1 January – New Year’s Day
Pack a picnic
For those without hangovers, New Year’s Day is traditionally picnic day – by the water, if possible. Lakes are very popular and the beach is good too (although I, for one, don’t like sand in my sandwiches).
After so many days of heavy duty feasting, a light and refreshing repast is generally more welcome today. Think fruity drinks and slices of watermelon and antipasto-style smorgasbords with good, fresh bread.
January is the perfect time for organisation and another document that you’ll need in your Christmas dossier is a shopping list. Set one up today and divide it into three parts:
- Things you should buy soon
- Things to keep an eye out for
- Things you won’t buy soon
And you can use your earlier notes to put a few items on the shopping list already:
- Decorations you need for your tree (unless you’re saving money or the planet)
- Gaps in your china collection you need to fill (ditto)
And don’t buy anything at all if you can borrow it: my sister Wendy and her son Jack came round to pick up my inflatable crocodile and Wendy asked if I’d like to come camping for a couple of days – Jack is heading back one weekend for a friend’s eighteenth so they’ll have a spare stretcher. Wilson’s Prom is probably the most beautiful place in the world so I accepted with pleasure. Then Jack asked if I’d bring one of my egg and bacon pies and when Wendy pointed out that the night I’d be there would be the night that he wouldn’t, he then asked me to bring two egg and bacon pies and save one for the next day.
Wendy runs a very efficient campsite so I suggested she write a camping blog but she said, “You do realise that one of my tips is to invite people down at different times so that they can bring fresh supplies.”
“Mum!” said Jack, aghast. “Don’t say that! She won’t bring the pies!”
“I already knew,” I explained to him, “And I think it’s a fair exchange.”
Wilson’s Prom really is stunning. It’s even worth sleeping on a stretcher for.
 Both of my grandmothers took cold sausage rolls to picnics. I still think it’s a little odd, but I can tell you that they are always received very well.
 Or good, fresh anything, really.
 I have promised you tips for doing a low cost Christmas, but I’m not sure it’s possible to do a zero cost Christmas (unless you’re like my old neighbour Gustav who refused to do Christmas at all).
 My colleague Murray was delighted to find teacups in his wife’s preferred china pattern at a rock bottom price so he bought thirty. The first time they used them was when he organised a big afternoon tea a few years later to finally prove her wrong after she had said that they would never need thirty cups. I don’t think there’s been a second time.
 An invitation to the prom does not mean the same thing in Victoria as it does in Minnesota.
 Which is what my mother used to cook before quiches were invented.
The best time to go to the sales for Christmas stock is now. Prices plummet from 25% off on Boxing Day to 50% a few days later to 75% early in January but do remember that a ten dollar trinket that has been marked down to $2.50 is a waste of $2.50 if you don’t need it (which is False Bargain #1 and we’ll meet the other false bargains later on). So this is where your shopping lists come in handy. Check them to see what you actually need: if you’ve got plenty of baubles, don’t buy more. If your colour scheme is red and green, don’t buy blue tinsel.
If you have children and you give their teachers presents, snap up a few fancy decorations if you can find them at knock-down prices. A single, luxurious decoration is a welcome gift because:
- You can’t really have too many
- It doesn’t matter if you’ve already got one the same
Also, if you’re one of the dwindling numbers who still send Christmas cards, today is a good time to stock up for next season but:
- Only buy what you need
- Don’t buy them if they’re too expensive
- Only buy them if they’re attractive
But, if you want to keep your costs or your planetary footprint low next Christmas, don’t buy cards or decorations at all: you can easily make them for nearly nothing (of which more later).
I confess to succumbing to an impulse buy in the sales: a large, pink, inflatable flamingo. (My justification is that I want to float down Tidal River and I’ve already lent my sister Wendy my crocodile but, although I paid a lot less that you’d usually have to fork out for a flamingo, I could have got a plain blow-up ring for much less money so it was an indulgence and not a bargain, but I love it anyway. (Flamingos have flair: they’re the princesses of wading birds and they lend themselves surprisingly well to inflatable sculpture.))
 You could argue that we don’t need Christmas decorations at all but only if you also argue that Scrooge was right.
 And don’t buy teddies in Santa hats at all, not even if they’re giving them away.
 Although my cousin Bronwyn’s husband did complain that he needed to wear his sunglasses inside his house to avoid being dazzled by the truckload of shiny things that Bronwyn had encrusted every surface with.
 Unless you’re like my cousin Peter who used to buy two boxes of cards every year: something stylish and expensive for the people he admired and something in execrable taste for people he didn’t.
 I haven’t persuaded Wendy to write a camping blog (“My advice can be summed up in five words,” she said. “Keep dry, and pack chocolate”) but she’s thinking about a database of camping equipment she and her friends have so that they can share it around. She had the idea when her friend Gretchen gave her husband a camp oven for Christmas, because Wendy has an excellent camp oven that she is happy to lend them, and Gretchen’s second choice was a vacuum sealer which Wendy would have been keen to borrow. “So you want your friends to give each other presents that suit you?” I asked. “It’s win-win,” she replied.
Hamming it up
Still got some ham left? You don’t have to eat it all in sandwiches. You can:
- Shred it and put it in an omelette
- Dice it and put it in fried rice
- Cook it into pasta sauce
- Add it to anything cheesy, like cauliflower bakes or quiches
Either make ham stock from the bone and freeze it for later (use the turkey stock recipe from 29 December: it works for the bones of any animal) or skip the middle man and go straight to pea and ham soup, if it’s not too hot where you are today.
Pea and Ham Soup
|START||:||3 hours before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||5+10+5+5 minutes|
1 large ham bone (approx. 1 kg) 1 cup split peas
water 1 cup soup mix (barley, lentils, etc)
1 brown onion
Place the ham hock in a large saucepan, cover it with water and simmer for an hour.
Chop the onion and add to the pot. Rinse the split peas and soup mix and add them too.
Add more water whenever necessary, cook until the meat comes away from the bone (in one to two hours) and then remove any fatty skin.
Cook until the peas turn to mush. Remove the ham bone, shred the ham, and return the meat to the saucepan.
Serve with crusty bread.
My daughter Hannah and my brother Matthew came round for lunch today and I made them each a croque monsieur (which is really just a fancy ham and cheese toastie) which they enjoyed because they haven’t been living in the home that houses the Christmas ham but my son Jeremy has, so he was less impressed. (The fruit salad cheered him up though because I splashed liqueur onto it which is a good way to get adults to eat fruit.)
Hannah had dropped in on Auntie Helen on her way over and said that she was being spoon-fed because she can’t manage cutlery by herself any more. Then Jeremy reminded us of the time Auntie Helen was sharp with him when he spilled honeyed carrots on her nice tablecloth and he wondered if her decline was karma and said that perhaps he should try harder to be nice to people.
“Start with me,” said Matthew. “You could wash my windows.”
But Jeremy opined that he could be kinder still to his uncle by keeping him fit by letting him wash his own windows and then added that, since Matthew’s waist is noticeably broader than his own, that perhaps it would be kindest of all to let Matthew take on Jeremy’s lawn-mowing duties, at which point I said that they clearly needed to work together and I delegated the making of the coffee to the pair of them.
