The condition is known as Christmas Dinner.
You know the Christmas dinner. It’s the meal when the CEO is expected to miraculously morph into the CHEF without anyone noticing, having already bought all the appropriate gifts for everyone at the appropriately enormous expense and wrapped them in the appropriately deluxe gift wrap.
It’s the meal for which Delia Smith once famously – and terrifyingly – gave an hour-by-hour countdown as to exactly what you should be doing for The Last 36 Hours coming up to the meal.
36 hours! What is it about Christmas Dinner that brings out the inner fascist in food writers? Do this, now. You should have done that a long time ago. Don’t do that. Oh dear, isn’t it a bit late to be doing that now?
Mrs Smith’s preposterous mortification ritual deserves only to be satirised, but sadly no one dares. We are too busy worrying whether or not we have done the right thing at the right time to pour appropriate scorn on the idea of someone telling us what to do in the kitchen for 36 hours.
And it’s spreading. I was recently sent a shiny copy of “Renault Living” and there, on page 34, amidst all the vroomy new models for ’08, are two pages bravely entitled “The Christmas Cooking Countdown”.
According to this piece of eminent advice, I am already in deep doodoo, because I did not remember, in the week beginning November 19th “that the freezer is your friend”. Darn! How could I have forgotten that, especially in the week beginning November 19th! If only John Gormley had organized a “Remember the Freezer is your Friend Day“ on the week beginning November 19th, then I would have remembered, and all would be well.
Still, I can always play catch up. “Renault Living” advises that I get out of bed at 7.30 am on Christmas morning to switch the oven on to 180c/Gas Mark 4. 7.30am. Christmas morning? Hmmm…
At least in the 'States they know what to do when someone rolls out advice in this fashion, as these mickey-taking gems spoofing Martha Stewart’s schoolmarmey style show:
December 2: Have Mormon Tabernacle Choir record outgoing Christmas message for answering machine.
December 4: Repaint Sistine Chapel ceiling in ecru, with mocha trim.
December 13: Collect Dentures. They make excellent pastry cutters, particularly for decorative pie crusts.
December 17: Child proof the Christmas tree with garland of razor wire.
December 20: Dip sheep and cows in egg whites and roll in confectioner's sugar to add a festive sparkle to the pasture.
December 25: Bear son. Swaddle. Lay in colour co-ordinated manger scented with homemade potpourri.
You know the Christmas Dinner. It’s the meal that is supposed to be Perfect. Capital P. Painted by Norman Rockwell, script by Richard Curtis. Sickly sweet? That’ll do nicely.
The reality, of course, is less Rockwell & Curtis, and more Horrid Henry:
Henry waited. And waited. And waited.
“When’s lunch?” asked Polly
When’s lunch?” asked Paul.
When’s lunch?” asked Peter.
“As soon as the turkey is cooked”, said Dad. He peeked into the oven. He poked the turkey. Then he went pale.
“It’s hardly cooked,” he whispered.
“Check the temperature,” said Granny.
“Oops,” said Dad.
“Never mind, we can start with the sprouts,” said Mum cheerfully.
“That’s not the right way to do sprouts,” said Granny. “You’re peeling too many of the leaves off.”
Is it any wonder that Francesca Simon’s superb Horrid Henry stories are the favourites of every 8-year-old you know? Kids love the unvarnished truth, and “Horrid Henry’s Christmas Lunch” is nothing but the truth. Disaster, writ large, coming soon to a house you know.
So, for the sake of our health, and to avoid that hypertension, what on earth can be done to banish the tension from the Christmas Dinner? Is there any sort of level-headed advice that will help us to survive the ordeal?
Well, start with this:
“We toyed with the idea of ringing a dainty silver bell to announce the start of our feast. In the end, we chose to keep our traditional method. We've also decided against a formal seating arrangement. When the smoke alarm sounds, please gather around the table and sit where you like.”
That’s right. Christmas should mean fun, not stress. The meal is about enjoyment, not endurance. If the meal has a tendency to bring out your inner fascist, then introduce that inner fascist to a glass of mulled wine quickly and tell him to calm down and stop missing the point.
The food is meant to be delicious, and not a demonstration. Be lazy, and buy as much of it ready-prepared as you can. Ireland is full of talented food creators who make sublime cakes, puddings, chutneys, relishes, sweet things and much else, so why on earth should you do what they can do much better?
Above all, don’t think that the Christmas meal has to be Perfect. It has to be about sharing food and breaking bread, not breaking your ass worrying whether everything is picture-postcard-perfect, all the way from the smoked salmon through to the bird and on to the pud.
Above all, ask yourself why the leftovers of the Christmas meal always taste better later that night, or the next day, when you trawl a roast spud through some bread sauce, or throw some strips of smoked salmon into a blue cheese dressing to have with pasta. The answer, I think, is because then you are simply enjoying the food for what it is, rather than for what it represents in some unattainable ideal of Christmas perfection.
And never forget that young people loathe brussels sprouts.