Sur­viv­ing CHRIST­MAS

Is Yule­tide a com­edy of er­rors, a time for eco­nomic melt-down, po­lit­i­cal re­flec­tion or just en­joy­ing fine food? Greg Bruce asks five Ki­wis who should know.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - COVER STORY -

Agood Christ­mas din­ner guest list is about bal­ance. You need a bril­liant mind, for in­stance, to pro­vide a solid in­tel­lec­tual check on your cli­mate change-deny­ing, quasi-racist un­cle, but you want no more than one bril­liant mind be­cause the other guests will have only so much tol­er­ance for de­tailed ex­pla­na­tions of the eco­nomic un­der­pin­nings of the Auck­land prop­erty mar­ket.

You need some­one to be in charge and you need some­one to be re­lent­lessly pos­i­tive and ideally you need those two to be the same per­son. You need some­one who is able to make great food and prefer­ably to tell you what makes it so great, and you need some­one to make you laugh. This year, this year of in­ter­na­tional hor­ror and de­spair, more than in any re­cent year, you need at least two peo­ple to make you laugh.

Two days from to­day, you will not get that, nor any­thing like it. There’s a very good chance your con­ver­sa­tional sphere will be dom­i­nated by a dis­tant rel­a­tive who is un­able to recog­nise the nat­u­ral end of an anec­dote, and his in­ter­minable story will ruin your abil­ity to en­joy the pav.

But here, in the pages of Can­vas, be­cause we are about mak­ing lives bet­ter, we have sought out a very pre­cise ar­range­ment of guests — the per­fect Kiwi Christ­mas din­ner line-up — and we’ve asked them to share with us their best and worst Christ­mas sto­ries, and what they’ve learned about sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing at Christ­mas. Think of it as a sort of Christ­mas party on pa­per.

The guests in­clude a prom­i­nent, opin­ion­ated chef, the coun­try’s most quotable pur­veyor of ra­tio­nal eco­nomic dis­course, two of our finest co­me­di­ans and a politi­cian.

This story won’t fix your Christ­mas din­ner, but when things get bleak and your cousin Frank is re­lay­ing in in­tense de­tail the story of the time he al­most, but didn’t quite, miss his mid­day flight from Auck­land to Taupo, you can call it up and re­mind your­self what Christ­mas re­ally can be. Prom­i­nent co­me­dian Guy Wil­liams says the se­cret to sur­viv­ing Christ­mas is to not take it too se­ri­ously.

“Ev­ery­one knows it’s a sham faux-re­li­gious hol­i­day stolen from the pa­gans and pro­moted by pow­er­ful pun com­pa­nies to sell Christ­mas cracker jokes.

“The whole point is to have fun, so don’t force your­self to do any­thing you don’t wanna do. If you don’t wanna visit your aunt, then stuff her! Tie a box of Favourites to a brick, throw it through her win­dow and be done with it. As they say in Spain, or In­dia or some­where; ‘Val­ice Lavi­dad!’ And re­mem­ber, I don’t care how many res­o­lu­tions you made, don’t buy a gym mem­ber­ship.”

Wil­liams says his worst Christ­mas Day was in 2014, when his fam­ily was over­seas, so he and his brother Paul gave each other gifts, had a 36-race Mario Kart Grand Prix, then went to KFC for lunch. “It prob­a­bly wouldn’t re­ceive the Jo Sea­gar tick of ap­proval but KFC for Christ­mas is a pretty good look if you want to avoid do­ing any work or talk­ing to drunk rel­a­tives. You do have to google which KFCs are open though, so there is some work in­volved.”

