22 May

Tricky tags

If your craft skills are low, stick with the tags I’ve described to date. If you’re seriously artistic, you don’t need my suggestions.[1] If you’re in between, here are some trickier gift tag options you may enjoy making:

  • Cut Christmas tree shapes from paper or cloth and glue onto coloured backgrounds. You can add sequins or stars or buttons for baubles.[2]
  • Or do Christmas wreaths in a similar manner.
  • Cut paper lace snowflakes and glue those onto card.[3]
  • Make holly leaves from green card and add red beads or sequins as berries.[4]
  • Do a decoupage thing with a photo of the recipient on one side of the tag and the giver on the other (and you may avoid the need for words entirely).[5]
22 may 2016.jpg
All tied up.

At Matthew’s birthday dinner last night, Cassidy refused birthday cake. I know she’s not eating sugar but I think she could have been a bit more gracious. And what will we do if everyone gives up sugar? How could you do a savoury birthday cake? Would it be a cheese and bacon loaf with hummus instead of icing? I just can’t see anyone making that into a teddy bear shape for a kid’s birthday.

[1] Or if you’re seriously quirky. Just after he left uni, my friend Todd used liqueur miniatures as gift tags for his family presents and he didn’t write on them: he just matched the initials. So the kirsch was for Katy and advocaat was for Andrew (and the maraschino was for his mother which was a bit of a stretch because her name is Norma).

[2] Or not.

[3] If you don’t mind snömys.

[4] Again, this is not for snömy-phobes. (Or for those who try to lead a sequin-free life.)

[5] This is particularly good for toddlers (and particularly bad for people who feel they are not photogenic).

21 May


Crackers traditionally have snaps (which make them crack and give them their name) and you can’t make these at home. Your options are:

  • Don’t use them. (They often don’t work anyway.)[1]
  • Buy them from craft shops (which increases the cost of your crackers).
  • Find some innovative way of doing crackers – and I’ve been working on this for years and haven’t had a stand-out success so if you find something, do let me know! I’ve tried egg shells (which are very pretty when painted gold but are fiddly and limit the trinkets you can use) and balloons (put the stuff inside and then blow them up – but you need to wrap the trinkets first to disguise them) and spring-loaded boxes (which I couldn’t get to work at all).

So this is one case where you should make a snap decision.

21 may 2016.jpg
Golden eggs: the Christmas cracker with the free-range crack.

It was Matthew’s birthday dinner tonight. The young ones all headed off after the cake but Matthew, Wendy, Don and I sampled the single malt whisky Ben gave Matthew… and Matthew did more than merely sample it. In fact, he got quite teary and it all came out:  he’s fifty and he thinks he’ll never have children.

Don suggested that he get a young floozy but Matthew quoted stats about declining fertility in men[2] and said that he tried dating a twenty-five year old a while back[3] and it made him realise that he’s looking for an equal partner and that’s likely to be someone his own age.

“That could net you stepchildren,” Wendy observed.

“More likely to be step-adults,” corrected Michael.

Then I reminded him that he is practically a father to my children: he took them to Little Aths for years, was always there for their birthdays and school concerts, has played uncountable games of Uno and beach cricket with them and actually saw more of his nieces and nephews that some live-in, workaholic dads do.

Wendy added what he’d done for her kids and reminded him that they’d all been keen to celebrate his birthday. (Emma, in particular, insisted on coming which means it was week-old Mia’s first party.)

This did cheer him up a little and then I put him to bed in my spare room because he was certainly not in a fit state to drive home.

[1] Q: What do you call a cracker that doesn’t crack?

A: I don’t know, but if you can think of a witty answer, you’ll have another riddle for Christmas Day.

[2] Which shows he’s been researching this.

[3] That will have been Sienna who was terminally obsessed with fashion and who lasted four weeks.

20 May


If you’re looking for a Christmas classic or for an easy dessert or for sweets that you can make ahead,[1] you can’t go past classic trifle.[2]

Classic trifle

20 may 2016.jpg

Make some jelly. (What kind? Well, colour is more important than flavour in this case[3] so go for red and green to be traditional, blue and purple to wow the kids or your favourite colour.) You might like to make it in wide, flat tin so that you can cut it into small cubes.

When the jelly has set, choose a serving bowl – glass with straight sides is perfect but you can use anything really.

