Recipes for success
Add August notes and photos to your Christmas letter, but only if they’re more interesting than those you already have.
Perhaps you have enough recipe ideas now to warrant some organisation. If so, index them by course/occasion (morning tea, nibbles, mains and so forth). Inside those categories, order them by their primary ingredients (because even if you’ve found six great pork recipes, you’ll probably only cook one). Include either the actual recipe if you’ve torn it from a magazine or printed it from an email your friend sent you, or the location if it’s in one of your cookbooks or you’ve found it online.
Christmas Day 1970: Linda was assigned to scrape the plates and take the scraps out and there were so many she had to make two trips. “It’s Christmas for the chooks too,” she said, and we made jokes about how to decorate a poultry pen and what would be in chicken crackers. She said they didn’t recognise the turkey shards as kin but I still wondered if they were cannibals.
 My brother Matthew says “all-day grazing” is a legitimate Christmas meal.
 Unless you’re all very, very fond of pork.
 My friend Carol was banned from her local fish and chip shop for tearing recipes from their magazines. She said she lost two kilos because she wasn’t eating takeaways on Fridays and wasn’t cooking so many Women’s Weekly classic slices, so she recommends the punishment to all.
 Shell grit and yummy beetles.
Don’t call me honey
I make honey jumbles (which, in spite of their name, contain no honey and are a kind of gingerbread) throughout the year and I ice them in their traditional colours of pink and white but, if you do them in white and green or sprinkle icing stars or edible glitter on them, they look as Christmassy as they taste.
Preparation time 3 hours 30 minutes
Start 4 hours ahead
60g butter ¼ tsp cinnamon
¾ cup (260g) golden syrup 1 tbs milk
1¾ cups plain flour 1 egg white
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda 1½ cups icing sugar
1 tsp ground ginger 2 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp ground cloves food colouring
¼ tsp allspice
To make the biscuits, melt the butter and the golden syrup together and then bring to the boil. Take the mixture off the heat and let stand for 10 minutes.
Sift the flour, bicarb and spices together and add to the syrup mixture with the milk. Cover and stand for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 190˚C. Grease 2 oven trays.
Knead the dough gently on a floured surface until it is no longer sticky. Roll it into 4 sausages with 1.5cm diameters and then cut them into 6cm logs. Place the logs 3cm apart on the oven trays and bake for 10 minutes or until the biscuits are just firm. Leave them to cool on the trays.
To make the icing, beat the egg white lightly and stir in half of the icing sugar. Then add the remaining icing sugar and enough lemon juice to make a thick, spreadable icing. Colour half of the mixture pink and then ice the jumbles.
Christmas Day 1970: Nanna had even more tea towels than pillowslips and Dad strongly believed that you shouldn’t be shy about changing tea towels whenever they got damp so he told Matthew to staff the stack and bring us a fresh tea towel whenever we asked for one. Matthew felt very important and delivered each one with all the speed his four-year-old legs could muster. His older cousins inspected each new tea towel closely as it was handed to them: a floral tea towel scored just one point, a souvenir tea towel from a town you had been to scored two points, and a calendar from a year before you were born scored a heady five points. Peter won, but I still believe it was because he ditched an almost dry tea towel so that he could get a 1955 calendar.
 My friend Sharon decorated in turquoise and silver last year and so she iced her Christmas cake in turquoise and added a snowflake picked out in silver cachous. It looked great but I advise those of us who don’t have her artistry to stick to colours that are reminiscent of food.
How to spoil Christmas (food)
Here’s the classic Christmas recipe for food poisoning. Make a large festive dish, preferably containing dangerous ingredients like undercooked eggs. Put it on a buffet on Christmas Day and leave it there for hours – the warmer the day, the faster the bacteria multiply. (Well, there’s no room in the fridge and people are still eating.) Make sure it’s consumed by vulnerable people, like your elderly uncle and your pregnant cousin.
Although this recipe won’t always lead to spoiled food (and even if it does, your guests may be just a little bit sick) people die every year in Australia from scenarios just like this one. You really don’t want to be walking out of the door on Christmas evening saying, “See you at the funeral.”
So plan to keep it safe:
- Why not do a safe food handling course? They’re not hard and they don’t take long. (And the life you save may be your own!)
- Know the high-risk foods.
- Refrigerate, refrigerate, refrigerate. This includes putting leftovers back into the fridge promptly.
Turkeys should be thawed in the fridge, which is hard, particularly when you have all those trifles and salads to keep cold so, if possible, ask your butcher to thaw it in their cool room. Cook the turkey all the way through, using a meat thermometer to get it right, and cook the stuffing separately for maximum safety, because stuffing slows down the cooking of the bird and sometimes the stuffing itself has soaked up meat juices but hasn’t become hot enough to kill the meat bacteria.
