There's always been too much food at the inn

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The Independent Culture
THERE WERE bits of the Christmas blow-out I enjoyed. I liked the sloe gin, the pickled walnuts and the homemade mince pies. I also liked Some Like It Hot, not that this has much to do with food, unless you include Jack Lemmon marvelling at Marilyn's jouncing rump: "Like Jello on springs." But, in general, I can't say I'm too distraught to have reached the fag- end of Yule.

It's the same every year. There's simply too much of it. This time round, I asked my nearest and dearest to curb the grotesquely excessive purchasing which always accompanies our annual bacchanalia. "Let's just have a small, traditional Christmas," I pleaded. "A guinea fowl, a Christmas pud and a bottle of something nice. How about it?"

You might as well try to stop an avalanche. Forget "less is more" at Christmas. "Excess is more" is nearer the mark. In the week running up to the dread date, our house resembled the "goods inward" section of a Waitrose supermarket. The multi-headed monster of Christmas provender swamped our kitchen, overflowed into the garage and (wrapped in plastic bags) occupied parts of the garden. Composed of creatures that once mooed, honked, grunted or swam, it was the stuff of nightmare, like one of those portraits made up of foodstuffs by the 16th-century visionary Arcimboldo.

We tackled the Dexter sirloin on Christmas Eve, the Yorkshire goose was the centrepiece of Christmas Day, and a corking great Wiltshire ham faced us yesterday. Surrounding these highlights was a vast gastronomic hinterland composed of smoked duck breast, blue stilton, Melton Mowbray pork pie, blinis with salmon eggs, Whitstable oysters... Two days on from Christmas Day, this heroic cornucopia has scarcely diminished in magnitude. It is daunting to think how many dyspeptic days of ever-more ingenious rechauffes lie in wait.

Not that the traditional Christmas was all that different. James Woodforde, the 18th-century gourmand and man of the cloth, had a very similar combination when he dined with the fellows of Christchurch College, Oxford at Christmas in 1773: cod, sole, oysters, sirloin, pease pudding, wild duck, roast lamb, orange pudding and mince pies. Mind you, they got through the lot at one sitting.

"How far the modern Christmas is from the event which initiated this celebration," some pious voices may be saying. Well, yes. Mary and Joseph may not have had much in the way of Cointreau-flavoured extra-thick cream or oak-smoked Orkney salmon to sustain them. But don't forget they were not alone in the stable.Round about 27 December in year zero, they were visited by three kings from the East. In traditional iconography, the exotic visitors are alone when they presented their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the manger stall.

However, this does not accord with the 6th-century Armenian Infancy Gospel. It is from this source that we know the impressively cool names of the three kings: Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. Going by this version, they delivered a Pickfords' van of goodies, including silver, sapphires, pearls, rare fabrics and books written and sealed by the finger of God foretelling the birth of Christ. But they were not alone.

Just as Clinton brings London to a halt when the Presidential motorcade sweeps through town, so Messrs Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar, who happened to be rulers of the Persians, the Hindus and the Arabs respectively, were attended by an personal entourage of 12,000 soldiers on horseback. And all of them peckish, you can bet, after a long slog following that star. So it could be that our Yuletide blow-out is not all that out of keeping with the very first Christmas. But I still don't know why we have to buy enough for 12,000 every year.