In my previous incarnation as a cartoonist and illustrator, back in those days of editorial demands and demanding deadlines, come December, another self-imposed deadline would be added to the Must Do list ahead of Christmas: the all-important Christmas card – a heart-warming British tradition for which we should give thanks to John Calcott Horsley, a Victorian artist and illustrator. And being one myself, I felt duty-bound to draw up a suitable seasonal idea and get it printed in time to post to friends and family.
Amongst the assorted subject matter over many years, I recall several in which my atheism, combined with an urge to pun, meant that offence was most likely taken by several close relatives and a few distant friends. My scrawled good wishes for the coming year perhaps saving the card from immediate incineration in the fiery furnace of the grate. Or if not, its potential embarrassment obliging the more delicate-natured receivers to keep it well-hidden behind the chirpy-looking robins, the sparkling snow scenes, the serene images of Madonna and the Christ child, the acceptable faces of Christmas, displayed on their mantelpiece.
There are other acceptable faces of the festive season that, over time, I find increasingly objectional. Two such faces come to mind, faces of the same ‘sin’, those of gluttony and greed. Two of the Seven Deadly Sins, coined by the Catholic Church, and enumerated by Pope Gregory back in the sixth century. Of course, I am not espousing abstinence from what is the very essence of Christmas. Heaven knows food producers, food wholesalers and retailers, as well as the ailing hospitality sector, need our patronage in order to surface from this pandemic. I am merely suggesting, at this gluttonous time of the year, that we learn to value the food we consume, and that we should expect to pay more for the good quality food available to us, while eating less, spending less, on the ultra-processed, over-packaged, over salted, sugar-packed products masquerading as food. And that our government would do well to spend more too. Spend more time, educating this and the next generation to be more food savvy, to realise that we are what we eat, to understand that instant fast-food fixes bring the long-term pain of ill-health. Educate to change the face and shape of the UK, so that when the worst of the pandemic is over we begin, at last, to tackle the epidemic of obesity that has spread far and wide, its weight already laying heavy on our exhausted NHS, even before Covid hit them.
Eat, drink and be merry – for many the catchphrase of Christmas and the New Year – continues with for tomorrow we may die. This thumbs up to gluttony originates, believe it or not, in the bible. The idiom being a conflation of a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15), and Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die (Corinthians 15:32). And yet, can we not be merry while consuming less? While considering the imbalance on this endangered planet of ours. While thinking of those who have less food, less water, less wealth – fewer vaccines!
What now?! you ask me, as you gobble down your final turkey sandwich and eat the very last mince pie. Oh, there’s only two left in the tin. OK. Go on, then. Eat them both. You know you can’t stop yourself. Finished? Good! Now it’s time to start as you mean to go on. Physically and mentally. Feel that spare tyre around your middle. Give it a squeeze. Now, repeat after me: Let us think, eat and be merry, for tomorrow we will diet!
Well done! You can do it. Here’s looking at a leaner, less mean-minded you, come this time next year. And to a more thoughtful, more equal, more caring, sharing world.
My thoughtful protagonist, the natural-born ectomorph Edward Gipson, spent Christmas Day with his daughter Linda. Here is a short foody extract from Carpe Diem, which was longlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2021.
Linda brought a splendid Christmas Dinner round last week. Instructed me when to turn on the oven, ready for her arrival. Got here just before eleven, her car full of provisions: the chicken ready-stuffed, the bread sauce made, sprouts and carrots prepped, leaving only the spuds to peel. Which I insisted on doing.
Jankers! I say, the word popping into my head out of nowhere.
What’s that? she asks, scraping the last bit of bread sauce from plastic container to saucepan.
Spud peeling! In National Service. Hours of it! One of the many punishments should you not come up to snuff on some inane task you were told to do. Scrubbing the barrack floor with a tooth brush was another form of torture.
How stupid is that! she says. Y’know, I’d forgotten you’d had to do National Service. Though I bet you never got to do any. . . Jankers, Dad. I don’t imagine you misbehavin. You’re not the type. You like things to be all right and proper, you do.
Oh, you’d be surprised what I got up to, my girl, I say, as Linda lifts her mincemeat and apple tart from the basket and puts it on the dresser, thinking, How I wish.
We have the tart for afters, with the vanilla ice-cream she’d popped into the freezer the week before. I’d told her not to bother with a sweet, that a nice bit of cheese-n-biscuits and fruit would suit me fine. In fact, I’d groaned when Linda had turned up with the tub of ice-cream, never having been much of a fan of the stuff. But that sweet tooth of hers hasn’t completely gone away. She’s like her mum in that respect. Although Linda’s kept control of her eating for quite a while now. And, I must admit, come Christmas Day, that tart and ice-cream was quite the business.
Coincidently, after finishing this blog, I happened to read a saved Guardian article on the same subject; The Long Read: Hungry for Change by Bee Wilson is in the November 30th 2021 edition. Find it at www.theguardian.com. Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, referenced Bee’s piece, is at www.nationalfoodstrategy.com.