Buy your seafood as close as possible to the time you’ll be eating it, bring it home in an esky and be particularly careful with any fish you’re eating raw.
Know how long you can keep your leftovers for (see 28 December). And be wary of cross-contamination – use separate chopping boards, have separate serving utensils for each dish and make sure that food doesn’t bump into other food on the table or in the fridge.
The range of temperatures between 5˚C and 60˚C is called the danger zone and any food that stays in the danger zone for two hours should be thrown out. So put out smaller quantities of food, refresh them when needed and use a clean dish each time. (Put fresh dip on top of the last smears of expired dip at your peril.)
My friend Jenny rang me yesterday in great excitement: her uncle died last month and she has just found out that he left her his Christmas train set. She knows how much I love those so she invited me to help her set it up.
I went around this afternoon and we spread it over the dining table and, as well as the Yuletide Express and metres of track, there were quaint houses and cake shops and even a village pond full of skaters. When we finally had every last villager in place, we stood back to admire it.
Then Jenny turned to me in consternation. “But it can’t go on the dining table at Christmas,” she said. “We’ll need every inch of it.”
The quintessential question of Christmas is not, as the carol writers would have it, “What child is this?” or even, “Quelle est cette odeur agreable?” but “Where will I put it?”
 Home-made mayonnaise, tiramisu and mousse are repeat offenders.
 Food poisoning affects an estimated five million people in Australia each year and there are over a hundred deaths, so when you’re next in a fish and chip shop tossing up between flake and souvlaki, remember that doner kebabs kill more people than sharks do.
 I wish I could argue that brussels sprouts are too dangerous to bother with but it’s not strictly true.
 Buffets are a smorgasbord for greeblies as well as for humans.
 I’ve heard that Don argues that it shouldn’t be called stuffing anymore and that it has become technically redundant but he’s never said it to me because he likes my stuffing and doesn’t want me to stop making it.
 My nephew Ben says that, unless his fish is fresh enough to bite him, he wants it cooked all the way through.
 Not an issue for leftover profiteroles (because there’s no such thing).
 That wasn’t the exciting part.
 Most of them clustered around the huge village Christmas tree. We couldn’t resist it so we didn’t think they’d be able to either.
 “What is this nice smell?” (This is the title of a seventeenth-century French carol and the perfume in question is not the aroma of hot gingerbread or the fragrance of cut pine, but “the scent of heavenly glory, brought to this earth by God’s own son”, which, it seems, can outcompete a pungent stable.)
A pomander is an orange studded with cloves and hung from a ribbon. The cloves preserve the orange and the whole smells fabulous and can be used to perfume wardrobes.
You can make one for under $5 so you could add one to your hampers, you can give them as Small Presents and children (from about eight up) can make them as gifts. Just remember that, if you’re making a few, either do them in small batches or use rubber gloves when handling the cloves because they contain a natural anaesthetic that makes your fingers go numb after you’ve pushed enough of the little doo-dabs in.
I have a theory that cumquat pomanders would make great Christmas tree decorations and would add citrus and clove to the pine scent to make a luxurious Christmas fragrance but I haven’t had any success yet: cumquats have such thin skin that they’re very fragile.
“Have you narrowed your course choices down?” I asked my nephew Jack.
“Aquaculture, music theatre or midwifery,” he replied.
“What does he really want to do?” I asked his father.
“He won’t tell us,” Don said. “Unless it actually is aquaculture, music theatre or midwifery, but I doubt it.”
 Why wardrobes? Because the scent is even better than your favourite fabric softener, and because they look brown and withered once they’ve dried, so they’re at their best in the dark.
 My cousin Caroline made half-a-dozen as a teenager and was so impressed by the anaesthesia that she went out to pull up thistles to test its limits. She discovered that the prickles didn’t worry her – at the time – but her fingers were quite sore when the effects wore off! (But that’s teenagers for you: keen to experiment and heedless of the future.)
 But maybe I just need little cloves (and maybe the places that sell micro herbs also do micro spices).
Here we go a-wassailing
Wassail is a hot, alcoholic, spiced punch served at Yuletide and to go wassailing is to carol from door to door with the intention of being supplied from the wassail bowl at each house you visit.
If this sounds fun to you, you’ll need to organise it in advance, not just to make time to practise your harmonies but also to word up the neighbours – they’re unlikely to give you punch for singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” if they don’t know you’re coming.
If it’s a hot night, an iced punch may be more suitable.
 With a goat, if you’re Swedish.
 So in October, children go door to door to show off their costumes and collect lollies and, in December, adults go door to door to show off their carols and collect booze.