Cut a cake into one centimetre slices and layer it on the bottom of the bowl. (How much cake? Depends on the size of your bowl. What kind of cake? Whatever you have on hand or buy one from the shops.)[4]

Sprinkle the cake with sherry. (Or brandy. Or liqueur. Again, whatever you have on hand should be fine.)[5]

Add fruit. (Fresh fruit cut into smallish chunks is great but you can use any frozen fruit or drained, tinned fruit that you have.)

Cover with custard. (Supermarket custard is perfectly adequate.) Whip some cream and spread on top.

Decorate the trifle with jelly (a generous ring of jelly round the edge always looks good and you don’t have to cut it into cubes: you can spoon it out into small quenelles or just fork it out freeform).

Cover and leave it in the fridge overnight. (Or two nights. It can take it.)

You can see how easy it is to ring the changes on this trifle:

  • Upgrade the cake.
  • Match the liqueur, the fruit and the jelly to increase the sophistication. (Eg: coconut liqueur, mangoes, and pineapple jelly for a tropical trifle. Peach schnapps, peaches and peach jelly for a (wait for it) peach trifle.)
  • Make your own custard.
  • Change the decoration. (Piles of strawberries sprinkled with pistachios look impressive.)

Christmas Day 1970: When we had changed out of our good clothes, we found Nanna was busy with the turkey and the aunts were chopping pumpkin and peeling carrots and the uncles seemed quite content to wait.[6] So we showed our Mallee cousins what Santa had brought[7] and eventually the dinner was On and surely the presents were too.

[1] And hence have more time on the Day.

[2] My brother Matthew can’t go past trifle either: it’s his favourite dessert. ‘Please put it at the far end of the table,” he asked me last year, “And that will give me a bit more exercise with each serving”.

[3] To be honest, colour is more important than flavour for jelly nearly all the time.

[4] Sponge fingers are classic and jam roll works well and looks pretty too.

[5] Well, nearly anything. My nephew Ben made a trifle with his home brewed beer and it was a failure on every level. (Even his brother Jack refused to eat it.)

[6] I think most people would rather wait if the alternative was chopping pumpkin.

[7] Linda suggested we use my new textas to turn little Felicity into Rudolph by colouring her nose red and Felicity was willing but I wasn’t (but, I’m sorry to say, it was the textas I was concerned about and not the two year old).

19 May

Test drive the table

Once you’ve planned your table setting, take it for a test drive. You don’t have to do the full monty but you might like to check some of these aspects:

  • Do the tables really fit in the space you’ve allocated to them?[1]
  • Can you get all the chairs around comfortably?
  • Is the table cloth long enough?
  • Are your decorations going to work?[2] Will you be able to see over the centrepiece? What will you suspend hanging things from? Will you have enough space in the middle of the table?

It’s also a good idea to lay out one full place setting and take a photo of it for later reference.[3]

19 may 2016.jpg
In this case, the key question is can you see under the centrepiece?

Christmas Day 1970: “We’ll open the presents after church,” our parents had said but we soon found they didn’t mean “immediately after church”: first we had to get out of our good clothes (and back into our lightest tops and shorts because it was already hot and it was going to get a lot hotter). “There’s just so much work to do on Christmas Day!” groaned four year-old Matthew who had now changed three times before lunch but it didn’t impress Mum who was calculating how many potatoes she would have to peel for twenty people.

[1] Spilling out into a corridor may be acceptable. Spilling out into a cupboard probably won’t be.

[2] This just means “Will you achieve the artistic effect you’re aiming for” unless you’re running the Christmas Express down the table, in which case you’ll also need to test the batteries and calculate if you have enough track to loop around the cranberry sauce.

[3] Particularly if someone else is going to set the table on the day. (My son Jeremy, for example, doesn’t seem to be able to remember which side a fork goes on, or to think about serviettes long enough to put one down on a plate, but he can follow a diagram (and he’s easily bribed with Christmas sweets).)


18 May

The biscuit tin method of Christmas

Let me tell you about the biscuit tin method of Christmas. It goes like this:

  • Acquire one new Christmas biscuit tin every year (of which more below).
  • Once you’ve eaten the biscuits, you can keep decorations in the tin
  • And as you decorate in December, you empty tins which you can then fill up with festive treats
  • And, as you polish off the biscuits late in December, the tins are ready for packing away the decorations again.[1]

And even though it’s old fashioned, it’s jolly convenient to keep biscuits in pretty tins. Surprise visitors at Yuletide? Open up your shortbread tin and your gingerbread tin and there’s morning tea. No need even to decant them and then you just whack the lids back on when you’ve had your fill and you’ve packed up in 30 seconds.