 My son Jeremy says you can dice anything and put it into fried rice. His sister Hannah disagrees and says that he has proved conclusively that quince has a very limited culinary range.
 At least, I assume it does: I haven’t tried it on mouse or mammoth.
 So are strawberry daiquiris.
Farewell to cards
When packing up your Christmas cards:
- Open your Christmas document and add a “Cards” list
- As you take each card down, write the name of the sender into the list so that you remember to send them a card in December
- Also, update all the co-sender names in your address book as you go. If your bridge partner Natalie sent a card from “Natalie, John, Monikka and Troy”, list those names and those spellings and you can be sure to get them right in next year’s card (and any other correspondence during the year)
- Finally, bundle the cards up (into a shoe box or a Christmas biscuit tin) because you can use them later on in the year for Christmas crafts (of which more later)
Today was my first day back at work and I went to the cupboard to get a new notebook (for the new year) and I found the stationery had been completely reorganised. I did it myself just a few months ago and I put the frequently used items at the front and the annoying little things in tubs, but this morning it took me a few minutes to find the notebooks and I knocked over a stack of erasers on the way.
“Donna changed it round while you were on leave,” said young Gemma.
I went back to my desk without a word. (You don’t need to defend yourself when you’re right: the truth will out.)
 Possibly admiring the designs as you go, possibly not (depending on whether you share the same tastes in sleighs, madonnas and gold embossing as your correspondents).
 In whatever form that takes. (My cousin Russell kept phone numbers on random scraps of paper in a coffee tin in his kitchen but something that has an index is preferable.)
 Although my Auntie Margie used to pointedly spell all names with their traditional spellings regardless of how creative the parents had been on the birth certificates.
 You could keep them for the sentimental value but that’s not always a good idea: my friend Carol burned three whole crates of her mother’s cards and some of them were seventy years old. This would merely have been arduous in other circumstances but Carol’s mother had become a hoarder and one of those crates fell off a top shelf and triggered an avalanche that broke the old lady’s leg. (That’s why Carol burned the cards instead of recycling them. She wanted to take revenge.)
 With a packed lunch of zucchini slice with ham, turkey arancini, chocolate shortbread and blueberries. It was just leftovers but it felt like a feast.
 Why is that building with blocks is fun, but restacking a heap of erasers is drudgery?
Undeck the halls
Tomorrow is the official day for taking down Christmas decorations but you can really do it as soon as you’re ready and I always do it early in January. That’s because, when my ex-husband and I separated, I never wanted to talk to him again and we quickly settled on a default formula for holidays so that we didn’t need to discuss it: he’d have the kids for the second week of the Easter, winter and spring holidays and also from 2 January to Australia Day. So this time of year has always been lonely in my house and I keep myself busy with tasks like taking down the tinsel.
Start by taking your Christmas book to the first room and note which decorations worked and which didn’t and if you need more hanging stars or fewer snowflakes.
Once your notes are finished, take the decorations down, package them as you go, discard anything that has had its day and set aside anything that needs repairs. (If you’re inclined to be soft-hearted when evaluating old decorations, enlist the advice of a teenager. You can count on teenagers to be absolutely ruthless in matters of anything that predates them so they are invaluable when you want to cull old things, but do retain the right of veto.)
Label each box and you may want to label some of the individual decorations too: like noting that the long holly garland is for the hall and the short holly garland is for the study.
And here’s a tip for young players: if you’re putting your Christmas supplies into some deep, dark, unfathomable storage place (which makes sense, because you won’t need them again for nearly a year), keep one box somewhere accessible for that forgotten decoration you find in March or for that fabulous Wedgewood bauble bargain you buy in February or for that beautiful little angel you are given for your birthday that you think would make a good Christmas ornament.
This is twelfth night – why not watch Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to celebrate?
I met my cousin Brian’s wife Lynette in my lunchbreak today. We had a picnic of cheese pastries and Waldorf salad in the Fitzroy Gardens and then we went to Captain Cook’s cottage and she loved it but she asked me two questions I couldn’t answer:
- Why did someone think it was a good idea to move a stone cottage from Yorkshire to Melbourne?
- Why do tourists go there in droves?
When my daughter Hannah was ten, she was besotted with a weighty tome called “Great Unsolved Mysteries” – I may add this one to it!
 Except for the fairy lights on the deck which are so beautiful that I can’t bear to pack them up until the 31st.
 And reviewing my wardrobe. You won’t see me with a button loose or a scruffy shoe in January.
 Personally, I think everyone can do with fewer reindeer antlers on their cars: it looks like Alaskan roadkill.
 If you don’t have one of your own, borrow one.
 And that the car’s reindeer antlers are for the op shop.
 When he was five, my nephew Jack wanted to decorate his bedroom with bags of angelfish and he couldn’t be convinced that they wouldn’t enjoy it.
 Particularly if you like love triangles, dukes and cross-dressing.
 Which was what we’d agreed but I added raspberries and she added fancy chocolates and take-away coffee so we ended up with three courses. I said we should have brought more cutlery and she said that we should have brought a waiter. I have assumed that Brian and Lynette live very comfortably in Singapore, but now I think that they may live very comfortably in Singapore.
6 January – Epiphany
On the 12th day of Christmas
Christmas belongs to everyone… which may be why there are so many different versions of it:
- Christmas Day is 25 December, unless you’re Armenian in which case it’s 6 January, or you follow an Orthodox church which follows the Julian calendar in which case Christmas Day is 7 January
- 25 December is also (for many, but not all people) the start of Christmastide which lasts for twelve days…
- …and finishes either when the three kings reach Bethlehem or when Jesus is baptised, both of which were said to be on 6 January
- And this makes Twelfth Night the evening of 5 January if you count it as Epiphany Eve (as the Anglican Church does)…
- …or 6 January, if you count Twelfth Night as the night which follows the twelfth day
- and Epiphany itself is on 6 January (Hello today!)
The only consistent thing is that there are never twelve drummers drumming because that’s just a song and it was based on a memory game rather than on traditional pastimes.
But the majority of people count today as the last day of Christmas and that’s why today is the day you officially take down your decorations.
I was packing up the tree at work when I heard yet another person swearing at the stationery cupboard when they went to get a new notebook (for the new year). I think Donna’s arrangement was alphabetical and that’s not practical if you’re not sure if whiteboard markers are under W or M (or even P for pens).
 The seventh day of Christmas is one of many days you might find seven swans a-swimming and, if milkmaids only went a-milking on the eighth day of Christmas, we wouldn’t have a dairy industry.
 Although my cousin Russell kept his living room decorated for a whole year once: he said he only ever used the formal lounge at Christmas so it was a waste of time taking the tree down in January and putting it up again in December. (His next girlfriend didn’t agree so the decorations were boxed up and stored away on the second of January every year after.)
