24 February

Op shop crops

Here is a list of things you may be looking for in op shops:

  • Presents for people who like second hand things (and you may have some specifics here, like detective novels or pretty teacups)[1]
  • Christmas tins (if that’s the way your wrapping plan goes)[2]
  • Consider looking for trinkets for crackers if you’ll be making your own – little toys, a “diamond” necklace, a silver sugar spoon and so on


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Wheat-etched glasses: stemware twice over.

My daughter Hannah and her friend Lachlan[3] give each other an op shop present every Christmas: last year she gave him a huge soft-toy palm tree and he gave her a foot stool painted like a ladybird with disconcerting googly eyes (and they both exclaimed that they couldn’t understand how the original owner could bear to part with such a treasure but they say that every year: it’s part of the ritual).

[1] My wheat-farming Aunt Betty liked wine glasses etched with ears of wheat which were fashionable back in the 60s and are fairly easy to find in op shops. (They’re also fairy easy to break, particularly if you have a tile floor in your kitchen and a husband more accustomed to handling sheep than stemware so Auntie Betty needed a constant supply of them and was happy for me to give her more every time I visited.)

[2] Or if you’ve got a lot of Yuletide ephemera and you need to control it.

[3] Hannah met Lachlan in her first year of uni and he’s my favourite of all her friends: smart but not pretentious, easy-going but not lazy, interested in everything in the world but he doesn’t ambush you with long tales of strange hobbies. She brought him home quite a lot in first year and when she started taking him to family gatherings, I smelled romance but she explained that he was a country boy who’d moved to the city for uni and was missing normal family life. We’ve seen Lachlan reasonably often ever since then and he improves on closer acquaintance. (Also, he often brings a dessert and, even though I’ve ratcheted my sugar intake back a few notches, that’s still a sure way to my heart.)

23 February

Treasure chest

A present box is a box of presents that you’ve bought well in advance: perhaps because you chanced across something just perfect for a particular person or perhaps because you found a stunning bargain.[1] It can save you money and it can save you time in the hectic days of Christmas shopping.[2] So always keep your eyes open for presents for people on your present list.

But here are some traps to avoid:

  • Don’t buy something for someone ahead of time if there’s a chance they’ll acquire it for themselves before Christmas.[3]
  • Don’t buy anything at all ahead of time for pre-schoolers because their passions change in a heartbeat: today Dora the Explorer may be all they think about but, come Christmas, they may have moved onto Thomas the Tank.
  • Be very careful with generic presents: if you find a lovely nut dish and think it will do for someone, it’s going to be a waste of money unless you do actually give it to someone.[4]

So do keep a list of the gifts you have in your present box and who you’re thinking of giving them to: it will protect you from buying too many moustachioed articles for Jordan and more salad bowls than you have sisters.


Something for everyone.

My colleague Murray asked me for the recipe of the “Happy days” cake I cooked: he said he wanted to extend his culinary repertoire. So I printed off a copy immediately and he read it through carefully and said “What does ‘cream the butter and sugar’ mean?”

“Have you cooked a cake before?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “But how hard can it be?”

Now, I don’t think cakes are particularly hard, but there are a few things you need to know so I started to tell him about sifting ingredients and greasing tins and he was nodding and saying “Yes, yes” when I think he should really have been saying, “I didn’t quite get that”. So I ended up offering him a cake lesson and we’ve decided to do it next Thursday.

[1] My cousin Russell found his all-time favourite barbecue tools at 90% off one lucky day so he bought six sets. He gave one to his sister and one to his best friend and has kept the remaining four for himself as spares, but I’m pretty sure he’ll wear out before they do.

[2] So can frozen pizzas, but there’s no need to go that far.

[3] Before we trained him out of it, my brother-in-law Don had an irritating habit of announcing which tools and CDs and golfing gadgets he’d like for Christmas, and then buying most of them for himself in mid-December.

[4] This is False Bargain #2 (of which more later).

22 February

And so it came to pass

Here’s a brief précis of the Christian Christmas story: God impregnated Mary but her cuckolded finance Joseph married her anyway and, when she was nine months’ pregnant, they travelled to Bethlehem to take part in a census.[1] All of the accommodation was booked out but an innkeeper allowed them to stay in his stable and Jesus was born there and put into a manger[2] as a crib. Angels appeared to local shepherds to tell them that the messiah had arrived[3] and so they went to the stable to worship the babe that night. God also put a new star in the sky to announce Jesus’s birth,[4] three wise men from the East followed the star to Jesus and they brought with them presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh.[5]

And this is important because Jesus grew up to be the Christ who preached the gospel which became the theology of the Christian church.

