Christmas has never been something I looked forward to. If you’d ever met my family you’d understand why. Having had a couple of decades to practice being an adult I have learned to approach the season with gratitude, to use the faux symbolism as a trigger to remind myself of what I am grateful for. There are so many good things in this world that it’s really not hard to fall back on gratitude, regardless of which Santa is the one true Santa that you happen to believe in.
What I don’t subscribe to is consumerism. And that’s the trickiest part of Christmas. The sheer waste that is created by a contemporary western Christmas is appalling. I used to spend Christmas day each year with the family of my ex-wife and we’d go home with an entire basket full of rubbish that ended up in landfill two weeks later. Plus a second basket full of wrapping paper that ended up in landfill a little quicker still. In all those years of living through the melange of my mother-in-law’s Christmas I had just one victory, the “Edible Christmas”.
The rules were simple. No gifts that you can’t eat or drink.
My reasoning at the time was the financial pressure upon my sister-in-law, who was bouncing off a bad boyfriend situation and had less career prospects than a journo at News Corp. Christmas in that family was in fact all about the mother-in-law, who saw Christmas as the ultimate shopping trip that lasts many months and involves unrestricted use of other people’s credit cards. The novelty of shopping for someone else is hence deemed an act of virtue, an annual reminder of how grateful everyone in the family should be towards good old mum and dad.
Fair to say that Christmas was the most important day of the year for my mother-in-law. It was hard work for either of the daughters to keep pace and to meet their obligations. It was actually impossible for me to meet those obligations too and I eventually threw in the towel. But not without one last try.
The year before Edible Christmas I had single handedly been blamed for ruining Christmas. Ironically, by not being there. I had decided to work on a boat in Antarctica instead of staying home for their Christmas. The very short version is that my act of independence led to a chain of disasters that resulted in the in-laws spending a good chunk of Christmas Day driving from NSW to Victoria after realising their best friends in the world are just as selfish and pathological as they are.
But I digress.
When I proposed the Edible Christmas it was almost an act of heresy, but given how badly the previous year went there was room for accepting a different approach to the spirit of the season. Well, from everyone except the mother-in-law who professed, “You all might have decided it was a good idea but I didn’t.” Instead of shopping for Christmas, we all made plans to start cooking for Christmas. It turned out to be an incredibly creative and inspiring constraint.
The sister-in-law hand made chocolate truffles and presented them in porcelain jars. It wasn’t expensive but it was lavish and took genuine effort to pull off. Some people bought ready made hampers, some put their own together by shopping at really yummy providores. For those on a tight budget they found the Edible Christmas gave them a chance to put time into the gifts instead of money. For those with time and money it was still a creative experience and they only difference to a normal Christmas is that fewer gifts end up in landfill.
My contribution was jelly jars. I wanted to make something special to share with all the family, so I enlisted the help of a talented blogger. We poured layers of gourmet jelly flavours into the jars, let them cool, and then poured the next layer on top. Eventually the jar is full of different layers. Our flavours were Mandarin and Chilli, Prosecco and Pomegranate, Lime and Honey, and finally the Lemongrass and Ginger. You can see the gorgeous pics from that day here…
At the time I didn’t realise this would be my *last* Christmas with that family. But it certainly was the best.
For most families the idea of an Edible Christmas is not so far from their existing ideals. Christmas is an act of sharing and nourishing, spending time together to eat all the good stuff. Why not take it a step further and make your next Christmas an Edible Christmas. It’s good for the soul and good for the bank balance. It’s also likely to be far more beneficial for the planet.
As I type this blog entry I am watching Shellie put the last presents under the tree. Tonight we’re heading to her Malaysian side of the family to have Christmas Eve and share a few gifts. Our presents will be both edible and fun, having spent hours in an Asian grocer yesterday picking out the weirdest things we could find. Almost everything we bought was under $2.50 and all of it edible, although not necessarily tasteful!
Her mum is not a fan of bananas, so for a laugh we got her the silliest and most dreadful banana flavoured things we could find. Last year we found a can of ‘Banana Milk’ and I’ll be honest I still don’t know what was in that. The big win this year was banana flavoured rice cakes. One aunty is getting a packet of Uyghur spices with a picture on the packet of a clown riding a goat. It will likely taste wonderful but we’ll have a good laugh in the meantime. There are cans of pineapple beer, bottles of herbal tea for people who “use their eyes excessively” and sunflower seeds pictured with a moustache and a kingly crown.
It’s all good fun. Inexpensive fun. Edible fun. Significantly less wasteful fun, especially if people actually eat their gifts. My favie pick of the Asian Grocer Shopping Expedition is a toss up between a hot pot spice mix that features a mango kissing a chilli, and a panda branded treat described as “vegetarian meat floss and chocolate corn roll”.
Each gift was bought with a person in mind. And that’s really the essence of gift giving for me. Make the effort to consider your friendship and see what the silliest gift is you can find. It’s a big advantage that we live within a short walk of a dozen crazy Asian grocers.
Less is More
The objective of the Edible Christmas is not to fill your house with tonnes of food. More is not better. The objective is to have fun and keep the price tags to a minimum. Spending hundreds of dollars on gifts that someone doesn’t need is an appalling waste of effort in every possible way. Instead, spending $2.50 and having a laugh is a great antidote to a lifetime of consumer training. Participation without capitulation.
I am a big fan of The Minimalists and their message of living mindfully. I ended up at that point long before I heard about these guys, but have revelled in their articulation and exploration of the message. Remember, the idea isn’t to do away with everything. Rather, they encourage you to be mindful of your actions. Choosing to buy, shop or gift *less* simply opens to door to buying, shopping and gifting *better*.
One example is the Christmas meal itself. There was a time when this meal was an expression of everything rare and special in our lives. You save your pennies through the year and have a special meal with foods you only enjoy once a year. That’s what made it special. Today we live much more indulgent lives, and pretty much everything on the dinner table at Christmas is available to us year round. So we modern humans tend to simply serve *more* instead of serving *special*. It’s a reflection of our super indulgent lives and the struggle to be mindful about what makes Christmas special in the first place.
I saw an advert on TV for Christmas ham at $8 a kilo, and that summed up what has gone wrong with Christmas in 2017. There is nothing wonderful about mass produced pork goods flooding the market and contributing to the destruction of our planet. Putting tonnes of poor quality food on the table is not special, it’s wasteful. This year I took the train out to the suburbs and bought a fancy ham from a bespoke butcher. 2kg of ham cost me around $60, and it will be the most amazing ham any of us enjoy all year. We’ll cut it open for Christmas dinner and slowly devour the remains in sandwiches and snacks over the following week, and we’ll look forward to doing it again the next year.
Christmas gives us a reason to buy the good stuff, and to be mindful of how lucky we are in the process.
I think back to that time I convinced my ex-wife’s family to try something different for Christmas. That was the Christmas that best expressed the spirit of the season for me. It brought everything back to what really matters and does away with all the bullshit. It let everyone participate in a meaningful way.
Ironically, it also proved to be how I met my future wife. That day in Shellie’s kitchen gave me an insight into what it’s like to spend time with sometime who shares your joy of life, and food. I guess amazing things really do happen at Christmas after all.