Late that same Christ­mas night, he flew to Los An­ge­les, ar­riv­ing at mid­day on Christ­mas Day, thereby giv­ing him­self a dou­ble Christ­mas, and mak­ing this si­mul­ta­ne­ously his best Christ­mas. “This has, to date, been one of the great­est ideas I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. He went to an LA Lak­ers game. Co­me­dian/ac­tor/ play­wright Tom Sains­bury’s worst Christ­mas was the time he went to Fiji and got so sun­burnt snorkelling on Christ­mas Eve that he spent Christ­mas Day slip­ping in and out of delir­ium. At that point, he says, he re­gret­ted his life choices, but his best ad­vice to oth­ers for deal­ing with the Christ­mas mad­ness at home re­mains: “Go over­seas.” “Or,” he says, “one should fully em­brace the in­san­ity of the silly sea­son. I find lis­ten­ing to Feliz Navi­dad on re­peat, as so many mall work­ers do, tips your brain into a very spe­cial zone. You al­most be­come numb to the ter­ri­ble traf­fic and park­ing, and hor­ren­dous other shop­pers.”

New Zealand’s lead­ing pub­lic econ­o­mist

Shamubeel Eaqub was born in Bangladesh, where Christ­mas was a pub­lic hol­i­day but not cel­e­brated in the way it is here. It’s be­come a big­ger part of his life since he moved to New Zealand, got mar­ried and had chil­dren, but you don’t bring New Zealand’s lead­ing pub­lic econ­o­mist to a Christ­mas party to share his per­sonal anec­dotes. You bring him to ap­ply his brain power to the fraught is­sue of gift-giv­ing.

“A lot of what eco­nomics is about is find­ing how do things clear,” he says. “How do the mar­kets clear? And in this case, the mar­ket is for gifts. How does the mar­ket for gifts clear and how do we make sure that ev­ery­body is happy out of this trans­ac­tion?”

It pays, he says, to be more gen­er­ous than usual, be­cause then you’re more likely to reach a sat­is­fac­tory out­come, although that’s ob­vi­ously not guar­an­teed, be­cause if some­one gives you a crappy gift, that’s in­evitably go­ing to suck.

It’s stress­ful and com­plex be­cause you’re forced to make im­pos­si­ble fore­casts about the qual­ity of gifts oth­ers are go­ing to give you and about what they ex­pect or hope for from you.

“I think the best thing to do is ac­tu­ally to agree on it. If you agree on ground rules, it just makes it eas­ier, so ac­tu­ally say­ing, ‘This is the bud­get’ or, ‘This is the max­i­mum’ or you ac­tu­ally pair off in terms of se­cret San­tas so you don’t have to mul­ti­ply the amount of gifts you have to give to ev­ery­body, cre­at­ing this mas­sive fi­nan­cial bur­den. I think the eas­i­est is to cre­ate those ground rules be­cause it gives the abil­ity to cir­cum­vent a lot of the un­cer­tainty and lack of in­for­ma­tion that you would oth­er­wise ex­pe­ri­ence. But it takes away part of the fun, right?”

Is it re­ally worth trad­ing off fun for ra­tio­nal­ity? Asked to ap­ply this the­ory to the prac­ti­cal ex­am­ple of how he and his wife do Christ­mas, he says, “I’m pretty bad at this kind of stuff to be hon­est. She’s al­ways very good at telling me what she wants.”

Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda

Ardern re­calls her worst Christ­mas. She was liv­ing in Lon­don and she talked her flat­mates and sis­ter into vol­un­teer­ing at a Christ­mas lunch for the el­derly. No trains were run­ning, so they had to walk for miles to get there. Once they ar­rived, ev­ery­body was given a dif­fer­ent job, and once they were fin­ished, ev­ery­body had a dif­fer­ent story of be­ing abused dur­ing the lunch. They walked for miles to get home, in si­lence.

She also re­calls her best Christ­mas: the same one. “It may have been a bit mis­er­able hav­ing some­one throw their Christ­mas lunch back at you, but my sis­ter and flat­mates have dined out on that story ever since.”

The idea that the Prime Min­is­ter would have wanted to spend Christ­mas help­ing oth­ers is not sur­pris­ing but, know­ing what we do about her, we might rea­son­ably have ex­pected the story of her best Christ­mas to in­volve some mov­ing fam­ily scene, or at least to fea­ture her joy­fully reel­ing in the big kin­gies with Clarke dur­ing a sparkling morn­ing out on the Gulf.