So if you’re pointedly non-Christian, you’ll want to give nativity scenes a miss, including:

  • babies in mangers
  • stables
  • stabled animals (typically a donkey and an ox)
  • shepherds and sheep
  • haloes

(Of course, if you’re not putting up a nativity scene in your own house, that doesn’t mean you have to shun nativity scenes wherever else you find them. Even if you object to particular preachings of a particular Christian church, babies are still cute and we can respect people who celebrate cornerstone events in their own religions.)


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Four barnyard creatures, three foreign monarchs, two holy parents and a manger with a swaddled Christ child.

[1] It was touch-and-go whether the holy family would count as two or three.

[2] A manger is a trough animals eat from but the only time this word appears is at Christmas (so your spell-checker is likely to correct it to “manager”, which seldom makes sense.)

[3] Which must have been a surprise: I doubt the shepherds expected to be on the A-list for divine births.

[4] Sky-writing hadn’t been invented.

[5] Although baby clothes may have been more practical than perfumes.

21 February

It’s a wrap

If you plan to make your own wrapping paper to save money, do make sure that your materials aren’t expensive. Check out:

  • What cheap paper can you get hold of? (Butcher’s paper? Tissue paper?)[1]
  • Do you already have materials you could decorate it with? (Paint,[2] crayons, glue?) If not, what can you get at low cost?

Taking the answers into account, here are some simple designs that can be executed by people who don’t think of themselves as artists:

  • Stripes (Even if you’re not neat, these always look good if you use a broad paintbrush and a bold hand.)
  • Christmas trees (Go for simple green triangles if you’re daunted by conifer shapes, and decorate them with coloured dots.)
  • Stencilled stars
  • Words (Write “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”[3] in thick green felt pen on pale green paper.)
  • Glitter (Use a glue stick to make swirls of sticky stuff, sprinkle with glitter and shake off the excess.)[4]

(If you’d like your children to make the wrapping paper, we’ll talk about that later.)


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Strident stripes.

My book club friend Sharon invited me round today because she wanted my advice.

“I’ve been lonely,” she began.

I immediately thought, “She’s going to ask me about on-line dating and I haven’t got a clue!”

“And I’ve decided to get a cat,” she continued. “Do you think I should adopt an abandoned cat from an animal shelter or buy a kitten?”

I didn’t have much to offer[5] but I listened to the ideas she’d had for reducing the environmental impact of pets and she was quite happy with that.

[1] When my nephew Ben worked at the local cinema, he used to bring home outdated movie posters which were fabulous: big, colourful and interesting. (The girlfriend he brought home from the local cinema was also big, colourful and interesting but she didn’t last long: apparently, she couldn’t reconcile her flamboyance with his I.T. interests.)

[2] My sister Wendy’s kids made excellent wrapping paper in shades of lemon and royal blue the year she painted her lounge room in lemon and royal blue. This was not a coincidence.

[3] Or even “Pudding time!”

[4] And then spend the next five years vacuuming it out of your carpet. But at least it’s a pretty mess.

[5] I’m not a cat lover but I stress that that doesn’t make me a cat hater. It’s just that I feel about cats the way they seem to feel about humans: I don’t mind if there’s one in the room, provided they’re not sitting on my favourite cushion.

20 February

“Not out” in the backyard

Christmas morning usually takes care of itself: presents, festive greetings, church (or not), morning tea and getting ready for the feast seem to occupy everyone nicely. But once Christmas dinner is eaten and the dishwasher is humming, there can be quite a while before the next meal and the queen’s Christmas message (or not). If everyone is happy to snooze or play with their toys or laze around cracking walnuts and jokes, that’s great but, if they need to be amused (or if you want to keep people out of trouble),[1] I do have a bunch of ideas.

The first one is the Australian classic: backyard cricket. Now I’m not a huge fan of hitting balls with bats myself, but there’s a good chance some of the people at your gathering think it’s delightful so if it isn’t already a standing tradition[2] for you, perhaps you could add it to your agenda.

I believe the rules are the trickiest part so discuss, agree and document them (and then keep the paperwork for next year). Here are some common rules:

  1. No golden ducks: you can’t go out on the first ball.
  2. Six and out: if you hit the ball over the fence:
    1. You get 6 runs
    2. You’re out
    3. You have to retrieve the ball
  3. One hand, one bounce: you can catch the batter out if you catch the ball with one hand after one bounce. (In some households, this only applies if you’re holding a drink in the other hand.)

