Arts & Culture / Io Saturnalia!
Winter time is great when you run a beer & wine shop. Me and my missus have had that Christmas feeling from about mid-October, ever since we started ordering in the expensive Burgundies and Clarets and looking at the lists of strong, dark, weird Belgian beers spiced with cinnamon and orange rind, thinking about how to arrange them round the tree we’d be getting in the window, where the fairy lights would go, which walls to paint red and green.
We went round our friends’ for dinner just after bonfire night, as all this booze started arriving at the shop, and decided to try a bit with the Sunday Roast. We were so excited by the expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles, we nearly left the house with our daft Santa hats on, till we remembered we were the only people in this Yuletide bubble, and everyone else would probably find it all a bit annoying and distasteful.
It was only when we went to see Farmer Christmas and his radiators with our toddler last week, and I got to open a bottle of the weird Danish Jule Ol (Yule Ale) we’d got in, that it finally felt like ’twas the season, and everyone else had caught up to where we’d been for weeks and weeks.
I understand why people find shops starting to gear up for Christmas as soon as the summer’s over distasteful. I find the TV footage of riots in Dixons and Sports Direct or the online barrage of Black Friday offers to Spend Spend Spend as soul-destroying as everyone else. I was brought up to be cynical, nay distainful, of all the ritual festivities by humbug parents who always put a downer on Christmas for us by incessantly moaning about how it was all just about buying stuff, berating the materialistic feeding frenzy at the department stores they nevertheless dragged us round as kids, with the vague, lapsed-catholic afterthought that it had lost its real meaning occasionally brought up to justify their humbuggery.
Worst of all they were weirdly fussy eaters who took their baby boomer brought-up-on-rations obsession with beige food to the extreme, and like Sunday Roasts, Christmas Dinner was just not on the menu. Lots of shit chocolate, yes, but proper festive cooking, no. The nadir came one year in my twenties when my mam pulled a Pizza Express pepperoni pizza from Sainsbury’s out the freezer for Christmas Dinner.
When I told my missus about this I’d never seen her look so sad for me before. I never once ate a Christmas dinner, had no idea what it even tasted like, until I was 38 or 39 years old, when she cooked me a beautiful partridge with apricot stuffing and cinnamon and ginger trimmings I forget the specifics of now, washed down with prohibitively expensive Burgundies, fat buttery whites followed by soft, rich, woody reds. It was love at first mouthful and instantly became my favourite dish in the cannon of English cooking, and still is. I even love the sprouts (truffled one year, I remember).
As much as the eating, I love the drinking. It’s the only time of the year I can justify drinking those Burgundies I love the best, the ones that wink at me from the top shelf in the shop that I can look at but never touch or taste. Every year now when we shut the shop about 8 o’clock on Christmas eve, we take home whatever luxury booze we haven’t sold. For three or four days I drink designer Danish beers in wine-size bottles till I’m so drunk I spill half of it on my Santa’s Little Helper’s jumper, and then I open another bottle.
I love Christmas me, perhaps as a grown man more than ever. Since becoming a father my presents have dwindled back to a few pairs of socks and the aforementioned shit chocolate in inverse proportion to my son’s, but who cares: when else could I get to work my way through a brick of foie gras on toasted brioche every breakfast time for a week and not have this immense pleasure ruined by an overwhelming sense of guilt?
That’s the function of Christmas. It gives us our one window a year where decadence is the done thing, where decadence is demanded of us. The clue’s in the word “festive” – the festive season is the year’s big feast, and it’s been that way since well before the baby in the manger or Farmer Christmas were added as window dressing – since the dawn of western civilisation, in fact.
That mad drunken fortnight of Christmas office parties in the run up to the 24th goes back way before Christ, and was known to the Romans as Saturnalia, a debauched, carnivalesque fortnight in honour of the old god of fecundity, farming, and the cycle of time and the seasons, Saturn. Then as now it was the liveliest time of the year. The fat old men chasing naked virgins down the street whipping their bums with birch branches may not happen so much any more (except maybe round Silvio Berlusconi’s villa) but otherwise we still unknowingly celebrate Saturnalia today in a very similar fashion, by making the special effort to spend time with those dear to us, spending all our money, drinking too much, eating exotic fowl and puddings, and falling asleep hammered in front of roaring fires.
Getting hammered and gorging on goose over the midwinter solstice is profoundly and mysteriously meaningful to us, always was, and always will be. Bethlehem, Santa or Black Friday are just the surface decoration over a deep archetypal need in the collective unconscious. The deep structures and meanings of these rituals are far older than Christianity, and are therefore having no trouble at all managing to outlast it.
When I saw my mam the other day and told her I was putting the pepperoni pizza story in this piece, she laughed and waxed lyrical about one of the best Christmases her and my dad ever had, on their own in my sister’s flat in Paris: “We’d always joked, oh, why don’t we just go to McDonalds? and this year we actually did it – it involved no preparation at all, no washing up, and it felt like putting two fingers up to the tyranny of Christmas … we were the only couple in the place, it was all solitary little oddballs on their MacBooks, looking pretty miserable … we really enjoyed our meal though – you can have a beer with your burger in French McDonalds … it was awful beer like, but at least it was alcohol … ” and so, in its strange, strangled way, I suppose, the eternal Christmas spirit even managed to grace that humbug Happy Meal.
Words by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a poet, author and, with his lovely wife Jess, joint proprietor of the excellent Borough Wines & Books in Hastings.
Main image: Drunken Silenus by Anthony van Dyck, c.1620
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