7 January – Orthodox Christmas
Today adherents of the Serbian Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas Day. They prepared yesterday by gathering around an oak branch (called a badnjak) and walking around the church three times widdershins. (Outside Australia, guns are often fired. Inside Australia, that’s likely to land you inside jail.) If it’s not appropriate to burn the oak branch (because it’s too hot for a fire inside or because it’s a total fire ban outside), using a bundle of oak twigs as a decoration is a suitable substitute.
The first person to visit your house today is the polzanik who will bring you luck for the coming year. In some areas of Serbia, he goes outside again, makes a circle with the rope that the Christmas straw was tied with, puts grain in it, catches the rooster and beheads him for Christmas dinner… and is paid with socks for his trouble. You may want to skip that tradition if you don’t have chickens (or if you already have plenty of socks).
I was on a ladder a few days ago, taking down my Christmas decorations and my nose was up against the wall as I unhooked a swag of tinsel and I noticed how shabby the paint in my dining room is. I’ve been pondering since then and I’ve just decided that I will repaint and I’ll do it soon to take advantage of warm, dry summer air. If you have any renovations coming up yourself, either ensure they’ll be finished well before December or make a Plan B for your seasonal festivities because the only guarantee with renovations is that they’ll take longer than you expect.
 In English tradition, it’s unlucky to walk round a church widdershins which is something my scientifically-minded nephew Ben tested as a boy. In the course of one month, he also walked under ladders, opened umbrellas inside and deliberately broke a mirror and the worst thing that happened to him was that he got tinea. His father teased him by saying that his bad luck was that he didn’t get a bunch of good luck that would otherwise have happened and that if he’d avoided the ladders, he would have found fifty dollars on the street, won the football club raffle and caught every train he’d run for.
 Good luck is what you’re looking for but they could bring bad luck (in which case you don’t invite them back again next year).
 Did you know that ladders kill more Australian men than snakes do? (But at least they don’t hide in long grass and scare the bejeezus out of you when you spot them.)
 Although I will have to be careful not to get any warm, dry summer insects stuck to the paint.
 And that stays true even when you adjust your schedule to take this fact into account.
Before we get too far into Christmas plans, there is one thing I’d like to make very clear: Christmas should be fun so don’t do feel obliged to do anything you don’t like:
- If you despise decorations, don’t have any. (But if you don’t want people calling you a bah humbugger, one small, strategic Christmas tree allows you to say “I have decorated! Look!”)
- If you don’t like buying presents, shave your recipient list to the bone and give gift cards to anyone left on it (and buy the cards online to avoid the shops).
- If you don’t like wrapping presents, shop where they do it for you.
- If you don’t want to receive presents, let people know well in advance. (There may be a few who won’t accept this, so consider having a charity in mind to suggest donations to.)
- If you can’t cook, you can buy just about every dish you need ready-made so you can organise a feast without lifting a spoon.
- If parties are not your thing, prepare a string of excuses.
At Christmas – possibly more than any other time of the year – you can outsource everything and there are so many elements to it that it’s not even a tiny problem if you skip some of them. You really don’t have to go carolling or eat shortbread so put your energies into the bits you enjoy being energetic for and wave the rest goodbye (from a deckchair, with a cocktail in your hand).
There’s something that’s been puzzling me for a while and I took the opportunity to ask my nephew Ben today.
“When you kept the sprig of jasmine that Cassidy had worn in her hair, how did you know how to press it?” I asked.
“When you have a sister as crafty as Emma, things rub off,” he explained. “I can also do a five-strand plait and I make a mean origami gift box.”
 ‘Tis the season to be jolly.
 My colleague Murray did this one year and he just dealt the cards out on Christmas morn without wrapping or even labelling them. “The only thing that could have been more efficient,” he told me with satisfaction, “Is if we’d all bought each other gift cards and then skipped the exchange and kept our own.”
 I like Médicins Sans Frontiéres. My brother Matthew says he prefers Médicins Sans Froot Loopery. (He likes peer-reviewed Western medicine and is not keen on aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, or anyone who uses the word “holistic”.)
 Perhaps not going as far as my old neighbour Gustav who used to say he was indisposed with an infectious disease every December. He chose a new illness each year but he did them in alphabetical order and, by the time he got to diphtheria, some people had spotted the pattern.
 It’s not something they teach you in Cubs and I don’t believe soccer teams sit around discussing their preferred flower preservation techniques.
Christmas in Hell
Here’s another thing you might not enjoy about Christmas: your family. I’ve always had amiable, happy Christmases with a supporting, loving family but I do know that there are plenty of families where:
- Some relatives are just plain unpleasant
- Or some relatives are carrying injuries that they can’t move on from (perhaps minor and unjustified (like trivial cases of sibling rivalry), perhaps major and unforgivable (like rejection and abuse)
- Or someone gets drunk and then everyone gets nasty
I don’t have experience here and I don’t feel I should offer advice on something this important so, if you dread getting together with your “loved” ones, do think about it:
- Is this something small that you can find a practical solution to? (If you have messy fights about washing dishes, you could go to a restaurant… but this won’t help if the fights are really about something else and the dishes are just the trigger.)
- Is this something significant that you’d be justified in avoiding? (I knew a couple who holidayed in Europe every Christmas, ostensibly for the skiing but actually to evade the in-laws.)
- Is this something big that you should seek help with?
You’re not obliged to be miserable so that someone else can have a good Christmas. If you’ve suffered enough, it may be time to change something.
Listing toward Christmas
To run a Christmas that is both rich and cheap, both golden and green, and that moves with the grace of a flying reindeer, you’ll need a lot of lists. So let’s start an easy one today – your Christmas card list:
- You already have a list of everyone who sent you cards last year (See 4 January) so add other relatives and friends that you’d like to give cards to
- Then consider your co-workers and staff, including household staff like your postie, garbo and cleaner
- Count them, count any cards that you have already, and work out how many new cards you’ll need this year (round it up by a few – it’s always nice to make new friends!)
And that’s it! You’re halfway there with your cards and it’s not even Australia Day!
I’ve just painted some sample colours on my dining room wall and I’m tossing up between “butter shake”, “clover garden” and “Swedish linen”. I’m tempted to go with the green because it will look so good with Christmas decorations but a dining room is not, of course, just for Christmas!
 When she was twenty, my sister Wendy hosted a Christmas picnic for a dozen people for less than she paid for the dress she picnicked in. The catering was just cheese sandwiches and beer but the guests were all students so they were quite happy.
 I can tell you right now that flying the whole family to Cote D’Azur for Christmas is unlikely to count as a present for the planet.
 My cousin Linda once sent Christmas cards to people she didn’t know too. She chose half a dozen strangers from the phone book who were listed by their first names rather than just their initials and she sent them nativity scenes inscribed “To [whoever], from Linda”. She was chuckling about how mystified they would be… and then she received a card in return saying “Thanks for the card, Linda – I just can’t think where we met and it’s driving me wild: could you remind me please?” and Linda felt too guilty to reply.
 My friend Jill also gives a card to her favourite train driver: he makes witty station announcements and Jill says that should be acknowledged.