 Although my brother-in-law Don claims that he could talk any household into offering him a drink just by threatening to keep singing until they do.
Takes the biscuit
I love Christmas biscuits: most people like eating them, they can turn a normal snack into a festive occasion, they look great and they make excellent Small Presents.
Christmas biscuits can be cookies that are traditionally eaten in Yuletide (shortbread and gingerbread are classics), have flavours that are traditionally eaten in Yuletide (spices, cranberries, fruit mince), be decorated with a Christmas theme, including those cut with Christmas cutters (like stars, reindeer and Christmas trees) and those decorated with Christmas colours (you can sprinkle red and green sugar on anything).
If your kitchen is low on culinary equipment, you can still bake a festive cookie that hits the Christmas biscuit trifecta if you whip up some gingerbread (which can be a one bowl, one spoon job), roll it out (with a bottle if needs be), cut it into rings (using a glass to make the outside circle and a bottle neck to make the inside circle), add white icing and scatter some chopped red and green glacé cherries onto one “corner” and voila! Christmas wreath biscuits.
Christmas Day 1970: As the oldest and most reliable child, Caroline was assigned the job of taking the stacks of good plates from the kitchen and piling them up on the dining room table, ready for the next meal. There was a moment of tension when she slipped in a splash of water (Uncle Jim had succeeded in making us work with energy but no one can make that many small children neat) but she regained her balance and saved the china. We all cheered.
And we cheered again when the washing up was done and we were released from the steam heat of the kitchen into the dry heat of a summer’s day in the Mallee. For me, the smell of hot, baking earth is one of the smells of Christmas.
 Unless you sit on them. (I regret to say that I learned this through bitter experience.)
 Within sensible limits: my daughter Hannah’s experimental pumpkin and turkey crackers were not a success.
 Anything sweet, that is: coloured sugar wouldn’t work well on Hannah’s pumpkin and turkey crackers.
 I picked this up from my cousin Linda, who did a whole Christmas feast from a caravan when she was building her new house. She said she saved time on decorating (two lengths of tinsel and one tiny tree) and then spent it all on cooking things the hard way.
 And Dad rushed out for the mop. (He was pretty relaxed about kids falling over – “They’re used to it,” he’d say – but he didn’t want Nanna’s crockery on his conscience.)
The classic Christmas novel is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (see 10 April) but there are plenty of other stories with Yuletide themes:
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is a short story and ideal if you’re time poor.
- “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” by Agatha Christie is a fun whodunnit and also a vignette of the merry Christmases of Christie’s Victorian youth.
- “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham starts off Scrooge-like, but not even Dickens could keep that up.
- “Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett. This is one of my nephew Ben’s favourites. He says it’s a fantasy/comedy masterwork and the characters include Death, a mainframe computer and the god of hangovers.
- “Visions of Sugar Plums” by Janet Evanovich is a bonus for Stephanie Plum fans and an excellent introduction to Stephanie Plum for others.
- “Village Christmas” and “Christmas Mouse” by Miss Read are as classically English as a robin on a Christmas card.
- “The Nine Tailors” by Dorothy L. Sayers is another mystery masterpiece.
Once apon a Christmastime
Here are my top ten children’s Christmas stories:
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss.
- The Christmas Book by Dick Bruna is a good introduction to the nativity story for families light on Christmas theology.
- The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore is a huge classic (although you will have to explain why Rudolph isn’t named in the reindeer muster).
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is classic which is suitable for late-primary school kids and beyond. (I still love it. When I read this as a child, I had no idea that it was a Christian allegory and I can tell you that makes it a splendid, pagan romp!)
- Wombat Divine by Mem Fox.
- Christmas Parade by Sandra Boynton.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Since it was written in 1880, this novel is best suited to good readers who’ve reached double figures.
- Baboushka and the Three Kings by Ruth Robbins. This purports to be a traditional Russian tale, but there’s very little contemporary evidence to back it up.
- The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter. This is long and wordy, so it won’t keep the attention of small children.
- Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs is ideal for upper primary school kids.
You will also find plenty of story books that illustrate various Christmas carols and these can be informative as well as entertaining.
My friend Jill is organising the book stall for her grandson’s primary school’s fete.
“I didn’t have time to get involved when Allison was at school,” she explained, “and she doesn’t have time to get involved now that Riley has started, so this seems like a way of evening things out.”
She asked for my help and I was delighted to give it – I consider myself an expert on the very, very low end of the second-hand book market (although this is not something that shines on a resume).
 Who wasn’t a doctor and whose surname wasn’t Seuss. (Seuss was his middle name, but he clearly didn’t choose it as his pen name to make life easier for the reading public.)
