21 October

Make the cake

If you like fruitcake and if you are planning to cook one, the time has come. You could also cook small fruitcakes for Small Presents:

  • You can decorate a small fruitcake with a single star cut from royal icing with a biscuit cutter[1]
  • Or you can go crazy piping lace and making sugar Father Christmasses, if that’s your thing[2]
  • Or you can skip icing entirely and instead push almonds and glace cherries into the top of the cake in an attractive pattern[3]

But do remember that fruitcake is not universally popular: those who love it will be delighted[4] but don’t waste it on those who don’t.

Nuttier than a fruitcake.

Christmas Day 1970:  Aunty Betty had forced Nanna to have “a little lie-down” and Nanna came back refreshed and ready for carols. She was a fine musician (and had been a piano teacher for most of her life) and she and Auntie Betty and Uncle Jim were particularly good singers so the result was well worth listening to. But it wasn’t about listening: it was about participation, so we all formed a rousing chorus and took turns in choosing our favourite carol. (This is why I still know all the words to “As with Gladness”[5] (Nanna’s favourite) even though you never hear it in the malls.)

[1] This may be the first time you use your star cutter this festive season but it won’t be the last.

[2] My Auntie Pat topped her cake with a pile of icing presents under an icing Christmas tree one year… and telegraphed what she was giving to her children because she modelled them from life.

[3] Or an unattractive pattern. I think you could do a skull quite effectively.

[4] I make one for my friend Jenny every year and she makes a stollen for me which works well for both of us.

[5] I believe this just means “Gladly” but the lyricist clearly preferred scansion to clarity.

20 October

Christmas in November

November is the best time to buy Christmas presents because:

  • The shops are full of stock but empty of shoppers
  • If you need to order something in, there’s plenty of time to do it[1]
  • If you buy from afar (online or old-fashioned mail order), the parcels will arrive in good time
  • It leaves December free for the tasks that can’t be done early
  • If you’re a competitive person, you’ll derive pleasure from the envious faces of middle-aged women when you tell them that you’ve already finished your Christmas shopping

So today’s the day to review the present list that you wrote in January, adding new loved ones and deleting those less loved (or less alive)[2] and to adjust your budget for those changes and for any changes to your finances.

20 oct 2016.jpg
Deck the malls with boughs of holly.

Christmas Day 1970:  Peter, Bronwyn, Michelle and I played Bronwyn’s new board game, “The Game of Life”. At various points, you spun the wheel to see if you’d have another baby and if the numbers were in favour, you added a blue or pink peg to your six-seater car and we had great fun in naming our plastic offspring. I went for a Famous Five theme and had George, Julian and Dick, (the latter being the source of much mirth) Michelle thought she was sophisticated with Algernon and Beatrice, and Bronwyn got festive with Noel, Christian and Rudolph.[3]

[1] My friend Fiona’s brother-in-law Tim tried to buy a foot spa for his mother in mid-December and, although the shop promised they’d have it for him by the 23rd, he got anxious and ordered a pair of fleecy slippers for her online, and then got anxious about the slippers making it through the Christmas mails in time, so he bought her a foot care hamper at his local chemist and so ended up with three presents on Christmas Day (and she said that what she needed now was more feet).

[2] I’m adding baby Mia and subtracting Auntie Helen and I’m also adding Danni, both because it looks like she’ll still be with Jeremy at Christmas and because I really like her. (She has just taken up knitting and I know a beginner’s knitting book that she’ll love.)

[3] The rules said that if you ended up with more than four children, you should just jam them into your car like you do in real life, which was true at the time and I remember lots of trips with at least ten people in a car, but is decidedly not true anymore when a kid in a car seat takes up more room than an adult, and the number of passengers is limited by the number of seatbelts (but please don’t think I’m pining for better days: we kill fewer people in car crashes today and that’s much better).


19 October

Saling away

The first Christmas sales start poking their heads above ground about now. So remember the keys to making them work for you:

  • Do buy items that are genuinely cheap and exactly right.[1]
  • Don’t buy items that you’re not sure about or if there’s any chance that the recipient will get them for themselves before Christmas.
  • Don’t go over budget.

Also, make a note of the dates of the sales of your favourite shops as they occur:[2] it’s possible they’ll do it again at about the same time next year and then you can be ready and waiting.[3]

Might be Ho Ho Hokum.

Ben has got the job he applied for at Palmer & Sons. He texted me to say thanks for my advice but since all I said was “Don’t mention cake rosters” and he was being interviewed for a technical IT job, I think he would have been safe anyway.

[1] Shouting “Hooray!” and doing a victory dance are optional but understandable.

[2] Discreetly, if necessary. When my niece Emma heard that her hairdresser would be having a half price sale of her favourite salon products, she wrote “Buy Hair-Raising Experience” on her calendar and her boyfriend feared the worst.

[3] But don’t go to the extent of sleeping in a deck chair on the footpath the night before: when my nephew Ben’s friend Manuel did that to be the first to get some technical gadget, he fell off the chair and sprained his thumb so badly that he had trouble using the gadget for a week afterwards.

