Who are you going to bubble with? Which households will you choose? At Christmas, I mean. It’s so difficult. I don’t know about you, but if my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and assorted in-laws all went out for a walk en masse, it would probably be possible to see us from outer space. Like many modern families – which is to say, most normal families – this isn’t only a matter of generational expansion. No, it’s much more complex than that. As I like to tell people I’ve only just met, I have two extant stepmothers – which is naughty of me, because there are no dead ones. To my knowledge.
The point of this column isn’t family life, and how to survive it. The point is to consider what Christmas will be like this year, and how to survive that. My hunch is that whatever the rules, for all of us it will be sadly diminished: fewer people, less travelling, no parties. And while this might not be ideal, I also want to say that if there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that it’s not as hard as you might imagine to ensure that small is beautiful. It definitely wasn’t much fun when the various sadists for whom I worked in my 20s used to insist for no good reason at all that I had to be in the office on Boxing Day (an edict that made it impossible for me to travel north). Even then, though, I was adept at the bijou ceremonies that can see a person through a gloomy day. If I was going to eat a leftover egg roll for my Christmas lunch, then I would at least wash it down with something fizzy (and I don’t mean Sprite). Looking back, some of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten at Christmas – a coronation chicken sandwich at an almost empty airport; a slice of my mother’s marzipaned cake taken from a tin at the end of a long shift – were scoffed in the loneliest of circumstances, the fun going on elsewhere, the warmth and the light flickering only in my mind’s eye.
We’re connected to those we love by invisible threads that we’ll have cause to remember every time we peel a satsuma
Remember this: it’s only a day (or two). The trick is to shrink it in your mind – to make it as weightless and inconsequential as the wings of the fairy on a tree – and then, suitably reduced, to fill it, as far as you’re able, with all the things you really like (as opposed to all the things you’re supposed to like). There’s no law that says lunch must be like it is round at the Cratchits’ place, the gravy hissing hot and Master Peter mashing the potatoes with incredible vigour; the cheesy TV ads are even more than usually bogus this year. For one person, or two, I love the idea of lobster for Christmas lunch, or failing that a bowl of truffle tagliatelle – I like a brand you can buy online called Tartufissima No 19 – dressed only with olive oil and lots of grated parmesan. But you know, sausage and mash would do just as well. For pudding, I favour the cheapest, most inauthentic Turkish delight it’s possible to buy, liquorice allsorts, and if I can get hold of them, calissons d’Aix – those lovely almond sweets that make me think of yellow-painted houses and tall pine trees.
Perhaps that’s what Christmas is about, this year: staring carefully at the future. Though I’m hardly a natural writer of Hallmark card-style aphorisms, as I’ve said so many times before, cooking for someone is to me an expression of love; an embrace by any other name. I’ve felt this ever since I was a child (here we go, back to my complicated family). But as I also keep telling myself just lately, the love is still there, even if you can’t be in the room together. We’re connected to those we care about in a thousand ways, invisible threads that we’ll have cause to remember every time we pull a coffee Matchmaker from the box, or peel a satsuma, or worry about what to do with all that leftover gravy. As I eat my Christmas morning breakfast of anchovies on toast – yes, really! Why not? – my mind will spiral ardently forwards to the spring, and to the summer beyond it. There will be other years. There will be next year.