After a fashion

There are many ways to celebrate Christmas Day, it just so happens that Robert Johnston’s is the correct one

People 22 Nov 2023

Robert Johnston

Robert Johnston

In his 1726 satirical masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift brilliantly skewers the human temptation to dramatise the trivial with the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu over the correct end to crack open a boiled egg. While not leading to bloodshed, such ridiculous disputes exist to this day. For example, whether you should put milk in first when pouring a cup of tea, or the order in which clotted cream and jam should be slathered on a scone for a “proper” cream tea.

I was reminded of this when reading the latest Richard Osman novel, The Last Devil To Die, when a character almost splits up with his partner over the correct time to open presents on Christmas Day. And I realised that I am just as bad. Because I am adamant that the correct time to open presents is after Christmas lunch – though some may say that should be called Christmas dinner, of course. See what I mean?

A Smythson onion-skin paper diary is a Christmas stocking essential
A Smythson onion-skin paper diary is a Christmas stocking essential

In other words, there is no right way to celebrate on the day apart from the fact that the way I celebrate is the right one. The – ahem – correct timetable is: opening stockings; smoked salmon around noon with a champagne cocktail; King’s Speech (see, I’m up to speed) then sitting down to eat. Having finished the pudding it is mince pies with either tea or cognac around the tree as presents are handed out. One at a time, naturally, and the deliverer has to read out the label. Perhaps my favourite Yule moment was when my parents had fallen out and my father’s label from my mother read, ‘To Freddy, from Ann, with a great feeling of being let down.’

I will admit that this strict timetable comes from my parents and grandparents, who were blowed if the tots thought that our big presents came from anyone apart from them and their hard-earned cash. Father Christmas – never Santa – gave you chocolates and the like, not bikes.

A box of Fortnum's Rose & Violet English Creams
A box of Fortnum’s Rose & Violet English Creams

The same strict rules govern the meal itself. Normally we celebrate at our neighbours’ house where there are around 16 people at the table. Everyone has a role, and ours is to provide the bird and the trimmings. One year our hosts declared that they couldn’t be bothered with roast potatoes. There was an immediate rebellion and four of us insisted that they could do what they wanted but we would be serving roasties.

Then there was the time at the in-laws’ when I discovered that they didn’t serve bread sauce. A quick trip to Waitrose on Christmas Eve soon put that right. And it has to be turkey. Many years ago my brother served a rib of beef and I still felt like a python that had swallowed a goat two days later.

The other tradition I refuse to let go of is stockings. Every year the pillow case at the end of the bed (did I mention that I am greedy?) is filled with the same stuff – Paxton & Whitfield Stilton, piccalilli, Fortnum’s violet creams and a Smythson onion-skin paper diary with a wild-card or two thrown in. The tradition is the treat.

And I can’t get my head around people who don’t have Christmas cake. I appreciate that lots of people don’t like dark-fruit cake and marzipan, but I also don’t care. I do and, luckily, I’m happy to eat it all myself. And while we are on the subject, I have no truck with soft icing. If it isn’t royal icing that is hard enough to crack your teeth on, it isn’t Christmas.

So Happy – though some may insist that should be Merry – Christmas everybody. But only if it is done right.