Singing the praises of praline
Praline is a fancy name for nut toffee, and toffee is surprisingly easy to make. It’s only small children who want to eat it in chunks but you can break it into pieces to decorate desserts and if you blitz it into crumbs in your food processor, it adds a really nice crunch to anything sweet. Praline crumbs are perfect on buns, chocolate tart and creamy desserts like mousse and ice cream. I’ve also substituted coffee beans for nuts and put dramatic shards of coffee toffee on mocha gateau.
Praline is pretty enough to go into hampers and, if you make it with peanuts, it’s also fairly cheap.
(And do add September notes and photos to your Christmas letter.)
Makes about 50cm2
Preparation time 30 minutes
Start 90 minutes ahead
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
Line a tray with baking paper and sprinkle with the nuts.
Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. (This is important: don’t let the syrup boil until all of the sugar is dissolved.) Bring it to the boil and let it bubble away gently without stirring until it turns a golden colour. This will take about 10 minutes.
Pour the hot syrup over the nuts (carefully! It’s very hot!), tilting the tray gently to form a thin, even layer. Allow to cool.
When the toffee is cool, break into shards and store in an airtight container. Then, if you want praline crumbs, whizz it in a food processor.
The fete was a hoot. Trade was brisk for the first hour and we sold some good books for some good money and then we halved the prices and got a whole new clientele. At one o’clock, we plummeted to five cents a book and cleared them out by the kilogram. At two, we were down to just a quarter of our original stock, which was a good result, but we didn’t want any books left at all so we started giving them away. And here’s an odd thing: we doubled our takings! Quite a few people offered us donations even though we said the books were free and some of them paid more than we would have charged them first thing in the morning!
 And the English. (I suspect it was the best part of World War Two for most Englishfolk and they’ve passed the love of toffee down through the generations ever since.)
 Not that any of those things need anything extra but, hey, we’re talking about Christmas.
 And it’s called peanut brittle.
 Most traditionally hazelnuts but any other nut is fine too.
If you’re the crafty type and were contemplating making fretwork tree decorations or embroidered stockings or snowflake trivets, consider making a few extra because they make excellent Small Presents. (If they actually are small, that is, and if they don’t take weeks and weeks to make.)
Hannah came around with a new cookbook that had a particularly lavish chapter on cakes.
“Choose something from here for your birthday,” she offered and I selected an orange cake with grated chocolate in it. Hannah left pondering whether to decorate the cake with curls of orange zest or with choc-dipped orange slices and I’m about to check if I have any of those really long matches.
 The life-sized replica of Sleipnir (Odin’s six-legged horse) that my friend Todd made took him the better part of a year to construct and was certainly too large to take to school to give to a favourite teacher.
 It’s much rarer to see a cookbook with a lavish chapter on salads – “lavish” just doesn’t seem the right word for anything based on vegetables (with the exception, of course, of Caesar salad which, as previously mentioned, is really a bowl of several kinds of fat, with a bit of lettuce mixed through).
 In my experience, any decoration that involves chocolate beats any decoration that doesn’t.
 Which are useful once one passes thirty and has to spend so long lighting birthday candles that the toddlers get restless and the elderly nod off.
Christian Christmas in a nutshell
If you’re staunchly Christian (or just happy to line up with Jesus for the festive season), there’s a lot of Christmas you can embrace. As well as seasonal church services, there are:
- St Nicholas or the Christkind
- plenty of carols
- church bells
- decorations based on the nativity, like shepherds, angels and stars
- advent wreaths
- peace, love and joy.
And you can also co-opt any of the religion-free elements that tickle your fancy (like snömys and crackers and Christmas sales).
So if you want to put the Christ into Christmas, God be with you!
 And even more hymns.
 And donkeys in theory, but seldom in practice.
 My mother had an old schoolfriend called Joy who collected Christmas knick-knackery that said “Joy” and decorated her house with it both in December and in April, which was her birthday month. (Personally, I thought that the fact that she could get a human-sized stuffed elf holding a flag saying “Joy” didn’t mean that she should set it up in her lounge room twice a year.)
It’s certainly too early to polish the dining room table and expect it be perfect for Christmas but it may not be too early to tidy cupboards, clean local grot spots or to tackle those piles of mysterious things that build up around the house all by themselves. (I have a bowl at the top of the stairs and it holds old sunglasses, the nozzle from the bicycle pump, keys without locks and a scarf that certainly doesn’t belong to me. Where did they come from? Why are they in the bowl? And why haven’t I thrown them out yet? These are much harder riddles than what Stonehenge is for, and yet they’re not even hinted at in Hannah’s book of Great Unsolved Mysteries.)
“How’s the course selection going?” I asked Jack.
“I’m tossing up between maritime logistics, wool classing and patisserie,” he said.
“At least you know he’s read the course manual thoroughly,” I said to Wendy.
 Or simply shovel them out, as my friend Carol does at her hoarding mother’s house whenever she thinks she can get away with it.
Fit for a king (of peace)
Picture the coming festive season: it’s mid-December, you’re at your sixth Christmas party in two weeks and someone offers you another drink and another sausage roll and you think, “What the hell! It’s Christmas after all!” and take them, blowing your chances of driving home, going to the gym in the evening and keeping your sylph-like figure.
