When I was growing up, my family didn’t have such Christmas traditions as periods. Our festive celebrations reflect where we are as a family at any time.
The scallop period was probably my favourite. A couple, Colin and Ann, had moved next door to my boyhood home in Weymouth, and Colin, a fisherman, would, every now and then, leave a huge sack of scallops on our doorstep. Dad would clean and freeze them, in preparation for Christmas, when we would feast on an appetizer we otherwise could not afford: seared scallops served with bacon and mashed peas.
There was also the period of foraging, which saw the dinner table groaning with jars of chutney and jelly and bottles of infusions I had made with fruits and berries like plums, hawthorns and leeks plucked in the Dorset countryside during what was quite a puritanical obsession in my early twenties. Making them in the fall means they’ll be perfect by Christmas, and I’ll give any excess to friends as gifts.
Then there was the brussels sprouts period, which was probably the longest of all, when first my parents insisted, and then guilt caught me into eating two.
But it wasn’t just periods. There were things we came back to year after year. And for people born outside Britain – my mother is in Malta, my father is in Jamaica – my parents took a decidedly British approach to Christmas lunch. A roast dinner, with a little homage to a particular bird, meaning it might be turkey, goose or duck, with all the trimmings. It would be joined by a second meat, usually lamb, and my brother and I would haggle over the bone marrow.
There were also little highlights drawn from my parents’ backgrounds, which added to the festivities in other ways. Ackee and sea bream for breakfast, made by my dad (if we can get the ingredients from a trip to London and back to Weymouth in time, that is). There will be loads of fried dumplings, and if we’re lucky, fried plantains too. If not, my second favourite, a plate of bacon and canned tomatoes and onions cooked together – the result is much better than the sum of its parts – with a fried egg and fried dumplings on the side. Even thinking about it now makes me crave the magical flavor of egg yolk and tomato with dumplings.
In the lead-up to the big day, the house was filled with a scent chestnut jam, a classic Maltese Christmas drink my mom makes that consists of dried chestnuts cooked with cocoa, water, chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest. Our house couldn’t smell more Christmasy if it was filled with festive Yankee Candles, though it took me years to learn to love them. These days, I just can’t get enough.
Now that I have my own two children, I suppose it’s my turn to establish some sort of tradition. Aside from the rib of beef that I buy from our local butcher every year, we haven’t really had the chance to set up any Christmas rituals, given that for half the number of years I’ve been a parent, Covid-19 has paid off. to our plans. Last year, like many others, our hopes of getting the whole family together on Christmas Eve were thwarted by the positive PCR of a relative. The prime rib was put in the freezer and my partner, daughter and I had lunch at an Algerian café on Old Kent Road in south-east London. We ate delicious meergues and hand-cut chips, surrounded by men playing chess, and without a Christmas hat or sweater in sight. It was totally funky, and it was perfect.