Chapter 11 – November

1 November – Cup Day

If you’re Kris Kringling,[1] you need to allocate the names and you will need some practical rules, for example, that you can’t draw anyone from your own household.[2] You can do the draw virtually (by phone or email) but it works best if you can do it in person because then, if someone chooses their own spouse, they can say, “Oh no, that’s my wife!” and immediately exchange recipient.[3] So if you’re all going to be together someday soon, (someone’s birthday? Cup Day barbecue?) set aside a little time for Kris.

And if you’ve agreed to have a present moratorium (where no-one buys things for themselves in December), this is a good time to remind people of that too.

As it’s the first of the month, add October notes and photos to your letter notes, provided they beat the ones you already have.

2016-11-01
Chancy.

Jessica, one of the social club ingénues, is becoming quite practical. She has suggested that we hold the Christmas party in the conference room, thus eliminating venue hire, make the cocktails ourselves, thus keeping our bar tab to bottle shop prices and put on our own floor show.[4] But she won’t let go of the red velvet drapes and she hasn’t left any of the budget for food. (Food is appropriate at every social event you can think of – from football matches to funerals – and should be mandatory if you’re planning to drown the attendees in Manhattans and mai tais.)

[1] With your family, or with people who were called a “friendship group” when my children were at school but were just called “friends” in my own schooldays.

[2] My cousin Bronwyn’s in-laws had a secret rule that only the grandparents could be assigned to Fussy John because they were the only ones willing to put it up with his very exacting specifications for everything from DIY tools to polo shirts.

[3] I am assuming here that each nuclear family still gives presents to those in their own house, but this may not be the way you chose to do it. (I’ve certainly heard my cousin Russell say that he’d like an excuse not to give presents to his mother, because she already owns every quilting accessory in the world and doesn’t have room to store anything else.)

[4] I immediately volunteered to be stage manager because I’m afraid she’s still hankering after burlesque and, while I assure you that my underwear is respectable, none of it makes it to the “beguiling” category.

2 November

November is Shopping Month so, if you’re using the incremental method of Christmas shopping, start now! Make sure you put new data (prices of things bought, new ideas) into your present list as you go and set yourself a mission each day, like, “Get a moustache mug for Denny from Mugs R Us at lunchtime.”

2016-11-02
Supermarkets can’t wait to clear the Halloween stuff out to fill the shelves with Christmas knick-knackery.

I heard Hannah talking to Jeremy last night.

“You can’t keep it a secret forever,” she said, “and it will be much better if you tell her sooner rather than later.”

I’m surprised that there’s anything Jeremy keeps secret from Danni – they seem very, very close. But it reminded me that Christmas is a time for good secrets, so try not to let it slip what presents you’re giving people (unless you’re dealing with someone who really doesn’t like surprises).[1]

[1] Like my friend Fiona, who won’t unwrap a gift until you’ve told her what’s in it.

3 November

Herbacious

If you’re growing herbs for hampers, they may be ready for drying now. Hanging them upside down in bunches and letting nature take its course is traditional but doing them in the oven is faster and less risky.[1]

2016-11-03
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (and oregano, chives and spearmint).

I’ve persuaded Gemma to volunteer for the social club committee. I think the party cubs will enjoy working with her because she’s fun-loving and young but she also understands that a beer budget can’t be stretched to champagne cocktails. Provided she doesn’t propose anything to do with indoor cricket, I think we’ll all be very happy with her.

[1] My friend Fiona was drying bunches of parsley in the sun in her bay window and she walked in one morning to find them covered with caterpillars. She said the creatures were the same colour as the swirls on her couch so it took her days before she was convinced that she’d got them all out.

4 November

Reining it in

Sticking to your budget requires discipline:

  • Don’t buy a present that’s over budget unless you’ve already made the savings elsewhere.
  • Don’t buy dubious presents early in November: you may come across something better later.
  • It is okay to buy dubious presents late in November but only if you promise yourself that you won’t replace the compromise present with something else at the last minute. (Buying twice is False Bargain #2.)
  • If you get a surprisingly good bargain, don’t feel obliged to add anything else: a good present is a good present even if it’s cheap.[1]
2016-11-04
“Surprise me,” she said. “I’ve got you something you’ll hate,” I replied.

Of course, all of this is much easier if you have a very generous present budget.

“You won’t believe what Gertruda is giving us for Christmas!” Wendy said to me in an excited phone call at lunchtime. “A tropical island cruise! New Caledonia and Vanuatu! In suites with balconies!”

Gertruda, although stubborn (and, apparently, devious) is both well-off[2] and generous, which is a happy combination for both the giver and the receivers.

[1] My mother tended to do this. She’d buy a scarf for her sister and be worried that maybe it wasn’t quite right so she’d add a book and, although logic says that the combination should have felt like an even more generous gift, the extra book just telegraphed that she thought there was something wrong with the scarf.

[2] Although she’s not so heavily laden, now that she has sold most of her jewels.

5 November

Rainbow jelly

Here’s my (underage) crowd-pleasing rainbow jelly recipe[1].

You need:

  • 1 packet each of red, orange, yellow, green and purple jelly crystals[2]
  • a packet of chocolate coins
  • water and kettle (or anything else that boils water)
  • a mixing bowl and spoon
  • a measuring cup
  • a lot of small,[3] straight-sided[4] drinking glasses[5]
  • a ruler
  • 2 days

2016-11-05A

And here’s what you do:

  1. Make up the purple jelly according to the directions on the packet and leave it to cool to room temperature[6] on the kitchen bench.

