A clever person's guide to Christmas: Survive 25 December with our Yuletide timetable
Do you dread the turkey? Despair of the TV schedules? Michael Bywater has the ...solution
Saturday 18 December 2010
0500 You wake with a shudder having spent most of the night trying to reassemble a three-bird-roast which you had been trying to turn into a three-bird-and-shoulder-of-lamb roast, using only very fine surgical silk which sliced your fingers to ribbons so that you had to repair yourself using more surgical silk, Super Glue and festive Elastoplast with Frosty the Snowman on it. You then went to bed having taken 10mg Zolpidem, 7.5mg Zopiclone to be on the safe side, 50mg Modafinil to take the edge off the safe side and now there are vampire elves on the ceiling and your legs are twitching of their own accord.
You then wake properly. It was only a dream!
No it wasn't! It was a memory! That's what happened last year! This year, everything will be different.
0600 Stumble downstairs. Put kettle on. Bang around, cursing. This is the very essence of the Christmas spirit because it will wake people up and then you can scream, "Oh God, oh God, oh no, the sodding TURKEY!" then count to three, then call up, "Only joking! Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!" and everyone is dreadfully relieved and happy which is just how they should be at Christmas. (NB: Before doing this, check in the fridge to make sure there is a turkey.)
But you are ahead of the game. Outside it is a fairyland of rime ice and frost flowers on the windowpanes, but you have laid a fire the night before and now all you do is apply a match to it. The kindling crackles. The air is perfumed with applewood. You light a brazier containing Omani frankincense and a little myrrh. You put on Paul McCreesh's Christmas in Rome and for a moment feel a deep spiritual peace as the profound truth at the heart of the narrative of nativity and incarnation seeps into your weary, addled bones.
This moment of transcendence is dissipated by the other narrative of nativity and incarnation – the sound of unspecified children trying to kill each other with their stockings.
0700 This is the moment when city-dwellers gaze from their kitchens at the lights in other people's windows, the work of human hands everywhere, they look, and wish they were looking out over bare fields and rooks, while those who live in the country are cocking their shotguns and taking aim at the rooks and wishing they lived in Meard Street, Soho, 20 miles from the nearest welly.
0800 You have taken those you care about a lovely breakfast. Blood-orange juice, scrambled free-range eggs, a little, very good, Spanish ham and Velluto Nero coffee from the Algerian Coffee Shop. This will keep them going until lunch, which will be late but not after it starts to get dark. That way depression lies. (Actually, it's better to have the festive meal in the evening, after the bludgers, freeloaders and supernumeraries – the technical term is "children" – have gone to bed. But you didn't think of that, did you? So lunch it is.) While they are eating their breakfast, put on chef's whites. It won't help but it makes the point.
0900 This hour passes peacefully for the vast majority. But for 0.0017 per cent of you, it will be marked by a tremendous crash, the sound of breaking glass and all the lights going out. This will be the dog pulling over the Christmas tree. On no account say to whoever's idea it was, "I told you it was bloody silly to give that sodding dog a present, let alone hang it on the tree". Instead, what you say is, "Ah well, as the philosophers say, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it...". Now duck. Fast.
0930 Put the turkey in the oven. You will have stuffed its every crevice and under the bugger's skin with at least a kilo of butter. Do not worry about timing. You can't overcook a turkey. They are binary. They have two states only: (0) poisonous and (1) overcooked. Stick it in at 0915 and it will be ready when you are, say 2pm. Remember that this bird died for you. Treat it with respect. At the end of cooking, turn the oven to 250 for 10 minutes and sprinkle its skin with lemon juice. Also recall you will never hear Bernard Matthews say "bootiful" again.
1000 Now is a good time to do the sprouts. This is actually a lie. There is never a good time to do the sprouts. This is because they aren't a thing, and so whatever you do to them won't work. Why do you think they are called "sprouts"? It's because they haven't yet turned into whatever they're going to be. This is because there isn't enough room in Belgium. So really we are trying to make the best out of a sort of untimely frost-bitten vegetative foetus from the Low Countries. Why? Because as, my dear, the fabulous ancient Greeks observed, pathemata mathemata: we learn from what we suffer. As so often, the ancient Greeks were completely wrong and the truth is, we really learn nothing from anything, certainly not when it comes to sprouts. However. This is the quick way. Hold your sprout-tool in your right hand, take a sprout in your... What? I'm sorry? You don't have a sprout-tool? Well, of course, you don't. There is no such thing. There's a Thing for everything else – corn-huskers, cherry-stoners, strawberry-hullers, apple-corers-and-slicers – but no Sprout Thing. And its absence from the cookshop catalogues should tell us all we need to know about sprouts. So instead, you will use three special tools which all cooks keep close to hand at all times.
The first tool is called a knife. You will need, if you are a keen cook, two: a 10-12in chef's knife, and a small paring knife. You will have, if you are a keen cook, 26 knives. This is a good occasion to use that 16in Damascus steel Japanese thing you paid a fortune for, call an Otomushakawnakasato or something like that, which means, "Don't even think about it, round-eye," and is used for beheading tuna. It is entirely unsuitable for sprouts, but creates a good impression. Use it. You will also find it handy to use the other special chefs' tools, one of which is known in the trade as a whole lot of beer and the other one is called anger.