But you can avoid excesses if you plan ahead. So let’s think about exercise. (Although the trouble with exercise is that eventually you have to stop just thinking about it, and get down to actually doing it.)
Realistically, you’re unlikely to keep up the same level of training that you’re doing now (if your December calendar is looking as full as mine, you’ll be wondering if you’ll have time to clean your teeth in the festive season, let alone make it to your aquarobics session) but you should still aim to maintain your current level of fitness so:
- Work out what that maintenance level is. Three gym sessions a week instead of five? Skipping the long evening marathon preps but running to work instead? Getting off the train early each morning and walking in rather than doing your daily constitutional at lunchtime?
- Put it in your schedule now. (Of course you don’t actually know what you’re going to be doing on 17 December yet but if you list that as one of your three gym sessions for the week and then the 17th turns out to be the date of the office bash, you will be reminded that you have to find a new time for the exercise class.)
“So what course did Jack select?” I asked Wendy.
“He hasn’t told us. I wish he would but we can’t make him. I suspect he’s aiming high and he doesn’t want to disappoint us if he doesn’t make it.”
“So what would that be?” I asked. “Medicine?”
“Or maybe aerospace engineering or pharmacy.”
“I can’t see him designing jet engines,” I objected. “Too much number crunching.”
“What about building hang gliders and testing them himself?” asked Wendy.
“Oh, yes, I can imagine that,” I replied. “In fact, I’m surprised he’s not doing it now.”
“It can only be because he hasn’t thought of it,” said Wendy, “so please don’t mention it to him.”
 You are exercising, aren’t you? How will you get through Yule if you’re not fighting fit?
 My cousin Russell says that he gets more exercise in December than at any other time by putting up fairy lights in the backyard for his legendary Santa & Snags barbecue and carrying party supplies to and fro, but he doesn’t set the bar very high the rest of the year.
Feast and famine
If Christmas really was just one feast, we wouldn’t end up with “Christmas weight” around our waists in January. In reality, Christmas can be a long series of parties, catch-ups, shortbread and brandy and, if you’re not careful, it won’t just be the memories of the festive season that you’ll carry with you forever.
So here’s Sensible Eating Strategy #1: If you know you’re going to be chowing down on seafood cocktails and cranberry danishes for much of December, keep your everyday menu firmly in the sensible range – plenty of vegetables at dinner and go easy on the confectionery. And keep up your exercise.
Here’s Sensible Eating Strategy #2: Apart from Christmas Day itself, stop eating at the “Okay, I’ve had enough food now” stage rather than the “You’ll have to roll me home” stage. Yes, do this even if there’s a bowl of chips right in front of you and even if there are three savouries you haven’t tried yet. To help you achieve this, if the food on offer is going to be predominantly the sort of party treats that it’s smart to minimise, consider having a healthy snack before you leave home so that you don’t wolf down a kilo of cheese crunchies the moment you walk in the door.
And here’s Sensible Eating Strategy #3: Drink plenty of water. Drink it instead of sweet drinks and drink it between alcoholic drinks. You’ll feel the better for it.
Wendy told me that Gertruda has been spending Wednesday afternoons at Mrs Kowalski’s nursing home, teaching the chef traditional Polish dishes.
“She’ll be doing her own cooking for a good decade yet,” I said. “She should teach the apprentice instead.”
“Good point,” said Wendy. “I’ll suggest it to her.”
 Don blames his spare tyre entirely on his mother’s almond roll but I think the cheesecake and pav he teams it with at Christmas may also have contributed.
 Part of my cousin Russell’s strategy is to keep the ice cream in the freezer of the beer fridge in the garage, so that he has to walk fifty metres for every bowl.
Young people tend to think that fruit salad is a waste of space on a dessert buffet but old people often appreciate the vitamins and fibre, and maybe also the fact that if they substitute a serve of fruit salad for a slice of gateau, they’re avoiding a whole bunch of things that don’t treat them kindly.
You don’t need a recipe for fruit salad – just cut up some fruit and put it in a bowl – but here are some variations:
- Go for a huge range of fruit. (My friend Carol does a cosmopolitan fruit salad for Christmas every year and her guests play a guessing game trying to name everything that’s in it.)
- Alternatively, cut it down to a small subset: berry bowls are always popular, three kinds of melon can be good or make it just kiwifruit, strawberries and grapes to bring those Christmas colours into play.
- Soak some of the fruit in liqueur overnight (and then keep out of reach of children). Or fold liqueur into whipped cream and serve that with the salad.
- A platter of cut fruit (and this one is popular with small children)
- Fruit kebabs (but avoid fruits that brown quickly)– and add a chocolate fondue to dip the fruit into if you need to bribe people to eat rockmelon.
The department head called me into his office this morning to ask me to volunteer for the social club committee. Apparently the party cubs are proposing crazy extravagances so he wants to put me in as treasurer to rein them in. (This is not in my job description but neither are a good three-quarters of the things I end up doing at work so that’s okay.)
 Uncle Bill used to call his daughter’s caramel meringue tartlets “gut busters” but, in my opinion, the problem was not with the tarts but with the uncle, who loved them so much that he would eat a dozen in a sitting.
 She hasn’t yet succumbed to the temptation of adding cucumber which is, technically, a fruit.
