Christmas Day lunch is the ideal target for the newest but already most tedious Christmas tradition of them all: the ritual moan about the terrible excess and waste.
You know, all that money spent on too much food, of which too much is eaten, too much is thrown away and too much is bad for you. I’ve been as guilty of this as the next party hat refusenik. Yet I wonder whether the Yuletide vices we loathe are just the shadows cast by the festive virtues, and we can totally escape the dark side only by destroying the splendours that block the light.
Start with the alleged excess. Any celebration meal to which guests are invited, be they family or friends, should be an occasion for generous hospitality. You don’t offer just enough, so that people are afraid to take what they want so as not to deprive others. You offer plenty, so everyone can help themselves freely. Cooking for 20 when half that number are eating is silly, but it is miserly to try too hard to make sure there is one portion each, no more.
But, the misery guts insist, doesn’t this create waste? To which the answer is: what waste? Christmas leftovers need never be thrown away. Sprouts and roast potatoes make excellent Boxing Day bubble and squeak, roast vegetables the tastiest soups, cold meats the best sandwiches. It’s not leftovers that are wasteful, but those who either don’t know what to do with them or can’t be bothered. That isn’t pious middle-class greenery; it’s traditional thrifty good sense.
Still, the purists insist, isn’t it terrible that people inevitably eat and drink too much, reduced by mid-afternoon to simulacra of snoring whales, beached on sofas? Perhaps, but the desire to let go at Christmas is tied to a collective folk memory of when the rest of the year was much more sober. As a trivial example, one of the things I most looked forward to about childhood Christmases was the selection box, containing half a dozen bars of chocolate with perhaps a packet of Opal Fruits thrown in just to spite you. This was an unbelievably indulgent treat. I even ate the Caramac, and I still can’t tell you exactly what it was supposed to be.
As the age of austerity drags on, more and more families are finding that day-to-day frugality has not been consigned to history. In that context, letting rip once a year is a much-needed release. If we want to complain, it should be that we are not restrained enough the other 364 days, not that we go mad on this one.
The most serious objection to excess is the heartbreaking sight of parents running up debts to give their children the “perfect” Christmas they can’t afford. Any joy that brings is cancelled out tenfold by the pain it brings in the new year. But we should understand the impulse and not just condemn where it leads. Too many moralists fail to appreciate why people feel a real need to make one day a year really special. In my experience, those who make the biggest fuss about not spending much at Christmas are generally the ones who buy what they want and eat where they want 12 months a year.
The final argument against the vulgar excess is that it is not how much is spent, but what it’s spent on. People should make their own cakes and puddings instead of buying highly processed supermarket versions. But handmade offerings are not always cheaper, and nor do they necessarily show the most love. What they mainly show off is how much time and culinary skill the maker has.
Although I agree that people would do well to buy less stuff, but better quality, this case is undermined by the unrealistic examples: free-range rare-breed turkeys, a good bottle of claret or three, or Stilton hand made by biodynamic shepherds. This “let them eat polenta cake” attitude is patronising and deeply out of touch. You can feed a family of four all day with what it takes just to furnish a decent artisan cheeseboard.
There is an argument to be had about whether or not all the apparent savings people make really are good value, and whether cheap food is sustainable in the first place. But this is not the time: the only kind of argument we should have during the season of goodwill is a huge flaming family one over a huge flaming Christmas pud.
And even that reflects something good. We live at a time that celebrates freedom and autonomy, where we choose our friends and when we see them. Christmas is a rare occasion when we are reminded that we have obligations to people we did not choose to be related to, and that love is not just a spontaneous feeling but something we sometimes really have to work at, with people we may not even much like. The only way to guarantee no festive friction is to avoid all Christmas contact, so that families become not so much dispersed as dissolved.
Those who recoil at the image of somewhat tense families gathered around tables, eating too much of the wrong things, are really recoiling at the awkward truth that many, if not most of us, live lives where family relationships are complicated, joys are infrequent and pressures permanent. This sadness behind the desperate attempts at Christmas jollity is there whether we acknowledge it or not. We should go gentle on our flawed attempts to overcome it, for one day at least. No one should be such a Scrooge as to refuse to raise a glass of Babycham to that.
Julian Baggini is the co-founder of ‘The Philosophers’ Magazine’