Spun sugar

Childhood books feed us Christmas dreams by the spoonful

Every year, as was the custom in our household, my Granda would give us a turkey for Christmas. It was a gift from him, obtained from his brother’s farm, and although there were only four of us – my parents, my sister and me – it could easily have fed three times that. From mid- December the bird would hang from the pegs in the hallway amongst jackets and woollen scarves. You’d go to pull down a raincoat and your hand would meet cold feathers or a scaly leg. In the days before Christmas it would leave its roost of outdoor clothes and be escorted to the butchers in the Square for plucking and drawing, and would return to us quite naked and ready for the oven.

I don’t eat turkey at Christmas anymore, not just because turkey for weeks on end became a bit much, but because there are only three of us – me, my husband and my daughter – and my grandfather is gone. And because – admit it – turkey is overrated.

That’s how Christmas food seems to go: we imagine the rich delights, heaving tables weighed down by overflowing dishes, crystal glasses lit by candlelight. The reality is a slightly nicer Sunday roast than normal with an anomalous tablecloth. The literature of our childhood (collectively our – a nation’s imagined past, like a festive version of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony) fed it to us by the spoonful. It started early for me, in Narnia. The White Queen offered Edmund his craved Turkish Delight and I, who had only ever encountered the Fry’s purple jelly version, was highly impressed at the thought of even that. The Box of Delights by John Masefield extolled possets – a terribly English-sounding thing to my Northern Irish ears (our family swore by hot whiskies). It was there I first heard of pemmican too: beef chopped up with fat and raisins and chocolate and beer and almonds and ginger. I’d still give that a go if I saw it on an Instagram reel.

I swore off Dickens, having been forced to read him for A-level English, but A Christmas Carol inveigled itself into my affections via the Muppets. It was Dickens who pushed turkey for the Christmas dinner narrative. Prior to Scrooge’s gift to the Cratchits, goose was the standard fare. Turkey was more expensive, more extravagant, and more hedonistic. My grudge against Dickens continues.

Prior to Scrooge’s gift to the Cratchits, goose was the standard fare

I have never eaten a sugar plum – I don’t think I know what a sugar plum is – but I love the idea of one. I love that it is so Christmassy it stars in a ballet. I imagine a tart sweetness, crystals of sugar dulling its magenta surface. I think it’s the sort of thing about which Nigel Slater, the saint of descriptive mouthfuls, has probably written pages. I am disappointed to discover it’s not even a fruit. Nuts! They feature too. We set bowls of them on coffee tables, dust off the nutcracker that leaves the drawer once a year, and then we watch them, wondering when we’ll get round to exerting enough pressure to crack them open. It’s a tough investment but the ritual is apparently worth it, and we convince ourselves of the superiority over the easily accessible shelled versions.

Christmas, of course, is also a time for the meaningful, and what better way to have it thrust upon you than in a tale of noble magnanimity. In Little Women the March girls carry their breakfast to the freezing house of a neighbouring woman, her newborn, and her six other hungry offspring. As I child I admired their charitable selflessness; as an adult I find the books insufferably pious, but I still love that this was their Christmas gift, and that “they went away, leaving comfort behind”.

It doesn’t escape my notice that all these stories were written prior to 1950. Not only are we harking back to a wistful idea of Christmas, but the lavish and evocative descriptions were born out of a time of frugality, where many people could only dream of feasts like those. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published four years before rationing ended, Turkish Delight was a glorious wonder. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of life in her family’s Little House in the Big Woods, the magical transformation of molasses and sugar into snow candy marked a significant treat that only existed because of the winter weather. The hard drudge of homesteading was temporarily forgotten.

And here we are now, in a cost-of-living crisis where everything seems relentlessly bleak. Perhaps this is why we hang on to the promises of Christmas advertisements, desperate for the plentiful larder of Brian Jaques’ The Great Redwall Feast. It’s no wonder we lap it up – a shiny promise of warmth and happiness. While the world has never been safer, that knowledge doesn’t settle easily in us. We turn to comforts and to notions of tradition, the safety of nostalgia. Christmas, the books tell us, is no time work or to be frugal. Give us bread but give us a box of Cadbury’s Roses.

Kate Devlin is an academic and author of “Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots” (Bloomsbury, 2018)

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