19 September


Yule logs began with the Norse pagans who burnt them to banish darkness and bad luck. By the time the Tudors came along, Yule logs were decorated with ribbons and were also big enough to burn for the whole twelve days of Christmas. Then the French turned the log into a cake – the Bûche de Noël – which is typically a sponge roulade decorated with chocolate icing to look like a branch.

Since December is in the fire danger period, the bonfire version of the Yule log is not likely to be possible for many Australians but there’s always time for cake.

19 sep 2016.jpg
Let’s hope that’s edible fungus.

18 September

Glad wrap

Here are some ideas for handy but not particularly artistic adults (or competent and not particularly artistic older children) to use when making wrapping paper:

  • plum pudding motifs
  • Santas
  • reindeer
  • Christmas trees[1]
  • [2]

People who are both handy and artistic won’t need suggestions. My friend Jill once painted an enormous streetscape of shops and shoppers onto a length of calico and wrapped all her presents in that. And then she made cardboard gift tags that were little silhouettes of the shoppers.[3]

18 sep 2016.jpg
I’ve got it taped.

Christmas Day 1970: Now that the dishes were finished, Brian couldn’t wait any longer and he changed into his bathers. This encouraged all of the rest of us to do so too[4] and then we began twenty minutes of saying, “Can we go swimming now? Come on, that’s close enough!” But the adults were sticklers for the one-hour rule and wouldn’t give us even a minute’s leeway. (How odd that such a strong law has now evaporated away to nothing, and the vacuum has been filled with strictures about neck-to-knee bathing costumes, blockout and staying out of the sun in the middle of the day. We didn’t bother with any of that.)[5]

[1] A good excuse for spangles.

[2] I know it’s recursion but it’s harmless.

[3] Everyone was impressed except for her brother-in-law, who thought his tag was a deliberate and cruel caricature of himself, but he was the sour, paranoid type and his Christmas wouldn’t have been complete if he hadn’t had something to be insulted about.

[4] Matthew didn’t count this change as work!

[5] And fair-skinned Uncle Geoff has had several melanomas removed as a consequence.

17 September

Leaving early

So many people travel home for Christmas that you’re unlikely to get a discount fare around 25 December. In fact, you’re unlikely to get a fare at all unless you book early.

So if you’ve got somewhere to go and you can’t get there under your own steam, make your plans soon and buy your tickets promptly – maybe even today. (And don’t volunteer to bring the Christmas crackers if you’re flying home: they’re not allowed on planes.)[1]

Since many people want to take leave over Christmas, this is worth planning in advance too.[2] There are plenty of workplaces where the early bird gets the worm so putting in your leave request now could ensure you get the days you want.

17 sep 2016.jpg
Christmas Assortment
(left to right, top to bottom)
Fruit and nut
Rum truffle
Brandy custard
Plum pudding
Cranberry sauce
Honeyed carrots
Minted peas
Roast potato
Turkey ripple
Holly berry
Tinsel cluster
Angel fluff

Wendy rang me up quite late last night. She’d just got back from a surprise event that Gertruda had pressed the whole family to attend, which turned out to be the unveiling of the plans for the new Gertruda Rukowski wing at the nursing home in which her friend Mrs Kowalski resides. Wendy said that the facilities will be state of the art and the architect had done a good job of making it a really attractive building, inside and out.

“I presume that cost quite a few Arkleys,” I said. “Does she have enough cash left for groceries?”

“She’s still loaded,” said Wendy. “The point of financing it with her least favourite jewels and paintings was so that she didn’t have to sell any investments and didn’t lose any income. And an emerald or two would have gone into the stipulation that there be Polish-speaking staff on every shift. She told Don that Mrs Kowalski was becoming forgetful, but she didn’t mention that what Mrs Kowalski was forgetting was her English.”

“So she’s building a nursing home wing to help her friend? That’s very generous indeed.”

“Mrs Kowalski has done well out of this,” agreed Wendy, “but this is all about Gertruda: she’s afraid she’ll forget her own English so this wing is her insurance policy.”

“Then it’s a selfish act that benefits others,” I said. “That’s still pretty good.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Wendy. “You haven’t missed out on a diamond brooch and a Fred Williams.”

[1] I am clearly not a criminal mastermind because I do not have a clue how you could blow up a plane with a dozen crackers. The worst thing I could do with them is to read bad knock-knocks to the pilots, but I think they’d be able to withstand that.

[2] This will not be an issue for you if you work in a field with a Christmas shutdown, like most of the construction industry, but it could be a problem if your job ramps up at Christmas, like anything retail. (And if you work as a department store Santa, you can count on working right up to Christmas Eve regardless.)

16 September

A message from the Queen

Here’s yet another of those quaint old customs that lingers on at Christmas when it is past its use-by date on every other day of the year: in my family, we stop what we’re doing around 7pm to watch the Queen’s Christmas message even though we’re all avowed republicans. But Nanna was an ardent royalist so it was part of the program when she ruled the roost and now it’s a firmly established family tradition. It reminds us of pleasant Christmases gone by and it also feels like an ongoing connection to Nanna.

Elizabeth II is now up to her sixty-third Yuletide broadcast. She usually talks about events of the past year and often brings in a religious note and an appeal to the Christian values of the season, but you’re unlikely to actually disagree with her wishes of peace and harmony even if you’re on the opposite side of the politico-theological spectrum.[1]

The Queen’s Christmas message is broadcast on the ABC after the (especially shortened) news at about 7:20pm but you can, of course, catch it on catch-up television after that.

16 sep 2016.jpg
Her majesty, the garden bed.