Now just do the damn sprouts, OK?
1100 Lay out the collection of sprout recipes you've been storing up from the bloody magazines for the past two months, telling yourself that you'll make a decision at the last minute. Right. This is the last minute. Look them over. Realise that you lack an essential ingredient for every single one. Do not scream or weep. The only thing you need to know is that the secret of any sprout recipe is to disguise the truth that it has sprouts in it. Theologians will tell you that the joy of the Nativity is tempered by the certainty of the Passion to come. So, too, sprouts temper the festive meal. Just boil the buggers. (If you can't face it – you'll spend a while in Purgatory for this, but hell, eh? – chop them, steam them lightly, then stir-fry them with a splash of decent balsamic vinegar, some prosciutto and a couple of finely-chopped ancho chillies. You do have ancho chillies, don't you?)
12 noon You will by now have been in church for about half an hour. The secret of a good Christmas church experience for the regular communicant is to smile forgivingly at the people you seem not to recall having seen since last Christmas. The secret of a good church experience for the once-a-year churchgoer is to smile loftily and pityingly at the regulars.
1300 Remember, this is the first year that the National Happiness Quotient Mensuration Agency has been empowered to forcibly enter your home and measure your happiness, both individual and collective. You will be required to complete, in the presence of the UIAOC ("Unemployable In Any Other Capacity") Officer and under penalty of a maximum £5,000 fine and/or two years' imprisonment on summary conviction, a HAF626 unless you can produce a completed AND REGISTERED HEC6 (b) – note, photocopies NOT acceptable. So cheer up. Or face the consequences.
1400 Rest the turkey, make the gravy, open the champagne, spice the sprouts, whisk the bread sauce, explain that Great Uncle Maureen isn't actually dead and just needs waking up slowly, ask everyone if they really want cranberry sauce, light the candles, place the rillettes or whatever you're starting with in place, call everyone in and say grace. Even if you don't believe a word of it, say it. Don't argue. Benedictus benedicat will do.
1500 And the pudding flamed nicely and you didn't crow too much about getting the only paper hat with an actual gold star actually stuck on, and now it's time for a glass of Vin de Constance and maybe a piece of Roquefort and before anyone gets their presents it's time for the youngest articulate person in the room to thank everyone and for the oldest articulate person in the room to thank whoever they like. This is followed by a toast to absent friends, and possibly a toast to all those who are lined up in Casualty departments across the country with turkeys jammed on their heads, having tried to imitate Mr Bean, and all those lined up opposite them with a champagne-cork wedged in their eye because they didn't read the warning label.
1600 Opening of Presents. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick. Also children, so bring a basin. Then a lovely game of charades – remember that (a) The 1974 Vauxhall Works Manual never fails, and (b) the quickest mime for The End of the Affair is a man trying furtively to get a signal on his iPhone then giving up.
1700 Only 10 minutes to The One Ronnie, so guard against accidie – a sin against the Holy Ghost – with advocaat snowballs and Bailey's, not to mention the oddly disproportionate Sheridan's bottle because that trollop has been gimmicking it to get at the alcoholic cream bit, or, if you are on a health kick, a large vodka-and-Solpadeine. If the worst comes to the worst, you can take the dog for a walk in Hyde Park. No dog? Well, something to get for next year, eh? Pathemata mathemata.
1800 Doctor Who. What's it about? Who cares? It doesn't matter. The point of Doctor Who is to argue about who was the best Doctor and speaking as one who was actually barred from the French House in Soho for being hit in the eye by Tom Baker, my money's on William Hartnell who never hit anyone in the anything. Gimme nother thing brandy butter NO MINCE PIE I HATE THEM jus brann bur kay.
1900 This is the time of Christmas Day the police dread, as thousands converge on twilight homes for the bewildered to dump their progenitors, resulting in multiple pile-ups as cars slide drunkenly into each other on the black ice and the defenestrated seniors do battle, thrashing away with sticks, Zimmer frames, false teeth, etc. Many of these old people did military service. They know what they're doing. It's hell. Meanwhile, back home, it's also hell, with Celebrity Come Dancing on and the rum's run out and so has your cousin Chloe who has just discovered that shit Graeme wasn't miming trying to get a signal on his iPhone, he was trying to get one and he's been texting that bug-eyed Zeppelin-breasted whore all day.
2000 Peace begins to settle. Dominic has broken his Xbox, Chloe has calmed down, and nobody can be bothered to find out if there's a Come Dine With Me Christmas Special or not. Then after a reflective pause, some idiot – possibly you – says speculatively: "Zeppelin-breasted? Really?" and off we go again.
2100 Can't be bothered with supper, help yourself to a bit of that lovely ham and some cold... sorry? How do you mean, "What ham?". The ham that... Oh God, oh God, oh no the sodding HAM!
2200 Night night. Up the wooden hill to watch The Great Escape on the MacBook under the bedclothes. God bless us every one.
0500 Wake uneasily, worrying about the turkey. Realise what day it is. A drenching of purest happiness. Back to sleep.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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