The strange death of Christmas Day

By Joanna Roughton.

What will you be doing on Christmas Day?

Will you be at the heart of your family, sitting around a dining table, enjoying food with loved ones?

christmasdinner

Thousands of people will be. But they won’t be doing so at home. For there is a growing trend in the UK towards ‘eating out’ on December 25th.

The Trades’ Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s over-arching union body, says the number of employees effectively forced to work on Christmas Day is rising by about five per cent every three years.

It’s an inexorable and, seemingly, accelerating process. The more people who work on Christmas Day, the more socially acceptable it becomes. At the last count 900,000 Britons found themselves in this position.

Historically, of course, there have always been certain jobs which required a presence 365 days a year. Some people – priests for instance – could expect Christmas Day to be busier than usual.

But what seems to be pushing that 900,000 number towards the million mark is the fashion for letting somebody else cook your Christmas dinner.

This seems a shame on several levels. It seems to me that if ever there was one day which should be a celebration of hearth and home, then it is Christmas Day. The family gather together, perhaps from different parts of the country, and they share a meal that has been prepared and then served at home.

Such is the model followed globally. In the UK there is a national twist or two. The dinner is often cooked or completed to coincide with the Queen’s speech on TV at 3pm.

And by being at home, the roads are empty, at least for a few hours in the morning. For one day, and one day only, Britain falls – if not silent – then quieter.

It feels like a vital punctuation mark in the annual calendar, a day of difference, a day of comparative serenity; a festival celebrating, not only Christ’s birth, but the importance of home, fellowship, kith and kin.

I remarked on this to a friend recently who pointed out that not everyone can, or wants to, congregate at home around the dining table on Christmas Day. My friend cited the example of someone they knew whose mother had died within the last year. By eating Christmas dinner at a pub restaurant, they felt they were drawing a line under their bereavement and avoiding memories of Christmases past.

Well, maybe there are some circumstances in which an argument can be mounted for eating-out on December 25th. But I will take some convincing. How easy can it be to tuck into a restaurant turkey, knowing that by being there we may be denying kitchen staff the chance to be at home with their family?

It seems to me that, as with Sunday trading to some extent, we have allowed this ironing-out of the undulations of our calendar without our permission.

Ask people whether they would like Christmas Day to retain its distinctive character as a moment in time when the rushing mania of modern life is briefly suspended – and most will respond enthusiastically in favour.

Ask people whether they think hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens ought to be – de facto – compelled to work on December 25th, and most will register their disapproval.

And yet it’s happening.

What can we do? I suspect it’s possible to do more than many of us think. The next time a work colleague, neighbour or friend says they will be eating in a restaurant on Christmas Day, we can point out to them – gently – that there is a social cost to this apparently innocuous choice.

And, if they perhaps have no choice but to eat-out or eat-in alone, then maybe we should think about inviting them to pull up a chair at our own dining table.

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