As I Please
Tribune, 20 December 1946
An advertisement in
my Sunday paper sets forth in the form of a picture the four things that are needed for a
successful Christmas. At the top of the picture is a roast turkey; below that, a Christmas
pudding; below that, a dish of mince pies; and below that, a tin of s
It is a simple recipe for happiness. First the meal, then the
antidote, then another meal. The ancient Romans were the great masters of this technique.
However, having just looked up the word vomitorium in the Latin dictionary, I find
that after all it does not mean a place where you went to be sick after dinner.
So perhaps this was not a normal feature of every Roman home, as is commonly believed.
Implied in the above-mentioned advertisement is the notion that a
good meal means a meal at which you overeat yourself. In principle I agree. I only add in
passing that when we gorge ourselves this Christmas, if we do get the chance to gorge
ourselves, it is worth giving a thought to the thousand million human beings, or
thereabouts, who will be doing no such thing. For in the long run our Christmas dinners
would be safer if we could make sure that everyone else had a Christmas dinner as well.
But I will come back to that presently.
The only reasonable motive for not overeating at Christmas would
be that somebody else needs the food more than you do. A deliberately austere Christmas
would be an absurdity. The whole point of Christmas is that it is a debauch as it
was probably long before the birth of Christ was arbitrarily fixed at that date. Children
know this very well. From their point of view Christmas is not a day of temperate
enjoyment, but of fierce pleasures which they are quite willing to pay for with a certain
amount of pain. The awakening at about 4 a.m. to inspect your stockings; the quarrels over
toys all through the morning, and the exciting whiffs of mincemeat and sage-and-onions
escaping from the kitchen door; the battle with enormous platefuls of turkey, and the
pulling of the wishbone; the darkening of the windows and the entry of the flaming plum
pudding; the hurry to make sure that everyone has a piece on his plate while the brandy is
still alight; the momentary panic when it is rumoured that Baby has swallowed the
threepenny bit; the stupor all through the afternoon; the Christmas cake with almond icing
an inch thick; the peevishness next morning and the castor oil on December 27th it
is an up-and-down business, by no means all pleasant, but well worth while for the sake of
its more dramatic moments.
Teetotallers and vegetarians are always scandalized by this
attitude. As they see it, the only rational objective is to avoid pain and to stay alive
as long as possible. If you refrain from drinking alcohol, or eating meat, or whatever it
is, you may expect to live an extra five years, while if you overeat or overdrink you will
pay for it in acute physical pain on the following day. Surely it follows that all
excesses, even a one-a-year outbreak such as Christmas, should be avoided as a matter of
Actually it doesnt follow at all. One may decide, with full
knowledge of what one is doing, that an occasional good time is worth the damage it
inflicts on ones liver. For health is not the only thing that matters: friendship,
hospitality, and the heightened spirits and change of outlook that one gets by eating and
drinking in good company are also valuable. I doubt whether, on balance, even outright
drunkenness does harm, provided it is infrequent twice a year, say. The whole
experience, including the repentance afterwards, makes a sort of break in ones
mental routine, comparable to a week-end in a foreign country, which is probably
In all ages men have realized this. There is a wide consensus of
opinion, stretching back to the days before the alphabet, that whereas habitual soaking is
bad, conviviality is good, even if one does sometimes feel sorry for it next morning. How
enormous is the literature of eating and drinking, especially drinking, and how little
that is worth while has been said on the other side! Offhand I cant remember a
single poem in praise of water, i.e. water regarded as a drink. It is hard to imagine what
one could say about it. It quenches thirst: that is the end of the story. As for poems in
praise of wine, on the other hand, even the surviving ones would fill a shelf of books.
The poets started turning them out on the very day when the fermentation of the grape was
first discovered. Whisky, brandy and other distilled liquors have been less eloquently
praised, partly because they came later in time. But beer has had quite a good press,
starting well back in the Middle Ages, long before anyone had learned to put hops in it.
Curiously enough, I cant remember a poem in praise of stout, not even draught stout,
which is better than the bottled variety, in my opinion. There is an extremely disgusting
description in Ulysses of the stout-vats in Dublin. But there is a sort of
back-handed tribute to stout in the fact that this description, though widely known, has
not done much towards putting the Irish off their favourite drink.
The literature of eating is also large, though mostly in prose.
But in all the writers who have enjoyed describing food, from Rabelais to Dickens and from Petronius to Mrs Beeton, I
cannot remember a single passage which puts dietetic considerations first. Always food is
felt to be an end in itself. No one has written memorable prose about vitamins, or the
dangers of excess of proteins, or the importance of masticating everything thirty-two
times. All in all, there seems to be a heavy weight of testimony on the side of overeating
and overdrinking, provided always that they take place on recognized occasions and not too
But ought we to overeat and overdrink this Christmas? We ought
not to, nor will most of us get the opportunity. I am writing in praise of Christmas, but
in praise of Christmas 1947, or perhaps 1948. The world as a whole is not exactly in a
condition for festivities this year. Between the Rhine and the Pacific there cannot be
very many people who are in need of s Liver Salt. In India there are,
and always have been, about 10 million people who only get one square meal a day. In
China, conditions are no doubt much the same. In Germany, Austria, Greece and elsewhere,
scores of millions of people are existing on a diet which keeps breath in the body but
leaves no strength for work. All over the war-wrecked areas from Brussels to Stalingrad,
other uncounted millions are living in the cellars of bombed houses, in hide-outs in the
forests, or in squalid huts behind barbed wire. It is not so pleasant to read almost
simultaneously that a large proportion of our Christmas turkeys will come from Hungary,
and that the Hungarian writers and journalists presumably not the worst-paid
section of the community are in such desperate straits that they would be glad to
receive presents of saccharine and cast-off clothing from English sympathizers. In such
circumstances we could hardly have a proper Christmas, even if the materials
for it existed.
But we will have one sooner or later, in 1947, or 1948, or maybe
even in 1949. And when we do, may there be no gloomy voices of vegetarians or teetotallers
to lecture us about the things that weare doing to the linings of our stomachs. One
celebrates a feast for its own sake, and not for any supposed benefit to the lining of
ones stomach. Meanwhile Christmas is here, or nearly. Santa Claus is rounding up his
reindeer, the postman staggers from door to door beneath his bulging sack of Christmas
cards, the black markets are humming, and Britain has imported over 7,000 crates of
mistletoe from France. So I wish everyone an old-fashioned Christmas in 1947, and
meanwhile, half a turkey, three tangerines, and a bottle of whisky at not more than double
the legal price.