2016-11-05B

  1. In the meantime, make sure you have plenty of room in the fridge.
  2. Use the ruler to measure how thick each of the jelly stripes should be. For example, if you have 10cm of space inside your glasses, since you have 6 colours of jelly, if you make each stripe 1.5cm high, you’ll have a centimetre of space left at the top which is about perfect. If you’re mathematically inclined, the formula is:

StripeHeight = (GlassHeight – GapAtTop)/6

  1. When the jelly is cool, pour some into the first glass, using the ruler to get it just the right height, and then do the other glasses, matching them to the first by eye.

2016-11-05C

  1. Carefully drop a chocolate coin[7] into each glass.[8]
  2. Put the glasses into the fridge to set the jelly.
  3. Rinse your bowl and spoon, make the blue jelly and leave it on the bench to come to room temperature.
  4. Pour the blue jelly into the first glass,[9] again using the ruler to get it to the right height.

2016-11-05D

  1. Then add a blue stripe to each of the other glasses, matching them to the first blue stripe by eye.
  2. Put the glasses back in the fridge.

2016-11-05E

  1. Repeat steps 7 to 10 with the green, yellow, orange and red jellies.

2016-11-05F

Some adults will find this irresistible too.

*

 “Mum,” said Jeremy, “I’m going to spend Christmas with Danni.”

I knew the day would come eventually but I didn’t know it would be this year.

“But you only met her a few months ago,” I peeped.

“That’s long enough to know that she’s the one and I want to be with her always.”

“You could both come here.”

“Christmas is really important to her and she wants to spend it with her family.”

I didn’t say that Christmas is really important to me, and I want to spend it with my family because that’s not likely to persuade a young man in love. I guess my best chance is to wait till next year and then propose that they alternate between the two households (and I should count myself lucky that Danni’s parents are still together, which means that they won’t have to alternate between three households).

A colleague once told me that when your daughter marries, you gain a son but when your son marries, you lose a son. But I’m reminding myself that this isn’t that bad, of course. It’s only Christmas.

[1] I promise you that proper rainbow jelly will knock the socks off three-year-old guests.

[2] It’s definitely colour rather than flavour that’s important here and I recommend Aeroplane Jelly’s raspberry, orange, lemon, lime, berry blue and purple grape.

[3] Because nobody needs a lot of jelly.

[4] If the glasses taper (like classic parfait glasses), you need more jelly for the top layers than in the bottom layers.

[5] They don’t have to match.

[6] It won’t set at room temperature unless your kitchen is quite cold (and you can microwave the jelly to liquefy it again if it does set).

[7] This is the gold at the end of the rainbow and is a big part of the appeal.

[8] This is the first reason that the jelly needs to be cool: so that you don’t melt the chocolate.

[9] This is the other reason the jelly needs to be cool: if you pour hot jelly on top of cold jelly, you melt it a little and the colours get murky.

Here’s my (underage) crowd-pleasing rainbow jelly recipe[1].

You need:

  • 1 packet each of red, orange, yellow, green and purple jelly crystals[2]
  • a packet of chocolate coins
  • water and kettle (or anything else that boils water)
  • a mixing bowl and spoon
  • a measuring cup
  • a lot of small,[3] straight-sided[4] drinking glasses[5]
  • a ruler
  • 2 days

 

And here’s what you do:

  1. Make up the purple jelly according to the directions on the packet and leave it to cool to room temperature[6] on the kitchen bench.

 

  1. In the meantime, make sure you have plenty of room in the fridge.
  2. Use the ruler to measure how thick each of the jelly stripes should be. For example, if you have 10cm of space inside your glasses, since you have 6 colours of jelly, if you make each stripe 1.5cm high, you’ll have a centimetre of space left at the top which is about perfect. If you’re mathematically inclined, the formula is:

StripeHeight = (GlassHeight – GapAtTop)/6

  1. When the jelly is cool, pour some into the first glass, using the ruler to get it just the right height, and then do the other glasses, matching them to the first by eye.

 

  1. Carefully drop a chocolate coin[7] into each glass.[8]
  2. Put the glasses into the fridge to set the jelly.
  3. Rinse your bowl and spoon, make the blue jelly and leave it on the bench to come to room temperature.
  4. Pour the blue jelly into the first glass,[9] again using the ruler to get it to the right height.

2016-11-05D

  1. Then add a blue stripe to each of the other glasses, matching them to the first blue stripe by eye.
  2. Put the glasses back in the fridge.

2016-11-05E

  1. Repeat steps 7 to 10 with the green, yellow, orange and red jellies.

2016-11-05F

Some adults will find this irresistible too.

*

 “Mum,” said Jeremy, “I’m going to spend Christmas with Danni.”

I knew the day would come eventually but I didn’t know it would be this year.

“But you only met her a few months ago,” I peeped.

“That’s long enough to know that she’s the one and I want to be with her always.”

“You could both come here.”

“Christmas is really important to her and she wants to spend it with her family.”

I didn’t say that Christmas is really important to me, and I want to spend it with my family because that’s not likely to persuade a young man in love. I guess my best chance is to wait till next year and then propose that they alternate between the two households (and I should count myself lucky that Danni’s parents are still together, which means that they won’t have to alternate between three households).

A colleague once told me that when your daughter marries, you gain a son but when your son marries, you lose a son. But I’m reminding myself that this isn’t that bad, of course. It’s only Christmas.

[1] I promise you that proper rainbow jelly will knock the socks off three-year-old guests.

[2] It’s definitely colour rather than flavour that’s important here and I recommend Aeroplane Jelly’s raspberry, orange, lemon, lime, berry blue and purple grape.

[3] Because nobody needs a lot of jelly.

[4] If the glasses taper (like classic parfait glasses), you need more jelly for the top layers than in the bottom layers.

[5] They don’t have to match.

[6] It won’t set at room temperature unless your kitchen is quite cold (and you can microwave the jelly to liquefy it again if it does set).

[7] This is the gold at the end of the rainbow and is a big part of the appeal.