 Auntie Margie used to add marshmallows but I don’t think that’s a good idea.
 This is not the kind of over-subscribed committee that you have to campaign to get into. (My colleague Murray says it’s the kind of committee that you have to fight to get out of.)
What would Kris do?
It can be hard to choose a Kris Kringle present for a colleague because there’s often a low price limit and you may not know the recipient well but one of these suggestions might work:
- Any of the Small Present ideas from 30 January and 19 April
- Food in general: chocolates, condiments, exotic ingredients
- Small items used in your particular industry (Eg: office workers can go for novelty staplers, amusing USB sticks, comedic sticky notes etc.)
- Calendars (which come out in force in December and cover every interest group and every price range)
- Small kitchen gadgets (if you know the proclivities of the recipient): a zester for a keen cook, a muddler for a cocktail fiend, a cute biscuit cutter for a parent of young children
What a lovely birthday! Jeremy’s sausage rolls were pretty good (as the birthday girl, I didn’t have to eat any of the burnt ones) everyone came round for cake in the afternoon which was very jolly and then Matthew and I headed out to see “The Girl on the Train” in the evening. Add a handful of well-chosen presents to that and it was close to a perfect day!
 That’s exotic, like dragonfruit crisps, not erotic, like chocolate body paint, which was specifically banned at Palmer & Sons after a lamentable episode.
 My cousin Peter (the one who gives his whole family the same book each year) bought a box of rain gauges at a knock-down price a decade ago and he gives one to his Kris Kringle nominee each year regardless, including the time he got the same person two years running.
 I did have to field jokes about my ancient age but, as the oldest sibling, you get used to that.
If you were planning to do the paper plate version of Christmas, here’s a crafty way of being both economical and stylish: buy cheap, basic cups and sketch your own pictures on them with coloured markers. You could go for classic Yuletide designs like stars or reindeer or you could write everyone’s name in flowing calligraphy or you could outsource this task to the children or you could get everyone to design their own when they were milling around, waiting for the turkey to cook.
You can draw on disposable tablecloths too (or maybe scatter markers along the table as part of the decor and let the diners doodle) but confine decoration on paper plates to the rims: you don’t want to be eating ink.
I invited my friend Carol round for lunch and she was delighted to see a box of books in my hallway… until I told her they were the books I’d bought from the school fete. I really should have thought to get them out of sight before she came round. (Maybe we could meet in cafes from now on.)
 Yule cats feasting on children are also classic but don’t count as suitable subject matter for family gatherings.
 To whom you may need to issue some design guidelines, if there’s any chance they’d choose to sketch Yule cats.
 My niece Emma painted paper plates with food dye for a birthday party which looked lovely stacked up ready to go but became a muddy mess once the gravy was dished out.
If you’re decidedly non-Christian, there is plenty of Christmas you can indulge in:
- Christmas cards
- presents and Father Christmas
- secular Christmas songs (See 14 July)
- non-religious decorations (like baubles and tinsel)
- gingerbread houses
- snömys (like mince pies and sleigh bells and snowflakes)
- Christmas games and frolic
- “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (of which more later)
- peace, love and joy
Christmas is for everyone.
 But stick to pictures of plum puddings, rather than babes in mangers.
 The original version of whom would rather you left him a bowl of rum punch rather than a mere cookie and milk.
 Although tippity-run is out if you count cricket as a religion.
Tips for tots
Here are some present ideas for small children;
- Classic toys: blocks, dolls, dolls’ beds, wagons, teddy bears, rubber ducks
- Books (You could get a crate load from your local op shop if the parents don’t mind second hand things)
- Outside toys (sandpit shovels, balls, small gardening tools)
- Play dough (make your own) with a little rolling pin and biscuit cutters
- Plastic farm animals, small cars
- Percussion instruments (although you might want to clear this with their parents if you want to stay on good terms with them)
- Torches (they adore them)
- Swing (the old plank and rope model still works as well today as it ever did)
Also, since tots usually love lots of presents, a plethora of little stocking stuffers usually goes down well.
I had my first social club committee meeting today. The young things were a little wary of me but were relieved that I wanted to be treasurer. The Christmas party was the only item discussed and the rumours are true: they’re planning a black tie, burlesque cocktail party and now they want fire eaters, red velvet draped around the room and carnival masks for all the guests. If the three experienced, pragmatic old-stagers couldn’t talk them out of it, I do not know what I am supposed to do.
 Not that I have ever seen a rubber duck made from rubber.
 My friend Jill forbade her son William play dough because he ate too much of it. (“I know it’s not toxic,” she said, “But it spoils his appetite for dinner.”)
 They adore them so much that you should consider equipping them with rechargeable batteries.
 But do filter out the choking hazards because small toys sometimes go down too well with small children.
 They told me that they’re all ideas people, as if that exempted them from having to deal with day-to-day matters. I assume that means that they’re all living at home with their parents, otherwise they’d know that even the most creative adults still have to choose between cleaning the toilet or living with a stink.
 I was going to say “on the agenda” but there wasn’t one: ideas people won’t be tied down by papers.
A moveable feast
When should you start eating Christmas food? Popular answers are:
- As soon as you see tinsel in the shops
- On any official festive occasion in December (like school break-ups and office Christmas parties) but not until Christmas Day otherwise.