Here’s how you can acquire one new Christmas biscuit tin every year:

  1. Buy one when they hit the shops. (This gives you the best selection but is also the most expensive option.)
  2. If there’s someone who would like to give you a present but they don’t know what you’d like, you could suggest a tin of biscuits.[2]
  3. You can wait till January and buy a tin on sale. (This is likely to be 50% cheaper than Option 1 but you won’t have as much choice.)
  4. Or can buy an old Christmas tin in an op shop: they’re quite common, so you stand a good chance of finding a nice one and you’ll pay somewhere between 20c and $5 for it, depending on the op shop. (This is also the greenest option.)
18 may 2016.jpg
Baubles out: biscuits in.

I had lunch with my aunt Gwen and Susan today. Susan is not looking at all well and she has some fairly nasty medical treatments ahead of her but she was excited to be seeing “Matilda” and was sure it would be worth the train trip from Ballarat. Before they left, they gave me a present to give to Mia: a triceratops Susan had crocheted and Gwen had stuffed. Of course, Mia doesn’t know a triceratops from a trumpet right now (she doesn’t even know what her hands are for) but I’m sure she’ll love it eventually.

[1] After washing, of course. Crumbs do not enhance Father Christmas beards.

[2] This was what I did with Auntie Helen although it did get a little silly when I started doing her Christmas shopping for her. (Mind you, it also meant that I got a biscuit tin that I really liked!)

17 May

The sale before Christmas

Some stores have early Christmas sales… because the retailers want your money as soon as they can get it (partly to grab it before you spend it at other stores and partly because they might get a second crack at you if they can persuade you to shop again later on)[1] but, if you’re canny, you can make the early sales work for you:

  • Spot the patterns and work with them. (My favourite bookseller offers double loyalty points in the last week of November so I do my book shopping then.)
  • Don’t buy anything unless you’re sure it’s right – otherwise you will indeed stand a significant chance of buying twice and wasting money[2] (which is False Bargain #2, of which more later).

So, as always, shop wisely.[3]

17 may 2016.jpg
I hope he’s budgeted for a really big gift bag.

“Gertruda’s paintings are gone,” Wendy told me. “Apart from the ones Don chose and her own special favourites, the walls are bare.”

“She’s sold them? Could she have a gambling problem?”

“I don’t think that’s possible. She growls that our annual Cup sweep is a waste of money and she refuses to buy raffle tickets even at the Polish club. If Gertruda’s been playing the pokies, we can safely deduce that aliens are controlling her body.”

“Let’s rule that out then,” I agreed.

[1] Have you ever bought a bag of chocolate Santas in November to save for Christmas and then had to go back two weeks later for more because the first bag was gone? The retailers know what they’re doing.

[2] Although, from the retailers’ point of view, this is generating money, so it depends on whose side you’re on.

[3] And steer clear of the chocolate Santas unless they’re on your shopping list. (Confectionery-free aisles aren’t just for children.)

16 May

On the first day

The twelve days of Christmas are the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany and are the official Christmas season, so the eponymous twelve days of Christmas song is about the singer’s true love sending them a new present on every day of that Christmas season which, at this point, makes a plausible story.

The song was probably sung as a memory game (with each person in the circle adding a new present to the list for everyone to remember) but it eventually solidified as:

  • 12 drummers drumming
  • 11 pipers piping
  • 10 lords a-leaping
  • 9 ladies dancing
  • 8 maids a-milking
  • 7 swans a-swimming
  • 6 geese a-laying
  • 5 gold rings
  • 4 calling birds
  • 3 French hens
  • 2 turtle doves
  • and a partridge in a pear tree

By this stage, the gift list doesn’t make sense[1] but that’s not the point.

In Australia, I think we’d do better having the twelve days before Christmas (or perhaps to Boxing Day) since we’re usually flat-out festively from about the 14th of December and generally don’t consider New Year’s Day to be part of Christmas.[2]

16 may 2016.jpg
Traditionally two turtle doves rather than two dove turtles, even though the song could do with fewer birds and more reptiles.

[1] Why would you want ten lords a-leaping, how would you get them and what happens when they stop jumping?

[2] My father always said that the New Year was a time to make a New Start in the pantry, by which he meant that we shouldn’t be eating Christmas leftovers any more (but he never objected to my mother’s brandy shortbread trifle, no matter how late in January it appeared).