21 November

It’s a date

Way back in January, you sketched out your Christmas schedule but you probably had to guess most of it. Now it’s time to tighten it up. Big bashes (office parties, Girl Guide break-ups) have probably set their dates so, if you haven’t heard, ask.[1] Small events (catching up with neighbours, visiting old friends) quite possibly haven’t been organised yet, so take the wheel and get the date negotiations under way.[2] Flexible events (like dropping a cake off for your aunt in her nursing home)[3] can then be scheduled around those other events.

As you put each date into your calendar, schedule the appropriate work too: if you need to take a plate to the school break-up, block out the evening before to cook;[4] if the neighbours will be meeting at your house for Christmas drinks, allow time for a clean-up (before and after!).[5]

21 nov 2016.jpg

Christmas Day 1970: We tent-dwellers were allowed to stay up past our bedtimes on Christmas night but I think this was intended as a treat for our parents rather than for us: it meant that they didn’t have to deal with the arguments and protestations.

When we finally trundled off to bed, Nanna called out, “Sleep well – you’ll need all your strength tomorrow!”

“Why?” asked Peter, thinking excitedly of lake picnics or tree-house building.

“We’ll be making jam, and I need you to pick the apricots.”

There would be buckets of them, the sun would be hot and the adults would be relentless but we were too tired to give it any thought. Christmas was too special to waste any time thinking of the morrow.

[1] I got an email from my ex-colleague Donna today (the one who couldn’t organise a stationery cupboard). She wanted to know how far ahead you have to book office Christmas parties, which venues I recommend, what kind of package she should be looking for and if she would have to organise extras like tinsel and crackers. I managed to resist the urge to give her misinformation but I did spend a few pleasant minutes contemplating what I could have said to her.

[2] The early bird catches the worm, and the well-organised party planner gets the best dates (and dates are better than worms any day).

[3] Not that I need to do that for Auntie Helen any more.

[4] Or to drop into the supermarket to get chocolate biscuits or cheese crunchies.

[5] My cousin Russell’s party planning includes borrowing an extra recycling bin for bottles and cans. He does this by inviting his neighbour to the party and he also invites a colleague who shares the neighbour’s interest in toy trains because they have such a good time together that the neighbour goes home too late to complain about the noise.

20 November

On impulse


Just the thing for white Christmas?[1]
The shops are starting to fill up with things like these Christmas patty cases, so there you are in the supermarket and you think, “How cute! And only three dollars! I’ll get some!” But resist impulse buying, ask yourself if you’d really use them and sleep on it.[2] Three dollars isn’t much by itself, but three dollars every day from now until Christmas is over a hundred dollars and that’s enough to buy something a whole lot better than patty cases.[3]


I went to the craft market today where I bought Gertruda’s lace collar a few months back and was tempted to ask them if I could return it! But that would be unchristian of me (yes, I’m an atheist but I have Christian values) so I resisted.

[1] Wendy is vehement in her dislike of white Christmas so Emma cooked a batch every year to tease her. Emma upped the ante each time by adding increasingly delicious ingredients but ceded defeat once she’d reached slivered almonds, flaked coconut and rum-soaked dried apricots. “If that didn’t tempt her, nothing will,” Emma told me. Wendy said if she was going to be bribed to eat copha, it would take at least a sports car.

[2] Carol has both a positive and a negative section in her shopping list: the left column is must-haves like flour and nutmeg, and the right column is must-not-haves like decorations and chocolate.

[3] You could get a kilo of pom poms, a butterfly net and a pogo stick, for example (which could make for a very interesting Christmas Eve).

19 November

If you don’t like the steady trickle Christmas shop, or if you lack the time on the average day or lack a convenient emporium, then you can do your Christmas shopping in one big bang: allocate a morning (or a whole day) to go to a big shopping centre. Prepare yourself the night before: you’ll need comfortable shoes and a capacious bag and you should read your present list and your ideas through carefully and plan your approach.[1]

Theoretically, it’s still a good idea to get the presents you’re sure about first because you may get inspiration for the people you don’t have gifts for. In practice, this might lead to you walking the length of the shopping centre ten times over so, unless you’re keen for this to be physical exercise as well as a logistic exercise, shop geographically by visiting each relevant shop as you pass it.

