Christmas. The wrong way.
by Ranim Elborai
Well, there’s no escaping it now. The main shopping and tourist concourses in London (Regent Street, Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus) have been lit up for ages; Winter Wonderland has been up and running for a little over a week now, carols are playing in all the stores, and they’re selling dead, stunted pine/spruce/fir (?) trees on every corner. The Christmas season is upon us and, like the moonlight, you just can’t fight it.a
Now, I’m not saying I have a problem with Christmas. That would make me a grinch, which I most certainly am not. If anything, I am more loveable grouch than despicable grinch.
My family never celebrated Christmas when I was growing up.
It’s not because we’re hard-line Muslims, going haram this and haram that.
It’s because we’re just not a very celebratory family, and I’m the least celebratory of the bunch.
You name it: I don’t celebrate it.
Eid? Big or small, we don’t do much about it any more. When my siblings and I were tots, we would be dragged along on visits, dressed in our Sunday best, but nowadays that’s out of the question for me. My parents still make calls (by telephone or in person) to friends and family, but an email or a text message is all you’re getting from me, buddy.b
Birthday? Ha! I don’t celebrate my birthday.
Let me tell you exactly why… Picture this: it is my 8th birthday — the 13th of October, 1992. I was hosting a masquerade party for all the kids in my grade — about 14 in total. Only 5 of whom made it.
Now, now, don’t feel bad for me. It was the day after a pretty big and rather destructive earthquake hit Cairo. I should have been flattered that five of my classmates (or their parents, more like) braved the destruction and panic in the wake of the quake and its aftershocks to make it to my lame party.
But as a vastly disappointed 8-year-old, you can’t really rationalise these things quite so effectively. Ever since then, I’ve made it a point to never attach much importance to celebrating my birthday.
And I like it that way.
New Year’s Eve?
Fuck. That. Shit.
There was a time when I naively anticipated New Year’s Eve with all sorts of giddy delight.
I recall insisting that I sleep over at my friend’s house in 7th grade on NYE. A group of us spent the whole evening punching holes into coloured paper, making confetti.
As 1996 faded into 1997, we launched about a kilogram of the stuff into the streets of the Rabiah neighbourhood of Amman. It was an immense waste of time all round: two hours of mindless hole punching on our part, just to throw all that effort away; then hours of the Rabiah municipality’s custodial staff’s time wasted to clean that garbage off the street the next day.c
When I grew up, it was those big parties.
Everyone knows that big NYE parties are the worst sort of party. Tickets to the events that all your friends insist on attending are, without fail, stupidly expensive. And they have to be, because otherwise you’ll find yourself at a shitty venue with the worst sort of people.
I’m perfectly aware how disgustingly elitist that sounded, but it’s the truth. You know it, I know it, and all of those awful people who organise those huge ticketed parties know it. That’s exactly why they know they can charge you so much for tickets and you’ll pay for them like the shitsipper you know you are.
So now you’ve forked over $180 for an awful dinner at some second-rate lounge, or two poorly mixed drinks at a warehouse in an up-and-coming (read, rough) neighbourhood, so you best be having the time of your life, or it was all a big, big waste.
The pressure is on.
NYE is one of those occasions where everyone feels burdened with pressure to perform — to have fun, to hook up, to at least kiss someone, anyone, when the clock strikes midnight.
Not having a good time? It’s 2 AM, you want to get your stuff and go, just put a lid on the whole horrible experience before a coked-out college student who’s visiting her parents over the school holidays pukes on your designer shoes again in the bathroom (which, btw, is totally out of toilet roll and looks like a hurricane of piss has hit it).
Of course, you have to get your coat from the coat check first — except the poor, hapless cloak-room attendant just cannot find your Jil Sander coat in the pile of coats. You panic, because you’ve paid almost a thousand pounds for that thing (ON SALE — and don’t judge her people, it was an investment) and you leap over the barrier and frantically throw coats all around the room, rummaging for your prized winter piece.
After almost shitting yourself at the thought that some other bitch may have made off with it (and not by mistake either — she very well saw the label and decided to leave you behind her worn-out, pilled up wool blend coat from H&M), you find it, and cry tears of sweet, sweet relief.
Now it’s time to go home.
Good luck finding a cab.d
Having experienced the above-mentioned NYE horror-circus several times during the span of my 29 years, I now mark the occasion firmly ensconced with my family at home. We have roasted chestnuts at around 10:30 PM. My parents watch the coverage of NYE around the world. I may pop in a DVD. And we all get to bed by 1:30 AM.
I scoff at thee, VD! No really, I don’t even register it.
I have once been on a platonic lunch date at vegan restaurant near law school. But that is all.
