Growing up, I had a reputation for being somewhat eccentric, probably cemented by Christmas dinner day at my wee convent school in Kent, when I would happily hoover up the Brussels sprouts that literally everyone else had rejected.
See, we never had such exotic delights as roast turkey and stuffing at home. In fact, the only time my parents got us fish and chips was when our street had a power-cut (which was more often than you’d think), so when December rolled around, I was fizzing with excitement, as the school’s chef was also a nun and God had blessed her in the kitchen too.
What blew my mind the most was the thought that one day of the year, all around the UK, everyone was having the same meal, give or take a trimming or two. This obsession stayed with me, and even now I’ll volunteer to organise my work Christmas lunch, happily spending hours perusing menus online, favouring those that describe all the elements, rather than the abstemious (and unhelpful) “Christmas dinner” or “roast turkey main”.
I also happened to marry a guy whose family was fully into a proper Christmas (to the extent that we’d keep our party hats on all day and play board games instead of watching EastEnders or Top of the Pops, which was the one festive tradition that my own family adhered to). They also introduced me to the sweeter festive delights like stollen and Christmas cake, as we only had mince pies at school. I’d revel in the annual sight of the Christmas pudding being set aflame, even if I was less keen on consuming the stuff.
My brother also married into a (huge Scottish) family that plunged at full pelt into Christmas, and occasionally we’d join them. One year, we had smoked salmon, caviar, turkey, roast beef, baked ham, roast, mashed and hasselback potatoes, four types of stuffing, and five types of pudding in a possibly haunted house with a full suit of armour in the loo. There were 30 of us round the table, everyone wore spangles and/or tartan, and I was in Christmas heaven.
Then the pandemic came and put the brakes on any such epicurean conviviality.
The 2020 lockdown meant it was just four of us in a bubble, and I had no intention of making the usual spread (as I’d never actually been the host). But at the last minute, I was forced to fashion a makeshift dinner out of chicken thighs, Bisto, and Aunt Bessie’s frozen finest, because my kids declared it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It was far from gourmet, but apparently, it still hit the spot.
The next year, when we were allowed to leave our homes, we stayed at a beautiful Airbnb in Cambridge, which they’d furnished with a gorgeous door wreath and a sparkly tree, so I was set on a proper Chrimbo dinner and even bought crackers.
But to my horror, my children suddenly confessed that they only liked pigs in blankets. I wasn’t going to be robbed of my dinner, so on Christmas Eve, we all went to Browns, where I had turkey and they had salmon and chips, and on the day itself, I made us spaghetti bolognese with a big dish of pigs on the side which they devoured in front of Encanto.
Last year though, we could actually leave the country, so we decided to fulfil a lifetime ambition of Yule-tiding in Japan where we would indulge in their iconic Christmas dinner of KFC.
Yes, for historical reasons too complicated to explain, Christmas isn’t Christmas there without a bucket of the Colonel’s finest, although in a pinch, any others will do.
As soon as we landed in Tokyo, we were pummelled by fried chicken ads from everywhere: cafes, restaurants, supermarkets and even convenience stores. And then it turned out you have to pre-order long in advance for a chance of scoring that Kentucky Fried Holy Grail, so we ended up getting a selection of ready-to-heat dishes from the local LIFE supermarket, but we honestly didn’t feel cheated at all, as everything we ate was still delightful and – most importantly – the company was great.
Because after 40+ years of deciding what my favourite elements are, I’ve finally come to conclusion that, while I still think that bread sauce is the staff of life, what really makes an excellent Christmas dinner are the folk you have pulling crackers with you – just try not to groan at the jokes.
What makes a perfect Christmas dinner for you? Whatever you decide to have on the day itself, I hope it’s delicious.
MiMi Aye is the author of Mandalay: Recipes & Tales from a Burmese Kitchen and host of The MSG Pod