In defence of the Christmas dinner

“I don’t want turkey, I want lasagne.”


I nearly choke on my gnocchi. My family is staging a revolution and before I know it my younger son is running round our flat singing a tuneful rendition of “I hate turkey,” and the word itself becomes the joke, “taaarkey” followed by peals of laughter. A quick text to my brother and the bird is re-installed. We’re having turkey crown and goose. “Christmas is coming / The goose is getting fat / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” Don your festive spirit, and bring out the cakes and ale.

Capon is usually the preferred bird on our Christmas table when we’re in Italy at Christmas. Call it a nod to Italian tradition, although here the capon is boiled and the stock used for home-made tortellini. Nice, but not the same. The bird simply has to be roasted for we’re “in the deep midwinter”, the Yule log is burning, the lights are flickering and we’re celebrating the promise of longer days ahead and the renewal of life. For in an age obsessed with celebrity chefs and recipes, it’s not about the endless variations of ways you can cook your said bird, it’s about the tradition. It’s about roots, and a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Of course it was the Victorians who gave us our current version of Christmas complete with Christmas tree and the sadly diminishing Christmas card, and these are the childhood Christmases I remember. It’s eleven o’clock and we’re watching the Top of the Pops’ Christmas special, grandma’s asking for her dinner already and mum’s flapping round the kitchen in her apron. At around one o’clock, and often later (although mum’s told grandma it’s only twelve), we’re all plated up with roasted turkey, roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, Paxo bread sauce and Paxo stuffing all cloaked in Bisto gravy, for it’s the 1970s and women are choosing the packet option. Follow this with Christmas pudding, then granddad’s asleep in the armchair, we’ve watched the Queen’s Speech and we’re opening the selection boxes as gradually Christmas deteriorates into the TV and sofa extravaganza to be seen up and down the country. Forward to five o’clock and we’re all starting to stir, mum’s back in the kitchen and is getting out the Christmas ham and trifle, Christmas carols are a-playing, dad and granddad are on the beer and nanna’s on the sherry.

Pause the nostalgia and back to the bird. Of course, turkey is a relatively late addition if we look through the course of history. Originating from the New World, it was introduced to Britain’s festive table in the 16th century. Before that it was all about the goose. The Norse goddess Frigga or Frigg was traditionally associated with the end of the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the New Year – regeneration and rebirth – and her sacred animal was, you’ve guessed it, the goose. Indeed all through history, the goose has been linked to changing seasons and harvest. The Greeks feasted on it to protect the coming harvest and it was offered to Odin and Thor in thanks for the Norse harvest. Michaelmas or the Day of St Michael’s and All Saints (which took place in Autumn, hence the university Michaelmas term) always included a goose. In Tudor England it was when rents got paid. “And when the tenants come to pay their quarter’s rent / They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent / At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose / And somewhat else at New Year’s tide, for fear their lease fly loose.” An extract from a poem by George Gascoigne in 1575 and not only do I have a ready-made culinary calendar before my very eyes but up pops my capon as the traditional Christmas fayre.

This year I would like to imagine Christmas as a rather Shakespearean Twelfth Night affair, and if I know the men in my family – and indeed they are all men now, my position as female having taken rather poignant Last of the Mohicanesque qualities – this is quite possible. Indeed the drunken revelry can be positively guaranteed. I mean, let’s be honest, religion is virtually absent. My own tendencies lean towards a far more Pagan affair – if I could roast a pig, I probably would – and my boys will probably remember the Santa Express as the highlight for years to come. Trifle, Christmas cake and mince pies will be my sacred three, and I’ll be there on Christmas Eve making my sausage rolls and singing along to my Michael Bublé just as my mother peeled the veg and sang along to her Songs of Praise, and my grandmothers indulged in their own Christmas rituals before her. For this is the meaning of Christmas for me, family tradition and ritual. It roots us within ourselves and nourishes our souls. That is what feeds us at Christmas time and if it just so happens to take the form of a turkey, so be it.

So this year I’ll be feasting on my turkey crown and goose and celebrating all those Christmases past, Christmas present and Christmases to come, complete with a tray of home-made lasagne I shall have lovingly prepared for my son the day before.

As I said earlier, it’s all about the tradition.