 This got me thinking about the absurdity of paint names and how descriptive some of them aren’t so I set myself the challenge of creating names that sound like you’d find them on a colour chart but which actually give you no clue at all to their hue. Here are my favourites: “pixie dust”, “chameleon summer” and “jellybean”.
11 January – Plough Monday
For what they are about to receive
Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany and is the day when English farming work resumed, to the accompaniment of a plough dragged from house to house with a pantomime dame and a jester collecting money. Traditional food for the day is boiled suet pudding with meat and onions but that’s probably not what you’ll be feeling like in the middle of summer.
It’s time to start another key Christmas document: your budget. You will need a spreadsheet that contains:
- Categories of expense
- Individual items that you’ll be spending money on
- How much you’re planning to spend on those items
- How much you actually spend on those items
- Space for ideas and notes
Make the first category Christmas cards (if required): you know how many cards you’ll need to buy so add that cost and include the price of the stamps too.
Now add a presents category and populate the list of recipients by thinking about which relatives, friends, colleagues and employees you give gifts to, and then add people you buy presents for on behalf of others (like your young children or your elderly parents).
My boss got back from leave today and went to the stationery cupboard (to get a new notebook for the new year) and was not impressed by what she found so she instructed Donna to put everything back the way it was. I enjoy being right as much as the next person but Donna really didn’t like having to consult me to find out where everything should go.
 How much would you pay to see a clown, a drag queen and agricultural equipment? I think they’d need a good line of patter to be successful buskers in Bourke Street.
 My brother Matthew always includes a category called “surprises” which has covered firewood (the Christmas it hailed), dried fruit for his friend’s pudding party and his (enforced) contribution to the life-sized polar bear toy that his colleagues decided was a must for winning the office Christmas decoration competition.
 My friend Fiona’s sister Melanie’s idea that all of her siblings would like rescue kittens is one that you’d want to check with your siblings before you wrapped the kittens.
 My formula is that I give proper presents to the people I see on Christmas Day and small presents (of which more later) to others. The one exception I make is for my book club friend Sharon who has very few people in her life and hence very few presents under her tree. We give each other one good, new book and one bizarre, second hand one. “Jogging for Jesus” is the winner to date.
 She spent three weeks riding in the high country and she spent half of the morning telling us how much she loves horses and the other half telling us how much she hates mosquitoes.
At Christmas, you look at a sideboard groaning with desserts and ask yourself not “Which?” but “Which order?”. So I serve sweets in dainty portions so that you can have the strawberry mousse and the butterscotch panna cotta and the passionfruit pav and the key lime tart.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Set jellies and mousses in sherry glasses
- Cook tarts in cupcake trays (Use classic cupcake trays where each cake is 6cm in diameter rather than muffin trays which are 8cm in diameter)
- Make trifles and puddings in small ramekins
- Roll rum balls into small balls and cut fudge into small blocks
- When you’re buying pre-made ingredients, choose the smallest size available: mini meringue bases for pavlovas, little strawberries for dipping in chocolate, baby sponge fingers and so on
My friend Jill is going on holiday and she asked me to water her garden: most of it is drought-proof but vegetables are as thirsty as alcoholics and she said that everyone else she could ask is away too. I told her that my gardening skills are rudimentary at best and she said that all I needed to do was hold a hose, and so I accepted the challenge.
 Small serves don’t stop anyone from having lots of mousse (as my nephew Jack always demonstrates): you just have to go back for seconds … and thirds… and fourths.
 Giving you three times more cake, thanks to the power of multi-dimensional multiplication.
 My daughter Hannah once made a dolls’ dinner with Tiny Teddy biscuits, cumquats and weeny wedges of cheese but you don’t have to shrink portions that far. (And she left the meal on the floor of the playroom and it was all gone the next morning. Hannah thought her dolls had come alive at midnight and I thought it was more likely to have been creatures with long tails and four legs but we didn’t prove it conclusively either way.)
 And the strawberries. There’s plunder in this job.
Masterminding the master menu
Today’s list is a master menu for every dish you’ll need for the Christmas meals you’ll cater.
Although you can’t finalise the menus (or even the schedule) until December, if there’s anything you always have, you can put that down now and can later add any good ideas you have in the future. (Baklava for tea? Beans with almonds and garlic for lunch?)
You might also be able to identify some major themes now: maybe you like to do dips for bring-a-plate functions, maybe you cater a big seafood bash on Christmas Day, maybe you have a stable of classic desserts you roll out once a year.
When you’ve sorted those out, add a new item to your budget spreadsheet for food costs and estimate how much you’ll spend for each of those events. Don’t be scared by the total: we can knock that down later if it troubles you.
While we’re talking about food, I should mention that I can help you with many aspects of Christmas but my festive background is primarily British so I apologise for not knowing how (or even when) to cook byrek me kungull dhe are. But here are a few dishes my research tells me are popular around the world:
Bûche de Noël – cake shaped like a branch [France]
Cougnou – bread shaped like the baby Jesus [Belgium]
Candy canes – peppermint lollies shaped like walking sticks [USA]
Lebkuchen – gingerbread shaped like houses [Germany]
(It’s clear that what Christmastide is lacking is vegetables in festive shapes. The only thing I’ve thought of so far is Mr Potato Head angels but I can’t see these guys taking off!!)
In Poland at Christmas, they eat pierogi (filled dumplings) and I know this because my sister Wendy phoned through an order from her mother-in-law last night.
“Janet,” said Wendy after the usual pleasantries, “Gertruda asked me if she can cook sauerkraut pierogi next Christmas.”
“Of course she can,” I replied.
“She wants to serve them at Christmas dinner,” Wendy elaborated.
“Well, she can’t because we’ll be having turkey,” I explained, “But we can eat the pierogi for Christmas tea along with the cold meats and the salads and I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”
“She was very particular: she said she wanted them at dinner.”
“She can have them at tea.”
“Janet,” said Wendy. “I know Gertruda better than you do and she is very devious. If she really wants sauerkraut pierogi for Christmas dinner, I advise you to put them on the menu… and the turkey too, naturally.”
I didn’t budge. What can Gertruda do? Sulk all day? That might ruin her Christmas, but I’ll ignore it and it won’t ruin mine.
 My ex-husband’s family used to have ham and pickled onions on toast for Christmas breakfast but you might prefer something nice.
 My cousin Russell would make this garlic with beans and almonds.
 Literally when my Auntie Pat dropped the Christmas cake and it bowled into the dining room under its own steam. (The fruitcake was sturdy enough to survive the journey but the icing shepherds on top looked decidedly seasick.)
 They’re not aerodynamic, for a start.
The heart of the festive season, both socially and etymologically, is the feast, so Christmas is a time for lashings of luxury food – which is as bad for the planet as it is for your stomach. If you usually try to keep your ecological footprint low, you have three main options:
- Feast (One day is a small fraction of a year so eat lots of lovely food on the 25th and make up for it later)
- Feast, but choose the greenest options for all of the traditional offerings (but I’m not talking peas v carrots here)
- Eat sparingly of sustainable dishes
Here are some suggestions for Option 2:
- Buy free-range meat and sustainably fished seafood.