My colleague Gemma asked me if I knew where to buy amusing biscuit cutters. I certainly do, and I suggested two places in the CBD that will provide her with plenty of choice. and she explained that she was having two new friends around for afternoon tea – two yarn stormers and someone she met at a meeting to save the trees in her local park – and had decided on carrot cake and spiced orange biscuits.

She came back with an aeroplane and a wombat: good choices.

[1] The opposite of a monarchist is probably a republican, but I’m not sure what the opposite of an Anglican churchgoer would be: is it an atheist or a Scientologist?

15 September

Nursery duty

If your Christmas tree will be a living pine in a pot and you don’t already have one, get one soon: prices leap up as early as November but you still stand a chance of a bargain if you step out now. (My cousin Peter got an irresistible bargain one December by buying a potted palm to decorate but, if you want a conifer bargain, shop now.)

15 sep 2016.jpg
Gone to pot.

Here’s what I know about selling books at fetes: keen readers will sift through every book on the table but the reluctant readers won’t even look in your direction and you can’t change either of those groups, so you should concentrate on the middle group. They’ll browse if you make it easy and will buy if they find something that appeals to them so it’s worth sorting the books into categories to persuade sports fans to flip through the footy books and romance readers to rifle through the love stories.

Jill and I sorted all evening and the detective novels and the picture books were easy but we found a lot of doozies.

“Songs of a Sentimental Bloke: poetry or Australian classics?” I called out to Jill.

“Classics,” she replied. “Max Walker’s How to Hypnotise Chooks: sport or humour?”

“Animal husbandry?”

“Hey, I’ve got Know Your Guinea Pig and The Home Farrier in non-fiction: maybe we could have an animal husbandry section!”

We also have a yeast cookery section, a collection of coffee-table books for astronomers, and a whole box of outdated technology manuals. (We’re not expecting to sell any of the latter but people collect the most surprising things.)[1]

[1] My ex-neighbour Gustav collected barbed wire and, apparently, he’s not the only one.

14 September


Although community singalongs are an endangered species outside Yuletide, you can still hear them at Carols by Candlelight. There will be one in your area for sure so do go along – unless you have small children because, in December, it doesn’t get dark enough for candles until way past junior bedtime.[1]

14 sep 2016.jpg
Safe, practical, suitable for total fire ban days… and dull.

Bronwyn was astonished in the supermarket tonight. I kept saying, “Not that brand: it’s full of sugar,” and she’d reply, “But it’s pasta sauce.” Then I’d make her check the number of grams of sugar in a hundred grams of sauce and she’d gasp.

“I aim to eat just one serve of sugar a day—” I began.

“I’m going lower than that: I’m going to zero,” she interrupted. (She has always been very competitive.)

“—and I’d far rather eat my sugar in something that’s supposed to be sweet than to miss out on ice cream because I’ve eaten Barbecue Shapes.”

“Do Barbecue Shapes have sugar in them?” she said. “Don’t tell me I have to give up Barbecue Shapes?”

“I’ve got more bad news for you,” I replied. “Not only are they one percent sugar, they’re also zero percent barbecue.”

Bronwyn just glared at me.

“Be serious,” she admonished. “Diabetes can cause nerve damage and kidney failure and blindness so I don’t have time to joke about barbecues.”

In the end we filled her trolley with sugar-free products and she went home happy (even though I told no more jokes about barbecues).

[1] My friend Jill started organising a little folk’s carol matinee when her kids were small but gave it up when she realised that she really didn’t want to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” even one more time.

13 September

Ticking all the baskets

How are your hampers going? If you know who you’re planning to give hampers to and what contents and containers you already have, you can work out what else you still need and plan how and when you’re going to get it.[1] Perhaps:

  • Do a round of local op shops to get baskets (next Saturday).[2]
  • Cook strawberry jam when your strawberries are ripe (November, with luck).
  • Make flavoured oils (October).
  • Cook lemon butter (December).[3]
  • Get some pretty material to cover the tops of the jars (the week after next).

Because, if you don’t work out soon what you have, what you need and when you’ll get it, you’ll risk your hampers becoming a source of last-minute stress rather than a well-organised breeze.

One final task for today: nominate a date and time for actually assembling your hampers – maybe a week before Christmas? – and write that into your schedule.

This was a surprisingly easy task for me today: In January, I decided to make a hamper for the staff at Auntie Helen’s nursing home, but I no longer need to. (It doesn’t feel like she’s been dead for six months and I still find myself planning to take her a jar of jam or tell her about a family barbecue. I can’t say I mourn the loss of her feeble last days, but I do miss the woman she was before that.)

13 sep 2016.jpg
Jams looking sweet. I’ve got it covered.

I cleared out two whole boxes of my books for the book stall today. (I pick most of them up from fetes and op shops anyway so I have an easy-come, easy-go approach and I only keep those I think have enduring value.)[4] Then I took the books to Jill’s grandson’s Riley’s primary school and found that they had a shelter shed set aside for jumble and there were already several other boxes of books stacked up, so I will recommend to Jill that we do some preliminary sorting: there’s no way we’ll be able to get through them all on the morning of the fete.[5]

[1] As a young man, my colleague Murray lived near an underwear factory outlet so he made hampers of underpants for all of his family – which might have been received well had he got the sizes right.

[2] My sister Wendy drops into her local op shop before she goes to the supermarket because she says they often have lemons. (This is probably the reason she has so many novelty cake tins. She can’t resist a fifty-cent butterfly shape and the cooking equipment is right next to the lemon basket.)

[3] You might be able to get the lemons from your local op shop (and put it, your strawberry jam, your chilli oil and a fancy spatula in a butterfly cake tin to round it all off).

[4] And enduring covers: disintegrating paperbacks aren’t worth shelf space.

[5] Well, maybe we could if we got up at 2am, but I have my limits.