And you’ll probably need some specific local rules too. (I can tell you that anyone who hits a ball into my raspberry patch will not be getting raspberries for dessert.)

20 feb 2016.jpg
Over and out.

I finally dropped Hannah’s giant teddy off at an op shop today. I put it into the passenger seat and belted it in to stop it lunging for me at every corner and a chap I parked next to said “Trying to qualify for the car-pooling lane, are you?” and I was quite embarrassed.

[1] If you want to get people into trouble just follow the example my brother Matthew set when he gave all of his small nieces and nephews water pistols.

[2] Or a running tradition.

19 February


If you have any shortbread left, why not turn it into hedgehog?[1]

(And if you like the recipe, hang onto it because hedgehog makes a good Small Present.)


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MAKES : 24
START : 3 hours before
PREPARATION TIME : 20 + 5 + 5 minutes

185g butter                                      ¾ cup chopped nuts (eg: walnuts, macadamias)

¾ cup castor sugar                         2 eggs

4 tbs cocoa                                       125g chocolate

375g biscuits (eg shortbread)      1 tbs rum

Line a 18cm x 28cm slice tin with baking paper.

Melt 125g butter[2] with the sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Mix in cocoa and then stir over heat until smooth.

Break the biscuits into small pieces and put into a bowl with the nuts. Beat the eggs lightly.

Stir eggs into butter mixture and then pour over the biscuits and nuts. Mix very well and then press firmly into the tin. Chill.

Melt the chocolate with 60g butter and the rum. Spread over the hedgehog, refrigerate until set and then cut into squares.

My boss Catherine came up to me today and said that she was about to make a request that she would deny ever having mentioned, but could I bring a cake in on Monday to celebrate the absence of Donna?  We agreed that the inscription “Happy days!” should serve the purpose without being too blatant.[3]

[1] I made hedgehog once for a visiting Englishman who was horrified. It didn’t occur to me that he would think it contained meat.

[2] Note: this is not all of the butter.

[3] So I can’t cook hedgehog. Delicious though it is, one simply doesn’t inscribe it.

18 February

Were you expecting it gift wrapped?

Is it too early to mastermind the wrapping of your Christmas presents?[1] Of course not! If you decide on a wrapping scheme now, you’ll be well-positioned to snap up any wrapping opportunities that come your way (like haberdashery[2]  sales of star-spangled ribbon).

Take into account your preferred colour scheme and style[3] and the volume of presents you’re expecting and this may lead you to the answer immediately. Maybe:

  • You so long to wrap presents in purple paper and tie them with pink satin ribbon that you can hardly wait for Christmas
  • Or you have plenty of holly paper from last year and pine bough paper from the year before and you think you could bring them together by bedecking everything with scarlet curling ribbon[4]
  • Or you’ve already bought silver bauble paper in the sales and you’d like to use actual silver baubles for gift tags and you’re tossing up between black ribbon and white string.

If you know what you want and you don’t have what you need, add the missing items to your Christmas shopping list. (You are, of course, unlikely to find cheap silver baubles[5] right now but plain purple paper, scarlet curling ribbon and white string could be offered for an excellent price at any time.)

If you don’t have any ideas yet, take inspiration from any pretty presents you see[6] and if you need a zero cost solution, stay tuned.


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Or just leave it to the professionals.

My book club friend Sharon spoke more about loneliness today (abstractly of course – not in direct connection with herself) and I do think she’s concerned about it. So I mentioned the local artists’ hub and Sharon said that she’s a solo artist who doesn’t like to chat about her work and, since we weren’t officially discussing her own loneliness, I couldn’t say that this was clearly part of her problem.

[1] If I haven’t persuaded you to use biscuit tins, that is.

[2] “Haberdashery” is one of my favourite words (beaten only by “confetti” and “dollop” and “pixies”).

[3] My nephew Ben once tied a present for his father with octopus straps. The ocky straps were, in effect, part of the present and Don appreciated them but they played merry hell with the wrapping paper. (Perhaps Ben should have used a tarp instead of candy-striped tissue paper.)

[4] Scarlet curling ribbon is what my daughter Hannah used to make herself a clown wig for a primary school concert. It kept her busy for days and she was even prouder of it than she was of singing a solo in “Let the circus begin”.

[5] Mind you, baubles are one of those items that suffer reverse inflation and just keep getting cheaper, even when you buy them at RRP. (Computers and clothing are two other examples and children’s clothes have become so cheap that I’m expecting the shops to pay the customers for them any day now.)

[6] In real life, in magazines, in shop windows – wherever stylish people wrap.