- Grow as much as you can and buy local fruit and vegetables where you can’t (which won’t limit you much in summer).
- Buy ethically produced chocolate and coffee.
- Use less packaging. (Take your own bags, choose loose food over pre-packaged food, paper over plastic etc.)
- Find delicious recipes which are built mainly on green ingredients and which have fewer ideologically unsound ingredients.
- Reduce waste: try not to overcater, refrigerate food well so you throw less out, gather recipes for dealing with leftovers and plan nose-to-tail eating even with ingredients that don’t have noses and tails and compost any skerricks that remain.
You can find worthy compromises if you look, so do start thinking about it now.
Speaking of green, I’ve looked at my paint samples at different times of day in different lights and I’ve chosen “clover garden”: it’s bright and fresh and it picks up the green tints in the curtains.
My daughter Hannah approved my choice but thinks I should get matching nail polish because, she says, I’ll be wearing splatters of the colour for weeks. Then my son Jeremy said I should get highlights of the same colour put into my hair so that any paint streaks look deliberate. I countered by suggesting that, since they clearly doubt my ability, they should do the work instead and they both backed down and said that I was highly capable and probably didn’t even need to change into painting clothes before I started.
 If you started now, you could raise your own turkey in time for December!
 My nephew Jack regularly threatens us with his recipe for goldfish patties but I think I’ll call his bluff next time. I’m sure he wouldn’t do it: he knows the name of every fish in his backyard pond.
 Crumb bread crusts for turkey schnitzels. Save carrot heels for ham stock. If you need just half a lettuce in Christmas Day’s salad, plan a second salad for Boxing Day.
Do you have any mince pies left? If so, this is one of those surprising recipes that is better than the sum of its parts. You need smashed mince pies, vanilla ice cream and some berries and you layer them up in parfait glasses to make mince pie sundae. Takes three minutes to make and – unfortunately – not much longer to eat.
My sister Wendy texted me a shopping list for my trip to Wilson’s Prom: bread, fruit and veg, and the egg and bacon pies. My niece Emma added a box of Turkish delight and an abundance of pepperoni which her husband Chris attributed to the cravings of pregnancy but her father disagreed, noting these have long been Emma’s favourite foods.
“It won’t count as a craving unless she starts eating them together,” Don said and then the family had much fun imagining Turkish delight and pepperoni pizza, salad and ice cream.
“Sounds like a balanced meal to me,” said Emma.
 My Nanna once found some mince pies at the back of her pantry in October. Mince pies have the life span of Galapagos tortoises so they were quite edible which is good because Nanna didn’t think they were from the previous December so they were probably approaching their second birthday.
 Which I cooked this afternoon and I put pastry letters spelling out “Jack” on one of them which should please my nephew.
So here I am at Wilson’s Prom and it’s as beautiful as ever and the flamingo worked a treat…in the river. On the beach, it got picked up by the wind and led me a merry dance across the sand. But let’s get back to that budget!
You’ve got the first cut of your gift, card and food expenses and here are some other items you may need to add:
- Decorations (including tree)
- Parcel postage (for distant presents)
- Sundries like Christmas crackers
- Donations to favourite charities
- Festive entertainments (like soccer club breakups and self-funded workplace lunches)
Now, the first year you do this you may need a lot of guesswork and it won’t be very accurate so it’s important to remember next year to use your actual figures from this year to feed the following year’s budget.
Now add up the total. Is it alarming? If so, don’t stress: there are lots of ways you can keep costs down.
If the number didn’t frighten you, do a sanity check by dividing the total by 49 (because that’s how many weeks there are till next Christmas): can you put aside that much money each week? Again, don’t be scared if you don’t think you can achieve that: we can slice this budget down dramatically. You can do Christmas without debt.
 I’m going to have to devise a harness for it: a middle-aged lady in her bathing suit looks ridiculous just carrying an inflatable flamingo, and chasing it down the beach is not dignified.
 But not including any of those terrible toys that sing Christmas carols all day and which must have been invented by a modern Ebeneezer Scrooge who wants us all to abandon Christmas entirely.
 And Santa sacks and fancy dress costumes. (My niece Emma says that she never regretted paying top dollar for a pair of top quality angel wings because she wore them one whole December and they lasted so well she thought she might actually get to take them to heaven with her.)
 My cousin Bronwyn was part of a Gilbert and Sullivan society who always used last year’s budget to draft this year’s which meant that they made the same mistakes over and over again.
 Which you surely did: in case you needed to return anything.
 My cousin Felicity worked for a heavy drinker called Alan who liked detective stories so, whenever he woke up with no memory of the night before, he’d deduce what he’d done by the contents of his pockets. Knowing this, a mate reverse pick-pocketted Alan one night and left him with a pink hair ribbon, a ticket to a zoo in the next state and a Ferrari keyring. Apparently, Alan said nothing, but he kept a very low profile for the next few months.
Trimming your budget before trimming your tree
If yesterday’s budget frightened you, let’s slash it. Cards are the easiest so we’ll start with them and here are your options:
- Send no cards at all. (This is very common so you will get away with it and it has zero cost.)
- Send email cards or whatever greeting options your preferred social network service provides.
- Make your own cards from recycled materials.
- Use up cards left over from previous years instead of buying new ones.
- Get cheaper cards by buying them now or from discount shops in November.
- Cut your card list down. (You can also use this option in conjunction with C, D and E to further reduce costs.)
The greenest option is A, B is nearly as good and C can also be environmentally friendly if you deliver the cards by foot where possible and do consider option C even if you’re not artistic because I can give you some good ideas for card designs that aren’t at all hard (of which more later).
Wrapping is another expense that you can cut to the bone. You can:
- Buy discounted wrapping paper now.
- Use daring alternatives, like brown paper wrapped with bright bows (of which more later).
- Make your own (of which more later).
Even if you’re rolling in money, don’t buy gift tags. They are so easy to make that it’s ridiculous to spend money on them even if you’re not economising, and we’ll look at a few designs later in the year.
“How did your camping equipment database go?” I asked my sister Wendy.
“It was never going to work in January,” she said as if I should have known. “We all come down to the prom together so we’re all using everything and can’t lend it to anyone else.”
“Wendy, you’re all teachers,” I replied. “Even if you don’t camp together the rest of the year, you still all go in the school holidays.”
“I may need to think the idea through a bit more,” she admitted.
 My son Jeremy snapchatted all his friends a picture of him in a Santa hat, emerging from our fireplace with a bulging sack and a finger laid aside his nose. Soot ruined the hat and the beard and threatened the life of his favourite red T-shirt but Jeremy said that even the half hour he had to spend scrubbing the carpet was worth it for the admiration of his friends.
 Luckily, they age like vintage cheese so last year’s cartoon shepherds will be fine this year (but will have grown whiskers in a decade, and I bought a mixed batch of cards from an op shop depicting fat red candles next to pine branches that screamed “70s” so loudly you’d swear they were wearing flares).
 Anyone who doesn’t send you cards is a good candidate for the chop!