Take your goods back to the car whenever they get too heavy[2] and stop frequently, either for food (whether from the food court or your own packed lunch, depending on your culinary and fiscal preferences) or just to do something revitalising (like reading the paper).[3]

Save the receipts – both for your records and in case you need to return anything.

Ready, set, shop!

I bought a really pretty china tea set for Pixie and some lovely wooden farm animals for Poppet. (I don’t know when I’ll see them over Christmas yet but I’ll make sure we meet some time in December.)

[1] My cousin Brian shops online but he still allocates a whole morning for it and he sits down in his study and wanders through web sites until he’s filled his Christmas list. (But he doesn’t wear comfortable shoes … or anything at all. He said he did it naked one particularly humid day and found it did such a good job of keeping his teenagers out of his study while he shopped that he has now made it a tradition.)

[2] Ignore this instruction if you travel by bus (and, if you do travel by bus, consider adding a weight limit to your price limit for presents).

[3] Or Snapchatting pictures of horrible items to your brother and threatening to buy them for him for Christmas, as Hannah did last year.

18 November

In print

Polish your letter until it sparkles and then proofread it carefully to catch any mistakes. If possible, ask someone else to proofread it too (since it seems to be impossible to catch all of one’s own errors)[1] and then format it attractively.[2]

Finally, print out the right number of copies of your letter and remember to do one for your archives.[3]


The office Christmas party plans are beginning to crystalise: it’s wassail and fruit punch with a “King Winter” theme and we’ll decorate with the holly and ivy that I still have way too much of in my backyard. We’ll describe the food as “medieval” and it will be bread and cheese and pickled onions (which means it could also be described as “cheap”) leaving the bulk of the budget for the wassail.

[1] Which, unfortunately, seems to be true in life in general as well as in writing.

[2] Having too much text to fit on two pages is not a cue to use a tiny font: it’s a cue to cut.

[3] Or not. Carol’s hoarding mother has carbon copies of every letter she wrote in her youth and, although these may potentially have historical value one day, the copies of every bill she has ever received have less narrative interest.

17 November

The other red hat

You will remember that Julenissen are the gnomes who deliver Christmas presents to children in Norway (see 8 August). They are very fetching in their grey clothes with their white beards and pointy red hats and they are infiltrating the world of craft: if you’re handy with a needle, you can find patterns to make Julenisse from felt, from cloth, from wool and even from pinecones.[1]

So, if you’re sick of decorating with reindeer, consider Norwegian gnomes. (Plague proportions of anything tie in well with the Christmas spirit of abundance.)

The gname of this gnome is Julenisse.

Matthew rang me today.

“Why don’t we invite Auntie Gwen and Susan to Christmas dinner?” he said.

This is such a good idea that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it myself earlier in the year. So I rang them and they accepted and Auntie Gwen also said that Susan will have finished her chemo well before Christmas and she should be able to enjoy food again. (I must find out what her favourite dishes are.)

So, although I would have been distraught to find myself down to four for Christmas just a week ago, today I am positively delighted that we’ve doubled the guest list overnight! (How many desserts can you justify for four people? Surely at least three.)[2]

[1] This is a waste of pinecones (but so is everything else that involves pinecones and paint).

[2] I’ve been parsimonious with sugar for the whole year: I think I’ve earned three desserts on Christmas Day!

16 November

Ginger bread beer

In my opinion, soft drink comes straight from Satan: the only thing in it that could be considered food is sugar – and we all get too much of that – and there’s quite strong evidence that sweet drinks contribute significantly to obesity[1] but if there’s a time it’s appropriate to drink pop, it must be Christmas.

You could consider making your own ginger beer. It doesn’t have significantly more food value[2] but you can at least avoid the foam inhibitors and artificial flavourings of commercial soft drink. Children will usually find this fun (and you can turn it into a science lesson) and the ginger beer is good as a mixer, both in punch (see 16 July) and in cocktails.[3] In fact, it’s useful enough to be a good addition to a hamper.  So here’s my father’s recipe:

Ginger beer


Makes 10 litres

Preparation time 1 hour

Start 1 to 2 weeks ahead

2 lemons

1 knob of ginger (approx. 120g)

10 litres water

1 kg sugar

3.5g dried yeast

Peel the lemons and slice them thinly. Cut the ginger into thin slices and bruise with a rolling pin.

