If ever there were a Christmas to fantasise about, it’s this one. The wish list is so simple, yet so unachievable. No pandemic. All my family together. Everyone healthy, happy, talking over each other in the way that we have since time immemorial. And not a face mask in sight.
Still, if we can’t have that, then we’re going to have to go big. Decadent. Luxurious. Eat, drink and talk so much that it’s good you only do it once a year. So here we are at the candlelit Frick Collection on a snowy night in New York City. My favourite gallery has been turned back into a private residence — masterpieces included — as my Christmas present, and the first two guests are already hammering impatiently on the door.
Stories — and the ability to tell them — are crucial to any dinner party but especially at Christmas, so I’ve asked some of the best in the game. Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, sweeps into the room, totally at home amid the trappings of gilded-age New York, given she has made skewering them her life’s work. She is in full flow with novelist and critic James Baldwin, already plotting her next flit to Paris and soliciting his recommendations.
I know these two Europhile Americans will have more than enough to chat about so I direct them to the garden court, where Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1976 is circulating. The waiters are the stars of The Muppet Christmas Carol — the best of all festive creations — although Rizzo has already dropped a tray.
The next knock at the door is a confused cabbie who’s had the misfortune to pick up Moses. Clearly every Christmas dinner needs a bit of religion and who has better tales to tell than this Old Testament prophet? No one’s going to beat “and then the bush caught on fire and spoke to me” unless it’s being handed the Ten Commandments. And right now, we could all use some advice about wandering in the wilderness — though he’s still complaining about the traffic on Fifth Avenue.
I manage to corral the lot of them into the west gallery. There, under the gaze of Rembrandts and Turners, we sit down for the main event. The chef, as ever, is my husband (sorry, love) and he’s made beef Wellington, grilled Brussels sprouts and the most melting of dauphinoise potatoes. On the table glitter decanters filled with the king of wines: a Chateau Musar. Moses perks right up.
In hurry my last two guests, deep in conversation. Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse showrunner behind programmes such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, who has given me so much joyful escapism on screen. And the woman I was named after but never lucky enough to meet, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The daughter of Teddy Roosevelt — who famously said, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both” — she is the epitome of a rule-breaking, poetry-loving bad-ass and is being brought up to date on the election results by Rhimes.
The conversation surges as the wine goes down — and the competitive storytelling is soon at full throttle. Baldwin, wryly amused, is humouring Moses down the end of the table; I hear snatches of conversation — “and then she threw me in the Nile”.
Alice, the legendary owner of a pillow embroidered with the words “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit here by me,” is having a grand old gossip with Rhimes and Wharton about power, politics and the possibilities of an unsympathetic heroine.
We take a brief break while Gonzo Charles Dickens clears dinner, heading towards the melodious strains of one of the world’s best voices. This is wafting from the library, where Nina Simone is in full swing, accompanied by Handel. My very specific instructions about recreating my family’s rowdy Chrismukkah singalong have been ignored in favour of the classics — Handel’s eyes are on stalks. He’s clearly rethinking his next oratorio.
Soon we’re all piling back in for the grand finale. The table is covered in sweetmeats and satsumas. Maple brazils, sugared almonds, Bendicks mints, dark chocolate, milk chocolate . . . but no — and I would like to be very clear about this — crystallised fruits. Christmas pudding is also on the blacklist: instead I want a proper, decadent chocolate bûche de Noël made by my mother-in-law, with the sweetest of chestnut fillings and lavish gold dusting on top.
Muzzy with sugar — and the Negronis that Bob Cratchit Kermit just brought from the kitchen — we settle down for some poetry and toasts. Longworth requests verse after verse recited from memory but Baldwin is a match for her.
Then, all too soon, the party is winding down. Moses is asleep under the Whistler portraits. Baldwin and his great friend Simone are exchanging presents. I reject the temptation to nick Holbein’s scheming Thomas Cromwell, aware that my lease on the gallery of dreams is nearly up.
It’s time for the last toast of the night and all of us, united across the centuries, know what this one should be. To absent friends. Merry Christmas.
Alice Fishburn is editor of FT Weekend Magazine and deputy editor of FT WeekendFollow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.