Tell the killjoys to get stuffed and eat more than your fill on Friday

TOMORROW and on Friday we will brave the busiest travelling days of the year to be with our families, or they come to us depending on whose turn it is to host. It’s as if the whole country stands up in a mass game of musical chairs, everyone scrambling to land somewhere, somehow at a table with a turkey and a plum pudding.

But come Saturday morning, many of us will be examining our waistlines in the mirror for evidence of overindulgence. Christmas gluttony tends to induce guilt in the best of us and this weekend the newspapers will be on hand preaching penitence and featuring diets designed to redeem us from one mince pie too many.

Of course, at exceptional extremes, excessive eating can inflict obesity, squeeze the heart and play havoc with our blood sugar levels. But is gluttony necessarily such a bad thing?

The Christian church seems to think so. The Book of Proverbs, Chapter 23, is pretty unambiguous: “Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.”

For Catholics, although there is no definitive list of the mortal sins, many believers accept the broad Seven Deadly Sins laid down in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great and popularised in the Middle Ages by Dante in The Inferno: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride.

The punishment for gluttony is supposedly to be forced to eat rats, toads and snakes. That’s not as terrifying as what’s in store for those of us who get angry – being dismembered alive – but it’s unpleasant enough. Catholics are exhorted instead to adhere to the seven holy virtues: chastity, abstinence, temperance, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

For Protestants things are scarcely much easier: “Detestable and hateful all excess in eating and drinking is before the face of Almighty God,” says the Second Book of Homilies which members of the Church of Ireland are supposed to regard as a guide to doctrine. Some of the other denominations stress the evils of drinking – or drinking too much – more than eating too much, but in a broadly Christian culture like Ireland’s, food is as much to be feared as it enjoyed.

On the one hand, it’s true that interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high. We talk about it endlessly and the choice has never been wider. But on the other, fraught with angst, contradiction and confusion, our celebration of food is always somewhat dampened by the popular belief that it is also making us freakishly fat, unhappy and anxious when it isn’t making us sterile.

Is it surprising, therefore, that so many of us feel a bit conflicted about what to eat this Christmas, and in what quantity?

In reality, though, at most levels of indulgence, and by comparison with other forms of naughtiness, gluttony is rather good. Apart from lust, which propagates the species, it is the most useful of the Seven Deadly Sins. Indeed, it has been essential for the survival of humankind and the triumphs of civilisation. It is time to rehabilitate gluttony. We would not be here without it.

Gluttony is a gift of evolution. In the struggle for survival with other animals, human beings have always had two severe disadvantages: feeble bodies and simple digestions. These restrict our cycle of energy production by limiting the range of food sources we can absorb. Big meals are a form of natural compensation, stoking our energy generators with ample fuel. That is why we evolved ways of exciting our appetites: we are the only species which dresses food to make it more appealing to the palate.

Apparently our bodies, moreover, are designed to make the most of our excesses by storing the benefits as fat. On average, the body of a normal, healthy person in the developed world contains relatively more fat tissue than that of a penguin or a polar bear. Whereas most animals concentrate their stores of fat in one or two parts of the body, we have multiple deposits spread generously all around our frames. Human beings, it seems, were designed to be overeaters.

Now someone told me that if you can buy a bar of chocolate and not eat it for seven minutes, then you’re in control of your eating habits. What can I say? I am not. I’m more likely to demolish the entire bar just seconds after buying it.

Most of my gluttony is indeed about food. I sometimes think I’m only truly happy when I’m eating. But I can also be a glutton over other things. I’m greedy about spending time with people – I always want more. I’m a glutton about lying in bed too, especially at this time of year.

So, yes, gluttony is traditionally about food, but it’s also about anything we indulge in to excess. It could be sleep, drink, cigarettes, work, shopping, gambling, television, worrying – anything. But there’s usually something good about the “bad” things we do or we wouldn’t do them. And so it is with food. Apart from cheering us when we’re gloomy and giving us much-needed energy when we’re feeling tired, food is a social lubricant.

Big meals have always been occasions of conviviality and social bonding. As far back as the Stone Age, in that era of abundant game depicted in cave paintings, hunters killed far more than they could eat so the Christmas luncher who takes a wickedly, impossibly big helping is in a great historical tradition.

In ancient Rome it was important for the host to put on a good display of appetite. Legendary feats of eating were computed and celebrated by chroniclers, like tallies of battle victims.

As with other statistics compiled for propaganda, the figures beggar belief.

MAXIMUS the Thracian, the third century Roman emperor, supposedly ate 20 kilos of meat a day. One of his predecessors, Clodius Albinus, was said to consume 500 figs, a basket of peaches, 10 melons, 10kg of grapes, 100 garden warblers and 400 oysters at a sitting.

Pride in big meals continued into the Middle Ages. Emperor Charlemagne persisted in kingly eating in defiance of his physicians’ advice. Even today, awe for excess remains widespread outside Europe and America. When a feast comes round, Pacific islanders pledge to eat until they vomit and in many parts of Africa, fat is the new thin – an indication of high, not low, social status.

But in the west, as well as being urged to tot up the calories, the fats and the carbohydrates, we’re implored to feel bad about the origin of our Christmas lunch. How local is it? How many trace chemicals does it contain?

There is a vast army of moralists, dieticians and fashion gurus who want to ruin your Christmas lunch for you, nagging you into frugality. But can this formidable array of forces reverse evolution and history? I doubt it. Gluttony has a powerful pedigree.

So eat on this week and ignore the killjoys. You may feel bloated by the end of it, but content yourself with the knowledge that your battle with your waistband is part of an historic contest.

Merry Christmas.

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