- Christmas Day – except that you need to do a fair bit of quality sampling beforehand.
I’m mainly on the side of 2 (with a bit of 3) but I do make an exception for mince tarts: it is good to have some festive fare when there are carols in the air and I can tell you that three of my delicate beauties a day will do wonders for your digestion. (They taste like Christmas and they work like bran).
My nephew Ben mentioned he’s applying for a new job. It’s at Palmer & Sons where I used to work and he asked me if I had any contacts there. I do but they’re unlikely to be on an IT selection panel. However, I did give Ben some pointers on how P&S conduct their interviews. (Fast, furious and taking no prisoners.)
 My colleague Murray makes an exception for shortbread. In fact, he deliberately overcaters so that he has enough shortbread to last him to at least July.
A penny for them
If you’ll be making pudding and if you’ll be putting silver into it:
- Gather your coins
- Wash them
- You’ll find plenty of instructions to pour boiling water over them to kill the germs, but they’re going to be steamed for hours inside the pudding so I can’t see why this is necessary
- Dry them
- Set them aside for pudding day
I had a long chat with Meredith from Accounts today. She was the social club treasurer before the schism and she explained how the books and the budget work. It turns out that the money the company puts in for the Christmas party every year covers sausages and beer and ice cream but there’s no way it will stretch to upmarket strippers and circus acts. (I am contemplating asking for danger money for this assignment.)
 I’ve never heard of anyone putting gold coins into pudding so, although plum pud is usually described as “rich”, it’s not that rich.
 My Uncle Bill once said that the oils from all the shoppers’ hands added to the flavour. So then Auntie Pat offered to make him some tea by pouring boiling water over small change and he backed down immediately.
Catalogues of wondrous things
October is when the earliest Christmas catalogues will arrive in your mailbox and you can turn this into retail symbiosis by keeping them to provide you with useful present ideas.
You can also hand the catalogues to the people on your present list and ask them to initial anything that appeals. Encourage them to go hog wild, saying it’s nice to have some lavish options in case you come into a fortune because even their extravagant choices may give you ideas for affordable gifts: If they’ve mentioned that they’d like a yacht, perhaps they’d also like a tide clock.
My nephew Ben has scored an interview with Palmer & Sons. He told me the names of the people on the panel and I do know one of them: he happens to be the husband of my ex‑colleague Donna who stuffed up the birthday cake roster! I told Ben that it was lucky we have different surnames so that Larry doesn’t spot the connection but I actually only met Larry a few times so Ben should be right. (And being the nephew of a woman who does a better cake roster than your wife shouldn’t be a mark against you in a job interview!)
 My old neighbour Gustav used to impale them on the spikes of his iron railing fence. But it didn’t deter the people who delivered them and it just made his house look messy so it’s not a good idea, even if you’re annoyed that your “No junk mail” sign isn’t working.
 This can surprise you. I would never have guessed that my brother-in-law Don wanted a pewter pot pourri dish (and it’s just as well I smelled a fish and got him novelty socks instead because it turned out that Jack had forged Don’s initials on quite a few items in that catalogue, including a rose-patterned hammer for ladies and a solar-powered garden gnome that disconcerts passers-by by targeting them with a spotlight and singing merry ditties).
The proof of the pudding
Are you ready to cook your plum pudding? As well as the ingredients, you’ll need a pudding cloth and the coins or pudding tokens. And you might like to schedule it for a day when you’ll have plenty of visitors because the more people who stir the pudding, the more good luck you have.
Today Hannah asked me for my pudding recipe so I guess she’s planning to cook one for her little sisters. Then she asked me what suet is. The answer is that it’s dried fat from around cows’ kidneys and it’s a traditional ingredient of plum pudding and you can get it in packets at the supermarket but, if the idea doesn’t appeal to you (or if you want to make a pudding that’s suitable for vegetarians) you can find plenty of recipes that use butter instead.
 Auntie Betty attributes her famous Easter raffle win entirely to the fact that twenty-two people stirred her pudding the Christmas before.
A ham bag?
Have you wondered if ham bags are a scam? Here’s the answer:
- The best way to store a leg of ham really is in a cloth bag:
- Soak the bag in water to which you have added a dash of vinegar.
- Put the ham in the bag and the lot in the fridge.
- Every few days, rinse the bag in water and vinegar again.
- And then the ham should last several weeks.
- However a pillowslip will do the job perfectly (and won’t be yet another thing filling your linen drawer so full that you can’t close it easily).
- Then again, some ham bags are quite stylish.
So if you really want a ham bag, indulge yourself. But if you find yourself thinking that it’s just one more thing that your next of kin will have to shovel out of your house when you meet your reward, stick with a pillowslip.
Christmas Day 1970: It was too hot to do anything other than lie around. Uncle volunteered to get two-year old Felicity down for a late nap and was soon in the Land of Nod himself. Mum read stories to the little kids in the shade on the veranda. Uncle Jim settled down on the couch with his new fishing book. Dad and Uncle Bill stretched out on the lawn with a pitcher of iced water and had a languid discussion about cricket. Aunty Betty was the only busy one: she bustled around in the kitchen making fruit salad and beating cream.
“It will wait,” said my mother.
“If I leave it, Mamma will do it,” Aunty Betty replied and bustled on.
