A few days before England’s two-pronged poker of autumnal atmosphere, Halloween and Bonfire night, we celebrated my husband’s 43rd birthday. My parents had brought Tom a mysterious velvet pouch. Inside was a little barrel-shaped implement with a long handle that I only recognized because its use had already been explained to me. Tom, however, knew what it was for right away, and he was thrilled. Whatever that silver stilton scoop was doing in a Florida estate sale, it’s ours now—and not a moment too soon, because Christmas is coming.
Even though I really dislike blue cheese, stilton is traditional at Christmas and at our house, we go big: 2.2 kilos of the stuff every year. I blame myself. Ten years ago, planning our first Christmas on our own in London, Tom and I were childless and looking for ways to make the holidays feel festive in a grown-up way. We had stocked a case of champagne, we’d planned our feast and it was to include a sizeable wedge of moldy cheese. Although we were slightly constrained by having a refrigerator the size of a footlocker, we’d acquired a Coleman cooler to contain the overabundant blessings we were about to receive, in the form of poultry, pastry, and pudding.
A few days before Christmas, I stopped at La Fromagerie, with its damp and overwhelmingly redolent cheese room. This cheese room is probably sizeable, for a space dedicated to providing the perfect climate for cheese, but as a room let’s just say it is not large. Some would call it cramped. And at this time of year, crowded would be an understatement. Out of the cheese room, through the small shop, and down the street, the line stretched. There were at least 50 people waiting. I was coming from yoga class and feeling so chilled about it that I could have made my own little cheese-protecting microclimate. Here was a Christmas queue to reckon with, but I’d been in London for two years and I was something of an expert, thank you very much.
Twenty minutes later, a frantic-looking cheese monitor broke free of the shop with a credit-card reader, asking whether anyone wished to buy only ONE cheese. I waved, handed over my card, stilton please, and five minutes later was practically assaulted by a bowling ball of a bag containing the biggest wheel of cheese I had ever purchased. Not a wedge, but a whole stilton. I looked at my receipt: 70 pounds! Friends, in pre-Brexit pounds that was about $125 worth of cheese.
I carried the cheese back home and up the four flights of stairs to our flat, wondering how on earth I was going to manage to eat half of it in the 10 days before abstemious January began. The answer: I wasn’t. We would have to recruit many friends. We were going to have to make new friends to get through our massive backlog of cheese. And that’s exactly what happened in 2009, and every year since that we have lived in London. If we’re home, you’re invited. And this year we won’t be hacking away at our outsized stilton with a cheese knife, no way. We will be scooping it out, scattering the crumbs over the floor and treading them into the carpets like royalty.
In the first week of November, conversation around the school gates turns to Christmas plans (also, Diwali). Most families are planning to go away as soon as school is out—visiting family, skiing, or sun-seeking. But we prefer to do those things in February. For most of the years since we moved here, we have not traveled at Christmas because the last two weeks in December are among the best of the year right here. The city empties out around the 20th. No one is working, at least not seriously. A Christmas party thrown on December 22nd, after seasonal obligations are complete, is a truly festive and joyful event. Everyone there knows what they are missing: weather delays, crowded stressful trains, planes and traffic, inevitable flu.
But staying put requires planning. Because the same shops that have been bombarding us with their Christmas wares for the past four months will close for days on end, just when festive emergencies are at their height.
A friend of a friend once held the incredibly enviable job of “Head of Christmas” at the posh supermarket chain Waitrose. She got to eat/live/breathe Christmas all year long. Perhaps this is why she only stayed in the job for a few years. I suppose it could get monotonous trying to decide whether gingerbread fairy houses or gingerbread Georgians will be the more popular kit next year.
Just like at Waitrose, in every home you need some one to be the Head of Christmas. The emails begin arriving in August and, sitting on a beach in France, I ignore them at my peril. One of the first is from the company that delivers our groceries, letting me know that at midnight on Thursday, October 4th, Christmas delivery slots officially open for booking. I’m allowed up to two, with a rather large minimum order and an extra delivery charge. I dutifully set my iCal reminder and prepare to wake at midnight two months hence.
I am far from the only one sweating the festive season in summer. The British calendar lacks the speed-bump that is Thanksgiving, so there is no barrier to department stores opening their Christmas departments in July. In the “High Street shopses” as A.A. Milne called them, festivity arrives reliably by late September. Christmas lights are installed throughout September, and then lit in late October or early November.
If you wait for these early warning signs of Christmas, though, you’ve already missed out on some very important deadlines. Where we live, it is impossible to gain an audience with any department store Father Christmas unless you’ve booked it by the end of September. My kids were already out of luck by the time I remembered to do this in early October. Controversially, Harrods had opened Father Christmas bookings to preferred customers first, only to see every slot fill up with the children of their highest spenders, leaving no slots for anyone else.
We will be driving an hour south to what we hope will be a very atmospheric Christmas tree farm where the kids will hike through what we hope will be a non-sodden woodland to visit what we hope will be a sober and convincing Father C. My iCal reminder is already set for August 31st 2019 so we can go back to Fortnum’s next year. Excuse me while I pause in my typing to reserve slots for ice skating, the Nutcracker… Would tickets to a pantomime feel like overkill? Wait—hold the phone—has Fortnum and Mason’s special mincemeat sold out already? (Haha! Not this year. My husband was over there in October and bought two jars.)
Next it is time to decorate the house. In true American style I am going for a big light display. The lighting store around the corner sells me their biggest lights. I spend three hours painstakingly attaching them to the front of the house with cable ties. At dark thirty, I plug them in and, with a resounding plink, we have the least overwhelming light display ever.There is nothing worse than going for gaudy and getting tasteful instead, or worse, looking like you made no effort at all. Effort at Christmas is practically a religion in itself. It is certainly mine.
Last year I decided to go for the largest possible Norwegian pine. A 6-foot tree would sit comfortably in our living room, but comfort is overrated and an 8-foot tree seemed like a great idea at the time. The doorbell rang at the appointed time (booked it in August, natch) and four cheerful Polish guys dressed in kilts carried it upstairs in a neat net bag. When unsheathed, it dwarfed the room. A ladder proved pointless. While we were busy ascending to the apex of a conventional ladder, the tree was busy sloping in the opposite direction to its narrow topmost braches. But if we thought decorating that tree was a challenge, the greatest was yet to come. How would we (correction: I) ever get it out again?
Epiphany dawned with the cold realization that the tree couldn’t go back down the stairs, leaving me no choice but to defenestrate it from the first floor. I succeeded in getting it out to the balcony, but it was too heavy to javelin-toss onto the front lawn, so it ended up plummeting to its death in the basement stairwell. My antics drew a large crowd of what I can only hope were well-wishers from the hotel and pub across the street, as well as neighbors waiting to see what the crazy lady at the end of the terrace was up to THIS time. We were all laughing, but Christmas is no joke, people. Hand me my stilton scoop, I’m going in.