advent, stir-up Sunday. The reading, the Collect, that week is ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ‘This is interpreted as time to literally stir up fruits, so puddings, cakes and mincemeat are made. I use the Old Monk I import from India in all of these and later add it to my rum sauce and put a dash in my trifle too.
The Advent calendar, which I wasn’t allowed at home for reasons I don’t recall, has a door to open every day, now usually containing chocolate although dear friends may note that there is one with a gin miniature for every day.
We all have our own family traditions too, and we add those of our new families as they accrue. We should all remember the less fortunate and actually dig into our pockets to do something for others at this time of year. Charity is therefore a significant part of a British Christmas.
I have spent many Christmases in India, mostly in Mumbai, but also once in Bhuj. Even celebrating Christmas in Goa, or Bandra, or Kolkata, I imagine, leaves me feeling that the year isn’t quite complete. The open air midnight mass at St Andrews, Bandra, on Christmas Eve is wonderful but is not the same as coming out into the cold night air from a not much warmer church. The food may be delicious, but it’s not what we had at home. I would miss the Indian Christmas sweets my Goan friend makes me, even in the UK, and while my Christmas tree ornaments and my crib may be supplemented by Indian ones, allowing many elephants to be added to the traditional ox, sheep and obligatory shepherds, along with the paper stars that I love, these serve as the outer layer over my recollections of the perfect childhood Christmas that never was.
Festivals are best enjoyed where they are shared among many. I’ve been to Navratri in Leicester where the dancing was fun but the aesthetics spoilt by men’s socks. Eid is a day when it’s hard to get a minicab, but no one sends me Eidi or my husband’s favourite biryani. I sometimes cook for Bhai Duj for friends on whom I tie a rakhi, but it’s just us. I may give up my usual black for Diwali, light some lamps and go out or have a dinner, but it had nothing of the one magical Diwali I spent in Mumbai, the morning at the puja at Yash Raj Studios and the evening at Yashji and Pam’s house. I’ve played Holi several times in India and enjoyed it thoroughly, but no one is going to play Holi in London in March. One day I’ll be in Kolkata for the Pujas…
Christmas doesn’t feature often in Hindi films. I know few Indian Christmas songs, though all the beggars know at least the words ‘jingle bells’, and Santa hats abound. I know spoofs of Twelve Days of Christmas and ‘What man Santa’ but the carols in Indian languages are not part of my Christmas.
Some of my friends find Citizen Khan hilarious, others racist. The Christmas special was very funny as Mr Khan was forced by his family to celebrate Christmas. I’m always willing to join in any festival—especially if there’s food involved—and hope that everyone should enjoy their Christmas, whether they believe in it or not. Don’t worry about the details, but plunge into the ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ that the world needs. Peace on earth, goodwill to men, angels singing, all of us getting together to march to Bethlehem to see a baby as the king of all creation. And lights and food and fun. Many of my friends, whatever their religion even if they have none at all, revel in the beauty of the church service, with the great carols, an evocation of both medieval and pagan.
We have been lucky in having a godson at Westminster school so have enjoyed the annual carol service in the Abbey. Sitting among the graves of the great and the good (this year I was next to Sir Isaac Newton), we sing proper Anglican carols, lighting each other’s candles as the choir’s voices soar over the thundering organ and brassy trumpets.
In the week before Christmas, the lists are ticked off, the flowers and decorations come and family and neighbours visit. Yet Christmas begins in earnest for me on Christmas Eve at 3 pm with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. The pastry is ready to roll for my mince pies as soon as the first carol, Once in Royal David’s City, begins. We pray for the world, including our sovereign, then for the less fortunate. Tears flow freely as we remember the people who made our Christmases so special when we were young: ‘Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one.’ Then it’s time to start the celebrations of this deeply religious yet also secular festival.
I hope I won’t offend anyone but I can’t say ‘Happy Holidays’. Please invite me to your festival instead. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to us all.