[8] This is the first reason that the jelly needs to be cool: so that you don’t melt the chocolate.

[9] This is the other reason the jelly needs to be cool: if you pour hot jelly on top of cold jelly, you melt it a little and the colours get murky.

6 November

Nailing down the feast

You’ve already sketched out what you’re eating for Christmas (classic turkey, prawn fest, fusion buffet?) and now it’s time to nail it down. Start with Christmas breakfast, trundle right through to Christmas supper (if anyone in your crew can pace themselves that well)[1] and list every dish and every drink. And if you find gaps or clashes, settle in and sort them out.

If you’re depending on others who are less organised than you,[2] they may not yet know what they’re providing, so get them to commit to a category (cold dessert, meat platter, salad or whatever) and let them know the constraints (Bernie is doing coleslaw and Sally is making sticky date pudding) to head them in the right direction.[3] Then add the other feasts you’ll be catering for, even if it’s just shortbread for a morning tea at work and Icy Poles for after-school care.

If there are any tight spots, like too much to cook on Christmas Eve or you’ve scheduled the gingerbread house for the night you’ll be at the bridge club knees-up, reschedule, delegate or simplify. Cook-ahead dishes can help (provided they’re delicious, like trifle and chocolate ripple cake, rather than dubious, like Auntie Margie’s jellied salad).

Consider ordering your Christmas meat now: you can wait till December if you’re not certain of numbers but if, like me, you have it all bolted down, you might as well lock it in with your butcher.

2016-11-06
The ripple effect.

Christmas Day 1970: There was a debate about who should do the tea dishes: Caroline and Wendy were clearly on the hook but every other kid had already done double duty that day and two lackeys wasn’t enough. Then Uncle Jim pointed out that neither Uncle Geoff nor Uncle Bill had been involved in the dinner dishes and that solved the problem to the children’s satisfaction – but not to Geoff’s or Bill’s!

[1] When my nephew Jack stops being an ever-growing teenager and becomes a settled adult, I’m going to miss the way he eats like a hippo: I like being able to put down a plate of cranberry chocolate clusters and know that someone is going to say, “Yum!” when everyone else is groaning and saying, “More food?”.

[2] If they haven’t been reading my blog!

[3] My father said that the right direction for Auntie Margie to head was towards the food hall but I know he liked her salami casserole and her whisky blancmange so that was a bit harsh.

7 November

Trickle cards

As with the Christmas shopping, you can do all of your cards in one big hit or you can trickle-feed them, depending on your schedule and inclination.[1]

If you’d like to do your cards in small batches, writing a few every night in the evening (or on the train, or waiting for the kids at swimming lessons)[2] can work well and it also makes it easy to stay fresh when adding personal notes.[3]

If you’re using commercial cards, write the names of the people you send them to inside the box. Then, if you have a few leftovers, you can use them next year but you’ll be able to ensure that you send different cards. (Or just send the leftovers to the kind of people who won’t notice the same card two years running.)

2016-11-07
Pick a card, any card.

My nephew Ben was talking about their South Pacific holiday. It seems they’re all going: my sister Wendy and her husband Don, and their kids, and the kids’ partners and baby Mia. It would be lovely to be rich enough to be able to take all of those people on a luxury cruise but, when confronted with other people’s wealth, it’s also important to remember your own: if you’re well fed, well housed and have access to good hospitals and schools, you’re better off than most people in the world, so you’re rich too.

[1] And the number of cards – Hannah sent just two cards last year so doing them all at once and doing them two at a time turned out to be the same thing.

[2] But not in the rain at Little Athletics, which is what Lisa did one year and they were unreadable.

[3] Sending exactly the same “personal” note to everyone is even easier.

8 November

Present problems

Today is the day that St Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain.[1]

If you don’t have enough ideas for presents yet, here are some suggestions for generating suggestions:

  • Check out the websites you bookmarked during the year.
  • Ask others: your kids may have good ideas about what their cousins want, for example.[2]
  • Quiz the people themselves! Many people enjoy being asked what they’d like.
  • Get them to initial your catalogues (see 14 October).

And remember that you’re buying to their taste, not yours.[3]

2016-11-08
All I want for Christmas is…

It seems that Gemma has been listening when I’ve been talking about my blog and she offered up a brilliant compromise solution to the office party problem: a wassail bowl. This would be exotic as well as Christmassy and we could probably do it for nearly the same price as beer. I immediately suggested that we add a fruit punch for anyone who wants to stay upright, both ideas were accepted and I am starting to think that we might be able to make this work. (I have seen what a disaster to morale the bungled birthday cake roster was and I am afraid that a bad Christmas party could bring this company to its knees!)

[1] See? I’m not the only one who starts Christmas this early.

[2] And bad ideas too. My son Jeremy has tried to persuade me to buy all kinds of wicked practical jokes for his cousin Jack but I knew my sister Wendy would boomerang it all back to me faster than you could say “whoopee cushion”.

[3] Although I learned not to entirely ignore my own feelings when I gave my brother a record called “Disco Duck” when he was ten. He really wanted it and he was only ten so that doesn’t count against him but I hated it, and had to listen to it five times a day until he finally got sick of it.

