When to eat
First up, we need to address whether us Brits have Christmas lunch or Christmas dinner. Cause that in itself is a minefield with undertones of class system. Simply put, historically working class families would call their afternoon meal their Dinner. While the middle to upper classes would call their afternoon meal Lunch and their evening meal is called Dinner. Therefore a Christmas meal in the afternoon would be either Christmas lunch if you’re mid-upper class, or Christmas dinner if you’re working class. Christmas meal in the evening would be Christmas dinner regardless of class.
I like to eat Christmas dinner between 2-3pm. I have had Christmas meals at 6pm and it was just plain weird. So clearly, I am working class through and through. Now in true British fashion, the host will be in the kitchen all day slaving away. Growing up this was typically your Mum. She’d absolutely complain about it but any offer of help will be shooed away. Your job is to produce lots of yummy noises during the meal instead and praise the amazing feast laid before you.
What to eat
What to eat for Christmas dinner does vary between the countries in the UK but the basics are pretty standardised. You will have 3 courses, and the goal is to eat as much as possible until you feel slightly sick. If you need to undo your top button of your trousers, or if you change your trousers, you’re on the right path.
The prawn cocktail is a much loved choice of starter in Britain and has been around since the 1970s. You start with a bed of lettuce, onto this you dollop some home made Rose Marie sauce (aka: ketchup, mayo & tabasco – at least 1 family member will be called in to make the sauce since they do it ‘really good’), top it with prawns and a wedge of lemon. That’s it. In recent years this has morphed into a smoked salmon salady type of starter. But here in Scotland we do homemade soup (which is actually lentil soup. Read my post here for more info on why only lentil soup is called homemade soup despite all soup being homemade). Prawn cocktail at least makes sense in that its a light starter and means you have room for the big dinner to come. Homemade soup on the other hand is pure stodge. But it’s what we do.
The main event
Technically speaking roast turkey is the modern day option for us Brits. If we go back to Victorian times, when Christmas was basically invented, we used to have goose. Now do not be tempted, under any circumstances, to utter the word moist at the dinner table in relation to the turkey, no matter how well cooked it is. We Brits have dirty minds. Roast potatoes are an absolute necessity and lets face it, the star of the show. Just make sure you cook them in goose fat and don’t even CONSIDER offering an alternative potato however mashed potato can be offered in addition to roast potatoes. Us Brits are not content with a giant turkey to feed the family we add more meat into the equation so Roast ham, stuffing and pigs-in-blanket are often served alongside. The ham is very useful for sandwiches later on as well as post-Christmas dinner, sitting on the sofa munchies; pork stuffing is there to soak up gravy; and the bacon wrapped sausages (pigs in blanket) only come out once a year so we enjoy them while we can. The gravy is critical. We couldn’t care less if the meat was dry and tasteless or if the stuffing was burnt. Once you soak it all in gravy, anything tastes good. Make industrial quantities here and ensure it’s piping hot. Bread sauce & cranberry sauce are concoctions the English introduced into the foray and I don’t know a single Scot who has them for Christmas dinner. Bread sauce is a weird lumpy tasteless gloop made from stale bread & milk and cranberry sauce is essentially jam. Ditch both and stick to gravy. Sprouts are like mini cabbages. Even if you hate them you have to include them in the Christmas dinner. Of course you could also serve edible vegetables like broccoli, parsnips, carrots and peas but a small bowl of cooked sprouts will keep every Brit happy
Pudding is a British term for dessert but some desserts are called pudding (i.e. Christmas pudding, syrup pudding, sticky toffee pudding) but not all puddings are desserts (i.e. steak and kidney pudding, yorkshire pudding). Don’t worry, you’re meant to be confused.
Typical puddings on Christmas day include: Trifle which is a cold pudding with layers of sponge, custard, jelly or fruit, booze and cream. I’m personally not a fan of trifle, I grew up in the 80s and trifles back then were pretty grim with powdered custard, cheap jelly, and skooshy cream from a can. You can get fancy trifles nowadays which are allegedly gastronomic delights. Christmas pudding is the obvious traditional choice and like sprouts, needs to be offered even though most people don’t like it. This is a solid lump of brandy, dried fruit, suet, breadcrumbs, and sugar. We steam it for several hours, set it on fire and serve with double cream, brandy butter (basically brandy and butter), brandy sauce (custard and brandy) or all 3. And we hope we don’t die of a heart attack. Something fancy from Waitrose or Marks & Spencer is the easy fall back option for families these days.
Now on your Christmas table you ought to have Christmas crackers. These have been around since 1847 and are cardboard tubes covered in bright paper with 2 ends to hold onto. 2 people ‘pull a cracker’ which bursts open with a small bang. Whoever gets the largest piece of the cracker wins the prizes inside.
Crackers contain a bright coloured paper hat (which you MUST wear during Christmas dinner), a ‘joke’ and some kind of cheap toy/gadget/game (e.g. nail clippers, spinning top, tiddly winks). Crackers are cheap and a waste of money but we can’t have a Christmas without them. You can also make your own crackers which almost always contain miniature bottles of alcohol and with the climate emergency you’re best of sourcing recyclable crackers.
Every Christmas, since 1932, the monarch addresses the nation in their Christmas speech. It started with King George V broadcasting on the radio and today Queen Elizabeth II reflects on the past year on TV precisely at 3pm. I recommend you view the Queens speech just like you view sprouts at Christmas. There are better options available and no one expects you to indulge but it’s tradition and its presence alone is enough. That said, do think twice about which family you are celebrating Christmas with before you recommend watching the Queens speech. Certain parts of the UK are distinctly anti-Royalist.
The meal is over, you’re slumped on the sofa wearing your paper hat from the cracker, and the top button of your jeans are undone. You’ve made it to the evening part of Christmas Day in 1 piece: well done. Now you have 2 choices of entertainment: TV or games. If you opt for TV then you have a plethora of fantastic British telly viewing to choose from (see here). If you opt for games, you can either go down the traditional route of parlour games (i.e. charades) which are brilliant fun once you get involved. Or you have board games (Monopoly, KerPlunk etc). You have been warned, Monopoly is a ticking time bomb. There are too many ‘unofficial’ rules (the Free Parking money anyone?) and it goes on far too long. Chances are if you’ve not had an argument with the family yet, monopoly will tip you over the edge.
Now during the Games session of Christmas Day, don’t worry if after a couple hours you start to feel a strange sensation of hunger. You won’t actually be hungry because you’ve consumed around 4000 calories during dinner. This feeling is called ‘peckish’ and you, or your host, should satisfy this feeling by serving things to nibble on. Your options include cold cuts of meat from the meal, cheese, smoked salmon, olives, nuts, crisps, mince pies, and a sliver of Christmas cake. We’re talking picky food here. Anything which involves effort like a turkey sandwich is going too far and steps into Boxing Day territory. Which is another blog post.