 Take the ham out first!
 Once her kids had grown up, my friend Jill used an old Santa sack as a ham bag. This prompted her husband to leave a few chocolate coins in there one Christmas Eve which he thought was funny but Jill wasn’t so amused because she didn’t find them until the next day when they melted into the meat in the heat of the kitchen.
If you’re willing to incorporate pagan elements into your Christmas, you can have a lot of fun. Consider:
- Decorating with holly, ivy and conifers
- Being visited by Odin
- Getting jiggy with the Yule goat
- Burning Yule logs if it’s cold… and eating Bûche de Noël regardless of the weather
(But avoid sacrificing boars: it’s noisy, messy and probably forbidden by your local council.)
 Possibly best for adults: my friend Todd tried to persuade his children to switch their allegiance from Santa to Odin but they wouldn’t have a bar of it.
- Hearty readers are always looking for something new in their favourite genres
- Occasional readers usually enjoy the most popular books in their favourite genres
- Children can be nudged in new directions with classics (ancient and modern) well matched to their current reading level
- Many people like reference books on their favourite subjects
- Although there are plenty of dismal funny books around, there are also some that will genuinely amuse at least half the people at your Christmas gathering.
So start checking out book reviews and also check the latest prize winners (Booker and Hugo and Stella and Miles) if you’ll be shopping for anyone with a literary bent.
I broke the budget news to the social club committee today. It didn’t go down well and Adam in particular was bitterly disappointed. He floated the idea of the guests making a co‑payment and I have at least persuaded him to survey the staff to find out if that’s feasible. (Why should I say no to him if I can get the massed workforce of Watson and Smythe to do it instead?)
 You might have guessed this already. I’d be unlikely to have near lethal quantities of books, jammed into as many bookcases as I can jam into my hallways and still be hungering for the lesser-known tales of L.M. Montgomery, were I not a booklover.
 My brother Matthew did once say that he wasn’t sure it was a kindness to give Wendy another book (who is worse than me – she acquires books at the same rate as I do but she doesn’t spring clean her shelves) but Wendy just laughed and said that if she couldn’t find room for it, one of the children would have to go.
 I still remember visiting a young friend who had recently moved out of home and, between him and his flatmate, they had just half a shelf of books (and it was mostly cook books and street directories). I don’t know how anyone can live like that.
 And books have other uses too: my cousin Russell insulated his shed by nailing Readers’ Digest condensed books to the walls in a tightly fitting mosaic. (His local op shop couldn’t sell them and he was happy to take them off their hands.)
 And Donner and Blitzen.
The first Christmas sales start poking their heads above ground about now. So remember the keys to making them work for you:
- Do buy items that are genuinely cheap and exactly right.
- Don’t buy items that you’re not sure about or if there’s any chance that the recipient will get them for themselves before Christmas.
- Don’t go over budget.
Ben has got the job he applied for at Palmer & Sons. He texted me to say thanks for my advice but since all I said was “Don’t mention cake rosters” and he was being interviewed for a technical IT job, I think he would have been safe anyway.
 Shouting “Hooray!” and doing a victory dance are optional but understandable.
 Discreetly, if necessary. When my niece Emma heard that her hairdresser would be having a half price sale of her favourite salon products, she wrote “Buy Hair-Raising Experience” on her calendar and her boyfriend feared the worst.
 But don’t go to the extent of sleeping in a deck chair on the footpath the night before: when my nephew Ben’s friend Manuel did that to be the first to get some technical gadget, he fell off the chair and sprained his thumb so badly that he had trouble using the gadget for a week afterwards.
Christmas in November
November is the best time to buy Christmas presents because:
- The shops are full of stock but empty of shoppers
- If you need to order something in, there’s plenty of time to do it
- If you buy from afar (online or old-fashioned mail order), the parcels will arrive in good time
- It leaves December free for the tasks that can’t be done early
- If you’re a competitive person, you’ll derive pleasure from the envious faces of middle-aged women when you tell them that you’ve already finished your Christmas shopping
So today’s the day to review the present list that you wrote in January, adding new loved ones and deleting those less loved (or less alive) and to adjust your budget for those changes and for any changes to your finances.
Christmas Day 1970: Peter, Bronwyn, Michelle and I played Bronwyn’s new board game, “The Game of Life”. At various points, you spun the wheel to see if you’d have another baby and if the numbers were in favour, you added a blue or pink peg to your six-seater car and we had great fun in naming our plastic offspring. I went for a Famous Five theme and had George, Julian and Dick, (the latter being the source of much mirth) Michelle thought she was sophisticated with Algernon and Beatrice, and Bronwyn got festive with Noel, Christian and Rudolph.
 My friend Fiona’s brother-in-law Tim tried to buy a foot spa for his mother in mid-December and, although the shop promised they’d have it for him by the 23rd, he got anxious and ordered a pair of fleecy slippers for her online, and then got anxious about the slippers making it through the Christmas mails in time, so he bought her a foot care hamper at his local chemist and so ended up with three presents on Christmas Day (and she said that what she needed now was more feet).
 I’m adding baby Mia and subtracting Auntie Helen and I’m also adding Danni, both because it looks like she’ll still be with Jeremy at Christmas and because I really like her. (She has just taken up knitting and I know a beginner’s knitting book that she’ll love.)
