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.
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?’