 My friend Jenny was training for an ultra-endurance walk one December so she delivered all of her cards by foot that year, even to suburbs twenty kilometres away. (Yes, she spent more on shoe leather than she would have on postage but she was going to be walking anyway.)
 My friend Jill kept A3 sheets of paper on her desk and, while she talked on the telephone, she would do intricate, Christmassy doodles which she then used for wrapping paper, but she gave it up when she was promoted to management because she thought it didn’t look professional to attend meetings with five colours of ink on her fingers.
Christmas in space
Christmas takes time, money… and space: even if you didn’t stock up on Christmas cards, you’ll have your decorations and the wrapping left over from last year and any presents you snaffle ahead of time. So it’s worth organising some serious boxes to put it all in.
If you have money to spend, you’ll find plenty of shops that are happy to sell you custom solutions, from plastic tubs to wicker baskets to cloth-covered archive boxes.
If you don’t have money to spend, sturdy cardboard cartons are fine. (Put the contents in biscuit tins or in sealed plastic bags if you need protection from damp and/or moths.)
And if you want to move it up a notch, decorate the boxes: paint the cartons red and green (if you have spare paint) or cover them in festive wrapping paper.
I went to my friend Jill’s house to water her kitchen garden again today and I found a monster zucchini that I must have missed when I was there last time. In just a few days it has grown to the size of a diprotodon and I was daunted by it and couldn’t think what to do with it. So I consulted Stephanie and she says you can make chips from really big zucchinis and I did and they were delicious and my son Jeremy polished the rest off with relish.
 And a serious cupboard to put the serious boxes in.
 My cousin Bronwyn learned the hard way that baubles will survive six months in a puddle at the back of a cupboard in the laundry but that water can have a (literally) shocking effect on fairy lights.
 I didn’t want to stuff it because, if I fell in while doing so, I might not get out in time for dinner.
 Her book may be called “The Cook’s Companion” but I treat it as a cook’s champion and send it into battle for me whenever I have a tricky culinary challenge.
 Literally: with an excellent tomato and onion relish that I picked up at a fete.
Trimming the fat from the feast
How can you cut your food budget? I confess that this one doesn’t come naturally to me but here are some general ideas:
- Cater fewer events: if you do Christmas lunch, maybe someone else in your family could do Christmas tea.
- Take it in turns. If you always host a Christmas Eve get-together with your old friends, suggest that it rotate to a different house each year.
- Have everyone bring a different dish. (This needs coordination or else everyone could make potato salad and no-one will bring ham but you can organise that!)
- Cook cheaper dishes – not nasty, of course, and not boring but you will be surprised at how many low cost, high appeal recipes you can find.
A further argument for reducing your card, wrapping and decoration costs is so that you don’t have to cut back so much on food!
My cousin Brian went back to Singapore last week but his wife Lynette is staying on for a bit longer in their beach house at Portsea and she has just invited me down for a weekend. I wonder if I should take my inflatable flamingo.
 But I’m not the biggest over-caterer in my family: my Nanna always had at least three kinds of cake at afternoon tea, my cousin Linda cannot cook a meal for fewer than six, and Auntie Betty once fed the whole local football team with just two hours’ notice. (Mind you, the contents of her freezer were indexed and she was also a master at making stew from odd scraps (which requires the parallel skill of fobbing off people who ask you for the recipe when you can’t remember the ingredients you added and can only say that you used at least six different kinds of meat).)
 My friend Jenny solves this one by keeping Christmas lunch going so long that it merges into tea without needing a separate menu, a fresh set of serving dishes or even the effort of leaving the table.
 My version of rainbow jelly (of which more later) costs less than ten dollars, feeds two dozen people and is a huge hit with children.
 With a phone call, not by sending a servant. And she didn’t mention anything about dressing for dinner, so I don’t think I’ll need an evening gown or a tiara.
There are two ways to reduce your present budget:
- Give fewer gifts
- Cut what you spend on (some or all) of them
and you can, of course, use these in combination and today we’ll talk about list reduction.
If you’re not already doing it, consider Kris Kringle for your family presents: put names into a hat, have each person draw one out and then only buy a present for that family member. You may or may not want to set a price limit and perhaps there are people you’ll exclude (eg: the kids).
If you think Kris Kringle will work for your family, January is a good time to discuss it because:
- People are often still feeling the physical effects of excess and are receptive to the idea of receiving less and
- This is about the time they’ll be paying their credit card bills so they may well be receptive to the idea of paying less.
In our team meeting today, I was asked to draw up a birthday list for the year and organise a cake roster and Donna huffed up like a penguin chick so the boss (reluctantly) gave the job to her instead. (My daughter Hannah always cooks a cake for me on my birthday and I’m glad I won’t be dependent on what Donna organises.)
 My friend Carol’s brother Trent decided to economise by quarrelling with most of his family in order to have an excuse not to buy them Christmas presents. This definitely kept his costs down but it also meant that he didn’t receive many Christmas presents himself and he said later that, taking everything into account, this was not a winning strategy.
 Pro: it’s very fair. Con: if you find it hard to think of a present for your brother-in-law with an unlimited budget, it won ‘t get easier if the price limit rules out anything he’s actually interested in.
 And it was definitely worth the flat sponges and doughy gingerbread of her early primary school years to get to the magnificent opera cakes and Sacher tortes of her high school years.
Strings of fairy lights can get horribly tangled so be prepared to put them away well when you undecorate. Here are some options:
- Roll them onto a cardboard tube.
- Take a piece of cardboard, notch the sides and wind the strings on.
- Get a coat hanger, tape one end of the string to the corner of the hanger, and wind.
Whatever you choose, be sure to label them (“50m: front fence”, “20m: tool shed”) so that you don’t spend half an hour on a ladder lining up light bulbs with the guttering before you realise that you’ll run out of twinkle before you make it to the downpipe and will have to start again with the correct strand.
I was watering Jill’s garden again today and I did the pot plants on the veranda and I noticed that the lounge room had been ransacked. I tossed up between ringing the police and ringing Jill but since it didn’t seem to be a “hot burg” I started with Jill. She told me where the spare key was and directed me to the locations of her jewelry box and the family laptops and, after I found them all right where they should be, she said she’d get back to me in ten minutes.
I’d just finished eating today’s strawberries when she rang.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s only William: he came home to look for his favourite computer game and he’s like a tornado even when he’s putting on his socks. In fact, I’m surprised he managed to confine the mess to the lounge room.”
“Jill,” I said. “If your son is around, why am I watering your garden?”
“William is completely unreliable,” she explained. And I’ve known him since he was a baby and I have to agree. (And I’ve been enjoying the vegetables, so all is good.)
 My brother-in-law Don once got so frustrated by a Gordonian knot of Christmas lights that he finally hung it from his veranda in one big, snarly ball and called it a light sculpture.
 There is another option which is my cousin Russell’s strategy of not undecorating at all which also has the advantage of saving storage space.
