Artillery Row

Christmas doesn’t have to be cancelled

A Covid Christmas could be the right time to introduce new festive traditions

This year was supposed to be my first Christmas.

Growing up in a Jewish household, Christmas was something that happened to other people. Instead of turkey and carols, we had Chanukah: eight nights of candles, latkes, dreidels and presents. The additional seven days of gift-giving meant the absence of Christmas didn’t seem like much of a loss, and with the exception of the one year my sister insisted on decorating a pot plant with tinsel (“It’s a Chanukah tree!”), we never really tried to get involved.

But it’s hard to escape Christmas as an adult. I’ve seen Love Actually more times than I can count and attended my fair share of boozy office parties (some fun, some depressing, some downright bizarre), yet this was always someone else’s festival: the country united for a month around something I could observe but had no right to intrude upon. Your culture is not my prom dress, to borrow the phrase du jour of the woke Twitterati.

I had spent most of 2020 looking forward to experiencing a real Christmas, guided by an expert

Now, for the first time, I am living with a man to whom Christmas is a very big deal indeed: who knows the words to all the carols (especially the obscure Latin ones), who can chart the history of mulled wine’s invasion into the British psyche, and whose family is (I’m told) the quintessence of English Christmas cheer come 24 December, complete with stockings stuffed with socks and satsumas, hymn singalongs around the piano, and cake that you apparently have to start “feeding” with alcohol two months in advance. I had spent most of 2020 looking forward to experiencing Christmas for real this year, guided by an expert.

Alas, any hope of that is fading fast. True, the second lockdown in England is due to end on 2 December, and a return to a stricter tier system has been announced, but it is still naive to expect business as usual. Despite the government’s message that it is doing all it can to “save Christmas” (no word yet on whether they consider Chanukah worth saving), Scotland’s deputy first minister has told Scots to prepare for a “digital festive season” and students across the country have been warned to stick to their allocated exodus period lest they not be allowed home. Even if the law is relaxed enough to allow families to meet up, social distancing rules will ensure that any attempt to celebrate as normal will be decidedly muted.

There are some potential silver linings, with office party funds donated to charities and Covid-19 offering an excuse for those under pressure to spend time with difficult family members. But if that seems scant consolation, let me as a Christmas novice offer an alternative: take this opportunity to rethink what it is you love most about this festival, and build it back better – your own way.

I plan to start simple, with eggnog. Jews define our religious festivals by ceremonial food, but I’m not ready to take on the enormity of a Christmas roast just yet. A mix of condensed milk, egg yolks and brandy, in contrast, is both special enough to get into the festive spirit and delectably easy to make. So easy, in fact, that you can have it multiple times, giving you a shot of Christmas cheer every time you feel down about the lack of be-tinselled pubs and seasonal pantos this year.

Instead of focusing on the absence of family, this could be a chance to connect with those closer to home

Speaking of food, I wonder if there’s an opportunity to reinvent Christmas dinner altogether, should you so choose. Over the years I have picked up the distinct impression that the vast majority of Brits don’t actually like turkey (historically, of course, the English Yuletide feast was goose). Now that millions of people – particularly millennials – are facing the prospect of cooking Christmas dinner by and for themselves, why not use the time and resources to make something you actually like? Tagine or curry would be perfect for a cold winter night and offer meat-free alternatives to those who want to start Veganuary a few days early, but Japan’s Christmas KFC obsession makes fried chicken a deliciously appropriate option too.

While we are all hoping the rules will allow family gatherings, the sad truth is that migrating across the country mid-pandemic may not be possible for many people. So instead of focusing on the absence, this could be a chance to connect with those closer to home. Speaking as someone who is usually alone in late December, with London friends dispersed to childhood homes, I would welcome the instigation of an annual winter walk. Getting a (socially distanced) crowd together, with flasks of mulled wine and flaming torches for a fire-lit procession, seems like a wonderful way to banish the darkness of this year and celebrate the warmth and camaraderie of the festive season. We can’t let Covid take that away from us.

None of this is meant as an alternative to the religious rituals that honour the birth of Jesus, which we can only hope are allowed to resume. But for half the country (according to the ONS), Christmas isn’t about God – it’s about connecting with others and feeling joyful. And we need to find our own ways of doing that in a pandemic – ones that don’t just rely on taking to Zoom for a pale imitation of the real thing.

Personally, while nothing will compete with lighting the Chanukah candles, I’m looking forward to having a Christmas tree for the first time in my life, helping my partner deck our London flat with holly and dressing the cat up as an elf. And while I’m sad this won’t be the introduction to the classic Christmas I imagined, I am also excited we’ll be starting new traditions – ones that are truly ours, and will endure long after Covid-19 is distant nightmare.

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