I have always maintained that, despite the heavy influences of tradition, Christmas dinner is very personal. I may be Canadian, but my dinner is very much of the British variety: turkey with all the trimmings. Even so, there is one element of the British Christmas feast I’ve never quite got on with, and that’s the mealtime itself.
Ask ten British people what time they eat their Christmas feast and you’ll get ten different answers. But most, I’d wager, fall between 1pm – 3pm on Christmas Day.
I get the concept, I suppose. You’re up early, there are lots of mouths to feed, and this gets the hard work out of the way sooner. It’s also likely borne out of the old practice of eating one’s main meal at midday. And though that bears no resemblance to how most of us eat now, Britons are nothing if not traditionalists, and so the Christmas lunch remains. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve eaten the 1pm Christmas feast with great enthusiasm. I’ve even cooked it. But allow me to offer another perspective…
Christmas dinner at 5pm is the superior mealtime. That’s when I’ll be sitting down to my Christmas feast this year, even if it does represent something of a marked departure from the British ritual of the Christmas Day lunch. But I plan to zealously defend my early evening mealtime.
It’s about pacing the day. An early mealtime means the morning is totally taken up with getting the cooking going. If the bird has to begin roasting at 9am, that means getting it out of its brine by 7am. Not exactly a recipe for a relaxing and enjoyable Christmas morning if I’m wrangling a slippery turkey before I’ve even had a cup of coffee.
Eating later in the day allows me to enjoy Christmas. I can go for a long walk in the morning, and slowly potter around the kitchen during the day, reducing (if not quite eliminating) the mad rush of reaching the mealtime. In short, I have a far greater chance of enjoying the day, which – far from being selfish – is the greatest gift I can give to everyone else. After all, a stressed cook is no one’s idea of an enjoyable atmosphere.
Now there are potential drawbacks to the 5pm mealtime, but it depends entirely on your perspective.
Of primary importance, you do have to feed people lunch and snacks during the day. A load of alcohol and little food is a recipe for disaster, especially where a cooped up family is concerned. But rather than view this as a negative, I relish the opportunity to pass around a few of my favourite Christmas appetisers in the afternoon – like these and these, for instance – best enjoyed while everyone still has an appetite. And before that, a soup, some fluffy baguette and some really delicious cheese is all that’s needed for lunch. As long as the soup is served early (noon-ish) and you don’t overload people with appetisers (quality, not quantity), everyone will be satiated enough not to murder each other, but hungry enough to appreciate the feast.
When you finally sit down to enjoy this once-a-year meal, you can light every candle in sight (because it will actually be dark enough to appreciate them) and truly start to unwind, safe in the knowledge that the only thing left to do is to enjoy the dinner, and maybe make a fool of yourself playing Charades, later. Both come to me rather naturally.
So this, dear Reader, ends my fervent fight for the festive dinnertime. I’d love to hear about your Christmas rituals – especially what you eat and when. Drop me a comment, or better yet, an invite to yours next Christmas.