‘Why do we tolerate tatty German firs and a tasteless foreign bird?’ wonders Adam Edwards
- Credit: Archant
Why do we tolerate tatty German firs and a tasteless foreign bird? Yes, it will feed a platoon of relatives, but so will gruel, says Adam Edwards.
I like Christmas. I like champagne at breakfast, the James Bond repeat and new socks. I like tins of Quality Street, cracker jokes and the English tendency to wear something idiosyncratic on that one day of the year.
Unfortunately those small pleasures are heralded by a vulgar advertisement that despoils all our homes – the Christmas tree. The tatty German fir with its flickering fairy lights and cheap trinkets has, like Japanese knotweed, invaded every corner of the land. Long before Jesus appears on the scene every town centre, hostelry, shopping mall, school and church will sport its bulb-lit dead tree. It has become as ubiquitous as a Coca-Cola sign although not as well designed. The catchpenny pine is neither beautiful nor useful and has no religious or pagan significance except perhaps to signify conspicuous consumption.
The above view may rankle with those who retain a child-like view of the festive season but it will not pique those of us who have had to buy, transport and erect the swinish conifer. I very much doubt if Prince Albert, who popularised the tree by parking one in Windsor Castle in 1841, would have been quite so enthusiastic about his spruce if he had had to put it up himself. It refuses to fit into its cast iron stand, never stands straight and from the moment it is in the house it drops needles. The fairy lights cannot be untangled, they don’t work if one bulb is broken and finding myrrh is easier than unearthing a replacement for the dud filament. Furthermore the tree looks tired and dated by Boxing Day and disposing of it is even more hellish than putting it up.
I might have forgiven the Royal family and forgone shouting oaths at them when they troop out of Sandringham Church on Christmas Day if it had just been the indoor Leylandii for which they are culpable. But I also believe that the Windsors must take the blame for popularising the dull Christmas Turkey.
In Mediaeval times it was the Yule boar, with its head as the main table decoration, that was the speciality of the season. By the middle of the sixteenth century the traditional Christmas roast – for the rich anyway – was swan. Those that wanted something even more exotic had Peacock, which was skinned, cooked and then returned to its skin and feathers. Then in 1588 Elizabeth 1 ordered that all Englishmen should eat goose for their Christmas dinner because that was what she had been tucking into when she learned that the navy had beaten the Spanish Armada. In the early part of the nineteenth century roast beef and venison were the mainstay, supported by goose. On Christmas Day 1840, for example, Queen Victoria and her family hoovered up a side of beef and roast swan. And then in 1843 Charles Dickens wrote `A Christmas Carol’ and arranged for Scrooge to give a festive turkey to Bob Cratchit. Eight years later Queen Victoria, according to a contemporary report in the newly published Illustrated London News, made the gobbler her season of goodwill’s gastronomic centrepiece and the public slavishly followed The Court.
Ever since then the foreign turkey (a native of North America) and its boring trimmings have been our obligatory Christmas fare, a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation and has, even more mystifyingly, been exported to the world. In its favour one bird will feed a platoon of relatives. But then so will gruel. The bird’s success, I suppose, is that it is inoffensive. Nobody can complain, as they might do about swan or peacock, that they don’t like turkey - although if the ugly creature is so delicious I wonder why don’t we eat it all year round? The only time I’m offered turkey, or it appears on a restaurant menu, is in December. And after the 25th the nation moans as one about the awfulness of turkey fritters. The true British slap-up celebratory meal is roast beef, which is now too expensive for most of us to eat regularly during the year. The 18th century patriotic ballad `The Roast Beef of Old England’ carried this stirring stanza, `when mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food/it ennobled our brains and enriched our blood/our soldiers were brave and our courtiers good’. Beef was given to the English troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt and the French still refer to us as `rostbifs. That alone is reason enough to eat it at Christmas.
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And so this Christmas I shall not have a kitsch tree in my house and nor will I sit down to a bland turkey dinner. Unfortunately both have become so ubiquitous to the season of goodwill it will be impossible to avoid either entirely. And for that reason alone, if I do catch the Queen’s Christmas speech I shall blow her a large raspberry.
This article is by Adam Edwards from the 2013 Christmas edition of Cotswold Life magazine
For more from Adam Edwards, follow him on Twitter: @cotswoldhack