 The rules said that if you ended up with more than four children, you should just jam them into your car like you do in real life, which was true at the time and I remember lots of trips with at least ten people in a car, but is decidedly not true anymore when a kid in a car seat takes up more room than an adult, and the number of passengers is limited by the number of seatbelts (but please don’t think I’m pining for better days: we kill fewer people in car crashes today and that’s much better).
Make the cake
If you like fruitcake and if you are planning to cook one, the time has come. You could also cook small fruitcakes for Small Presents:
- You can decorate a small fruitcake with a single star cut from royal icing with a biscuit cutter
- Or you can go crazy piping lace and making sugar Father Christmasses, if that’s your thing
- Or you can skip icing entirely and instead push almonds and glace cherries into the top of the cake in an attractive pattern
But do remember that fruitcake is not universally popular: those who love it will be delighted but don’t waste it on those who don’t.
Christmas Day 1970: Aunty Betty had forced Nanna to have “a little lie-down” and Nanna came back refreshed and ready for carols. She was a fine musician (and had been a piano teacher for most of her life) and she and Auntie Betty and Uncle Jim were particularly good singers so the result was well worth listening to. But it wasn’t about listening: it was about participation, so we all formed a rousing chorus and took turns in choosing our favourite carol. (This is why I still know all the words to “As with Gladness” (Nanna’s favourite) even though you never hear it in the malls.)
 This may be the first time you use your star cutter this festive season but it won’t be the last.
 My Auntie Pat topped her cake with a pile of icing presents under an icing Christmas tree one year… and telegraphed what she was giving to her children because she modelled them from life.
 Or an unattractive pattern. I think you could do a skull quite effectively.
 I make one for my friend Jenny every year and she makes a stollen for me which works well for both of us.
 I believe this just means “Gladly” but the lyricist clearly preferred scansion to clarity.
Where’s the sticky tape?
I have a box in which I keep the essential tools for wrapping presents:
Then, when I’m ready to wrap, I just grab the present, the paper and my wrapping box and I’m good to go.
Consider setting up a wrapping box yourself – you’ll find it very handy for Christmas but you’ll use it year-round for birthday presents too. And stock it well now too: you can guarantee that you won’t find cheap tape in December.
Christmas Day 1970: It must have been two hours since we’d last eaten and so it was time for another meal. This time it was cold meats (turkey and ham of course) and salad, followed by fruit salad and trifle and jelly and cold plum pudding. Auntie Betty had added a decidedly non-traditional chocolate chiffon pie to the mix and it was a great success too (and I enjoyed Auntie Margie’s coffee flummery although Dad wouldn’t even try it).
 Scissors are so cheap in this modern world that it’s easy to reserve some solely for wrapping presents. (My brother-in-law Don keeps a pair of scissors just for cutting masking tape, which, he says, gums the blades up and ruins the scissors for other purposes. This would be a good strategy if he actually used masking tape more than once a decade.)
 It’s also good to reserve some tape solely for wrapping presents so that you can find it when you need it. (Don’s masking tape is right next to his masking scissors, both gathering dust in his garage.)
 Actually, I have several – black, white and gold – so that I can suit them to the colour of the tag. (The Christmas my friend Sharon made a turquoise Christmas cake, she wrote everything in turquoise ink, from gift tags, to shopping lists, to angry notes to neighbours who blocked her driveway.)
 My friend Lisa said that, when her kids were little, she often ended up wrapping presents on the bonnet of the car – not for the secrecy but because there were no clear, flat spaces in her house for a decade.
 Which was his loss, and he was happy to drink cappuccinos when he encountered them a few years later, and they were the same thing, but hotter.
Go through your present box and check the gifts you have already, consider who you’ll give them to and update your present spreadsheet accordingly. Then review:
- who you still need presents for
- what the budget for each present is
- what ideas you have for each person
- how you’re currently tracking against your budget.
I’ve made a good start myself this year: I already have a cat sketch and some charming antique cake forks for Hannah, a selection of classic books Emma will love and a hand-made lace collar I found at a craft market for Gertruda – it fits her style and I’m sure she’ll appreciate the workmanship.
“Mum, what’s the most romantic thing you can think of?” Jeremy asked.
“Someone saying, ‘I’ll do the dishes and would you like me to make you a cup of tea before I start?’” I suggested.
He snorted in disgust and stomped off. It seems he’s planning something really romantic for his six-month anniversary with Danni (or, as I count it, his half anniversary) but I wish he had given me some context before he asked.
 My mother was once quite happy to find that she had bought more china trinket dishes than she had recipients for, because she really liked the pattern and this gave her an excuse to keep one for herself.
 I’m going to give Matthew a tide clock for the beach house he’s planning to buy. (Matching it to his décor won’t be a problem. His style is bound to be “I got it at a garage sale. Look: it’s got seagulls on it!” and that’s quite appropriate for a beach house.)
And they all lived happily ever after
Here are some well-known but non-canonical Christmas stories that you may encounter:
- “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” by Dr Seuss: The Grinch is small-hearted and is annoyed by the noise of the Whos’ Christmas celebrations so he dresses as Santa and does a reverse-Santa job of stealing their presents and food. He is surprised to find that the Whos enjoy Christmas anyway. This causes his heart to grow and he returns the presents and food and joins in the celebration. Moral: Christmas doesn’t come from a store.
