One of the reasons that Christmas gets such a bad press these days is that — against all reason — the more affluent we are, the less special it has become. For Christmas in its traditional incarnation takes effort and time — making the cakes, the puddings, the mince pies, choosing the presents, wrapping them, writing the cards, obsessing — there is no other word for it — about the turkey: my mole at John Lewis tells me that the one thing most women ask when buying a new oven is, ‘Will it take the turkey?’
So the modern answer is to decide that it’s too much trouble and instead to throw money at the ‘problem’ of Christmas. Can’t be bothered to do the cooking? Buy ready-made everything. The Christmas Dinner Company (www.christmasdinnercompany.co.uk) will deliver the entire meal to your door, right down to a tub of gravy. Is choosing presents a bore? Contact the Jo Malone gift service (www.jomalone.co.uk) and they’ll send presents for you — they’ll even put in ‘a personal message’. Too busy to stuff the children’s stockings? For £67.95, Holly Jolly Stockings (www.hollyjollystockings.co.uk) will send you a ready-filled stocking, so ‘you too can exper-ience the pure magic of Christmas morning, with hardly any effort at all’.
It’s what Nigella Lawson in her current persona would no doubt describe as ‘Christmas — the Express Way [pout, simper, thrust breasts at camera]’. No wonder we all feel so jaded.
Until last year, I bought into the too-busy-for-life vibe, too. Having a full-on, full-time job and a book to write, I couldn’t get round to meeting a friend for coffee, never mind organising Christmas. Anyway, it could all be bought ready-made (see above), the only limitation being the depth of my pockets.
It took redundancy to make me realise that the great luxury these days is not money but time. Christmas was coming up, there was no job on the horizon and things were tight. But what I did have — for the first time in years — was hours to spare.
Reader, I made my own Christmas presents — and it was one of the loveliest Christmases I have ever had.
I am not talking presents of the sticky-backed plastic, glitter-based craft variety, but the things that people really love but have decided they are too busy to make themselves — Christmas cakes that don’t all taste as if they have come out of the same vast industrial mixing bowl; Christmas puddings ditto; mincemeat that does not resemble spicy mush; pickles; chutneys; home-made sweets.
Christmas cakes are the obvious present. Stuffed with fruit, redolent with brandy and with not an E-number in sight, their impact and the gratitude with which they are received is out of all proportion to the cost (a few pounds) and the time they take to prepare (an hour) and cook (four hours). Delia Smith’s classic Christmas cake is a sure-fire winner, as is her Light Glacé Christmas cake, made with glacé pineapple, crystallised ginger and brandy-soaked apricots among other things. Add marzipan, royal icing and stick a Father Christmas on top (Jane Asher has the best selection of cake decorations; www.sugarcraft.co.uk) and bask in the admiration of your status as bona fide domestic goddess.
I made Delia’s mincemeat too — the jars gussied up with a cover of some Christmas-appropriate fabric (John Lewis has a good selection) and tied with ribbon make great presents. And I made Christmas puddings, using a recipe of my grandmother’s that has the unique quality of producing a light, un-stodgy pudding (the secret is the high proportion of breadcrumbs and mixing with beer).
More unusual were fruit liqueurs and brandies. If you can find quinces (Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street still has them at the time of writing), try Jane Grigson’s quince brandy from her Fruit Book. If I had thought of it in time, I would have made sloe gin, but it needs at least three months to mature.
The point is not to impress but, as I found to my astonishment, you end up impressing nevertheless, for you have given the greatest gift of the modern age — your time. And now that I have a full-time job, I have decided that I can still make time to carry on this new tradition. Home-made is the new luxury.
It’s certainly not Christmas Express, but infinitely more satisfying. Just call me the anti-Nigella.
The Housewife’s Handbook: How To Run the Modern Home by Rachel Simhon (Bloomsbury, £18.99; www.bloomsbury.com).