As most of us get older we lose touch with the holiday traditions of our childhoods. Our parents put our stockings into storage, we don't have the time or drive to decorate our apartments, family gatherings around the fire are replaced by drunken, sloppy parties with our ironically sweatered friends. This separation from Christmas is at least partially conscious, at least for me—thanks to the internet, I can shut myself off in a customized cultural bubble by way of a practice that a marketing company might call "curating your life." If I don't like pop music or sports or Christmas, I can strip these things from my various feeds. Even if the rest of the country is dressing exclusively in red and green and going caroling, I can keep living like it's October. Maybe Wham!'s "Last Christmas" is playing on the radio and commercials are trying to induce panicked shopping, but—at the risk of sounding like a particularly Brooklyn brand of asshole—I don't own a radio or a TV, and all that stuff is surprisingly easy to avoid.
Call it Seasonal Disaffected Disorder: It might be the most wonderful time of the year, but I don't feel any different.
This year, however, I wanted to reconnect with the Christmas spirit that hovers over America every December like a haze. I didn't want to deal with the music or the shopping or that stuff about the guys who traveled hundreds of miles to take a look at a stranger's baby. I was going to experience Christmas through my stomach: For a week, from Wednesday morning until Tuesday night, I'd eat nothing but Christmas food. I reasoned that if seven days of fruitcake, eggnog, and spiced ham couldn't restore my holiday cheer, nothing could.
(I realize "Christmas food" is a pretty vague genre—basically I decided that it encompassed everything that you don't eat except when in proximity to December 25. This included all sorts of snack foods sold in Christmas packaging, from seasonal beer to red and green tortilla chips. Corporate branding is a critical part of Christmas, behind Jesus but way ahead of myrrh.)
The initial day was a struggle. After a night of drinking I didn't have time to stock up on appropriate food, and was craving something with more bacon, egg, and cheese on it than the standard gingerbread cookie. I went to Starbucks with the hope of finding a seasonal sandwich. No luck, but I did grab a venti eggnog latte. I also managed to find a pecan-pie flavored granola bar next door, which was actually pretty good.
As lunchtime came I panicked, realizing that I hadn't really thought beyond the "I'll only eat Christmas food" stage of the experiment. A quick google told me that there aren't any Christmas-themed restaurants near the office (if "Christmas-themed restaurant" is even a thing that exists), so I went to a grocery store. It still being early December, its halls were not decked but only lightly dusted with the spirit of the season. I bought a pumpkin pie and a quart of eggnog and picked up my first of many stomachaches shortly afterward.
After a Twitter poll conducted by my editor concluded that green beans are indeed Christmas food, I found a Paula Deen casserole recipe and got to cooking dinner. I paired it with a seasonal beer that tasted like a combination of caramel, Guinness, and malt liquor and went to bed with a brick in my stomach.
For breakfast I had more of the pumpkin pie and an improvised Christmas coffee that included cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. This was as awful as it sounds, and I quickly switched to "share a Coke under the mistletoe" cans of Diet Coke. I went to the drug store at lunch and scored holiday-shaped pretzels and a bag of Utz cheese puffs labeled "snow balls." These white cheddar balls of snow were easily the best thing I ate all week, and possibly all month. It's really gross and corny to call food "addictive" but when you're licking the cheese dust off your fingers and drying them on your pants and swearing that you're done, only to find your other hand's already in the bag, there's not really a better word. I also ate a half-pound of spiced ham, and all the salt gave me a sore on my tongue.
For dinner I had another half-pound of ham.
Have you ever spent a night out on the town and found that, come morning, no matter how much you brush your teeth, you can't get the taste of booze or cigarettes out of your mouth? Well that's how I felt on day three, but with cinnamon. In the afternoon I began periodically feeling drops of cold sweat drip down the sides of my chest, which I found disconcerting.
Despite eating mostly ham and pie for half a week, I'd lost four pounds. I credit this to the fact that even though I was eating awfully, I wasn't really eating that much. It's actually kind of hard to eat a day's allotment of calories in candy without feeling completely sick.
I lucked into a cinnamon- and spiced pear–flavored Greek yogurt, which added some variety to my life. Most Christmas food is an overpowering mess of spice and sugar and salt, a comforting blanket that leaves you slow and sleepy, like a low-grade barbiturate. I'd never before realized how much I was taking the flavor of sour for granted. I ate a Cornish game hen for dinner, and later panicked when I realized that it might not quite count as Christmas food.
After dinner I went to the bar for a friend's birthday party and quickly realized I was in trouble. My stomach felt like I might end up on the bathroom floor, and, more pressingly, I wasn't sure I could find anything to drink. They didn't stock any seasonal beers, so I was left to choose between being the guy who orders a hot toddy at a crowded bar or improvising. I ended up going with a cranberry, orange, and rum punch atrocity that added a headache to my symptoms. After a few of those I went home, bloated and sweaty. I bet Santa Claus feels like that all the time.
The next morning, to make up for my possible missteps, I went to a store in Manhattan that specializes in British food and came away with some mincemeat pies and mini pork pies. I wasn't sure what "mincemeat" was but at this point I craved any kind of variety. I also went to Trader Joe's and bought a six-pound quarter ham. Starving in line, I broke down and ate a pork pie, despite it being lukewarm and tasting disgusting. Later I found out that you're supposed to eat them cold, which is insane. No wonder the British drink so much.
For dinner I cooked the ham alongside some mashed potatoes and green beans and pre-made cranberry sauce. This was maybe the most elaborate meal I've ever made, and I realized that I could have eaten way better Christmas food this week if I wasn't so averse to cooking.
I fell asleep feeling heavy and hot, but woke up excited to eat more ham. I even ate some cold, at eight in the morning, while packing lunch for work. I ate a lot more at lunch and wound up feeling a bit like a ham myself: pink and hot and soaked in saltwater.
Sick of ham and pie, I ate a bowl full of Christmas-themed trail mix (white chocolate, red and green faux M&Ms, cranberries, some nuts) for dinner and drank a few winter beers. At 11, I was hungry enough that I scarfed down another one of the pork pies. Big mistake. I woke up in the middle of the night certain that I was about to throw up, something I swear I never do. The Christmas spirit was desperate to escape my body, but I resolved to trap it in. After 15 tense minutes, I managed to fall back to sleep.
The last day was, somehow, the easiest. By this point I'd basically forgotten that eating used to be a cool way to alleviate boredom. My palate had grown accustomed to the cinnamon barrage. I ate a cranberry "bliss bar" from Starbucks for breakfast and followed that with a venti caramel brûlée latte for lunch, plus a couple of festive cookies that were brought in by the good people at Munchies. Rather than try to improvise a final meal, I decided I'd just kind of starve until I got to break my diet dinner at the VICE holiday party. I ate one last candy cane, gave the rest of my food away, and went off to cut the buffet line at the party.
This is the part where I share what I learn, or describe how many sizes my heart has grown. I can't really do either. Christmas food, like Christmas music, Christmas movies, or Christmas itself, is meant to lull you into an endorphin coma that helps you ride out the worst of winter. It's supposed to be overpowering and kind of gross—the omnipresent spices, the richness of everything, the way you feel sticky on the inside when you've had too much of it.
Maybe what I learned is that overindulgence is bad, or that a balanced diet is really important (my first few bites of post-experiment salad were an immense relief). Or maybe I learned that packaged Christmas food is disgusting and that we only eat it to recapture memories of a childhood when we could put sugary garbage into our bodies without fear of nausea. Or maybe all I figured out is that eating a lot of ham does a lot of messed-up stuff to your body. In any case, my mouth still hurts. Merry Christmas.
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