I have just been reading a post by Andrea Hejlskov about Yule traditions in Scandanavia. There was stuff about the importance of getting drunk and letting off steam (bloody vikings!!!) – and I’ll get back to that theme sometime – but what got me thinking today was the observations about food. I like the recipe for candied orange peel. I’ve always hated those little bursts of bitterness that spoil a good cake but these home-made versions look like something totally different and well worth trying.
Food is obviously a huge part of the Christmas celebrations for us here in the UK. Witness the media tidal wave of food centred features: TV chefs aplenty showing us all how to cook the best turkey/sprouts/mince pies; newspaper supplements and whole magazines devoted to the pursuit of the perfect feast; supermarket shelves full of cook books bulging with recipes on what to do with your leftovers when that unexpected guest turns up. I enjoy this foodie froth up to a point – there is something undeniably comforting about watching someone else effortlessly produce the perfect roast potatoes. But then, for me, it flips. It all starts to feel a bit neurotic. This chasing after the sacred goal – the perfect Christmas dinner. Where no sprouts are mushy, the turkey is never dry, the mince pies never burn, the pudding always lights, nobody spills red wine, nobody forgets the brandy butter – for God’s sake don’t forget the brandy butter. What will we do without the brandy butter? I can’t help feeling that the media overload puts an undue pressure on whoever is cooking to always try harder, to make something special. It can so easily turn into aspirational consumption. Eating to keep up with the Jones’s. It begins to feel like a competition. And, for me, that isn’t the point.
I hope that for most of us, despite the media pressure, food at Christmas is about celebration. A spontaneous outburst of joy, of pleasure, of sharing. That is why it is a feast rather than a meal. It has to be about abundance. About excess. Not in order to show off or do it better than the neighbours. It is in order to show that you are full to bursting with joy and you want to share it. Abundance of happiness, of hope, of life. So much that it leaps out of you onto the table. This sort of abundance is not about money, not about what you can afford to buy. It is about how much you have to give. The food and drink doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. It just has to be given completely, openly, freely, without strings attached. The best, the most generous, the most memorable feasts I have been part of have been of humble foods – potatoes, beans, leaves – cooked with such love and care, served with such joy and generosity that they were beyond compare. Often they are shared meals, everyone bringing a dish – whatever they can afford. In money. In time. It doesn’t matter. The act of sharing, of feeding each other, spreads the burden, spreads the love.
My wife, Jo, can do magic with food. She can conjure up abundance from nothing. At lunch time she went to the cupboard. I knew that the cupboard was bare. Neither of us had been shopping for days. Trying to stretch out what we had. Yet from a bare cupboard she managed to create the spread that you see in the main picture. A feast! Abundance. Eating it we were both so happy. Jo creates happiness through food. She loves to cook for people. She loves to make jam and chutney. She is really good at it. She can easily make something delicious out of what other people throw away. She rarely uses recipes. She just throws things in. And the magic happens. She always cooks everything on full heat. Fast. Full throttle. Maximum power. How it all is not burned to a crisp, I do not understand. Standing at the stove, stirring the pots of bubbling flavour, she is a bit witch. Magic. Wise woman. I like that. I like a witchy twitch.
It is the same with growing things. My dad and Jo shared a love of gardening. Bonded over it. Dad used to say that he could not understand how Jo broke all the rules, dug plants up at the wrong times, planted them out at worse, yet it all grew and flourished. “If I did that to a plant, the bugger would die. She does it and it grows like wild-fire. She’s got green fingers for sure.”
More magic. Maybe it is because she had cancer in her twenties. Faced death and chose to live. At a cost. She paid a price to win that battle. The scars will never fully disappear. So, she got magic. To help her live. It is Fire Magic. Jo is all impulse, passion, enthusiasm. Totally Fire. Active, agitated, moving, speed, full on. Which is why she loves Christmas. It is a festival of Light. Of Fire. Lights on the tree. Around the town. On the pudding. Advent candles. That star. Light symbolism pours out of Christmas. In the winter time – time of darkness, the shortest day, the longest night – we need to give ourselves a reminder of the light. Remind ourselves that the sun will return. And we feast. And we drink. And we go a bit crazy. Stuff ourselves to bursting. Eat all that we have. To show that we know (I mean really know) that it doesn’t matter – the sun will return, more food will grow and everything will be ok.
So, at this time of year, I look to Jo, the Fire Magic Woman in my home. It is her time. Her fire and her magic will fill the table. We will feast and all will be well. I am a lucky man.