 Of whatever ilk – it is one of the foundations of the most important celebration in the Australian calendar so it’s good to be familiar with it from an early age, even if you’re decidedly non-Christian.
 Let’s get more wombats into Christmas!
 Suitable for all faiths – provided they like animals (and brass bands).
 And who can handle nineteenth-century morality tales, which are an acquired taste.
 Don’t hold that against the story: someone must have made up Santa’s flying sleigh too.
 Not when read, that is. My nephew Jack loved the illustrations and cut some out and hung them on the bars of his mouse cage for their entertainment. (The mice loved them too… and nibbled them into shreds to make nests with.)
This is Wendy’s favourite salad. She says it tastes good, it looks good, it’s quick to make, and you don’t even need a mixing bowl, just a knife and chopping board. She calls it “Roma’s salad” because Roma was the colleague who gave her the recipe.
Preparation time 20 minutes
1 punnet heirloom cherry tomatoes
3 large tomatoes
220g cherry bocconcini
1 tbs olive oil
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
cracked black pepper
½ bunch basil
Halve the cherry tomatoes. Slice the large tomatoes. Arrange all tomatoes and bocconcini on a serving platter. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Sprinkle with black pepper and scatter basil leaves over the top.
My cousin Bronwyn texted me this morning: “Urgent! Sugar crisis! Only U can save me!” So I rang her straight back.
“You’ve cut down on sugar, haven’t you?” she said. “How did you do it?”
“Gradually,” I replied.
“I don’t have time for that: I’ve just been diagnosed with pre-diabetes so I’m ditching sugar today.”
“I think it’s more complicated than sugar,” I demurred. “It’s GI and overall healthy eating.”
“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “I’ve got a session on GI next week but I’m not waiting for that: the sugar goes now, so tell me how to do it well.”
“I can also tell you how to avoid doing it badly,” I said (thinking of Cassidy) and I agreed to drop around to her place soon.
 “I like to cook for flavour,” she says. “And appearance is really important but there are days when my culinary choices are made solely on the number of dishes I’ll have to wash up afterwards.”
 The colleague later betrayed her in a staffroom coup but Wendy, rather than being bitter, says, “At least I got a good salad out of it.”
 Bocconcini are small balls of mozzarella. Cherry bocconcini are even smaller balls of mozzarella. Depending on whether you prefer Italian or English diminutives, you could call it bambini bocconcini, or teeny weeny bocconcini.
 Bronwyn hasn’t caught up with the fact that there’s no reason for texts to be short any more.
It’s easy to keep food cold in September: just put it in the fridge. It’s harder at Christmas because your fridge is likely to be jam-packed and yet Christmas is not a good time to get lax about food safety. So here are the classic solutions:
- Get the drinks out of the fridge and into an ice bucket. (The laundry trough is traditional but there are fancy options too.)
- Set up an esky or two. (But keep an eye on them – they’re no good when the ice has melted.)
- Borrow an extra fridge. Bar fridges are almost portable but if your neighbour is away for Christmas, perhaps you could borrow their kitchen fridge if they don’t mind you trekking in and out of their house.
- If you’re updating your fridge and the old one still works, it’s unlikely to be energy efficient to put it in the garage and use it as a beer fridge year round but it could be a life saver at Christmas (if you can afford the space it will take all year).
Last night, at Bronwyn’s house, I got her to write down what she ate last week. She was quite receptive to the idea of switching her Tuesday muffin to Tuesday corn chips and home-made salsa but she looked amazed when I told her that many flavoured corn chips contain sugar.
“How on earth do you know that?” she asked.
“I read the ingredients.” I answered.
“You take your glasses to the supermarket?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t be able to read the fine print otherwise. Don’t you?”
“I don’t always remember my purse,” she replied.
We ended up making a date to go to the supermarket together on Wednesday evening. (I’ll text her beforehand to ensure she brings both her purse and her glasses.)
 And not just with jam.
 There is, of course, never a good time to be lax about food safety (unless you have a rich grandparent and no scruples).
 My cousin Russell once used his fish pond but it took a lot of ice.
 My cousin Linda lives in a small country town, right across the street from the hall, so she uses the hall kitchen as an extension of her own when catering big events. (Now you know why the turkey crossed the road.)
 And it can be a good place to hide the Christmas presents until you get the tree up.
Here are some wrapping paper designs children can manage:
- Wrap the presents in plain paper and have toddlers put star stickers on them. (Resign yourself to the fact that the paper won’t be the only surface that gets stickers stuck on it.)
- Give small children light-coloured paper and two colours of crayon. (If you want to get a colour scheme going here, use ribbon in the same colours.)
- Give older children dark paper and gold and silver pens.
