One of the reasons I loathe the Marks and Spencer Christmas advert is its contempt for tradition dressed up as liberation. One woman torches the Christmas cards (you know, the cards that would bring so much pleasure, particularly to elderly relatives who still appreciate things they can open and touch). Another throws all the party hats we wear at Christmas lunch on a fire – although that scene was cut after someone suggested the burning red and green hats resembled the Palestinian flag.
Funny how offending Palestinians and their supporters is deemed too controversial by M&S, but when it comes to undermining the spirit of one of the two most important Christian festivals of the year – go right ahead, fill your boots! Never mind, the little baby Jesus means peace and love; he won’t hold a grudge and graffiti the front of your stores unlike some.
Instead of decorating the tree – still a beloved ritual for millions of us – the ad shows Christmas decs getting gleefully smashed. “Doing what you love – Thismas,” croons the voiceover enticingly. It is a celebration of selfishness, of doing exactly as you please. The exact opposite, in fact, of the season of goodwill to all men. That’s men, largely because women, let’s face it, are too busy in the kitchen wrestling the Kelly Bronze to the death, wondering why they bought all those cranberries (“Delia! What are the cranberries for?”) while self-medicating with Bailey’s or sherry meant for the trifle. Perhaps that’s just me?
The message from one of the nation’s favourite high-street retailers is as clear as the glass bowl in which I make the celebrated annual Allison trifle: women should forget about all that dreary, time-consuming family stuff and start “doing what you love”.
Well, I reckon that what the majority of women love doing is creating a wonderful Christmas for their families, making everyone feel like they’ve been remembered, young and old, laying down memories which, if you’re lucky, will last the children a lifetime.
Tradition is an important part of that; imparting the things we were taught to do by our parents and which they, before that, learnt from their mothers and fathers. “Tradition”, the great GK Chesterton said, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” Quite.
One of the precious traditions in my family is my mother’s fabulous Christmas cake which she feeds with brandy. I have eaten it for over half a century. It’s dark, dipsomaniacal fruitiness with a hit of Royal icing sweetness is the taste of Yule for me. Bliss with a cup of tea. That’s why I was rather shocked to discover that Nigella Lawson has urged people to ditch the Christmas cake this year.
“Much as I love a slice of dense, damp Christmas cake, especially when eaten with a slice of strong, sharp cheese, I am surrounded by those who abominate dried fruit in all its seasonal manifestations,” she told the Sunday Times. “If no one in your family likes dried fruit, there’s no point having a Christmas cake gathering dust or just being eaten on sufferance. If chocolate cake appeals more, go for it.”
Seriously? I trust Nigella implicitly on all matters foody (in fact my trifle draws heavily on hers), but this advice feels almost sacrilegious. There is something almost holy in the rite of preparing and eating the same food on the same day year after year. And Christmas cake dates back to the 16th century.
The food critic Tom Parker Bowles, who will be spending Christmas with his mother (the Queen) and stepfather (King Charles), is even more revolutionary. Instead of turkey and Christmas pudding, Parker Bowles recommends roast beef (although he still has pigs in blankets) followed by ice cream. ICE CREAM! Please tell me the Royal family will not be having Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia at Sandringham instead of a flaming figgy pudding?
Where Nigella and Tom Parker Bowles are going wrong, I feel, is assuming Christmas food has to be enjoyable. Part of being traditional is insisting on serving stuff no one likes. “Just try one Brussels sprout!,” cries every parent in the country as the offspring bleurchs out a little green cannonball. Two years ago, my Australian niece, an excellent chef, came for Christmas and introduced us to fried Brussels sprouts. They were absolutely delicious, but where’s the fun in that? Hating Brussels sprouts is a well-loved tradition.