But just when you think her Christ­mas sto­ries have been strangely lack­ing in sen­ti­ment, she re­counts how she and her sis­ter — who still lives in Lon­don — make the same marsh­mal­low bis­cuit recipe ev­ery Christ­mas, no mat­ter how far apart they may be: “It makes me feel just a lit­tle bit closer to her.”

That tiny story con­tains so much of what makes Christ­mas spe­cial — the harsh­ness of be­ing with­out the ones you love most, the ways we find of con­nect­ing with them re­gard­less, the poignancy, the joy, the marsh­mal­low.

This is ex­actly the sort of feel-good food con­nec­tion Spaghetti Bill was never able to nail. Noted chef and food author­ity Ray McVin­nie is prob­a­bly, and sur­pris­ingly, the most openly joy­ous of all our guests about Christ­mas: “I love Christ­mas, re­ally love it,” he said. “Hav­ing fun, eat­ing, giv­ing presents, hav­ing a good time: I love it.”

He says has never had a Christ­mas dis­as­ter or even any­thing that’s gone es­pe­cially wrong: “Be­cause you think it out,” he says. “You get it worked out. I hate look­ing like a fool.”

McVin­nie, who will this year be host­ing 20 of his whanau, says that Christ­mas Day cook­ing helps him deal with the with­drawal he feels from no longer cater­ing for crowds. “It set­tles me down,” he says.

He likes tra­di­tional Christ­mas food: “I like turkey. I’ve ac­tu­ally just made plum pud­ding and a Christ­mas cake [this was a week and a half be­fore Christ­mas Day] and I know it’s all North­ern Euro­pean win­ter food — I don’t care. The point is, it’s Christ­mas rit­ual food and that’s re­ally im­por­tant. It’s the only time we ever eat it and Christ­mas is the only fes­ti­val that we’ve got left where you have spe­cial food.”

His ad­vice for deal­ing with Christ­mas is, not sur­pris­ingly, heav­ily food in­flu­enced: “Just be or­gan­ised. Be like a caterer. Think about what’s go­ing to hap­pen, which is what cater­ers do. I get up in the morn­ing, think­ing, ‘What’s go­ing to hap­pen? What needs to be done?’ You just do it like that.

“The other thing is you get every­thing ready, you cook every­thing as much as you can to the point where if you cooked it any­more it wouldn’t be fresh or you’d mess it up, that’s when you stop. That’s what cater­ers do. So that all you’ve got to do on the day is, you might have to cook some stuff but you put it to­gether. And you never serve any­thing you haven’t served be­fore. It’s culi­nary Rus­sian roulette — you’re out of your mind. You know those peo­ple who say, ‘I just thought I’d try it out?’ Idiots. No chef would ever put any­thing on a menu that hasn’t been tested.

“Food is re­ally im­por­tant. You make it a pri­or­ity. I don’t sub­scribe to that bull­shit about hav­ing no time, no one’s ever had any time. My grand­mother had no time, you know. But if you think any­thing’s im­por­tant, you pri­ori­tise it.”

CHRIST­MAS IS not about the things we give and re­ceive but about the time we have. This is some­thing we seem to in­stinc­tively recog­nise, whether we’re mak­ing jokes, pol­icy, food or dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions for a liv­ing.

“How much of the sat­is­fac­tion that we get from giv­ing each other gifts lasts for a long time?” Eaqub asks. “Be­cause there is that ini­tial eu­pho­ria of re­ceiv­ing things or giv­ing things, but does that hap­pi­ness and sat­is­fac­tion stay with you for a long time? When I re­flect on it from a per­sonal ba­sis, I think that longer term sat­is­fac­tion — what do you think back on fondly? — it’s more about the ex­pe­ri­ence rather than the things.”

“It’s kind of like the low GI vs the high GI kind of diet,” he says. “One gives you a su­gar hit and the other gives you the long, slow burn.”

Be­cause Christ­mas is also about food.

Most im­por­tantly, pri­ori­tise your chil­dren. Con­tin­u­ally ask your­self, ‘If I was in my kid’s shoes right now, what would make the best pos­si­ble Christ­mas for me?’

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