- Do spatter paintings. (You can spatter over your hands or star templates or anything else that will make a recognisable shape.)
Hannah told me that Lachlan is moving into her flat. I must have raised my eyebrows because she immediately said, “Into the spare room, Mum. You know we’re just friends.” I thought she had been enjoying living by herself but she explained she would get even more pleasure from halving her expenses so that she can save a deposit for a house of her own.
 This was nearly the only craftwork my friend Jill’s restless son William produced to a reasonable standard and that’s because Jill held his hands down and did the spattering herself. (She could keep his attention for ten minutes if she promised he could play in the sprinkler afterwards to wash the paint off.)
 Hannah doesn’t do Romance, but she has Practicality done and dusted.
Near misses near mistletoe
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. There are lots of species, including some that are native to Australia, so you may be able to find some in your own backyard. It has been associated with druids, good luck and fertility and perhaps this is why it’s hung high (from the ceiling or a door frame) at Christmas and you can kiss anyone standing under it.
This sounds romantic and fun but it can lead to sexual harassment so quickly that you shouldn’t even consider hanging mistletoe for an office party and should be very, very wary anywhere else. (If you’re disappointed by this advice, consider two scenarios: the first is the one you already have in your mind where you share a tender moment with the romantic lead in your life, and the second is where you’re caught unawares by someone you despise who grabs you and administers a kiss with horrifying vigour. Avoid it.)
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. Perhaps:
- Do a round of local op shops to get baskets (next Saturday).
- Cook strawberry jam when your strawberries are ripe (November, with luck).
- Make flavoured oils (October).
- Cook lemon butter (December).
- 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.)
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.) 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.
 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.
 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.)
 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).
 And enduring covers: disintegrating paperbacks aren’t worth shelf space.
 Well, maybe we could if we got up at 2am, but I have my limits.
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.
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).
 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.
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.)
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?”
“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.)
 My ex-neighbour Gustav collected barbed wire and, apparently, he’s not the only one.
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.
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.
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.
 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?
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.)
Since many people want to take leave over Christmas, this is worth planning in advance too. 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.
(left to right ,top to bottom,)
Fruit and nut
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.”
 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.
 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.)
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:
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.
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 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.)
 A good excuse for spangles.
 I know it’s recursion but it’s harmless.
 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.
 Matthew didn’t count this change as work!
 And fair-skinned Uncle Geoff has had several melanomas removed as a consequence.
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.
Kris Kringle v Secret Santa
The Secret Santa present distribution is a lot like the Kris Kringle present distribution except that no-one knows who gave presents to whom.
“Wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t that exactly like Kris Kringle?”
Well, it doesn’t have to be. If the point of signing the gang up for Kris Kringle was that you all just wanted to do one present each, then it need not be secret (although you’d probably still want a random distribution).
Personally, I think you’re better off without the secrecy because it gives you a chance to thank the person who gave you the present and they can also ask you what you’d like if they’re stumped for ideas.
Christmas Day 1970: At 2.45, the adults agreed that it would take us three minutes to get to the dam and they let us go.
We hit the water with whoops of joy. The top layer of water was toasty warm and the deeper water was deliciously cool and we bombed into the dam from the rope swing that dangled from the overhanging gum tree and we paddled out to the middle in inner tubes and we slid down the muddy banks into the water with delight.
The day was so hot that most of the adults followed us to the dam shortly after (Uncle Bill in bathers that were older than any of children there and which may have even pre-dated Auntie Betty). It felt like we swam for hours … and we were hungry when we finished in spite of the quantities of pudding and potatoes we’d eaten earlier.
 Unless you want to use anonymity to cloak evil-doing like the person who gave my cousin Steve a jar full of fart bombs two years ago. Everyone suspected it was his brother Peter and, even if Peter was actually innocent, he’s played enough practical jokes on his family in his life to deserve the censure.
 The counter argument is that if you do make it secret, then you have a good excuse not to thank the person who gave you a jar of fart bombs.
 Nanna’s house was on the edge of town and abutted Mr McElroy’s farm and Mr McElroy knew that we knew when to shut gates and always to keep out of the crops and he was happy for us to wander over his paddocks and to swim in the dam behind Nanna’s back fence. And he was particularly happy for us to wander over his paddocks if we were heading to his house to drop off a jar of Nanna’s apricot jam.
 I liked to get my feet off the bottom, not because of the clay, but because I was a little anxious about yabbies.
Fa la la la la la, la la la la
If the people in your Christmas coterie are up for Carols by Candlelight, perhaps you can coax them into the next step: singing carols around the piano at home. This isn’t too hard because you don’t have to be able to do more than bash out the melody and it doesn’t have to be a piano – it can be karaoke if that suits you best. Your crew may be surprised at how much they enjoy it and it does feel very Christmassy.
