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What Is the Meaning of Christmas Lunch?

Chaloner Woods/Hulton Archive/Getty

This Christmas, you should put more effort into cooking the turkey and less into the mulling the wine—if you believe British symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas, who argued in her 1971 paper “Deciphering a Meal” that food, not drink, is the essence of our social structure, and that Christmas lunch is the most important social occasion of the year. (At least in a mid-century middle-class British household.)

Why are meals so socially significant?

Between breakfast and the last nightcap, the food of the day comes in an ordered pattern. Between Monday and Sunday, the food of the week is patterned again. Then there is the sequence of holidays and fast days through the year… Admission to even the simplest meal incorporates our guest unwittingly into the pattern of solid Sunday dinners, Christmases, and the gamut of life cycle celebrations…. Each meal carries something of the meaning of the other meals; each meal is a structured social event which structures others in its own image.

The recipe for the perfect Christmas lunch? A+2B

A proper meal is A (when A is the stressed main course) plus 2B (when B is an unstressed course). Both A and B contain each the same structure, in small, a + 2b, when a is the stressed item and b the unstressed item in a course. A weekday lunch is A; Sunday lunch is 2A; Christmas, Easter, and birthdays are A + 2B.

Why is the solid part of the meal most important?

The two major contrasted food categories are meals versus drinks. Both are social events. Outside these categories, of course, food can be taken for private nourishment. Then we speak only of the lexical item itself: "Have an apple. Get a glass of milk. Are there any sweets?" If likely to interfere with the next meal, such eating is disapproved. But no negative attitude condemns eating before drinks. This and other indices suggest that meals rank higher

Meals in their sequence tend to be named. Drinks sometimes have named categories: "come for cocktails, come for coffee, come for tea," but many are not named events: "What about a drink? What shall we have?" There is no structuring of drinks into early, main, light. They are not invested with any necessity in their ordering.

Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honored guests…. The meal expresses close friendship.