9 November

Present solutions

Here are some ideas for tricky people. They won’t work for everyone, of course, but maybe one of them will be suitable for your tricky person:

  • Australians are often impressed by something really old[1] and you may be surprised by the price you’ll pay for an ancient coin. Something rare or in superb condition will be expensive but check your nearest coin dealer for common Roman coins: they could well be within your budget even though they were minted two thousand years ago.
  • Blokes who don’t care for clothes shopping sometimes like to be given fancy socks (with pictures of ducks or chess pieces or robots to match their interests). This is particularly good for middle-aged men who are feeling old-fashioned: you can choose something funky and modern but, because they’re just socks, the men can wear them to the office without having to update the rest of their wardrobes to match.
  • People in nursing homes are winding their possessions down rather than up, so they tend not to need vases and golf clubs. But there’s often particular food they like (Turkish delight, tomato relish, Monte Carlos) and puzzle books and hankies can be good too.
  • Any of the Small Present food ideas (see 19 April) upscaled appropriately: a big box of fancy chocolates; a collection of liqueur miniatures; a range of sauces from a specialist chilli shop; a recipe book for a particular cuisine along with a selection of spices used by that cuisine.
  • I’ve mentioned calendars before because you can find something tailored to even the most niche interests and it’s generally not a problem if a person has several.[2]
2016-11-09
Sometimes, presents are a snip.

Jeremy and Danni and I went to Hannah’s place last night to dine with Caitlin (my ex’s current wife) and Pixie and Poppet (her daughters). Lachlan had made tabouli and Caitlin mentioned that she hates chopping parsley and I immediately started thinking about giving her a herb snipper for Christmas[3] but then I remembered that you don’t give presents to your ex’s current! But it did remind me of another source of present ideas for tricky people: if you have something useful that you absolutely love, be it a kitchen gadget, a gardening tool or a fantastic weather app, consider giving that to anyone with the same interests.

[1] Auntie Betty gave Uncle Geoff a vintage tractor for Christmas back before anyone else was interested in them. First she thought she’d done well because he loved it so much, but then she regretted it when it inspired him to start collecting vintage tractors (and to keep building new sheds to house them). She thought it was a good idea again when she sold them all when he died and made a truckload of money.

[2] Several is generally not a problem, but three or four from every year of your life can be. My friend Carol threw out a suitcase of her hoarding mother’s old calendars and was criticised for ditching family history but she was unrepentant. “Nobody needs to know who went to the dentist twenty years ago,” she insisted, “and even fewer people need to know when the third-last car they owned was serviced.”

[3] I’ve got a really good one and it works so well that I gave one to every cook in the family a few years ago.

10 November

Sources of light

If you use Christmas lights, it’s a good time to review your stocks of them. Let solar lights sit in the sun for a full day to see if they’re still good to go and, if they’re not, try putting a fresh rechargeable battery in.[1]

If you do have dud lights, I’d like to say that you should repair and re-reuse them but I think this is only practical for hobbyists who are happy to spend time tinkering.[2] If there are gaps in your ensemble, you’ll easily find what you need on the shelves in the shops. They certainly won’t be at their cheapest yet but they will be fully stocked so if it’s important that you get a specific kind of light, and money is no object, shop now, but if you want to save money, either wait until the prices drop (in mid December) or re-do your decoration plan to take your limited supplies into account.

And remember – the only green way to do Christmas lights is to not do Christmas lights at all.

2016-11-10
Let there be lights.

Christmas Day 1970: After tea, the children were put to bed in waves: Felicity was only two so Auntie Betty took her family home to their farmhouse as soon as the dishes were done and it felt as if Christmas was winding to a close. (On other days, I may have felt a little sad at this point. On Christmas Day, my blood-chocolate levels were so high that I was incapable of registering sorrow.)

[1] I wish the same trick worked with people: one of my colleagues has been listless and weary for a while and I’m not sure if I should suggest a holiday, a counsellor or a big steak.

[2] My old neighbour Gustav used to salvage old Christmas lights from the hard garbage and then he would repurpose all the little LEDs into panels to light up his garage. (It was the most Christmassy thing he ever did.)

11 November

Remotely interested in shopping

Buying presents through the internet or by old-school mail order is particularly good for people who live a long way away because you can have the present delivered directly to their address.[1]

Some caveats:

  • If you want it to be a surprise, perhaps you can address it to someone else in the household and ask them to keep it from the recipient.[2]
  • Some of these websites have gift wrapping services but some don’t.
  • If you’re sending a present to someone who lives overseas, buy it from a website based in their country and organise local postage.[3]
2016-11-11
Post haste.

Christmas Day 1970: Mum wanted to put Matthew to bed after our Mallee cousins left. Dad suggested that he skip his nightly bath but Mum looked at his jelly-smeared hands[4] and the mouth that had been eating lollies constantly since the morning and decided bathing wasn’t optional. Matthew didn’t want to miss anything[5] and started crying but then Auntie Pat suggested that Steve (who was a year older and hence a year cooler and a source of much fun)[6] join him in the bath and so the party continued and everything was fine.

[1] This works for nearly everyone but not for my friend Jenny’s brother-in-law when he spent a year in the Antarctic at one of the research stations. (He had a white Christmas, even though it was actually summer.)

[2] My friend Fiona and I cycled around Tasmania together after we left school and each bought our fathers “Tasmanian Wilderness” calendars for Christmas. The calendars came with good, sturdy mailing pouches, which meant we could send them home safely straight away but the pouches were emblazoned with logos that gave the game away. So I sent one to me c/o Fiona’s address and she sent one to herself c/o my address, and we each said, “Oh, it’s for my friend’s dad,” when we got home … but then just kept the one we had in our hands.

[3] Where possible. Not even Father Christmas delivers to Antarctica (even though he’s dressed for it).

[4] He had been forced to use a spoon when eating jelly, but that doesn’t stop a four-year-old from making a mess.

[5] Or perhaps he was resisting yet another change of clothes.

[6] I believe this is when Steve taught Matthew how to make fart sounds by blowing into the crook of his elbow.

12 November

A bit drafty

It’s time to draft your Christmas letter to get it into the mail at the end of the month. Start with the basic structure:

  • What are your main stories? (If tossing up between something important (like the reason you decided to move house), and something amusing (like what happened when you packed confetti in the same box as the clockwork toys), choose amusing.)
  • Will you list the tales in chronological order or do they flow better some other way?[1]
  • Which are the must-have photos?
  • If any whimsical, light-hearted phrases pop into mind, jot them down as you go.
  • Then knock the outline into sentences and paragraphs and remember to keep it under two pages (even with photos), to make it entertaining and keep it modest.