Everyone at Pearson Towers enjoys mocking Mummy’s Christmas Trifle, a labour of love involving eight egg yolks to make real custard and fervent prayers to see off the ever-present danger of curdling. It has been compared, unfavourably, to primeval soup. I kind of hope that they will go on making the ridiculous trifle after I’m gone, just as I know that I will, one day, have to try and replicate my mother’s fabulous Christmas cake. But not yet, not yet.
“When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don’t just turn it off one day,” says the novelist Chinua Achebe. I couldn’t agree more. As for those fashionable fools at Marks and Spencer, “doing what you love” is showing those you love how much you love them. And forget the awful, self-centred Thismas. It’s Christmas, darlings!
The anti-Semitism march was a celebration of our shared humanity
“This weather is terrible for Jewish hair,” grinned the curly-coiffed woman next to me on Sunday’s March Against Anti-Semitism. The drizzly mizzle wasn’t great for anyone’s hair, but the pigeon-grey skies over London could not lower the incredible good humour and sense of fellowship shared by more than 100,000 people. Lots of Telegraph readers and Planet Normal listeners came up and hugged me, volunteering to carry our October Declaration flags. Many Jews I met were clearly moved by the immense display of public support. “This shouldn’t be necessary, this shouldn’t be necessary,” a tearful man said over and over.
No, it shouldn’t have been necessary. Not in 2023, not in the UK. But with the pro-Palestine marches (some organisers are not only Hamas supporters, but former active members of that vile terrorist group) becoming a grim fixture every Saturday in the capital, many of us felt we had to be there to show that we were not going to put up with our fellow citizens being intimidated.
There were no coloured flares, no climbing on monuments, no hate-filled language. On the contrary; we were a terribly well-behaved lot, only really belting out our chants when we walked under a bridge because the acoustics magnified the sound.
It was great to see Boris there taking a moral lead, along with Carrie and their baby Frank curled up tight as a cashew nut on his mother. What a shame so few politicians bothered to put in an appearance. Thank you, Theresa Villiers, Jonathan Djanogly, Labour’s Peter Kyle and one Cabinet minister, Robert Jenrick, who gave a rousing speech when we reached Parliament Square. “A Britain where Jews are afraid is not Britain,” he said.
By contrast, at a similar rally in Paris, every member of the French Cabinet was in attendance along with most serving members of the Opposition, apart from the far-Left. Did Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and Mayor Sadiq Khan really have better things to do? What could be better than putting their metaphorical arms around a precious minority which has felt in danger since the October 7 massacres in Israel, and seen a frightening rise in anti-Semitic attacks?
One mother tapped me on the shoulder and asked if her eight-year-old daughter could help us carry our large banner. The little girl was thrilled. “This is all for you, sweetie,” I told her, “to keep you safe,” gesturing at the vast ocean of humanity, ahead of us and behind, and, as I turned, I saw the tears streaming down her mum’s face.
Another Jewish woman summed the whole thing up beautifully: “We haven’t felt a solid sense of groundedness for six weeks. It’s been one fall into the abyss after another. Today, it felt like a hand reached down and grabbed ours and maybe there’s a chance we can start climbing back out of the dark. Thank you Britain.”
There will be a chance to celebrate the goodness of our shared humanity on Sunday, which is The Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal 2023. As always, we have four brilliant causes for you to support – Marie Curie, the RAF Benevolent Fund, Race Against Dementia and Go Beyond, which gives breaks in the countryside to children who live with painful things such as domestic violence, bereavement, poverty and neglect.
It is honestly one of the best days of my year. I chat on the phone to loads of you, I hear about everything I should be including in this column (your wish is my command!), I get told off for things I got wrong (fair enough) and plunge into the Christmas spirit while marvelling at the incredible generosity of Telegraph readers, even in the most difficult of times. Last year’s grand total of £726,000 was the second highest figure in a decade. An astonishing achievement. We hope to hit a marvellous million this time. Please help if you possibly can. Every donation is hugely appreciated and will go to help those who truly need it. All you have to do is call us between 10am and 6pm on 0151 284 1927. Talk to you then, I hope.