Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!

Best Before

I’ve never been a big fan of the “Best Before Date” which has appeared on comestibles, lo these many years.  My first objection is purely grammatical: the date divides the totality of time into only two parts and so it is incorrect to use the superlative (which would require time to be divided into at least as many parts as Gaul).  So, I would have one fewer objection to a “Better Before Date”.

For many products, the humble banana springs to mind, different consumers will take a different view as to when they are better.  I prefer a banana when its skin still has a slight viridian hue, whereas others would spurn such a fruit (OK, technically a herb – but you try seasoning a casserole with one) until its naturally casing had turned almost to ebony.  Even the “Better Before Date” is unable to take account of such differing tastes, and fails to make clear what aspects of “goodness” were being evaluated to select the date.

I have always largely ignored the Best Before Date, and have preferred to rely on my skill and judgement to identify whether an item is still edible.  As a result, I am still using sesame oil that was best before 1998 – though still seem perfectly flavoursome.  Last week I used some breadcrumbs that had been languishing at the back of the cupboard (in fact, several cupboards) for some time and had apparently peaked in January 2001.  They made a perfectly effective component of my cauliflower and kale cheese, and I seem to have lived to tell the tale (and fully plan to repeat the experience).

I have also for years, cheerfully cut the mould from food and eaten the apparently mould-free part.  However, after watching “After Life: The Strange Science of Decay” on BBC4, I may curtail these activities in future.  Apparently, the mould we see (much like the mushrooms that make up so much of my diet) is only the fruiting body of the fungus, while its hyphae extend much deeper into the bread (or cheese or whatever) and may be manufacturing a wide range of deadly toxins.  Circumspection is very much the better part of valour, to paraphrase Falstaff.

Still, at least the “Best Before” date is better than the “Display Until” date.  I have yet to feel the need to bring home a packet of raspberries (or anything else) and place it on display to astonish or amaze visitors or passers-by.  Still, even I would have to admit that it could be handy to include one on Christmas decorations (for those who are unsure when to take them down).  They could probably use a “Do Not Display Until” date as well.

I do like the idea of an Eat-Me Date as an alternative, but mostly in the context of the dried fruit which becomes inexplicably popular at this time of year.  I don’t remember the fruit of the Phoenix dactylifera featuring in the Nativity story – though it is native to the Middle East and I suppose I did major on St Luke’s gospel, so maybe one of the other lads covered the dried fruit aspect of the Christmas story.

Christmas Cards

It is that time of year when any parents of younger children will have the joy of the Nativity Play coming up shortly – or the more culturally-neutral modern equivalent.  The most recent such theatrical presentation I saw (albeit in video form) seemed to have re-focused the traditional story to place the donkey centre-stage.  Rather ass about upside, if you ask me.

This led me to the realisation that cribbage (or crib, if you prefer) would be the perfect card game to enjoy this Yuletide.  Not only do we have the consonance with the ickle baby Jesus, but scoring points for his nob chimes nicely with the spirit of Panto!

Christmas is coming

“So what!”, I hear you ask, “Christmas is always coming (and going): it is just a feature of having a repeating calendar.”

Have I perhaps been observing a goose and am growing concerned about its incipient obesity?  No – nothing so traditional.

Have I seen Easter goods or the start of the summer sales in our retail outlets?  Probably, but have fortunately blanked them from my mind.

No, it was the weekend before last when I cycled into Cambridge, and even towards the end of Sunday afternoon found it was still rather challenging to access my preferred cycle park as the queue of traffic into the nearby car park was blocking the surrounding roads for some hundreds of yards.  This is a clear indicator that the important commercial message of Christmas has not been forgotten – even in these difficult times.  Surely, a source of comfort to those who support a traditional festive season.

Yesterday, I was in central London and so saw the Christmas lights in both Regent and Oxford Streets (all I needed was Bond Street and I could start thinking about houses or a hotel).  I think Regent Street was going with a spider’s web motif – the spider being an animal traditionally associated with Yuletide.  (I had thought this was sarcasm on my part, but apparently it really is traditional in Germany – the source of many of our Christmas traditions).  Oxford Street seems to have accepted that a white Christmas is very unlikely in London, and that a wet Christmas is much more probable.  The street is thus decorated with a combinations of Xmas presents and umbrellas!

Subject matter aside, both sets of lights were quite tastefully done – I’ve seen far worse in the same streets in years gone by.

