This post originally appeared in the Guernsey Press, Saturday 22 December 2018
If there's one thing I've realised about Christmas over the past few years — and especially since moving to London — it's that Christmas seems to be a time of immense pressure for everyone. Pressure to get those last bits of work done and dusted before everyone leaves the office. Pressure to wow the family with flashy gifts, and pressure to see as many people and attend (or, worse, host!) as many festive gatherings as you can. It's exhausting just thinking about it. But above all else, I've noticed there's a pervasive, almost subconscious pressure around this time of year that your Christmas just needs to be 'perfect'.
You see this idea repeated everywhere, especially in marketing. Not a day goes by in December when you won't see a Christmas promotion imbued with words like 'magical,' 'special,' or 'perfect'. Hell, I walked through a hardware store the other day that had a banner gushing about how they were "helping make your Christmas extra special!" Because really, nothing gets me in the festive spirit quite like a new toilet seat and a can of WD40.
You might not read into stuff like this too much, but I think all this marketing and guff really adds to the pressure and expectations that we set around Christmas: the idea that every Christmas Day should be bigger and better than the last, and that it should be a sprawling, extravagant affair at that. One place where this is especially hard to ignore is in food advertising. Regardless of how funny or how simple the ads can be, regardless of whether it's an ad for Iceland or M&S, it's still all rooted around this idea that Christmas is about that picturesque dinner table. You know what I mean: the scene of a jovial small family, sat around a beautifully decorated dinner table and beaming from ear-to-ear as the hosts produce a stunning, golden turkey and all the trimmings.
Already, that's an unreasonable expectation and you’ve upset me. Firstly, four people at the table? Cute. Come back to me when you've Tetris-ed the placemats and tried every combination of chairs so that you can squeeze eleven round there. We can just about get the whole family around ours, but that's only because my parents bought one of those ludicrous Scandinavian tables that expands to about three times its length. This thing spans two rooms by the time it's unpacked (and yet, when all is said and done, there's still no room for the tray of parsnips.)
Second, you're telling me there's a family out there that's content with one main food option? You can cook a turkey and that's it, is it? What about the vegetarians? The toddlers? The babies? As it happens, I'm over turkey as a main anyway — nobody ever seems to really enjoy it, you can get more flavourful (and cheaper) chicken, and I don't think that "just because it's December" it means we should all suddenly change our diets and eat a completely different meat than usual. I'm someone who'll happily eat hot cross buns all-year-round, not just for Easter, and so along those same lines, I'd also happily campaign for sprouts to never be eaten at all, not just for Christmas — let's just leave them alone and let them grow into proper cabbages, shall we?
Third, who's cooking all this stuff in the adverts and what on earth is their secret? Why do these people not look exhausted? How is their apron not covered in all kinds of kitchen filth? How do they never forget the cranberry sauce and time all the food just right? They must have an oven the size of my parents' dinner table.
Frankly, I'm exhausted by this idea. To me, Christmas is not about the image of a picture-perfect dinner table and a sprawling banquet dinner.
Christmas is about forgetting the gravy, never getting the sprouts quite right, and getting the whole family to muck in when it comes to serving up.
Christmas is about temporarily decamping from the dinner table and sharing food with each other after someone accidentally spilt wine all over Nan's plate. And over the tablecloth. And over Nan. (It meant I got fewer sprouts though, so I was okay about this).
Christmas is watching your mother launch a steamed pudding out into the garden because the pan had boiled dry and it had started to melt the plastic pudding mould.
Christmas is watching your dad go back out into the garden, retrieve the melting pudding pot, and serving it for dessert alongside the Christmas pud, just with the burnt plastic cut off. (It was still delicious.)
Christmas is looking out into the garden every year, seeing that scorched bit of grass, and remembering the story of the Christmas before it.
My point is — Christmas is messy. And I wouldn't want it any other way. My life doesn't look like a Waitrose ad the other 364 days of the year, so why should this day be any different? By all means, embrace the magic of the season, but embrace the mess too. Cut around the burnt bits. Swap the turkey and trimmings for your favourite pie and mash if it's what you really want. Make it your Christmas, and make it a relaxing one at that.
I'm coming home to spend time with my family, have a laugh, and swill mulled wine like it's going out of fashion.
That's all I'm concerned about.
And that's why I can't wait to be home for Christmas.