Bah Humbug!

The Critic's Notebook: The Holidays Are for Amateurs

Want to celebrate? Do it another time.

By Alice Levitt November 27, 2017

Shutterstock 89145496 atclgo

She wishes she'd waited for a better dinner.

Image: Shutterstock

I promise that I will write about things to cook and eat for Christmas, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and your name day. In fact, a chunk of our staff has already put together a most Houstonian holiday dinner for you, with recipes, based on favorites from the city's best restaurants in our November issue. But with just as much certainty, I'll be wincing a little bit when I do it. That's because, as someone who eats for a living, I think you're doing it wrong.

Guess what? That holiday meal at a big-name restaurant is almost certainly composed of regular items at a prix-fixe mark-up. Like Black Friday sales, the special-ness is an illusion. Want to have a really special night? Get together with your loved ones another time. Your feelings for each other won't evaporate like Cinderella's coach and gown. If they do, maybe you should reconsider having them in your life at all.

The truth is, unless everyone is local, you're putting undue financial pressure on people you care about to travel at the priciest (and likely most stressful) time of the year just to eat a meal that A) Isn't seasonal by necessity anymore, and B) Is only pinned to that time because of a parade in New York. Here's what we do know about the "original Thanksgiving": It did take place in November, so we've got that right.

But beyond that, there's not much to say. There's no menu handily handed down like the final night on the Titanic, so we can only guess what people ate, and it didn't include mushed-up yams with marshmallows on them or green beans buried in cans of cream of mushroom soup. The reason we don't know any of this was no one thought a holiday was being established. That didn't happen until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens" to brighten spirits a bit during the Civil War.

Christmas? Scholars believe that Jesus was likely born in autumn—our December celebration descends from ancient Rome's marking of Saturnalia, essentially a harvest festival. December 25 didn't become a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. The start of the new year? Another construct. Don't forget, the Gregorian calendar that we use wasn't invented until the late 16th century and other cultures, including observant Jews and east Asians, mark the new year at a different time altogether. To Jews who make a big deal out of Hanukkah, remember that it's a minor holiday that we only emphasize because it's close to when the rest of the country celebrates Christmas.

I'm not saying not to gather with family and dear friends. I'm just saying that there isn't really any reason to do it at prescribed times. In fact, waiting a week or two is perfect. Restaurants are likely offering discounts and other incentives to get butts in seats during a January when people are pinching pennies (and waistlines) after splurging at Christmas. This is the time for consumers to get the upper hand. If you're jonesing to cook at home, grocery stores won't be overrun by once-a-year cooks once the holiday onslaught is over and they'll likely have deals, too.

And the truth is, I'm not particularly fond of our prescribed holiday dishes. I've never developed a taste for mashed potatoes that aren't mostly butter, garlic and cream, and I don't crave turkey even when it isn't the desiccated disaster most grandmothers proudly proffer. Christmas ham? Just hand me a piece of cake—it probably has less sugar. And of course, the pressure to overeat on those days just seems insane given the physical shape most of our countrymen are in.

But more than that, I say to keep this in mind: When you want to celebrate those close to you, do it. It doesn't have to be pinned to a birthday, national [insert food here] day or any other celebration based on someone else's invention. Love exists every day and food (hopefully) exists every day. My advice is to feast when you feel it, and dine on what you desire.

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