The letter doesn’t have to dance with merriment in this first draft[2] but do ensure it’s coherent.

2016-11-12
Letter opener.

I emailed my nephew Jack to ask him what he’d like for Christmas and he sent me a link to some board shorts he wants for the New Caledonia beaches.

“When exactly are you going?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard the dates,” he said, “but Babcia said she made sure it was in the school holidays.”

Late December or early January, then. I won’t count them into my New Year plans.[3]

[1] My cousin Caroline’s last letter went in reverse order: she started with photos of a new hayshed decorated with balloons and streamers, followed it with the dramatic tale of how the old one burnt down, then told us about the rats that dragged oily rags under a faulty popcorn maker, and ended up with the fortuitous visit of her insurance agent two weeks before that who got all her policies in tip-top order. (The only detail she omitted was why she had a popcorn maker in a hayshed.)

[2] Although some people can’t help it: Todd once sent me a packing list before we took our two families off to spend a week at his ski lodge and it was hilarious.

[3] There are some people you can never count in for your NYE plans. Uncle Geoff was a (very) early riser who got hours of farm work done before most of us sat down to breakfast so he tended to nod off in front of the television at about eight thirty each night. He would join in the early NYE festivities each year but, at about nine o’clock, he’d say, “I guess the new year can see itself in without me,“ and shuffle off to bed.

13 November

Used and refused

Well-organised op shops may have tables of Christmas ephemera for sale about now. You might find:

  • boxes of tatty decorations (possibly deceased estate)[1] – don’t bother unless you have plenty of time to comb through them on the off-chance that there’s something good in there.
  • cheap Christmas crockery and plastickery – people ditch this because it clogs up their cupboards and is not worth keeping for another season. You may get lucky if you want pretty, festive dishes to put edible Small Presents on but, if not, give this whole category a miss and keep your own cupboards clear.
  • strange Christmas trinkets like reindeer hobby horses, teddy bears in Yuletide jumpers and Santa-shaped anythings. The original owner didn’t need these and neither do you.
2016-11-13
Op shop Yule crop.

Christmas Day 1970: The television stayed on when the Queen had finished talking to us and we worked our way through all the Christmas specials of British sitcoms the ABC chose to broadcast. (I would like to say that we were outside in the sunshine, playing cricket and climbing trees but it just wasn’t so: the kids were tired and the adults were comatose from too much food and no-one had the strength to leave the dining table.)

[1] Or hoarder’s estate: my friend Carol took four kilograms of liqueur glasses to her local op shop in spring. “I don’t think she’ll notice,” she said to me. “The only person Mum ever offered sherry to was the vicar, and the current incumbent prefers beer.”

14 November

Carol repair

Many traditional carols are sexist but some of them can be fixed:

  • In “Mary’s Boy Child”, change “Man will live forever more” to “We will live forever more”.
  • In “Good King Wenceslas”, change “Therefore Christian men be sure” to “Therefore Christians all be sure”.
  • In “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, change “Peace to men on earth” to “Peace to all on earth”.
  • In “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, change “Goodwill to men” to “Goodwill to all”, and change “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” to “God is not dead and doth not sleep” (or “God is not dead, nor doth She sleep” if you prefer).

You can see the pattern here and you may find other places to apply it but some carols are less malleable. For example, a later verse of “Jingle Bells” says “Take the girls tonight and sing this sleighing song” which fits the world view of straight men and lesbians, but not of straight women and gay men.[1]

2017-11-14
De-sexing carols.

Christmas Day 1970: Around eight thirty, Nanna got out a tin of sweets she had been given by one of her students. Uncle Bill groaned and spoke of torture but he still ate a few, which I thought was hypocritical.[2] I had a lolly too (but I hadn’t complained I was too full to move) and found that the assortment was one of those that masqueraded as chocolate but was mostly toffee and, even at the age of eight, I was disappointed when I got vanilla fudge instead of chocolate truffle.[3]

[1] I assume that the tailoring of this song to lesbians was a happy accident rather than a deliberate inclusion!

[2] With all the pompous self-righteousness a primary school kid can bring to an ethical issue.

[3] My cousin Brian said that it was also hard to get the chocolate you wanted from a box of Cadbury Roses because the colours on the key were so misleading that they should be called “Cadbury Ruses” instead.

15 November

China check

How many people are you feeding at Christmas? Do you have enough plates? What will you do if not? Buy more? Borrow some?[1] Mix different sets? Is there anything you could adjust? Are the kids small enough to use salad plates? Would they prefer festive plastic plates?[2]

15 nov 2016
Christmas assortment.

Also check your cutlery, and glasses and if you don’t have enough, I can probably lend you some of mine, because Wendy rang me last night and said, “Janet, you know our cruise?”

Of course I do.

“We set sail on the twentieth. I’ve just found out.”

“The twentieth of January? How’s that going to get you back for first term?”

“The twentieth of December. We’ll be away for Christmas.”

I was aghast.

“I told you Gertruda was devious! And I can’t say no now. Everyone is looking forward to it so much – and it is a tropical cruise. I don’t want to miss it either.”

Do you know who that leaves on my guest list for Christmas dinner? Just Matthew and me. I confess I cried, but it wasn’t for the loss of the splendid Christmas I’ve been looking forward to, it was because my whole family seems quite happy to do without me. But crying doesn’t change anything, so I eventually pulled myself together and started to recut my plans. (We won’t need the extension for the dining table. In fact, we could use the little table on the porch and still have plenty of room for water jugs and walnuts. And crackers: I made fourteen, so we can have seven each. How festive.)

