Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Whoever said Christmas isn't just a day, it's a state of mind, never had to cook the turkey

Tom Kelly loves the build-up to December 25, but after sitting down to the festive bird - complete with his aunt's legendary stuffing - he just wants it to be over

Talking turkey: Tom Kelly feels the pressure as he gets down to the serious business of cooking the Christmas dinner for his family
Talking turkey: Tom Kelly feels the pressure as he gets down to the serious business of cooking the Christmas dinner for his family

How was Christmas for you?" asked the priest during his sermon at Christmas Mass in the Dominican Church in Newry. I felt like standing up and shouting, "Exhausting and back-breaking." Unusual for churches these days, the aisles were nearly full. There is something seriously comforting about going to a church service at Christmas. The incense emerging from the thurible is intoxicating - it seems to make you even smell holy.

Everyone at Christmas - even the Christians - make an effort at being genuinely nice. It's a relief from the begrudgery, grumpiness and gurning that goes on for the rest of the year.

Attendance at Christmas and Easter services just about qualifies most Catholics to remain in the club. So, quite often, there are a number of faces who would look as familiar to the priest as an alien from Mars.

Christmas morning is, for me, the best part of Christmas.

I thrive on the buzz and lead-up to Christmas. I love giving presents and when it comes to giving me something, it's books, books and more books.

Yet, after the main meal, I just want it to be over. I would gladly remove what little decorations I put up. Despite being social, the intensity of family, in-laws and friends can be overwhelming when it's all crammed into just two days.

Maybe we should make more of an effort to stagger visits to family and friends throughout the year, but we are all so busy with work and life commitments that socialisation gets regulated to the third division.

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This year Christmas was more pressurised. I was the host and my family could give a judge on Masterchef a lesson in food criticism.

It's difficult when the baton for Christmas dinner passes from one generation to another. Even more so when the family chef is Delia Smith crossed with Mary Berry.

Neither my sister, brother, nor me have been brave enough to compete with my aunt's stuffing, so she is required to make it and bring it along on Christmas Day.

In our house, its three meats - turkey, ham and roast beef. I am lucky that, in my home, I have two ovens. I think that if any of the Kelly family ever became vegetarian, the pressure-cooker would explode.

Not that I use a pressure-cooker - having once watched one of my aunts struggle to free most of her Christmas dinner from her new gadget. Eventually, it had to be taken to the back garden, where the contents were released onto towels by way of a hammer and chisel. I approach cooking the old-fashioned way - only using my iPad as a recipe book.

I decided that, this year, Christmas Eve would be lockdown day. But to cope, I started with my usual bacon bap and large cappuccino at Church Lane Coffee house in Warrenpoint. Next door is a butcher - Magee's - and, at 8am, the queue was out the door. I felt embarrassed to ask for some sausages and prawn cocktail.

Fortified with coffee, I returned home. Then, the house came under siege by my cleaning-obsessed partner. Marigolds, Dettol and polish everywhere.

Floors, toilets and bizarrely showers are cleaned to the point of sterility. Our Christmas guests are unlikely to take a shower, but in that unlikely event occurring, ours is prepared. This is an example of the additional work we give ourselves at Christmas.

Then, it's the table layout and decorations. Being left-handed, married to a leftie, we always lay it out wrong. (Thankfully, my family discretely re-arrange.) I doubt if Michael D Higgins had a more lavish table at the Aras.

This year's colours were co-ordinated with the full-sized black-and-chrome jukebox that stands in the dining room. The jukebox was part my coping strategy for the day, with everything from The Dubliners to Queen blasting around the house.

In order not to be judged by the awesome culinary skills of my soon-to-be-octogenarian aunt, I slightly amended how I would treat the various meats - the roast was coated in truffle pesto, the ham cooked with maple syrup, cloves and cinnamon and the turkey wrapped in prosciutto and white burgundy added to the stock. My trifle was made with Amaretto. And I peeled enough potatoes to feed a regiment.

What is always a moot point about surviving a Christmas preparation is at what time is it appropriate for the cook to have a drink? I must admit that, for me, it's the old naval guidance: the sun has to be past the yardarm. After that, it's fair game. No wonder so many ships collide, though.

It's so tiring doing preparation. When the actual day arrives, it's often an anti-climax. It's a day that races by from the minute you get up until your guests leave.

Alcohol doesn't play a huge part of a Christmas at home - the food is centre stage. Despite all the basting during the roasting and the careful measuring and testing of temperatures, the real proof of success is the patriarchal pronunciation that he is full.

That achieved and cook can finally relax and listen to the embarrassing stories of your childhood that get repeated every year with renewed embellishment. Then the dreaded clearing-up. Even with a dishwasher, it takes hours. But the Christmas show moves on. We become the guests at the in-laws and my siblings take my culinary labours to their homes to host on St Stephen's Day.

They say Christmas isn't just a day, but that it is a state of mind - whoever said that never had to cook at Christmas.

It's not my turn to cook again until 2020 - far enough way to forget aches and agony.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph


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