At my Church of England primary school, we were required to produce an annual little piece of earnestness on “The True Meaning of Christmas”. Until recently, Christmas in Catholic countries was not such a big deal. The French, Spanish and Italians marked the feast and gave gifts to children, but the big excitement was Epiphany, Twelfth Night, with bean-cakes and Lords of Misrule evoking Roman Saturnalia, more a rambunctious celebration of anarchy than goodwill to all men.
According to statistics released last year, 2,618,000 people attended an Anglican service at Christmas 2011, that is, approximately 10 million fewer than had watched the John Lewis “Monty the Penguin” Christmas advertisement by mid-November 2014. From which one might conclude that Catholics can afford to be relaxed about Christmas since they got all the other big stuff like art and sins of the flesh, while Protestants have to make do with 19th-century Germanic sentimentalism and department stores.
And since Christmas is the one big sparkly holy razzle that Protestantism encourages, it seems entirely consistent with the Weber-ish truism of the Protestant work ethic that any festive delight should first involve suffering. We revel in the cultural oxymoron of the “relaxed Christmas”; flagellating ourselves with the obligation to produce ambassadorial-scale meals, negotiate with feuding relatives and bankrupt ourselves with exquisitely tasteful gifts. We subject ourselves to the alcoholic squalor of the office Christmas party, take a grim satisfaction in the annual increase in divorce and suicide rates and then feel guilty about getting fat and drinking too much. A blazing row round the blazing fire, then the carbslump in front of James Bond: this is what Henry VIII bequeathed us.
Reflecting on this, I thought that whatever your Christmas rituals are — Dickensian gorge-fest, refusenik takeaway with the telly, carols and tea-towelled cherubs, or non-denominational “holiday” — one seasonal constant will probably involve a visit to John Lewis. I feel about John Lewis the way John Betjeman did about the Ritz: that nothing nasty could possibly ever happen there. It makes me feel safe, and protected, and oddly domestically competent, as though the presence of so much tasteful cookware and ingenious anti-moth gadgets will effect a process of osmosis whereby I emerge as a cross between Nigella Lawson and that nice lady who won The Great British Bake Off. I love the assistants in the beauty halls with their slightly scary Polyfilla-d faces, I love the possibility that I, too, could one day be the sort of person who owns a padded coathanger, and I particularly love the lady in Peter Jones who was so kind the time my daughter threw up in Children’s Shoes. So given that most people’s experience of Christmas shopping does not involve a tasteful waft around a holly-bedecked high street, but a sweaty, nerve-jangling tussle through an overlit, overscented, over-the-whole-bloody-Christmas-and-why-don’t-we-just-get-EasyJet-to-Malaga-this-year department store, I thought I might check out the Oxford Street flagship to see if there was anywhere nice for a soothing spot of lunch.
The food hall in the basement of John Lewis is a shrine to gourmet capitalism. You can pick up salted caramel truffles (salted caramel is everywhere this season), tiny, jewel-like baby salad leaves, and cheeses so rustic and charming that they might have been churned by Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Up on the fifth floor however, it’s still 1977. The Place to Eat is just what it claims to be. It’s not really a restaurant, more of a self-service refuge where you might hope to stave off a migraine with a slice of banana loaf. Here in the land that basil forgot, the ceilings are low and the options limited. The Christmas offering was turkey with roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts and some rather delicious looking chipolatas; you can also have quiche, fish and chips or lasagna, with vegetables or salad. There are many plumptious cakes, and a separate crêperie with sweet and savoury options. There are iced penguin gingerbread biscuits, cashing in on Monty the Penguin (an ad campaign so effective that even a glimpse of the cookie had me in floods) and overflowing baguettes that require genteel slicing.
The couple at the next table, barricaded in by bags of seasonal loot, had gone for the tomato and bacon quiche.
“Is it nice?” asked the wife.
“No,” replied her husband. Pause. “Still,” he added manfully, “best finish it.”
I had the lasagna, with peas on the side for the spirit of the thing. Throughout the store, you can buy authentic Italian delicacies shipped straight from the Peninsula, including panettone, that naked emperor of Christmas pastries. Italians are actually rubbish at cakes, except cannoli, which are really deep-fried cheese rolls: their patisserie tradition comes from the Austrians, but somehow we keep buying panettone, trying to inject our stolid Yuletide treats with a bit of sunshiny Catholic glamour. In northern Italy they force the stuff down at Christmas lunch with custard — “English soup” — but if I want crap dried-out fruitcake I’ll bake my own.
Lasagna, though, is another matter. In Liguria, lasagne are parchment-thin, delicately cocooned in vivid pesto, in Verona it comes as a sturdy tranche of pasta and sausage with an edible shadow of porcini, in Sicily I’ve tried it with shaved golden bottarga, redolent of slightly rank Romanesque garum, in Florence with raspberry-fleshed wild duck. This lasagna was none of those things. It was British Lasagna, basically spag bol with a Cheddar crust, and in its own unassuming way quite lovely, if you like mince. The salt was in those tiny blue packets that used to come with crisps. I tried a squishy gingerbread loaf and a towering Victoria Sponge, and they were lovely too.
At 1pm on a Thursday, the place was packed, but there was something reassuringly English about the way people politely choreographed laden trays and settled themselves with pots of tea. It was placid and orderly and everyone seemed very glad to be sitting down. There was a collective air of penance quietly undergone, of lists crossed off and duty done. The Place to Eat is by no means a temple of gastronomic delight, but for a touch of peace and love, high above the festive frenzy of the city, John Lewis, in this as in everything else, delivers.