The office is abuzz with the schism that has split the social club committee. At the beginning of the year, it was composed of four social club stalwarts (who had nearly sixty years at Watson & Smythe between them) and three baby-faced party animals (none of whom had more than six months in the company and one of whom was barely three months out of school). Apparently, at every meeting, the newbies would propose wild fantasies and the old guard would vote them down and go on to plan exactly the after-work drinks and lunchtime pizza that we always have, but then Donna left and it became a 3:3 deadlock.
This was merely uncomfortable until they got to planning the Christmas party and then the dinosaurs insisted on having our usual beer and sausages on the banks of the Yarra but the spring chickens wanted Brandy Alexanders, black tie and burlesque. Neither side would back down and so the grey hairs resigned en masse. (Murray now refers to it as the anti-social club.)
 By daylight, unless you leave it very late, and daylight trumps candlelight on every count but one. (Romance. Which might be appropriate for love ballads but is irrelevant for carols.)
 Gertruda’s favourite carol is “Infant Holy”. It is indeed lovely and Wendy and I do a very nice alto harmony but I suspect Gertruda likes it best because she gets to sing a solo when we do a verse in Polish.
 “O Come All Ye Faithful” with flute and harp in the lounge room, “Deck the Halls” around a guitar on the veranda or “Jingle Bells” with impromptu percussion in the backyard – it’s all good.
Nuts to you
If you want an easy, savoury festive snack option, you can’t go past a big bowl of nuts in the shell. It’s traditional, it’s both a food and an occupation, and nuts have plenty of protein and fibre but no sugar or salt and yet they’re also delicious and popular. They are not, of course, suitable for people with nut allergies and they’re not cheap either, but they tick most of the other boxes.
You could also offer cheese biscuits cut into Christmas shapes; dips sprinkled with chopped parsley and finely chopped red capsicum to Yule-ify them; or any of your usual party faves (be they sausage rolls, quiches or wontons) with ham, turkey, cranberry or spice mixed in as appropriate, or made with luxury ingredients. (Christmas is the time to splurge.)
Fiona and I did another session sorting books last night and we tackled a tricky ethical question: if we come across a book we want ourselves, is it fair if we buy it? We decided that it is, so long as we pay the market price for it. And now I have the Billabong book I was missing, a few Paretskies that are out of print and a very nice edition of Sense and Sensibility (but I promise you that I took on this fete task to be charitable, not to expand my own library).
 Auntie Betty used to paint a few walnuts gold because she thought it made the whole nut bowl look more Christmassy but she stopped doing it after her daughter Caroline painted a few walnut-sized rocks gold and added them to the bowl too. (No-one was fooled but my cousin Felicity tried to crack one anyway and it wrecked Auntie Betty’s favourite reindeer-shaped nut cracker.)
 Stars and sheep are recognisable. Wendy’s cheese straws, which she called Yule logs, were a bit of a stretch.
What’s your ideal Christmas outfit? My niece Emma likes a skimpy red cocktail dress with matching lipstick, my nephew Ben finds a different novelty T‑shirt every year and my mother used to spend most of Christmas Day in a Santa apron. My brother Matthew says the key thing is that you wear something with an expanding waistband and as for myself, I bought a really good red shirt a few years back and I can dress it up with a gold necklace or down with bauble earrings as the occasion demands.
You may want to – or be called upon to – wear festive gear to any of your festive engagements. and here are some tips:
- If you prefer low-key outfits and quiet, good taste, simply add a small splash of red to a classic black and white ensemble and you’ll get an approving nod from most onlookers.
- If you prefer maximum impact, go for gold. (A gold lamé dress or a gold sequinned waistcoat should do the trick.)
- If you have plenty of Yuletide socks and flashing Christmas wreath brooches, you can wear them all December if you like. (And if you do have plenty of Yuletide socks and flashing Christmas wreath brooches, you probably do)
Gemma showed us some yarnstorming photos at work today. She and her crafty pals went out to the local park at night – the one whose trees Gemma saved – and tied a bunch of knitted possums to the branches. She explained that they’d originally been planning to knit protesters to chain to the trees but the council decided in their favour before they got past the ankles so they changed to celebratory marsupials instead.
 Or she used to. Now that she has a baby, I’m guessing she’ll plump for something easily washable.
 Or actual baubles. I made a sort of scarf out of a few dozen last year and it looked great (although I did have to be careful when I leaned back against anything).
Here’s a recipe you can use for hampers even if you don’t have a burgeoning kitchen garden: candied orange peel. Keen cooks will appreciate it, but non-cooks won’t so you can’t use it universally.
