When I was growing up, my family didn’t have Christmas traditions so much as periods. Our festive celebrations reflected where we were as a family at any given time.
The Scallop Period was probably my favorite. A couple, Colin and Anne, moved into the house next door to my childhood home in Weymouth, and every now and then, Colin, a trawlerman, would leave a massive bag of scallops on our doorstep. Dad would clean and freeze them, ready for Christmas, when we would feast on a starter we’d otherwise never have been able to afford: scallops seared and served with bacon and pea puree.
There was also the Foraging Period, which saw the dinner table groan with jars of chutney and jelly and bottles of steeped gins I’d made with fruits and berries such as plums, hawthorns and sloes picked in the Dorset countryside during what was quite a militant obsession in my early 20s. Making them in autumn meant they’d be perfect by Christmas, and I’d give any surplus to friends as gifts.
Then there was the Brussels Sprouts Period, which was probably the longest of all, when my parents first insisted, then guilt-tripped me into eating two.
But it wasn’t just periods; there were things we returned to year in, year out. And, for people born outside Britain – my mum in Malta, Dad in Jamaica – my parents took a decidedly British approach to Christmas lunch. A roast dinner, with little loyalty 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’ background, which seasoned the festivities in other ways. Ackee and saltfish for breakfast, made by my dad (if we had managed to get the ingredients from a trip to London and back to Weymouth in time, that is). There would be loads of fried dumplings and, if we were lucky, fried plantains too. If not, my second favorite, a dish of bacon, tinned tomatoes and onions all cooked together – the result is so much better than the sum of its parts – with a fried egg and a fried dumpling on the side. Even thinking about it now makes me yearn for the magical flavor that is egg yolk and tomato scooped up with dumplings.
In the lead-up to the big day, the house would be filled with the smell of Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, a classic Maltese Christmas drink made by Mum which consists of dried chestnuts simmered with cocoa, water, chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest. Our house could not have smelled more Christmassy if it was filled with festive Yankee Candles, though it took me years to learn to like it. These days, I can’t get enough.
Now that I have my own child, I suppose it’s my turn to establish some kind of tradition. Aside from the beef rib I buy from our local butcher every year, we haven’t really had a chance to establish any Christmas rituals, given that, for half the number of years I’ve been a parent, Covid-19 has put paid to our plans. Last year, like so many other people’s, our hopes of getting the whole family together were thwarted on Christmas Eve by one relative’s positive PCR. The beef rib went in the freezer and my partner, daughter and I had lunch at an Algerian cafe on the Old Kent Road in south-east London. We eat delicious merguez and hand-cut chips, surrounded by men playing chess, and without a hat or Christmas jumper in sight. It was wholly untraditional, and it was perfect.