[1] My friend Fiona and her sisters couldn’t decide who should get their mother’s dinner service when she died, so they split it. This meant that none of them had enough dishes for even a weekday dinner so they all went out and bought more. Between them, they ended up with three dozen identical place settings so they all borrowed from each other whenever they had a big party. “The initial fight ended up with us working together,” says Jill. “I think my mother would have liked that.”

[2] They can be pretty gaudy, but kids usually like gaudy.

16 November

Ginger bread beer

In my opinion, soft drink comes straight from Satan: the only thing in it that could be considered food is sugar – and we all get too much of that – and there’s quite strong evidence that sweet drinks contribute significantly to obesity[1] but if there’s a time it’s appropriate to drink pop, it must be Christmas.

You could consider making your own ginger beer. It doesn’t have significantly more food value[2] but you can at least avoid the foam inhibitors and artificial flavourings of commercial soft drink. Children will usually find this fun (and you can turn it into a science lesson) and the ginger beer is good as a mixer, both in punch (see 16 July) and in cocktails.[3] In fact, it’s useful enough to be a good addition to a hamper.  So here’s my father’s recipe:

Ginger beer

2016-11-16

Makes 10 litres

Preparation time 1 hour

Start 1 to 2 weeks ahead

2 lemons

1 knob of ginger (approx. 120g)

10 litres water

1 kg sugar

3.5g dried yeast

Peel the lemons and slice them thinly. Cut the ginger into thin slices and bruise with a rolling pin.

Put the sugar in a large vat and add the lemons and ginger.

Boil 1 to 2 litres of water, pour into the vat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool.

When cool, add enough cold water to make the volume up to about 10 litres. Sprinkle the yeast on top, cover with a clean tea towel and leave it at room temperature to ferment.

The ginger beer will be ready to bottle when the fermentation has caused all of the solids to float to the top, and the drink is peppered with small bubbles. (This takes about a day in summer, and about a week in winter.)

Strain the ginger beer into plastic soft drink bottles[4] and let stand again. When the bottles are tight (after about 3 days in summer), open a bottle carefully and taste the product. If the flavour is right, refrigerate all the bottles and then drink your delicious ginger beer at your leisure.

*

I rang Matthew yesterday, once I got myself back together.

“It’s just going to be you and me for Christmas,” I explained.

“We could go to a restaurant if you like,” he said.

“Over my dead body!” I replied.

“Then we’ll stay home and be merry anyway,” he said.

But I don’t know how I’m going to reorganise the menu. I rang my butcher and said. “Bill, cancel those two size thirty-six turkeys and put me down for one size twenty.”

“How many are you feeding?” he asked.

“Two,” I said.

“I could do you a nice turkey breast roast,” he said.

“It’s a whole bird or nothing,” I replied. “Don’t worry, I have plenty of recipes for leftover turkey. And please swap my four-kilogram ham for the smallest you’ve got.”

He offered me pre-sliced ham, but I wasn’t having any of that. Not for Christmas!

So that’s the meat sorted (all the way through to February, I think!) but I currently have five desserts on the list and you just can’t justify that for two people, but how can we not have pudding and trifle and cheesecake and fruit salad? It’s still Christmas, even if there are only two of us.

[1] Even the ones with low-cal sweeteners.

[2] It does have lemon in it but not enough to stop you getting scurvy.

[3] Moscow mule = vodka + ginger beer + mint leaves + lime wedges (and absolutely nothing equine).

[4] The plastic can take a surprising amount of pressure, thus avoiding the back-cupboard explosions that were all too common in the days that my father kept his ginger beer in glass. The bangs startled guests and were a waste of bottles, soft drink and time (because it took a while to clean up the mess) but Dad said he enjoyed the frisson of danger he felt whenever he approached the cupboard.

17 November

The other red hat

You will remember that Julenissen are the gnomes who deliver Christmas presents to children in Norway (see 8 August). They are very fetching in their grey clothes with their white beards and pointy red hats and they are infiltrating the world of craft: if you’re handy with a needle, you can find patterns to make Julenisse from felt, from cloth, from wool and even from pinecones.[1]

So, if you’re sick of decorating with reindeer, consider Norwegian gnomes. (Plague proportions of anything tie in well with the Christmas spirit of abundance.)

2016-11-17
The gname of this gnome is Julenisse.

Matthew rang me today.

“Why don’t we invite Auntie Gwen and Susan to Christmas dinner?” he said.

This is such a good idea that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it myself earlier in the year. So I rang them and they accepted and Auntie Gwen also said that Susan will have finished her chemo well before Christmas and she should be able to enjoy food again. (I must find out what her favourite dishes are.)

So, although I would have been distraught to find myself down to four for Christmas just a week ago, today I am positively delighted that we’ve doubled the guest list overnight! (How many desserts can you justify for four people? Surely at least three.)[2]

[1] This is a waste of pinecones (but so is everything else that involves pinecones and paint).

[2] I’ve been parsimonious with sugar for the whole year: I think I’ve earned three desserts on Christmas Day!

18 November

In print

Polish your letter until it sparkles and then proofread it carefully to catch any mistakes. If possible, ask someone else to proofread it too (since it seems to be impossible to catch all of one’s own errors)[1] and then format it attractively.[2]

Finally, print out the right number of copies of your letter and remember to do one for your archives.[3]

2016-11-18

The office Christmas party plans are beginning to crystallise: it’s wassail and fruit punch with a “King Winter” theme and we’ll decorate with the holly and ivy that I still have way too much of in my backyard. We’ll describe the food as “medieval” and it will be bread and cheese and pickled onions (which means it could also be described as “cheap”) leaving the bulk of the budget for the wassail.

[1] Which, unfortunately, seems to be true in life in general as well as in writing.