So a time of year that fills most of my Western or Christian friends with immense glee leaves me feeling, if anything, a little “meh..?“
But this year, this year is different. This year, my sister and I are having Christmas at our place. Namely, we’re having friends over on Christmas Day. I’m going to make an elaborate meal, we’re going to festoon one of our larger house plants with fairy lights, and we’re going to exchange presents. I’m thinking my contribution will be a jocular mug.
But the thing foremost on my mind is the meal. Having never made or eaten a proper Christmas meal before, I’m a bit stumped as to what the menu should comprise of. So I thought it would be helpful to canvass a couple of my Christmas-celebrating friends here for their opinion on what to serve.
The experience so far has only served to emphasise something I’ve come to observe about the British. Which is that they are very opinionated as to how to things are properly done.
“So what’s the big Christmas main here? Cos I’m thinking about a nice, big, slow-roasted leg of lamb.” These words elicited such a look of horror from not just one, but two different guys, on separate occasions.
My Welsh friend replied, with extreme alarm for my well-being, “no, no, no! Turkey! Turkey is what you must do for Christmas. That’s how you do Christmas here. Otherwise it’s not proper. Lamb is for Easter, silly!”
My other friend, a writer who lives in a hippie commune but I believe comes from a secretly posh background, came out with, “I’m afraid not. Turkey is what’s traditional. If you want to go a little more traditional than that, goose. That’s what the fancy people eat. Lamb equals Easter.”
Oh? Easter, is it? Right…except I will be making lamb for Christmas–a nice big leg of it, bought from my Halal butchers on Old Kent Road.
Because: 1) All the nice organic turkeys and geese have already been ordered by the fancy people — since September! 2) My friends are American, or know Americans. They’re all turkeyed out from Thanksgiving. I’m turkeyed out — I had not one, but TWO Thanksgiving dinners, and, in my Thanksgiving zeal (and being bored of chicken boob), I had also sautéed several turkey steaks for myself that week. And 3) I. WANT. LAMB.
Then, when I consulted one of these guys about dessert, he shook his heads and gave me that look. You know, that look. The one where you purse your bottom lip into your top one so that your cheeks slightly puff up, raise your eyebrows high, and tilt your head. It’s like an “I told you so” look, but used by your interlocutor when he or she hasn’t actually told you so ever before. It’s possibly a “well, maybe you should have known better” look.
And it was followed by, “well, you really should’ve been making your Christmas pudding at the start of November, at the very latest. Some people have been making them for nine months.”
Christmas pudding is a very dense, spiced cake just stacked and packed with dry fruit. It only takes a couple of hours to prepare the actual cake — but by “making” the pudding, my friend was referring to the time-honoured tradition of soaking the hard, fruit-infested edifice that passes itself off as a cake in alcohol. Lots and lots of it. At least once a week, for months, these dedicated pudding-makers would pour crap-loads of brandy on the thing.
This diligent application of alcohol pays off when the pudding is wheeled out and set alight to the delight of your dinner-guests. (And the dismay of your children, as they often fear being made to consume a cake that was once on fire, adorably putting questions like, “won’t it burn my insides?” to the adults gathered at the table.)
I like dried fruit in trail-mix, because who doesn’t? And I love spiced cake. But there’s too much dried fruit in Christmas pud, and not quite enough cake for my taste. Also, not a big fan of alcohol in desserts. When I disclosed this, my British friend shook his head in utter dismay, and cautioned that even if I should make a substitute pudding, I should “make sure to at least use suet, because that’s what goes in Christmas pudding.” Otherwise it’s just not Christmas.
Duly noted, friend.e
Incidentally, this particular Christmas-based conversation was had yesterday evening as I sat down to a glorious dinner at Bistrothéque (comprised of an exquisite steak tartare and a perfectly medium rare onglet–so no more red meat for me this week).
They had gone to some trouble to decorate the place and out of the corner of my left eye I could see a large and (very) woolly nativity scene.
The fellow on the table to our right emitted a loud tut-tut to his French dinner companion. “Just look at that. They have the baby Jesus out already at the manger. In my family, we’d never put the baby Jesus out till Christmas Morning. Because otherwise it just isn’t right.”
I shot my own British dinner companion a look to ask, “is that so?”
And I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when he shot me back a knowing look and said, in a low voice, “he’s right, you know. My mum would never put the baby Jesus out before then.”
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX_VGqC8zvU (back)
- I will happily partake in a cookie or some kebabs though. (back)
- And of course, my brother never fails to embarrass me about how lame I was as a tween every time NYE rolls around. If you read this, brother dear, can you please stop already? I already acknowledge the fact that I was a massive loser at the time, so we can move on already. (back)
- This scenario also applies, word for word, to Halloween, another big, awful party night. (back)
- I’ll just file that in my brain under “suggestions to ignore completely.” (back)