- Note: this story has no religious content at all and yet is all about Christmas spirit so everyone can enjoy it regardless of their theology.
- “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore: A man awakes when Santa arrives, and the man watches him fill the stockings. This rhyme crystallised the modern picture of Santa and gave us the names of his reindeer.
- “The Nutcracker” by E.T.A Hoffman with music by Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky: This is best known as a ballet in which Clara is given a soldier-shaped wooden nutcracker for Christmas, which her brother promptly breaks. Clara sneaks downstairs at midnight, shrinks and finds herself in the middle of a battle between gingerbread men and mice. She saves the nutcracker, who turns into a prince and takes her to the Land of Sweets where she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy and is danced at by a world of confectionery.
- “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks: Rudolph is bullied by the rest of Santa’s reindeer because of a physical difference. When Santa chooses Rudolph to guide his sleigh because of that mutation, the other reindeer start liking Rudolph. (and this is supposed to be a happy ending).
Jeremy is looking further afield for romantic ideas.
“A balloon ride!” he said, after reading a text from Matthew. “That’s okay for rich lawyers but I’ve got a budget of sixty dollars!”
He thought for a moment and added, “And that’s only if I don’t buy my lunch tomorrow. Mum, have we got anything good for sandwiches?”
 Although he’s called St Nick in the poem.
 Vomit and Stupid and Donna and Blitz-‘em, Dash-it and Damn-it and Poncy and Victim (or something like that).
 Yes, the one with the tune you can hum.
 Specifically, Rudolph’s nose glows and this is useful on foggy nights. This raises more questions than it answers: How much does his nose glow? If it’s as bright as a fog lamp, wouldn’t that annoy anyone near him? And why doesn’t Santa already have fog lamps on his sleigh? He does, of course, travel at night so surely he has good headlights.
I know of two efficient strategies for Christmas shopping: incremental and big bang; both followed by the default shop if needed.
Incremental is convenient if you work or live near a shopping centre: simply go out each lunchtime or on your way home – whatever works for you – with the aim of buying one present. Start with the most certain presents – if you know exactly what you want to give a particular person and you know which shop will stock it, go out and buy that on the first day. On the next day, go out and buy the next most certain present and so on.
The reason for doing it in this order is that while you’re out buying presents you’re sure about, you may get some good ideas for other people. For example, if you’re in a golf shop buying golf gloves for your husband and you see a display of golf umbrellas, even if you know your mother wouldn’t want one, it may get you thinking that she would like an attractive folding umbrella for her handbag and there you are with another solid idea.
Also, it’s nice to get a few successes under your belt early on to motivate you.
The results of the staff survey are in: most people don’t want to chip in for the Christmas party (and I’ll bet they’d be quite happy with our usual sausages and beer, although that wasn’t one of the poll questions). A few are willing to pony up a little but only half-a-dozen would proffer the amount needed to upgrade us to espresso martinis and exotic dancers. I was hoping that the party cubs might fall on their swords at this point but, no, they’re trying to find ways around the budget problem.
 There are also plenty of inefficient strategies for Christmas shopping, including ad hoc, blow your budget, and last-minute frenzy.
 My friend Fiona tried this method last year but she didn’t go to a shopping centre each day: she went to a garden centre, which gave her a lot of pleasure but it didn’t help her find presents for the members of her family who live in tiny apartments.
 Mariella from Corporate Comms was particularly pointy: “You want me to spend a whole evening listening to Meredith talk about her garden and watching Tony trying to make a beer can pyramid and you expect me to pay for it? Watson & Smythe are lucky I don’t charge them for my therapist.”
The big bang
If the incremental method of Christmas shopping won’t work for you or if you like to get everything done in one go, plan a big-bang shopping day instead. Start by picking a suitable date and putting it in your calendar today. Then pick a suitable location: your nearest mall is the obvious one, but my friend Jill goes to a tourist town in the hills and saunters through swish handcraft shops, and Wendy once did all of her Christmas shopping while on holiday in New Zealand.
Jeremy’s cousin Ben suggested a heart-shaped chocolate cake as the epitome of romance but Jeremy scoffed.
“Not for a six-month anniversary!” he said.
 Like my cousin Peter, who buys everyone the same book but still has to plan his shopping trip because that’s a lot to carry so he goes early so that he can park right outside the bookshop.
 And then there was the time my cousin Peter did his Christmas shopping at his local service station. (This was not a success and is why his family are okay with all getting the same book).
The default shop is how you polish off the final Christmas presents in one fell swoop: you simply go to the store you’ve decided on and stay there until you have something for everyone.
- Set a date late in November for the default shop and put it in your calendar.
- Start thinking of some stores you could go to (or visit online: this doesn’t have to be a physical shopping trip) where you stand a reasonable chance of offering something for everyone. Here are some to consider:
- book shop
- stationery store
- hardware shop
- local craft market.
- You may have your own favourite depending on your family preferences (a clothes shop with a wide and funky range of T-shirts, a Japanese discount store, a sports store, whatever).
We had dinner at Hannah’s flat last night and Danni couldn’t come so Jeremy took advantage of her absence by asking everyone for romantic ideas.
