My dream Christmas dinner would be a packet of prawn cocktail crisps, followed by a packet of roast chicken crisps, topped off with a Freddo and glass of Baileys. That's the spirit of Christmas; that's goodwill to all men; that's comfort and joy.
Christmas in London is an interesting time, when the shining, sleet-streaked streets fall silent, the bins heave with the carcasses of half-eaten meals, pedestrian crossings wink to no one and even Tesco—that cathedral of 24-hour cheese and washing powder—rattles its doors closed for a whole day. But the city is far from shut. For, hidden among the tower blocks and petrol stations, the cash points and the betting shops, the bus stops and the wheelie bins, a network of fluorescent-lit stores will open their doors. The Turkish supermarkets and Polish corner shops, the Sikh-owned newsagents and Vietnamese grocers; on the quietest day of the year, these convenience stores will still be bestowing their convenience on us all.
But what sort of people will be crossing the astro-turf footwells of these neighbourhood sanctuaries? And what do they buy? "It's just our regular customers," says the owner of my local off-license and corner shop. "On the day that Tesco is closed, when everything's closed—there's no buses or nothing—the community finds the small shops very useful. It has changed as more multiculturals have moved in. If they know that we're open, they don't have to stock up on milk, bread, and other food."
I try to assemble a Christmas dinner using only the offerings and baubles on their chipboard shelves. The result is a packet of prawn cocktail crisps, a bag of frozen roast potatoes, a £1.39 turkey sandwich, a bag of frozen peas, and a square of flaccid sausages the colour of prosthetic limbs.
The owner himself is an atheist immigrant, standing behind rows of purple-foiled chocolates and brick-like flapjacks. "We make sure we have plenty of wine and potatoes," he tells me, while serving a local builder called Colin, who will be spending this Christmas heaving bricks and wielding diggers in Berlin (apparently German labourers will not work over the festive period). "On Christmas, the number one thing is Baileys. Some people buy cranberry sauce or mince pies. And of course people buy cigarettes. They buy cigarettes every day."
A Muslim guy in a bobble hat and tracksuit bottoms comes in to top up his electricity meter—does he find it useful that these shops are open on Christmas Day? "I think Christmas should just be for people who celebrate it," he explains, zipping up his coat pocket. "For everyone else everything should just be open. Even KFC."
In a Turkish supermarket round the corner from my house, I try to assemble a Christmas dinner using only the offerings and baubles on their chipboard shelves. The result is a packet of prawn cocktail crisps, a bag of frozen roast potatoes, a £1.39 turkey sandwich, a bag of frozen peas, and a square of flaccid sausages the colour of prosthetic limbs. The whole meal costs little more than £10, but it would still be a reach for those surviving on pensions, jobseeker's allowance, and child benefit—the very people who can't simply drive to the big out-of-town supermarkets and therefore don't have any option other than these local, restricted facilities.
"We stock up on potatoes, spices, and salt," the owner tells me. "We open in the morning, but after about 4 PM it gets very quiet." As the televisions flicker and the sofas sag, the call for last-minute mince pies and black pepper ebbs away like sherry through a carpet.
Instead of the usual offering of turkey sandwiches and oven chips, a Christmas dinner from here would include shelled edamame beans, instant ramen, frozen chicken samosas, and some dried figs for pudding.
A few days later, in a convenience store in Liverpool's Chinatown, the array of sandwiches on offer is slightly more diverse: egg salad, turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, cheese spring onion and the ironically-named "tuna delight." According to the man behind the counter, Christmas Day customers are usually people staying in the city centre hotels—tourists, business people and other Christmas-less nomads on the hunt for milk, bread, and cigarettes. These aren't the harried potato-roasting mothers and port-swilling grandfathers caught short by a couple of key ingredients; they are the international students, the single-portion careerists and the chain-smoking foreign visitors, swept into corner shops by wind, rain, and restricted opening hours. "People with families, who live here, will be celebrating with their families," the shop assistant tells me, from behind a pyramid of dog food and scratch cards.
A newsagent on Bold Street—Liverpool's city centre strip of wholefood cafes, vintage shops and skatewear—has an unlikely cabinet of last-minute Christmas gifts by the door: jewel-encrusted phone covers, One Direction posters, cigarette-shaped sweets, and a Simon Cowell birthday card, you know, for Jesus. Instead of the usual offering of turkey sandwiches and oven chips, a Christmas dinner from here would include shelled edamame beans, instant ramen, frozen chicken samosas, and some dried figs for pudding. I, for one, would be perfectly happy with that. Especially if I could follow it up with a Tuc biscuit and some triangles of soft cheese from the fridge.
In our multicultural, pantheistic, metropolitan cities, the two things that mark Christmas out from the rest of the calendar are food and family. These are the very things that many of us find ourselves lacking when the 25th of December comes rolling around. But while we may not go to church; we may not have a tree; we may be hungover, low on cash, or stuck working a night shift; thanks to our crisscross of cornershops and community stores, we aren't alone.
From the piles of pre-packaged mince pies and chocolate oranges to the huge white tubs of salt and mud-coloured gravy granules; from the bags of frozen peas to the cans of super-strength lager; cinnamon to cigarettes; red wine to white lightning; with all the garlic, semi-skimmed milk, and scratch cards in between, our convenience stores are a reminder that, whatever the adverts say, life goes on. The hungry world keeps turning.
Christmas is only Christmas if you want it.
Otherwise, just make a cup of tea, crack open a packet of crisps, bite into a cold white bread sandwich, and listen to the ticking of the clock.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.