This is the easiest scone recipe I have and it uses sour cream, and you don’t need to use commercially packaged sour cream: the cream you bought for your Christmas pavlovas, only used half of, and have had sitting in the back of your fridge since then will be fine, even if it looks pretty chunky (but if it’s actually mouldy, throw it out).
|START||:||20 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||5+5 minutes|
100ml sour cream 2 cups self-raising flour 300ml milk
Set over to 220°C.
I tried to give Donna some advice on the birthday cake roster today but she icily told me that she had it under control. So I pointed out that she had me down to make a cake for Gemma on a day I’ll be on leave, and that I usually do Marie because I’m happy to cook a gluten-free, dairy-free mud cake to work around Marie’s allergies but that really didn’t improve Donna’s mood. (However Marie was quite relieved so, on average, workplace morale rose).
 My nephew Jack calls scones “throwing cakes” because he says they’re the right size, weight and sturdiness to hurl across a dining room. So I don’t serve them to him for afternoon tea because I’m not at all sure that he’s bluffing on this one.
 In fact, if you have anything in your fridge that’s mouldy, throw it out. (With the exception of cheese, provided it was mouldy when you bought it).
 It will be pretty sloppy but don’t worry about that.
 Or pat down, depending on how soft it is.
If you exchange presents with individual friends and you want to reduce your present load, ask them if they’d like to reduce theirs too. If they do, you could go down to cards only or maybe you could have a specific festive gathering instead (be it a barbecue, cocktail night or lunch at the mall).
If you exchange presents with a group of friends, (a mother’s group, for example) consider going Kris Kringle.
Again, this is the right time of year to discuss presents with your friends: not only are they more likely to agree to fewer gifts in January but it will sound practical rather than personal right now.
 Depending on proximity, proclivity and prosperity.
 My mother’s group used to meet at a playground for a Kris Kringle when the kids were little, then we moved to a bush barbecue when they got to primary school age. We didn’t get to high school age because Amanda got very drunk the year our oldest kids all turned ten and she told us all exactly what she thought of us. I guess we could have continued on without her but we all secretly agreed with her assessments of the others.
 The worst time to do it is immediately after opening a present from them, particularly if you were unable to hide your disappointment at being given scented candles.
Turkeys come in sizes which are ten times their weight in kilograms, so a size 20 turkey weighs 2kg and a size 31 turkey weighs 3.1kg and the biggest you’re likely to get is size 110 which is 11kg and would be fearsome on the farm… were turkeys not so stupid and scared.
Here’s some data to help you calculate the size you’ll need:
|SIZE / WEIGHT||NUMBER OF PEOPLE|
|25 (2.5kg)||4 to 6|
|45 (4.5kg)||8 to 10|
|68 (6.8kg)||10 to 12|
|90 (9.0kg)||15 to 20|
…but that’s not all there is to it: if you’re catering for a mob, you need to make sure the bird is not too big for your oven and the easiest way to do that is to take the largest baking dish that fits in your oven with you to the shop and try the turkey on for size.
You also need to make sure that you leave enough room in your freezer if you’re picking up the turkey well in advance and that you can leave enough room in your fridge to defrost it (which won’t be easy, because it will take three days and this will be Peak Cheesecake Time and the fridge will be groaning with cream and butter and three kinds of custard).
I’ve been keen to start painting so I piled the pictures on the table and covered everything with drop sheets but I couldn’t move the sideboard into the spare room on my own and had to wait until my son Jeremy came home from his beach holiday. (I spent years pouring food into teenagers and it’s nice to occasionally reap the rewards of the muscles it produced!)
 But one still gave my brother Matthew a run for his money when he was only four. We were visiting a tourist zoo, Matthew was holding a peanut butter sandwich and the turkey saw it. “It looked me in the eye,” he explains now, “And if you meet a bird that’s taller than you and knows just what it wants, I advise total surrender.”
 Don’t be shy: if you see anyone watching you, they’re bound to be thinking, “That’s a good idea! I should do that myself!”
 Which is a future echo of Christmas Day when your guests will be groaning with cream and butter and three kinds of custard.
 Which are also dropped sheets – worn out bed linen that no longer makes the grade in my bedroom.
Even if you don’t run a business, you may have quite a few people working for you:
- Your lawn mower, hairdresser, dog walker as required
- Your children’s school teachers
- The co-ordinators of your children’s out of school activities
- Co-ordinators of your own activities
People you pay directly often like a cash bonus but there are plenty of other options (of which more later). And a card with genuine, well-expressed appreciation always goes down well.
When I was a kid, lots of people left out beer for the garbo. My dad stopped doing that the time he selected a careful mixed dozen and came out the next morning to find that the garbo had taken all the heavy and left all the light. Myself, I put out festive biscuits and I don’t know for sure that they like them but I can tell you that they do take them.
I can be more accurate about the gratitude of my postie because he took the time to thank me in person: my postie definitely likes festive biscuits.
On the whole, I don’t think you should reduce the number of presents you give to people who work for you, but you can cut the costs of the presents themselves and we’ll look at that soon.
My childhood Christmasses were spent at my grandmother’s house in the Mallee. Sometimes Dad would work right up till Christmas Eve so we’d travel down on Christmas Day and we children didn’t mind because it meant we could get up at first light (which is really early so close to the solstice) to find out what Father Christmas had given us and then we would choose a few toys to take in the car for the four hour drive. We’d start in the city and see the other early risers (primarily children on new Christmas bikes) and whizz northwards on nearly empty roads (and we’d arrive too late to go to church which was something that appealed to Dad).
 Yoga teacher? Golf pro? Clairvoyant? (I presume there’s no point in wrapping presents for clairvoyants because they would already know what was inside.)
 Or to be precise, I know that someone takes them.
26 January – Australia Day
Fire up the barbie
I once worked with a man who was fresh out from Scotland and, as every festive date approached, he’d ask us how Aussies celebrated it. After a few holidays, I realised that the answer was always the same: with a barbecue. But of all the holidays, I think Australia Day is the barbecuey-ist, so go gangbusters.
Does your menu plan for Christmas Day include salads? If so, unless you already have a full suite of favourites ready to go, use today to road test something fancy. Then you’ll know:
You can also note the cost of the ingredients and then, if you do decide this salad makes the cut for Christmas, you can put that cost as an approximation into your budget spreadsheet.
My childhood Christmasses were always good but there is one that sticks in my mind as the epitome: I was eight so it must have been 1970 and it was special because the whole family gathered at Nanna’s house – even the Queensland cousins were there. This made twenty of us and it was a hoot.
Four of the cousins were older than me and I admired them because they did really cool things like building rafts and cooking coconut ice. Then there were four cousins and two siblings who were younger than me which made me feel sophisticated because I had a later bedtime and could ride a bike. But best of all were Peter from Goulburn and Michelle from Brisbane because they were both eight like me and we called ourselves the Three Musketeers (although we had no idea what a musketeer was and we certainly didn’t have any muskets).
 Or better. My cousin Linda does a salad that is just watermelon and raw onion that exceeds expectations. (She used to make it when her family went to the cricket because her children liked to wear watermelon helmets but she hated wasting good food.)
 In my experience, it’s rarely worth podding broad beans.
