festive food shahnaz ahsan yukai du
Illustration for Hyphen by Yukai Du

Happy halal holidays

From streets filled with decorations to supermarket aisles bursting with seasonal treats, Christmas is everywhere — grab a mince pie, turn on the TV and settle in

The complaint that Christmas foods find their way onto supermarket shelves earlier and earlier each year is almost as much a part of British culture as the holiday itself. For me, though, there is something comforting and familiar about this annual grumbling. Faced with multiple unfolding crises and an apparently revolving cast of prime ministers, there is a kind of stability in the knowledge that as soon as the last discounted Easter eggs have been sold, supermarkets will be stocking up with turkeys and Christmas puddings.

Personally, I don’t see the problem with it. If you don’t want mince pies in September, don’t buy them. (I’d happily partake all year round.) But perhaps there is something to be said for reserving certain things for a particular time of the year to make them feel special. Remember how the British fashion house Burberry freaked out about brand damage when everyone’s local market was selling knock-off caps and bags in its signature check for a fiver? Proof that scarcity makes us covet things more.

Take the humble brussels sprout. The fierceness of opinion that these little green guys can invoke is quite astonishing. Love them or hate them, they inspire real passion, at least in part because they are so strongly associated with the most wonderful time of the year. As hardy northern European winter vegetables, they have traditionally been ready just in time to form an integral part of our Christmas dinners. Now,  as the climate crisis places their presence on the table under threat, people are understandably panicking.

No other holiday has anything like the same hold as Christmas over the imagination of the British public.  It seeps into all spheres of life, from school carol concerts and office parties to seasonal TV programming and shops stuffed with festive food. My personal favourite event — and something I now miss as a freelancer — is the annual “work do”. 

While trendier employers may offer their employees a summer BBQ these days, the Christmas lunch is an unparalleled highlight on the office calendar. I love the predictability of the menu choices: turkey and all the trimmings for the traditionalists; roast beef and some sort of jus for the sophisticates; salmon in a lemony sauce for Muslims; goat’s cheese and filo pie for vegetarians; roasted butternut and a side of apologies for the vegans. For dessert, the options are invariably Christmas pudding, mince pies, a cheese plate and, if your employer is a really good ’un, a yule log. Add some funny hats, crackers and maybe even an awkward Secret Santa gift exchange, and how can you not feel festive? An afternoon off work to bond with colleagues doesn’t hurt either. 

Being surrounded by Christmas in public also penetrates the privacy of our homes — even for families like mine, who don’t traditionally celebrate the holiday as a religious occasion. We exchange cards with neighbours, buy special-offer tubs of Celebrations, and soak up the TV reruns of Miracle on 34th Street. Maybe it’s because we’ve fallen victim to the relentless marketing, but maybe there really is something magical about it. I think it is mostly because schools and offices are closed and everyone in the family has time off to spend together — something British Muslims are not guaranteed for their own religious festivals. 

As we all know, every family gathering needs a feast. Enter the legendary Christmas dinner — or rather, the British Muslim take on it. We have always done a version of it. We’ve tried out turkey (too dry); lamb (always a winner), capon (the best, in my view). And, much like our regular roasts, we’ve formed our own traditions along the way. 

My dad insists that not only are brussels sprouts on the table, but that they are prepared in the most English way imaginable: whole with an “X” carved into the bottom of each one, boiled and dressed in salt, pepper and butter. That’s how he likes them. One year I went rogue and shredded the sprouts finely, then sauteed them in olive oil and garlic, seasoned them, squeezed in a bit of lemon and garnished them with toasted almonds. They were delicious, but his face, dear readers. We will not be repeating that again. 

We also have sheep in chadors (a hat-tip to pigs in blankets) made from shop-bought lamb sausage wrapped in puff pastry, bottles of sparkling grape juice, and a jar of Patak’s mixed pickle standing alongside the gravy boat. 

Dessert proves its own thrilling roulette, with the inevitable accidental purchase of mince pies with alcohol, resulting in indignation from my dad, and them quickly being given to a neighbour. Then there’s the confectionery. What is the 600th re-run of The Sound of Music without a giant tub of Quality Street? What says “thank you” to your postie or kid’s teacher better than a Terry’s Chocolate Orange? And what about York Fruits? Those elusive, tender, sugary morsels that only seem to appear at this time of year.

Despite the long history of British Muslims observing the holiday through acts of service to people in need, there are always some Grinches who try to negate this embrace of the holiday spirit. For every Daily Mail headline accusing us of attempting to cancel Christmas (to great success, clearly…), there are the “scholarly” naysayers who preach that we shouldn’t take any part in what is a Christian festival, as if sitting through a primary school carol concert will somehow send us racing to the baptismal font.

Faced with all that, how can we win? I have a pretty good solution and, as ever, it involves food. Get yourself a plate of cheese and crackers, pour a nice cup of mulled apple juice, sit down in front of the TV, relax, and enjoy the adventures of Wallace and Gromit. And don’t worry too much about the festive season coming to an end. Come January, you’ll only have to wait another eight months until mince pies are back in the shops…


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