MICHAEL WOLSEY: Cold comfort and joy as we all go Christmas crackers
And so this is Christmas, and what have we done? In my case, very little, which should at least please Nphet.
Leaving it to the last minute has always been my policy, but I have done some shopping and I have indulged in one of the stranger festive practices: I have bought some Christmas crackers.
Most homes in the country will have them because, at the end of a massive dinner, when we are sitting back, ready to chat and exchange family fictions, we all agree on what is required to make the meal a true success.
Ah yes, we sigh, what I really need right now is an odd-shaped piece of paper which, when I tug on it, is meant to explode but probably won’t.
In it I will find a paper hat that will make me look ridiculous, although that won’t be a problem for long because it will quickly fall to bits.
I will also find a joke that wasn’t funny when I first read it ten years ago and hasn’t improved in the nine subsequent Christmases when it has fallen out of crackers.
If I have invested in a deluxe set of crackers I may also receive nail clippers that will break in half if I ever try them or a miniature screwdriver, too small to be of use anywhere except in Lilliput.
Mad. But sure the whole country is going crackers this year.
It’s amazing what we will put up with in the name of Christmas tradition. The main component of the meal that preceded the crackers will probably have been dry and rather tasteless meat from a bird we breed in thousands specially for the occasion.
To make it palatable we cover it in a sauce made from red berries we would treat with grave suspicion at any other time of the year, or possibly from a combination of bread, parsley, onions and milk, that would be condemned by the health authorities in January but is claimed as a culinary delight in late December.
Attempts have been made to popularise turkey for other holiday meals, Easter in particular. They have not been successful because it is only at Christmas we drink alcohol over much of the day, knocking our taste buds out of action by the time the turkey arrives on our plates.
A large part of what we drink may be wine and, sadly, some of it will have been mulled. I have lost count of the Christmas gatherings where I arrived expecting a nice glass of chilled Chablis but ended up clutching a plastic cup of warm, sweet water.
When it is freshly served, mulled wine gives off a nice smell of cinnamon, cloves and fruit and the container will warm your hands on a winter’s evening.
Then it cools down. Dear lord, is there any sorrier sight than a cup of lukewarm, watery red wine with soggy fruit floating in it? If nobody’s looking, you could pour it into the Poinsettia pot, but the plant might die instantly. leaving you at the scene of the murder with the weapon in your hand. So you either have to keep hold of the damn thing or, what is worse, drink it.
But I’ve a confession to make. In truth, I love Christmas and relish all but one of these traditions, along with sending cards, carol singing, mince pies, buck’s fizz with breakfast and silly old Christmas movies. I have been saddened by the way the Covid pandemic has eroded so many of them and I sincerely hope this is the last year it will cast its dark shadow over the festivities.
The one tradition I don’t relish is that awful mulled wine. Apparently it dates back to the Middle Ages. But that’s no excuse: they also went in for bear baiting and burning witches and we don’t include those in our Christmas party games.
Felicity Cloake, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper in London, once tried out a mulled wine recipe from 1390. She ground together cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, grains of paradise (?) and Indian root, slung in some cheap French red wine and sugar and heated it all. Her verdict: “It tastes like something that might have been used to ward off the plague.”
Would it work on Covid-19, I wonder?