I fear I must face up to the impending Winterval (a rather lovely word, much maligned by hysterical polemics in some of our press, who tend to view facts as being something best avoided when preparing a story) rather than hoping that ignoring it will cause it to go away.  My attempts to starve it of the oxygen of publicity have proven totally ineffective.  So tomorrow, I shall grab an umbrella, garnish it with spiders’ webs, and head to East Sussex to enjoy a Christmas Mass as it might have been in 1610.  Never let it be said that I’m living in the past!  Au contraire, I have to travel!

Festival Accretion Inequality

Given the current season, my mind was drawn to consider the extraneous material that seems to accrete around religious festivals.  A festival is, of course, just a feast day – but given the rather limited number of days in the year and the plethora of Saints, I presume every day could be considered a feast day.  In an attempt to limit my scope for rambling, I will limit myself to the two largest Christian festivals: Christmas and Easter.

Easter is timed to steal the thunder from the pre-existing Pagan fertility festival of Eostre.  This may have been named for the eponymous goddess, though the only mention of her comes from the Venerable Bede, whose journalistic integrity is in some doubt.

Beyond the name, the only obvious non-Christian accretion to Easter would seem to be an egg-laying rabbit (or possibly hare).  Regardless of the chosen member of the Genus Lepus, the laying of eggs would seem to require the intervention of some mad geneticist. However, both eggs and rabbits do smack of fertility which may suggest some reference back to Eostre.  Rather a limited set of accretions I think you will agree.

When we come to Christmas, however, the accretions are astonishingly extensive.  As with Easter, it is timed to usurp Pagan celebrations – this time of the winter solstice. This would suggest that the timing was decided at some distance from the Equator, where (to be brutally frank) the solstice is rather a non-event.

It would seem that our interest in holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine trees refers back to this older festival and the desire to see something green in the depths of winter – this presumably pre-dated the airfreighting of avocados and Kenyan “French”beans to our shores.  Mistletoe has huge Pagan significance, apparently signifying the divine male essence – presumably any readers of the distaff persuasion would point to its parasitic nature in support of this claim.

Added to the Christmas tree we have a whole range of baubles and trinkets, tinsel and (usually) a winged human figure at its apogee.   Whilst a star or angel has some link to the original Christmas story, I can only assume the fairy some how snuck in with Santa’s elves.

Santa Claus evolved (or perhaps was intelligently designed) from St Nicholas or possibly Basil – both of Greek extraction and once resident in Asia Minor.  He may also have some connection to Odin – though I don’t recall the red suit and bulging sack from the last time I sat through the Ring Cycle.  However, the nibelungen could perhaps have become Santa’s elves – they did manage to forge at least one gold ring (only 4 more to go plus sundry birds et al).

St Nick was a busy chap – leaving coins in people’s shoes (apparently charity rather than practical joke), producing wheat without the whole tedious business of arable farming and pre-empting William Ewart Gladstone by saving young ladies from a life on the game.  Oddly, his current chimney bothering antics seem to be derived from his shoe-based investment strategy.

The North Pole and reindeer mythological additions seem to be North American – though surely, elk or caribou would be more geographically sound.  Wonderfully, in Sweden santa used to arrive on a special Christmas goat – a tradition I think we should embrace in these financially straightened times.  With reindeer came the sleigh – again, a major saving for the Xmas goat option – and with the sleigh, the bells.  These bells have now reached a degree of seasonal ubiquity that approaches immanence – any piece of music can instantly be made seasonal by the addition of sleigh bells.  If historically accurate, the level of noise pollution during the winter months in the Scandinavia of yore must have been appalling.

The Christmas card was clearly a cunning marketing wheeze by the early Victorian Post Office.  Their subject matter spans the full range from the Pagan and Christian Festivals to extracts from the I-Spy Book of Winter.

So many accretions, and I haven’t even started on the food.  Large birds with small brassicas seem important (this does seem worryingly like a double entendre now I see it in print) – in some sort of alternative universe (such a popular narrative device in Star Trek, where it was flagged to the audience through the judicious use of a goatee beard) do they perhaps eat a quail or poussin with a cauliflower or January King perhaps?  The marketing departments of the dried fruit business should have received some pretty decent bonuses in days of yore.  Not only do their wares appear in mincemeat and pies, but in the Christmas pudding and cake too – they cover every meal and the snacks too!

So, the big question I have is, why has Christmas acquired so many more accretions over the years than Easter?  I suppose it has, at least nominally, roughly 30 years more history – but I don’t think anyone was developing tinsel or boiling sprouts in the early years of the first century AD.  I wonder if it is just that people had nothing much else to do in winter than develop ever more surreal myths.  Any better ideas?

[Aren’t we all glad I avoided rambling?!]