Stephen Jardine: After a difficult year, it is more imporant than ever to gather round the table at Christmas

Are you ready? Tomorrow brings the greatest feast of the year so today is about last minute shopping and preparations. Ten million turkeys will be flying off the shelves this weekend, alongside an ocean of cranberry sauce, miles of sausages and mountains of stuffing. Around the country, kitchens will fill with the smell of mincemeat, cinnamon and mulled wine.

Turkey is as popular as ever, as 87 cent of dinner tables in the UK will prove tomorrow.
Turkey is as popular as ever, as 87 cent of dinner tables in the UK will prove tomorrow.

It may be a Christian celebration but the mid-winter feast stretches back to ancient Rome and the Norse traditions. The Roman mid-winter festival of misrule has heavily influenced many Christmas traditions. From expressing good wishes to the grand shared banquet, a gladiator sitting down at the table tomorrow would still recognise the key elements of the celebration. Except the turkey.

In the distant past, wild boar was served at Christmas with the head brought to the table garlanded with holly and fruit. Turkeys were first introduced to the dinner table more than 500 years ago by William Strickland, a Yorkshireman who acquired six birds from American Indian traders on his travels.

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Henry VIII was the first monarch to sit down to turkey on Christmas Day but goose, pheasant, peacocks and capon remained popular until Victorian times. The development of refrigeration in the last century allowed one dish to rise above all others. Being relatively easy to breed and raise, turkey took centre stage, and tomorrow 87 per cent of us will have it on the table.

On paper it should be an easy meal to serve. Pop the bird in the oven, pour yourself a glass of something nice and just wait a couple of hours for it to cook. However turkey is often a bland meat so we’ve developed a tradition of serving it with salty sausages and bacon, sage and onion stuffing and sweet cranberry sauce to give it a flavour kick.

The numerous trimmings have turned the Christmas meal into a challenge for even the keenest cook. Juggling the timings and the various pots and pans requires skills more in line with a restaurant kitchen.

Even in this age of equality, women still take responsibility for the majority of cooking at Christmas in 64 per cent of households but the daunting nature of the feast means most delay their first attempt until the age of 34.

Across Europe, the eating is already underway. In France, Norway and Poland, Christmas Eve is when the big feast takes place with oysters, carp and pike on the menu. The dishes vary from country to country but the emphasis is the same, food to show that Christmas is really special.

This year that matters more than ever. Despite static incomes, spending is expected to be up 2 per cent at Christmas this year. That has nothing to do with prosperity but everything to do with the times we are living through.

From the death of Bowie, to Brexit, Trump, Aleppo and this week’s horrific Christmas Market attack in Berlin, 2016 has been a miserable year for many. What tomorrow gives us is a chance to gather with our nearest and dearest and to celebrate with good food the precious gift of life itself.

Next year may we better or worse but tomorrow we share love and optimism. Wherever and however you spend the day, eat and drink well, and have a very Happy Christmas.