[2] Having too much text to fit on two pages is not a cue to use a tiny font: it’s a cue to cut.

[3] Or not. Carol’s hoarding mother has carbon copies of every letter she wrote in her youth and, although these may potentially have historical value one day, the copies of every bill she has ever received have less narrative interest.

19 November

Big bang theory

If you don’t like the steady trickle Christmas shop, or if you lack the time on the average day or lack a convenient emporium, then you can do your Christmas shopping in one big bang: allocate a morning (or a whole day) to go to a big shopping centre. Prepare yourself the night before: you’ll need comfortable shoes and a capacious bag and you should read your present list and your ideas through carefully and plan your approach.[1]

Theoretically, it’s still a good idea to get the presents you’re sure about first because you may get inspiration for the people you don’t have gifts for. In practice, this might lead to you walking the length of the shopping centre ten times over so, unless you’re keen for this to be physical exercise as well as a logistic exercise, shop geographically by visiting each relevant shop as you pass it.

Take your goods back to the car whenever they get too heavy[2] and stop frequently, either for food (whether from the food court or your own packed lunch, depending on your culinary and fiscal preferences) or just to do something revitalising (like reading the paper).[3]

Save the receipts – both for your records and in case you need to return anything.

2016-11-19
Ready, set, shop!

I bought a really pretty china tea set for Pixie and some lovely wooden farm animals for Poppet. (I don’t know when I’ll see them over Christmas yet but I’ll make sure we meet some time in December.)

[1] My cousin Brian shops online but he still allocates a whole morning for it and he sits down in his study and wanders through web sites until he’s filled his Christmas list. (But he doesn’t wear comfortable shoes … or anything at all. He said he did it naked one particularly humid day and found it did such a good job of keeping his teenagers out of his study while he shopped that he has now made it a tradition.)

[2] Ignore this instruction if you travel by bus (and, if you do travel by bus, consider adding a weight limit to your price limit for presents).

[3] Or Snapchatting pictures of horrible items to your brother and threatening to buy them for him for Christmas, as Hannah did last year.

20 November

On impulse

 

2016-11-20
Just the thing for white Christmas?[1]
The shops are starting to fill up with things like these Christmas patty cases, so there you are in the supermarket and you think, “How cute! And only three dollars! I’ll get some!” But resist impulse buying, ask yourself if you’d really use them and sleep on it.[2] Three dollars isn’t much by itself, but three dollars every day from now until Christmas is over a hundred dollars and that’s enough to buy something a whole lot better than patty cases.[3]

*

I went to the craft market today where I bought Gertruda’s lace collar a few months back and was tempted to ask them if I could return it! But that would be unchristian of me (yes, I’m an atheist but I have Christian values) so I resisted.

[1] Wendy is vehement in her dislike of white Christmas so Emma cooked a batch every year to tease her. Emma upped the ante each time by adding increasingly delicious ingredients but ceded defeat once she’d reached slivered almonds, flaked coconut and rum-soaked dried apricots. “If that didn’t tempt her, nothing will,” Emma told me. Wendy said if she was going to be bribed to eat copha, it would take at least a sports car.

[2] Carol has both a positive and a negative section in her shopping list: the left column is must-haves like flour and nutmeg, and the right column is must-not-haves like decorations and chocolate.

[3] You could get a kilo of pom poms, a butterfly net and a pogo stick, for example (which could make for a very interesting Christmas Eve).

21 November

It’s a date

Way back in January, you sketched out your Christmas schedule but you probably had to guess most of it. Now it’s time to tighten it up. Big bashes (office parties, Girl Guide break-ups) have probably set their dates so, if you haven’t heard, ask.[1] Small events (catching up with neighbours, visiting old friends) quite possibly haven’t been organised yet, so take the wheel and get the date negotiations under way.[2] Flexible events (like dropping a cake off for your aunt in her nursing home)[3] can then be scheduled around those other events.

As you put each date into your calendar, schedule the appropriate work too: if you need to take a plate to the school break-up, block out the evening before to cook;[4] if the neighbours will be meeting at your house for Christmas drinks, allow time for a clean-up (before and after!).[5]

21 nov 2016

Christmas Day 1970: We tent-dwellers were allowed to stay up past our bedtimes on Christmas night but I think this was intended as a treat for our parents rather than for us: it meant that they didn’t have to deal with the arguments and protestations.

When we finally trundled off to bed, Nanna called out, “Sleep well – you’ll need all your strength tomorrow!”

“Why?” asked Peter, thinking excitedly of lake picnics or tree-house building.

“We’ll be making jam, and I need you to pick the apricots.”

There would be buckets of them, the sun would be hot and the adults would be relentless but we were too tired to give it any thought. Christmas was too special to waste any time thinking of the morrow.

[1] I got an email from my ex-colleague Donna today (the one who couldn’t organise a stationery cupboard). She wanted to know how far ahead you have to book office Christmas parties, which venues I recommend, what kind of package she should be looking for and if she would have to organise extras like tinsel and crackers. I managed to resist the urge to give her misinformation but I did spend a few pleasant minutes contemplating what I could have said to her.

[2] The early bird catches the worm, and the well-organised party planner gets the best dates (and dates are better than worms any day).

[3] Not that I need to do that for Auntie Helen any more.

[4] Or to drop into the supermarket to get chocolate biscuits or cheese crunchies.

[5] My cousin Russell’s party planning includes borrowing an extra recycling bin for bottles and cans. He does this by inviting his neighbour to the party and he also invites a colleague who shares the neighbour’s interest in toy trains because they have such a good time together that the neighbour goes home too late to complain about the noise.

22 November

On a roll

Are you buying wrapping paper? This is a good time to do it because stocks will be high and queues will be low. And why not start with the cheap shops? Sometimes they have a few very stylish rolls and if you’re an early shopper, you get to snap up the bargain.