“Ponies,” said Pixie.
“Sunset at a beautiful beach,” said Lachlan.
“What? No food?” asked Hannah.
“With a properly packed picnic basket, of course,” said Lachlan. “That goes without saying.”
“We’ve done picnics,” said Jeremy.
“Oh, you’ve never finished with picnics,” said Lachlan and Hannah said, “Hear, hear!”
“I’ve got lots of roses out,” said Caitlin, “and you can have them all.”
Jeremy accepted them immediately (and I don’t think it was just because they fitted into his budget so well).
 It works for my cousin Peter! (But his family do have low expectations of him.)
 Gertruda goes to a Polish boutique, which means that I have quite a few pieces of amber jewellery, which is just fine by me – they’re lovely.
If you intend to make your own fruit mince, the time has come! Here’s my favourite recipe but you should note that it’s very expensive (this is not a bargain option), it makes a lot (so you might prefer to go for a half or third quantity), and you’ll have it sitting around for a month so you do need a bowl with a good lid or a really big jar to keep it while it matures. But it is very, very good. (The original recipe had 1½ cups of sugar too but I’ve found it doesn’t need it.)
Makes 2½ litres
Preparation time 45 minutes
Start 1 month ahead
3 apples or pears
9 cups dried fruit
½ cup citrus peel (optional)
2 tsp spice
330ml liqueur or spirits
Peel and grate the apples or pears. Chop the large fruit (eg figs). Mix all ingredients together. Cover tightly.
Store in a cool, dry place for a month, stirring every two to three days. Bottle.
- A good mix of dried fruit is half vine fruit (raisins, currants and sultanas in approximately equal proportions) and half figs, apricots and berries.
- A good mix of spices is 1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp cloves, ½ tsp allspice, ¼ tsp nutmeg.
- To avoid the preservatives of commercial citrus peel, use the zest of an orange, lemon and lime or the homemade peel from 24 September.
Christmas Day 1970: Although Christmas dinner was a merry, laughing, talkative meal, there was always a period of respectful silence at tea time when the television was turned on and we listened to the Queen’s message. We gave our full attention to what our foreign head of state had to say. (Nanna was impressed by the majesty of Her Majesty. I was impressed by her brooches.)
 Or an ample supply of cling wrap.
 I’ve been reducing the sugar in nearly everything I cook but Jeremy drew the line at Anzac biscuits. “Mum, these things are supposed to be sweet,” he insisted, “otherwise they’re just round porridge.”
 I know this doesn’t add up to exactly two teaspoons, but this is a flexible recipe.
Playing your cards right
Make the final updates to your Christmas card list, deleting those who don’t make the cut any more and adding new friends. Now add up the number of cards you’ll need and check your stock. If you need to buy a few more, the shops should be selling them by now. If you need to make a few more, block out a time in your diary sometime soon.
And do have a few extras just in case someone you weren’t expecting a card from sends one to you, or someone you didn’t think cardworthy improves in your estimation.
Jeremy has been holed up in his room all afternoon playing his guitar, so I assume a love song will be part of the big anniversary. (But he did ask me if I could think of a rhyme for “tacos”, so I don’t think the song will be a hit with anyone other than Danni.)
 When Amanda put an end to our mothers’ group by insulting everyone in it, most of us dropped out of contact with her but my friend Jill sends her Christmas cards to this day. “She’s brave, she’s insightful and she’s witty,” says Jill. “Also, it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of someone with such a talent for character assassination.”
 Most people complain about how early retailers start Christmas but it does have some advantages.
 Uncle Jim sent Christmas cards to the entire local football team the year they won the grand final. (I have no idea if they appreciated this.)
Stamp it out
You have your final card list so you know who you’re sending cards to and where they live, so you can work out what stamps you need and can buy them today. Stamps are one of the few Christmas items without a pricing cycle so there’s no point in waiting for a bargain, and post offices fill up very early in December so steer clear of them then.
Jeremy didn’t actually ask me to leave the house tonight for his big anniversary but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matthew invited me down to Phillip Island for the weekend to look at beach houses with him.
 Probably. I had a uni friend who changed house so often that I always used to wait until I received a card from her before I sent one to her because the chances were that my address for her was three houses behind.
 Or make the best of it: my sister Wendy said she used her time in the queues in her eight trips to the post office last year to research recipes.
 “We need to look like serious buyers,” he said to me, “so please don’t bring that frog hat.”
31 October – Halloween
Set the date
I got an email today titled “Last-Minute Christmas Party Ideas” but I can promise you that it is not the last minute and you still have plenty of time to organise the office bash. But if you are wedded to a particular date or a particular venue or have a large crew, sooner is better than later, so get your committee together and pin things down.
When I got back from Phillip Island this evening, I found Jeremy had done a pretty good job of cleaning up after himself but there were still a few rose petals in the lounge room and the hall, the best china was draining on the sink and he’d left some candles in the bathroom. He was humming to himself, so I think it went well.
I asked him if he’d found a rhyme for “tacos”. He said he went with “tortilla” and “Ikea”, which is even more mystifying.
 My nephew-in-law Chris says the maths department at his school go bowling every Christmas because it saves them having to think of a new plan and it also gives them something to talk about. (They’re better at quadratic equations than at socialising.)