18 October

Fully booked

I love books[1] and even though the average person is reading less and less on paper, I still think books are a good present for many people:[2]

  • Hearty readers are always looking for something new in their favourite genres
  • Occasional readers usually enjoy the most popular books in their favourite genres
  • Children can be nudged in new directions with classics (ancient and modern) well matched to their current reading level
  • Many people like reference books on their favourite subjects[3]
  • Although there are plenty of dismal funny books around, there are also some that will genuinely amuse at least half the people at your Christmas gathering.[4]

So start checking out book reviews and also check the latest prize winners (Booker and Hugo and Stella and Miles)[5] if you’ll be shopping for anyone with a literary bent.

18 oct 2016.jpg
Look! A book!

I broke the budget news to the social club committee today. It didn’t go down well and Adam in particular was bitterly disappointed. He floated the idea of the guests making a co‑payment and I have at least persuaded him to survey the staff to find out if that’s feasible. (Why should I say no to him if I can get the massed workforce of Watson and Smythe to do it instead?)

[1] You might have guessed this already. I’d be unlikely to have near lethal quantities of books, jammed into as many bookcases as I can jam into my hallways and still be hungering for the lesser-known tales of L.M. Montgomery, were I not a booklover.

[2] My brother Matthew did once say that he wasn’t sure it was a kindness to give Wendy another book (who is worse than me – she acquires books at the same rate as I do but she doesn’t spring clean her shelves) but Wendy just laughed and said that if she couldn’t find room for it, one of the children would have to go.

[3] I still remember visiting a young friend who had recently moved out of home and, between him and his flatmate, they had just half a shelf of books (and it was mostly cook books and street directories). I don’t know how anyone can live like that.

[4] And books have other uses too: my cousin Russell insulated his shed by nailing Readers’ Digest condensed books to the walls in a tightly fitting mosaic. (His local op shop couldn’t sell them and he was happy to take them off their hands.)

[5] And Donner and Blitzen.

17 October

Pagan rights

If you’re willing to incorporate pagan elements into your Christmas, you can have a lot of fun. Consider:

  • Decorating with holly, ivy and conifers
  • Being visited by Odin[1]
  • Getting jiggy with the Yule goat
  • Burning Yule logs if it’s cold… and eating Bûche de Noël regardless of the weather

(But avoid sacrificing boars: it’s noisy, messy and probably forbidden by your local council.)

Don’t try hiding this goat in your neighbour’s house.

[1] Possibly best for adults: my friend Todd tried to persuade his children to switch their allegiance from Santa to Odin but they wouldn’t have a bar of it.

16 October

A ham bag?

Have you wondered if ham bags are a scam? Here’s the answer:

  • The best way to store a leg of ham really is in a cloth bag:
    • Soak the bag in water to which you have added a dash of vinegar.
    • Put the ham in the bag and the lot in the fridge.
    • Every few days, rinse the bag in water and vinegar again.[1]
    • And then the ham should last several weeks.
  • However a pillowslip will do the job perfectly (and won’t be yet another thing filling your linen drawer so full that you can’t close it easily).
  • Then again, some ham bags are quite stylish.

So if you really want a ham bag, indulge yourself. But if you find yourself thinking that it’s just one more thing that your next of kin will have to shovel out of your house when you meet your reward, stick with a pillowslip.[2]

Ham bag or scam bag?

Christmas Day 1970:   It was too hot to do anything other than lie around. Uncle  volunteered to get two-year old Felicity down for a late nap and was soon in the Land of Nod himself. Mum read stories to the little kids in the shade on the veranda. Uncle Jim settled down on the couch with his new fishing book. Dad and Uncle Bill stretched out on the lawn with a pitcher of iced water and had a languid discussion about cricket. Aunty Betty was the only busy one: she bustled around in the kitchen making fruit salad and beating cream.

“It will wait,” said my mother.

“If I leave it, Mamma will do it,” Aunty Betty replied and bustled on.

[1] Take the ham out first!

[2] Once her kids had grown up, my friend Jill used an old Santa sack as a ham bag. This prompted her husband to leave a few chocolate coins in there one Christmas Eve which he thought was funny but Jill wasn’t so amused because she didn’t find them until the next day when they melted into the meat in the heat of the kitchen.

15 October

The proof of the pudding

Are you ready to cook your plum pudding? As well as the ingredients, you’ll need a pudding cloth and the coins or pudding tokens. And you might like to schedule it for a day when you’ll have plenty of visitors because the more people who stir the pudding, the more good luck you have.[1]

Sugar and spice and all things nice (and also suet).

Today Hannah asked me for my pudding recipe so I guess she’s planning to cook one for her little sisters. Then she asked me what suet is. The answer is that it’s dried fat from around cows’ kidneys and it’s a traditional ingredient of plum pudding and you can get it in packets at the supermarket but, if the idea doesn’t appeal to you (or if you want to make a pudding that’s suitable for vegetarians) you can find plenty of recipes that use butter instead.

[1] Auntie Betty attributes her famous Easter raffle win entirely to the fact that twenty-two people stirred her pudding the Christmas before.