My rule of thumb used to be that if it was under a dollar a metre, it was a good deal[1] but, as always, you have to take into account what you actually need: if you only need two metres of wrapping paper, then twenty metres is a waste of money, paper and storage space, even at $5 a roll.

2016-11-22
All cheap. Not all nasty.

I had to send Suresh from HR around to Jessica from the social club to talk her out of mistletoe for the Christmas party. He said he had to work very hard but he won out in the end. I think he earned his salary today.

[1] Although Matthew once gave me a (joke) present in orange paper with nasty pink weasels printed on it and it was an insult at any price.

23 November

Frozen

Some biscuits freeze well so, if you’d like to get ahead on the perishables for your hamper, you could cook them today, freeze them and then package them up just before Christmas.[1]

Here’s a recipe for orange thins that you can cut into any shape you like, so why not go for some kind of animal and put stripes or spots on them with chocolate when you thaw them in December? (Or, of course, go with a Christmas shape, like a star or a camel).[2]

Spiced Orange Biscuits

2016-11-23

Makes 60

Preparation time 1 hour 20 minutes

1 orange

3 cups (450g) plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground nutmeg

1 tsp ground cardamom

250g butter

1½ cup (300g) brown sugar

3 tsp sweet sherry

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Grease 3 baking trays.

Zest the orange. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into a large bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the sherry and zest, and then fold in the dry ingredients.

Knead the dough lightly and roll out to 2mm thickness. Cut into shapes and place on trays. Bake for 8 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

*

The picture Dad took of that Christmas dinner forty years ago is now mine and it hangs on the photo wall in my dining room, a frozen moment of a perfect Christmas. But it wasn’t the presents or the pudding or the carols that perfected it: we set aside this day to be joyful and then we set about being joyful all day with the people we loved. Joy, I think, is a product of what’s in your heart rather than what’s in the world around you. But it still helps to be in a safe environment with a happy family, and I was blessed with both of those.

[1] This does require freezer space, of course, which was at a premium in my cousin Russell’s friend Yan’s house: he was an amateur taxidermist and if he found an interesting specimen of roadkill during the week, he’d put it in his freezer until he could work on it on the weekend.

[2] It’s not just sheep and donkeys – camels are nativity animals too. (And my sister Wendy’s favourite Christmas hymn when she was a child was “Oh camel, ye faithful.”)

24 November

Defaulting

How’s your Christmas shopping going? If it’s not close to finished yet, it might be time for the default shop: that’s where you choose one shop, walk in[1] and stay there until you’ve found a present for everyone on your list.[2] But don’t be too fussy – by now, although you’re still trying to get a good present for everyone, you can accept that the gifts may not be perfect and that a few people may get something that doesn’t excite them. You do better when you can, but when you can’t, don’t let it worry you. Not every present has to be perfect every time. (But this is not an invitation to throw away your standards entirely, as my colleague Murray did the year after he was criticised for giving his family hampers of ill-fitting underwear, when he abdicated all care and gave everyone supermarket gift cards.)

2016-11-24
When your default shop is a fair trade store, you can be certain that someone will get something good for Christmas (the maker for sure, and your recipient perhaps).

I thought I’d finished my own present shopping, but I was just going to send a card to Auntie Gwen and Susan and now that they’re coming to Christmas dinner, I think I should give them presents, particularly since there are only four of us! I don’t have any specific ideas (this is something that I haven’t been working on all year) so I guess I’ll just wander around the shops and hope to be inspired. (People complain (justifiably) about toys being marketed in pink to make it clear they’re for girls, but right now I’d love to go to a shop that had purple packaging on everything that was suitable for retired nurses.) I’ll have to buy some wrapping paper too – I’ve already allocated all the upcycled gift bags that I made.

[1] Or log on.

[2] Don is notoriously difficult to buy for. Last year, when my daughter heard that I was heading out to get a present for him and wouldn’t be back till I had one, she advised me to take a thermos and a sleeping bag.

25 November

Bottled up

Today it’s exactly one (calendar) month till Christmas and you’ve bought most of your presents, your cards are sorted and the cake and the pudding are cooked and waiting.[1] Other people are beginning to think, “OMG! It’s only a month till Christmas and I’ve got so much to do!” but you can rest easy knowing that you have it all in control.

The fruit mince is ready too: it’s had its month of sitting around, so now you can bottle it. (I took a jar of mine around to Hannah and she said she’ll use it in an apple strüdel she was planning to cook for a beach picnic with Lachlan on Sunday, which is a pretty classy thing to do with mince if you think tarts are dull.)[2]

2016-11-25
Strü-delicious.

I saw an elf costume in an op shop last weekend and it was well made, in good condition and a perfect fit. (Yes, I tried it on.) I stood staring at myself in the mirror, alternating thoughts of “I could make curly shoes from green felt,” with “I have never yet had an occasion at which I should have been dressed as an elf,” and I finally left it in the shop so that I could ponder more.[3] But today, I saw the answer clearly: Father Christmas may be venerable, the innkeeper in the nativity play can be a septuagenarian and the Angel Gabriel is older than Moses, but you never see a middle-aged elf, so the chances that I would look silly are too high. (Curly shoes or no.)

[1] My cousin Brian used to say that the pudding was lurking: Auntie Betty would hang it in the pantry and he was sure it was just waiting for the right moment to plummet from the ceiling and crack his skull.

[2] Auntie Margie’s baked potatoes with cheese and fruit mince are less likely to be crowd-pleasers. Her son Russell loved them though and so his mother gave him a blank cookbook and wrote the recipe into it for him. (That was twenty years ago, and I believe he’s only added one other recipe to the book since.)

[3] I decided to risk being gazumped by someone my size with a stronger desire to self-elf.