In the Fraser household, the debate over the Christmas menu began a couple of months ago. With the pudding mixed and set aside back in October, so began the annual turkey discussion. It’s a dry old bird, with little to recommend it taste-wise. Shall we go off-piste, try something different? With a sense of daring, we ask the same question, year after year, but inevitably fall back on the same old traditional menu.
The children expect it, notwithstanding the fact that they push their sprouts around the plate. And I am too much a fan of Dickens not to get all misty eyed about Scrooge’s heart-warming gift to the Cratchit family. Moreover, the idea that the majority of people up and down the land are eating something like the same thing engenders a spirit of national solidarity, perfect for Christmas. I don’t even know if this is true anymore — but I like the idea that it is. So Turkey it is, and somewhere out on a chilly, former Norfolk airfield, some poor overfed bustard has his card marked.
As we contemplate this annual orgy of waist-expanding excess, my church, right next door to the rectory, is filling up with piles of tins and packets upon packets of dried pasta and breakfast cereal. As I walk the few paces from my own front door to that of the church, my world changes. Bags of groceries have been sorted for collection. People come by furtively and fill up their wheely trollies.
It is not quite the same as that recent heart-breaking BBC report from Burnley, where hungry children are ripping open the bags of food that the church brings to their door. But there is hunger here, too, and quiet desperation, and a sense of failure. Lockdown has taken its toll on people: jobs lost, relationships strained, too many funerals attended. No, we won’t all be eating the same thing. Of course I feel guilt at the contrast. Most of us should.
“You voted Tory, it’s all on you” comes the Twitter response, “Save us your crocodile tears.” This, however, I do not feel so conflicted about. Even before I abandoned the Labour Party, vowing never to return, I was scornful of those who subcontract their social responsibility to the ballot box, returning back from a five-minute trip to the polling station to comfortable untroubled lives with the added glow of inner virtue, their work now done.
Even many of those who live their politics 24/7 often seem to believe that right-think absolves them from all the practical activity of caring for those less fortunate than ourselves. Many despise charity or the practical activity of social benevolence, believing it shouldn’t be necessary (being the proper role of the state) and that it reinforces unequal social relations. The Cratchets need a government with the appropriate economic policies; they should have no need of a converted Scrooge.
This is only partly right. Yes, there absolutely is a proper moral outrage to be felt towards attacks on the welfare state and to so-called benefit reform. But nonetheless, I especially dislike the way that this sort of politics can be mobilised against kindness. Towards the end of his life, Lenin went to see a dramatised version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and walked out of the play in disgust at Dickens’ “middle-class sentimentality”. The Left-wing case against Dickens is that he believed social problems could be addressed by the prosperous becoming better people, rather than by a revolution in social or economic relations.
Orwell was particularly harsh on Dickens about all this, arguing that his great fear of revolution (The Tale of Two Cities) blunted his famous hatred of injustice (Oliver Twist). “It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure”, he argued, and that “a ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo.” And there is some truth in this: Dickens’ visceral belief in social justice was not built on some abstract political theory but on the need for people to be kinder to each other. And here Orwell points to what he calls the perpetual battle between the revolutionary and the moralist, who are “constantly undermining one another”.
I admit it, I have a Dickens-like vision of what constitutes a good Christmas, indeed probably of the good life in general. A fire on, children running around my feet, the smell of something roasting in the oven, my glass charged with a good claret. I share with him the idea that food bespeaks a kind of domestic, yes perhaps bourgeois, contentment. Which is probably why I recently set up a website devoted to food, wine and faith.
On Monday evenings there is an open invitation for people to come together and eat on Zoom, menus suggested by some of our bishops, wine pairings by the Sunday Times wine critic Will Lyons. It was intended as a small gesture of mutual solidarity in these dark times, for people who may be on their own, or for those who just fancied eating together, sharing the joys of the table. But some have expressed disapproval, thinking it inappropriate that some people get together to enjoy their food whilst others go without.
In her recent book Scoff, Pen Vogler powerfully reminded us that food is often code for class, especially in Britain, “with its innate social function and attendant rituals, as a way of firing up rivalry, envy and social unease and conveying the niceties of where we all sit on the social ladder”. Perhaps this is why the Brits find it so easy to scoff at each other for their food choices, for the way they eat, and for the politics behind it.
In Great Expectations, the now wealthy Pip returns home where he “formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast-beef and plumb pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension, upon everyone in the village”. As Vogler explains, both beef and plumb pudding have long been a symbol of charitable benevolence, the squire sharing his bounty with the peasantry.
Washington Irving, who did as much as Dickens and Prince Albert to revivify our Christmas imagination, worried that the old traditions of Christmas — that “brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness” — were being abandoned. I suppose it is easy to cast aspersions on all this, and the revolutionary will have nothing but contempt for it. Even Dickens recognises the condescension. And at a time when children are ripping open food bags in Burnley, how can others enjoy their beef?
But like Dickens I also distrust the revolutionary instinct and the revolutionary case against kindness — though it has taken me a while in life to get there. My Left-wing political antennae has been broken, probably for good. I still accept the Marxist analysis, but not the Marxist solution. And the emerging Tory in me is rediscovering something of that spirit of Dickensian benevolence that has done so much to inform our understanding of Christmas.
There is, however, surely quite a lot of space between the (very Protestant) Scrooge story of individual repentance and Orwell’s desire for a more political answer. It’s not reformed individuals that I seek so much as a reformed society. Like Dickens, I look for a society transformed by fellow-feeling and communal solidarity not by windy lectures on structural inequality.
And the feast is still a pretty good symbol of all of that. Cooking as a form of love, of joy shared, of togetherness celebrated. These days I trust this sort of practical love more than I do politics. I know all the criticisms, many of them correct: but I will take the not-always-good-enough practical stance over the theoretical one everyday of the week.
Some feel that they have answers to the current crisis. I don’t. I have tears and prayers and the best that I can do.