Do keep some for yourself because it’s useful in Christmas cakes, mince tarts and lebkuchen (see 5 August).
Candied Orange Peel
Peel of about half-a-dozen oranges
About 500g of caster sugar
Put the orange peel into a saucepan, cover with water, bring to boil, then drain and throw the water away. Repeat this until you’ve done it three times.
Weigh the peel and put it back in the saucepan with an equal weight of sugar. Cook gently until the sugar has dissolved (don’t be tempted to add water) and then simmer gently until the peel is translucent. This takes about an hour.
Drain the peel and then lay it out on a mesh rack to dry. This might take days and you will need to turn it morning and night. When dry, chop it and put it into jars.
Christmas Day 1970: Nanna had afternoon tea ready for us after our swim: gingerbread, shortbread, mince tarts and more Christmas cake. (The lollies and the nuts just stayed on the table all day.) We also had hedgehog, which I had made myself on the 23rd. Mum had stowed it securely in the car and it came out now and everyone praised me highly. I was over the moon. (Perhaps that was the beginning of my enthusiasm for cooking.)
 Mind you, there are many things that aren’t appreciated universally: cumquat marmalade and Auntie Margie’s watermelon rind pickles come to mind.
 Navels are brilliant. Whenever you eat an orange, put the pieces of peel into the freezer and wait until you have enough.
 How I do not know: we were sardined in with five people, luggage for the same and all the presents for all the family.
If you have a predilection for a particular craft, you will find plenty of ideas for making Christmas decorations in your usual sources of inspiration be they magazines, blogs or craft groups. Popular choices include wreaths, hanging ornaments and nativity scenes.
Or perhaps you’re more interested in functional items. If so, consider aprons and napery, Santa sacks or clothing. (T-shirts are more appropriate in Australia than jumpers or stocking hats.)
I cooked fancy sausage rolls today – pork, chive and pistachio – and Jeremy loved them so much that he’s suggested he make them for lunch on my birthday, which is fine by me – they were indeed delicious.
 Or nature. My friend Jill made a wooden manger with a polymer clay baby that was modelled on her daughter Allison, and my friend Carol’s mother went to art classes when she retired so that she could paint the angel she was certain she had seen in her garage the year before.
 My colleague Gemma has a brother who is a chef in a large hotel and he once carved a nativity scene from ice. (It did not last the twelve days of Christmas.)
 Whenever someone says “pistachio”, I’m always tempted to say “gesundheit”.
Ding dong merrily on high
Christmas bells are the church bells that call you to the Christmas Day service; the sleigh bells that jingle all the way; red and yellow bell-shaped flowers that bloom at Christmas in New South Wales, and a carol based on a poem by Longfellow that starts with:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play
and rolls on to:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The canon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
so it’s actually an anti-slavery ode of the American Civil War.
Consequently, you can adopt Christmas bells if you’re Christian or not, if you like snömys or prefer summer flowers, or if you’d like to make a (belated) statement against American slavery.
 This verse is typically omitted from the Christmas carol.
Here’s a variation on Kris Kringle that is a game in itself and can be a hoot. It works particularly well in clubs and offices where most people know each other but it’s best to keep the numbers below twenty.
- Each person brings a present, suitably gift-wrapped, which is wacky or ridiculous and is also second-hand.
- All of the presents are put on a table in the middle of the room and everyone stands in a circle around the table.
- Annabel goes first. She chooses a present from the table, unwraps it, shows everyone and says how marvellous it is, talking it up big even though this will be challenging.
- Then the person on Annabel’s left – Brad – takes a turn. He can either take Annabel’s present or he can take a fresh present from the table, unwrap it, and say how marvellous it is.
- If Brad took Annabel’s present, then Annabel has to take another present from the table, unwrap it and extol its virtues.
- Then it’s the turn of the person on Brad’s left – Courtney. She can take a fresh present or she can take Brad or Annabel’s. If she snatches a present, the person she takes it from can either snatch someone else’s present (but not Courtney’s – you can’t take the same present back in the same round) or open a new one and praise it. And if they do snatch someone else’s present, then the person left empty-handed has the same choice.
- So, each round continues until someone elects to open a new present, and there are as many rounds as there are people in the ring and everyone gets a gift.
This game is good because:
- It really is fun.
- You actually have a better chance of getting something you like than in a standard Kris Kringle because you have a degree of choice.
- Since the presents are second-hand, it’s a little greener than the usual Kris Kringle.
- Since the presents are supposed to be bizarre, you still don’t have a good chance of getting something you like.
- People who can’t be convincing about how wonderful their present is can get stuck with it for the whole game, so being articulate really helps.
