You might think you know what the Obamas will be eating for Christmas lunch in under a week’s time. You probably imagine their white tablecloth weighed down by a huge roast, accompanied by stuffing, veg, and all the finest trimmings. But you would be wrong – at least, you will be if Malia and Sasha get their way. Because FLOTUS revealed earlier this week that what her daughters really want for Christmas is mac and cheese.
And who can blame them? Macaroni cheese is surely the most glorious dish that has ever been invented. There’s the crispy, salty cheese on top, that if cooked correctly, should be a little bit burnt and crunch under-tooth; there’s the creamy, consoling white sauce that warms you from the inside out; and there’s the serious, stodgy pasta that will induce a restorative nap on the sofa after dessert. And then there are the burnt bits you pick off the side of the dish later on. There is no more indulgent, comforting, nostalgic lunch you can share, and it cuts right to the heart of the true meaning of Christmas. I should know – I eat macaroni cheese for Christmas lunch every year.
Now there are most likely some Christmas fundamentalists out there who believe that this day is only for turkey, sprouts, and other strictly festive fare, and who will see my alternative menu as an abomination. I can understand that. Traditions can have extraordinary power, anchoring you in the history of your family, so you feel that you can almost reach out and touch the hand of the great-great-great-grandmother who trod exactly the same path as you. It is both reassuring and exhilarating to imagine that you are retracing their steps, to feel yourself as the link in the chain with no beginning and no end.
A quick survey of my friends revealed some absolutely brilliant ways to change up Christmas: one enjoys an annual festive spliff with the whole family
That reassurance, that exhilaration – I’ve felt it, and it’s a hypnotic combination. But if you stick too rigidly to the path of previous generations, you might suddenly discover you are trapped by your worship of the past, instead of finding in it inspiration for your present. You might miss out on the value of doing Christmas differently. That’s why, for me, the best traditions are the ones that seem a little bit weird, tweaked by a family's unique and peculiar spirit.
A quick (anonymous) survey of my friends revealed some absolutely brilliant ways to change up Christmas, that I might have to steal and introduce in my own celebrations. One friend told me about a tradition that came about when she spent her first Christmas abroad, and ended up Skyping her family from a much earlier time zone. “I was totally perplexed to find them all quite tipsy and wearing character masks – meerkats, politicians, actresses – and putting on funny voices. It was very confusing initially, as I had no idea which relative was which. We now always have to have masks for a key portion of the afternoon,” she told me. Another friend has, since the age of five, performed her own personalised version of the Queen’s Speech with her sister every year, wearing cracker crowns. She is now 30, and the speech is still going strong. Another exchanges anchovies with her mother – neither can remember where that came from. And finally, my favourite: one friend enjoys an annual festive spliff with the whole family.
Of course, some of the traditional food is definitely worth keeping: I am one of the few who genuinely delights in Brussels sprouts, and nothing gives me more pleasure than watching my mother devour an entire pot of brandy-butter with a spoon and nothing else. But I do think Christmas is so much richer when you don’t have turkey just because you’re supposed to.
So I hope that President Obama listens to his daughters, and inaugurates a new tradition in the White House this year. Malia and Sasha, if you’re reading, here is my mother’s tip for the perfect mac and cheese: “Be prepared to leave it in the oven longer than your recipe says, so that it goes really brown all over the top – not just around the edges.” She’s happy to share her recipe if you like. Then on Christmas Day, my family will be feasting like the President’s, because that’s just how we roll.