“I come from a complicated background. I’m Jewish and my wife is Icelandic, and we celebrate it with an enthusiasm that only atheists can conjure. I spent a long time creating a decent Christmas for kids, intellectually reputable and one we are actually allowed – by them – to throw. We hit on a good formula, I believe – Jewish enthusiasm, Icelandic homeliness, French food and German music.
I’m sufficiently Alexandrian to believe it’s completely legitimate to love the Christmas for the miracle of birth without making it hostage to one church or sect. It’s an invention of Gospel of Luke, and is central to his imagination as our version is to ours. Outsiders are always more passionate about rituals than those who supposedly created them, and no more so than in the case of the Jewish Christmas. My dear friend, New Yorker contributor and career Englishman, Anthony Lane accusing me of having a collection of Christmas music that only a Jew could love, but, of course, Christmas predates Christianity; and Hannukah has been inflated and promoted by Jewish parents who don’t want their children to miss out on the staggering over-abundance. At the core of both is a simple idea that at the darkest time there is possibility of light, and for both we have an impossible event to celebrate, either the birth of a perfect child or a lamp that never ends.
"I’m sufficiently Alexandrian to believe it’s completely legitimate to love the Christmas for the miracle of birth without making it hostage to one church or sect"
The habits of the Icelandic Christmas – and the entire nation – can be understood with two facts: Icelandic manners are based on the idea that one should always be sure that you are not offending anyone on the planet alive or dead, and that murderously strong coffee be drank at all times. So, from six in the morning until midnight, thick black coffee is drank, which results in an incredibly energetic homeliness. This is evidenced in our house, with our choice of lights – my wife prefers homemade and coloured lights, but for me, they can neither be bright enough or artificial enough. Or perhaps in the games we play, all predicated on the cause that there are no winners or losers.
I love to cook. For food, after living with my wife in Paris for many years, I enjoy making roast capon, a castrated rooster. It’s big but not tough, and you can make your own joke about that. We follow that with vínarterta, an Icelandic Christmas cake that is the very, very distant cousin of a Viennese layer cake – it is almost as though one Icelandic person in the mists of time heard about someone whose friend’s girlfriend’s aunt went to Vienna and tried a cake, and recreated it enthusiastically in Reykjavik. I’ve always preferred it to the English dishes of plum pudding and hard sauce, which I try and fail to enjoy every year. I have never once in my life enjoyed eating plum pudding and hard sauce. Why is it that at Christmas we endure eating food we would never choose to eat otherwise? Well, there are two answers to that question. The first is that the English as a people – and I say this as a committed Anglophile – cannot enjoy something where there is no discomfort. Jumpers should be a little scratchy. A good day must have a little rain. It doesn’t make for the finest cuisine, but perhaps it is an admirable take on life rather than the pleasure-seeking of the French, a rather infantile version of which we have in America. The second is that all traditions need hardship – it’s where the mystique lies, and it’s essential to them being traditions. It is not a tradition if it makes sense!
"My wife prefers homemade and coloured Christmas lights, but for me, they can neither be bright enough or artificial enough"
For music, I believe Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to be the finest pieces of music ever written. It’s unsurpassed in terms of its emotional drama and scope – from elation to melancholy to reconciliation to elation once more, all human life is there! And speaking of reconciliation, though this film has none of the critical favour of something like Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, it seems that Love, Actually is gaining currency as the nation's go-to Christmas film in a way that is very interesting. For it is inherently a film of multiple strands and discussions of reconciliation – between lovers, friends and families. And the voice of Louis Armstrong is essential – everything he sang, no matter how schmaltzy, he made into human and beautiful event.”
Adam Gopnik is a Canadian-born staff writer of the New Yorker. He spent five years corresponding for the magazine from the French capital, and his pieces were collected together in a bestselling volume “Paris To The Moon”. He has also written a joint biography of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (who were, interestingly enough, born on the same day in 1809) and a children’s novel about the fictional city U Nork called “The Steps Across The Water”, but his most recent book is a biography-cum-love-letter to our current season, “Winter”. Taken from his 50-year anniversary Massey Lectures, he’ll be discussing the book and his love of the cold months at London’s Southbank Centre on Sunday.
Adam Gopnik will discuss Winter at 2pm this Sunday, December 9, at The Southbank Centre. Click here for tickets.
Text by Charlie Robin Jones
Charlie Robin Jones is the editor of Dazed Digital