Put the sugar in a large vat and add the lemons and ginger.

Boil 1 to 2 litres of water, pour into the vat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool.

When cool, add enough cold water to make the volume up to about 10 litres. Sprinkle the yeast on top, cover with a clean tea towel and leave it at room temperature to ferment.

The ginger beer will be ready to bottle when the fermentation has caused all of the solids to float to the top, and the drink is peppered with small bubbles. (This takes about a day in summer, and about a week in winter.)

Strain the ginger beer into plastic soft drink bottles[4] and let stand again. When the bottles are tight (after about 3 days in summer), open a bottle carefully and taste the product. If the flavour is right, refrigerate all the bottles and then drink your delicious ginger beer at your leisure.


I rang Matthew yesterday, once I got myself back together.

“It’s just going to be you and me for Christmas,” I explained.

“We could go to a restaurant if you like,” he said.

“Over my dead body!” I replied.

“Then we’ll stay home and be merry anyway,” he said.

But I don’t know how I’m going to reorganise the menu. I rang my butcher and said. “Bill, cancel those two size thirty-six turkeys and put me down for one size twenty.”

“How many are you feeding?” he asked.

“Two,” I said.

“I could do you a nice turkey breast roast,” he said.

“It’s a whole bird or nothing,” I replied. “Don’t worry, I have plenty of recipes for leftover turkey. And please swap my four-kilogram ham for the smallest you’ve got.”

He offered me pre-sliced ham, but I wasn’t having any of that. Not for Christmas!

So that’s the meat sorted (all the way through to February, I think!) but I currently have five desserts on the list and you just can’t justify that for two people, but how can we not have pudding and trifle and cheesecake and fruit salad? It’s still Christmas, even if there are only two of us.

[1] Even the ones with low-cal sweeteners.

[2] It does have lemon in it but not enough to stop you getting scurvy.

[3] Moscow mule = vodka + ginger beer + mint leaves + lime wedges (and absolutely nothing equine).

[4] The plastic can take a surprising amount of pressure, thus avoiding the back-cupboard explosions that were all too common in the days that my father kept his ginger beer in glass. The bangs startled guests and were a waste of bottles, soft drink and time (because it took a while to clean up the mess) but Dad said he enjoyed the frisson of danger he felt whenever he approached the cupboard.

15 November

China check

How many people are you feeding at Christmas? Do you have enough plates? What will you do if not? Buy more? Borrow some?[1] Mix different sets? Is there anything you could adjust? Are the kids small enough to use salad plates? Would they prefer festive plastic plates?[2]

15 nov 2016
Christmas assortment.

Also check your cutlery, and glasses and if you don’t have enough, I can probably lend you some of mine, because Wendy rang me last night and said, “Janet, you know our cruise?”

Of course I do.

“We set sail on the twentieth. I’ve just found out.”

“The twentieth of January? How’s that going to get you back for first term?”

“The twentieth of December. We’ll be away for Christmas.”

I was aghast.

“I told you Gertruda was devious! And I can’t say no now. Everyone is looking forward to it so much – and it is a tropical cruise. I don’t want to miss it either.”

Do you know who that leaves on my guest list for Christmas dinner? Just Matthew and me. I confess I cried, but it wasn’t for the loss of the splendid Christmas I’ve been looking forward to, it was because my whole family seems quite happy to do without me. But crying doesn’t change anything, so I eventually pulled myself together and started to recut my plans. (We won’t need the extension for the dining table. In fact, we could use the little table on the porch and still have plenty of room for water jugs and walnuts. And crackers: I made fourteen, so we can have seven each. How festive.)

[1] My friend Fiona and her sisters couldn’t decide who should get their mother’s dinner service when she died, so they split it. This meant that none of them had enough dishes for even a weekday dinner so they all went out and bought more. Between them, they ended up with three dozen identical place settings so they all borrowed from each other whenever they had a big party. “The initial fight ended up with us working together,” says Jill. “I think my mother would have liked that.”

[2] They can be pretty gaudy, but kids usually like gaudy.