Last Christmas, my mother and I tore about Dunnes Stores back home in Kilkenny in search of TK Red Lemonade. We were frantic, returning to the soft drinks again and again with furrowed brows, until eventually, my mother boldly declared that she ‘didn’t care anymore, they’d just have to make do with white lemonade.’ By ‘they’ she meant my brothers and father, who would find the prospect of Christmas dinner without a big bottle of TK Red Lemonade almost blasphemous. Why? Well, because we always have a big bottle of TK Red Lemonade with our Christmas dinner. We never have it at any other time of year, and yet it is one of the threads of tradition that knits together our Christmas, and without it, it felt like Christmas might just unravel.
It is in times of uncertainty that we cling to tradition the most. Christmas, it seems, is one of those events in which every family has its own choreographed rituals and traditions, that are unique and possibly arbitrary, yet feel vital to the essence of Christmas within that particular household. Maybe it’s the annual debate over whether Heroes or Quality Street are better (let’s be real, Celebrations are the best of the lot), or the Christmas cake that is gifted to you every year by some benevolent friend or relative who is blissfully oblivious of the fact that not that many people actually enjoy Christmas cake at all. It might be a selection box from Granny, which you lament at being so much smaller and less bountiful than when you were a kid. Or maybe it’s a warm mince pie dusted in icing sugar, with fragrant mulled wine or hot porter after a long day at work. Whatever your Christmas traditions are, it’s very likely that food is at their core, from the obvious and almost universal turkey dinner, to the unique quirks about what type of soft drinks to buy, and the variety of multipack Taytos to feast on after Christmas dinner.
The beauty of food at Christmas time is that it facilitates the gathering of the family unit in a way that is sadly rare these days. Individually, it can feel difficult enough to spare the time it takes it to prepare a proper meal and eat it without glancing at the word count on your essay, flicking through emails or darting out the door for work. Too often can we feel torn between conflicting obligations at this stage in our lives, and when we combine this with equally frenzied family members, the thought of gathering together over the dinner table for a hearty meal might seem improbable without something as unifying as Christmas dinner. At the risk of sounding cheesy, Christmas dinner is a rare occasion in which we are obliged to enjoy each other’s presence; to pull crackers full of magic fish and other gimmicks and accuse one another of cheating somehow, to wear flimsy paper crowns and tell stories about Christmases of the past. It can feel novel for some to participate in such a celebration of indulgence and relaxation, as dishes of brussels sprouts and roast carrots jostle with gravy boats and bowls of stuffing for space on the table.
What separates Christmas from more mundane instances of gathering over food is, I feel, the symbolism of cooking for others. In gathering with family, the meal preparation is often a collaborative effort, with various family members offering to prepare certain components of the feast. I take control of dessert, while Dad manages the roasting of the far-too-big turkey. My mother will run the rest, monitored by my brother, who views it at his duty to ensure that the potatoes are just right. While it may just seem like the logistics of assembling such a big meal, I like to think that cooking for others is really an illustration of love; giving your time to nourish and celebrate with others in an opportunity you might not share at any other time of year. Even if you’re less inclined to get involved in the kitchen, there is a satisfaction to enjoying others’ hard-work, and knowing you are cared for, as you chomp down on some plum pudding or a slice of yule log, or root out the specific kind of sweet from the tin of Roses that your mother especially likes before she nestles in for the ‘Call the Midwife’ Christmas special.
We cling to our Christmas traditions at the best of times, as evidenced by my hunt for red lemonade last year. I don’t really know what Christmas will look like this year, but the unfortunate likelihood is that we may be forced to part with some of our previous Christmas traditions, like the beloved 12 pubs of Christmas, or lining the streets of the city in anticipation of the lights being switched on, packed like sardines in a huddle of excitement. In stripping away the excess of our old traditions, however, we may find ourselves adopting new ones. Maybe you’ll send Christmas cards with a great recipe for cranberry and white chocolate cookies enclosed to friends or relatives you can’t see immediately, or enjoy more intimate gatherings over a selection of cheap Aldi wine and cheese and a viewing of your favourite Christmas film. You might just find that a Baileys hot chocolate with mince pies and a much smaller group of friends is a little more enjoyable than hearing the same Christmas songs repeated on a loop while freezing in the queue to a nightclub. And although your Christmas might be a little different compared to last year’s, the heart of your traditions, whatever they may be, need not change entirely. We can still enjoy the simple pleasures of lounging in our pyjamas eating selection boxes and watching TV before gathering together (either virtually or in-person) for a hearty Christmas dinner. That means that yes, more than likely, I’ll be back rummaging through the soft drinks to find jewel coloured TK Red Lemonade in the supermarket at the last minute, until I eventually locate a stray bottle next to the checkout. Because it’s a tradition.