My colleague Gemma has bought a house and she moved in on the weekend so I gave her a little housewarming present today – some biscuit cutters. I know she has an aeroplane and a wombat, so I gave her a flower and a gingerbread man and she is now equipped for any occasion: Valentine’s Day, Australia Day, Christmas and, if she makes flowers and ices them red like poppies, even Remembrance Day.
 Don once ended up with a large pottery rabbit. When his son mocked him, Don explained what his other options had been and Jack had to concede that Don had made the best choice.
If you’re looking for a way to entertain yourselves between Christmas dinner and Christmas tea, there are lots of games you can play with carols. They’re all quite similar, so I’ve listed them here in order of difficulty, and you can choose one that matches your gang’s familiarity with festive music.
- Start playing a carol. The first one who names it correctly gets a point.
- As above, but make it harder by playing unusual arrangements. (I have Babba – an Abba tribute band – playing “The Little Drummer Boy” in a style that makes it sound like “Fernando”, and I have a mambo “Silent Night” that is a long way from silent.)
- Play carols sung by famous singers and have people guess the singer.
- Recite the second verses of popular carols until someone recognises them.
- All-carol charades. (“Good King Wenceslas” is easier to act out than to do syllable by syllable!)
- Play the Spicks and Specks substitute game by giving a person the name of a carol and a completely unrelated book (the odder the better). They sing the text of the book to the tune of the carol and the others try to guess the song.
Christmas Day 1970: Brian was always the kind of person who would take advantage of someone else’s good idea (which, I’m sure, has contributed to his success in the corporate world) and he volunteered for the afternoon tea dishes to avoid the evening dish washing and Linda saw what he was doing and jumped on his bandwagon. (Peter and I just felt smug.)
 My father used to quibble about the punctuation in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and wouldn’t count the title correct unless the comma was after the “merry”, because it expresses a wish that all blokes will be happy, rather than that the happy blokes will find rest. (Wendy used to quibble about him quibbling.)
 My son Jeremy’s rendition of the words of Cluck! The True History of Chickens in the Cinema to the tune of “Angels We Have Heard on High” was particularly challenging.
 Taking advantage of someone taking advantage of someone else’s idea is also a strategy for success.
Cooking with children
Cooking with children is messy and time-consuming but they usually love it, it’s quality time and it teaches them important life skills. And, since food is such a big part of Christmas, it’s nice to make cooking a part of their Christmas from very early on. Here are some things that children typically enjoy cooking in the festive season:
- gingerbread (see 3 June)
- gingerbread houses (although they will certainly need plenty of help here)
- white Christmas
- rainbow jelly (of which more later)
- Christmas tree biscuits
- chocolate ripple cake
- church window biscuits (see 17 June)
- cupcakes with festive decorations
- fudge, rocky road, coconut ice and other classic sweets
- choc-dipped strawberries
- canapés, provided you stick to ingredients they like.
And most of these can serve as Small Presents for teachers, which will give you double value. So if you have children or if you’re likely to be entertaining children in December, schedule some cooking time into your calendar. (Remember to allow twice as much time as you’d need yourself.)
Fiona and I blocked ourselves out for one final sorting session two nights before the fete – and found ten new boxes waiting for us! We were there till eleven o’clock (but I did get a dozen Asterix books, which means that my personal library is richer. Between Fiona and me, the book stall has already raised $92 and the doors don’t open until Saturday).
 As sous chefs, not as ingredients.
 The traditional version is made with copha, which my sister Wendy disparages as “slabs of cold, white fat”. Personally, I think copha compares quite well to the other cold, white fats (like lard) but these days white Christmas is more often made with white chocolate (which is just another cold, white fat with added sugar and vanilla).
 Decorated with silver cachous (which are slightly more edible than solid silver cashews).
 Rollmops, for example, are most enjoyed by children who encountered them before they could say no.
Pizza, love and happiness
Here’s a sure-fire winner in the light meals/savoury snacks category.
Christmas wreath pizzas
Make your pizza dough, shape it into circles and place it on pizza trays, or buy ready-made pizza bases. Cut round holes in the centre using a small bowl as a template.
Bedeck the bases with your usual tomato base and cheese combo. Add cherry tomatoes and cook.
When the pizzas are done, scatter basil leaves over the top, serve and accept the applause.
Jeremy gave Danni a very pretty silver bracelet for their five-month anniversary. If they eventually get married, she’ll consider it quite a drop to get something made of paper for their first wedding anniversary!
 I know a few people who won’t eat pizza (because of allergies or because they’re watching their figures) but I only know one who doesn’t actually like it: my Uncle Bill (but I don’t think he likes any food that wasn’t around in his childhood).