 My friend Carol has a running argument with her husband about Christmas budgets. He says they should include the food costs and she says that they would have been eating anyway. He says that they spend a lot more on food at Christmas so they should note that. She says that they spend a lot more on food at Christmas and she doesn’t want to know how much. He says that’s what budgets are for. She says if he realised how much his Christmas cheese platter cost, he’d start arguing for supermarket cheddar instead of imported Havarti. At this point, he’s usually wise enough to say that he loves her even more than he loves imported Havarti, and they avoid divorce.
 Bronwyn pursued a different level of cool when she became famous for her hash cookies but she was only ten in 1970 and hadn’t thought of that yet.
 They’ve caught up since.
Giving till you’re green
You may think that Christmas presents are an outrageous example of overconsumption on a planet reeling from the impact of merely trying to feed its plague population of humans and I won’t argue you with you about the damage, but I will tell you that it is possible to give green presents:
- Give people only things that they would have bought for themselves anyway (and then nothing extra needs to be created).
- Give them second hand things (and then nothing extra needs to be created).
- Give them food (because they were going to be eating anyway).
- Give them services (a gift voucher for a gardener or tickets to a play).
- Give them things that reduce their environmental footprint.
With thought, you can be green and generous… and everyone likes getting presents.
On that big family Christmas back in 1970, we picked Dad up from work on Christmas Eve and headed North. We didn’t have Christmas toys to play with yet but we sang Christmas carols and played “Count the Christmas trees”. We didn’t have sitcoms on little screens on the back seats of the car: in 1970, you saw a show when it was broadcast or not at all, and the whole family watched the same program at the same time on the one television in the lounge room in the evening. Back in the olden days, we accepted that we were going to be bored some of the time, whether it was on long car trips or suffering through someone else’s favourite game show or just being stuck in a queue at the bank without a phone in your pocket for connecting to your friends or playing strangely addictive games, but I’m not claiming we were the better for it: boredom is not a desirable state.
 But do choose luxury moisturiser rather than professional strength deodorant. The principle is the same either way, but the latter is unlikely to be received with pleasure.
 Again, nougat will go down better than onions.
 Typically, this is two tickets to a play so that the recipient doesn’t have to go alone but my brother Matthew gave me a single Melbourne Theatre Company subscription last Christmas… and he got himself one too and we’re going together. (This also means that he’s selected all the plays and his taste runs a little more to miserable dystopias than mine does (some people assume that feel-good stories can’t be high art but I don’t see why not) but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it nonetheless.)
 I worked out years later that they must have been stored under the back seat of the station wagon which could be lifted up to reveal a dusty space big enough for quite a few stockings’ worth.
 Which ended in a huge argument but it doesn’t seem seasonal to mention it.
 Remember those?
You don’t need to spend any money at all on decorations so this item is easy to cut if your Christmas budget is alarming. Your options are:
- Don’t decorate at all.
- Use only your existing decorations.
- Make your own decorations from recycled materials for the cost of just a little bit of string and glue and (maybe some glitter if you can’t resist it).
- Make your own decorations from supplies from craft shops.
- Buy cheap decorations: with canny shopping and careful consideration of what you actually need, you should be able to fill the gaps with tasteful items from discount shops.
(The first three options are green. The last two options are not – in fact, they come in at the “spangled purple” end of the spectrum.)
There are two decorations that deserve special consideration:
- your Christmas tree
… and we’ll talk about them soon.
I’ve been sugar soaping the dining room walls and, as always, once it was done the room looked brighter and fresher and I thought “Do I really need to paint?” but I do because:
- They’re not bright or fresh enough and
- I’ve painted colour swatches everywhere!
 Very sad and not recommended but it is zero cost.
 Also zero cost and much more festive… unless you own zero decorations.
 My book club friend Sharon, who is an artist by profession, once made mini Christmas trees from cones of bread that she encouraged to moulder. They looked exciting and wild… and dangerous. (I doubt it was healthy to have that many mould spores wafting around a lounge room so, when she offered me a glass of brandy, I took it for medicinal reasons.)
 And I usually can’t!
 This is fun so do it if you enjoy it and can fund it from your normal craft budget but don’t think it’s an economical option: you’ll pay far more for seed beads and ribbon than you would for commercial decorations.
The perfect disguise
They won’t say “ham again” if you cook a classic parma.
|START||:||50 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||40 minutes|
4 skinless chicken breasts 1 cup dry breadcrumbs
2 eggs 4 slices of ham
4 tbs olive oil ¾ cup grated Mozzarella
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan 8 tbs tomato passata
Preheat oven to 200°C. Grease a baking tray.
Butterfly the fillets. Lightly beat the eggs. Heat oil in a large frying pan.
Place Parmesan on one plate and breadcrumbs on another. Coat each chicken breast in Parmesan, then egg, then breadcrumbs.
Fry the chicken fillets for about 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown, and then transfer them to the baking tray. Cover each with slice of ham, then mozzarella, then tomato passata. Bake for 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
I motored down to cousin-in-law Lynette’s beach house after work today and found a soaring mansion. I would like to think I was cool enough to take palaces in my stride but I guess my astonishment showed because Lynette said, “I know it’s big for a weekender, but it’s our only house. We never stay in any of the cities we live in for more than a few years and we always rent, so this is the closest thing we have to a permanent home.”
I must remember that: whenever I’m budgeting to replace flyscreens or wondering if I can justify splurging on new towels, I’ll say, “But it’s my only house!”
 (For leftover ham).
 The splendour of which made the home-made raspberry cordial and vintage Cook’s cottage souvenir teaspoon I had brought for Lynette seem woefully inadequate but she loved them both.
It’s the thought that counts
There may be some people on your Christmas list you want to demonstrate good will to but don’t necessarily need to give a fancy present to. They are contenders for what some people call token presents but I prefer to call Small Presents. (A token present sounds like something you give someone j of something good. I prefer to give them something good enough to be valued but not overtly expensive.)
Here are some suggestions for Small Presents:
- An individual serve of fancy food (two luxury chocolates in a decorative box, a little Christmas pudding, a petite bottle of gourmet sauce)
- A larger quantity of homemade food (biscuits, lemon butter, jam)
- Something else homemade (like a knitted beanie or a macramé pot plant hanger or a wooden candlestick)
- A chic decoration
I believe that the record for the greatest number of Small Presents distributed in a single Christmas is held by my sister Wendy. One year, when her children were young, she needed Small Presents for:
- her son Jack’s three carers from crèche and his toddler gym teacher
- her daughter Emma’s school teacher, two after-school carers, piano teacher, circus skills teacher and Brownie leaders
- her son Ben’s school teacher, two (different) after school carers, violin teacher, football coach and Cub leaders
- her own hairdresser, yoga teacher and Big Issue guy
- her husband’s golf pro and (different) Big Issue guy
- the garbo, postie, cleaner and lawn mowing lady
and that adds up to 27!
“Wendy,” I said to her. “Gingerbread.”
It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s festive and it freezes well. So she made three big batches of gingerbread people over three weekends in November when she wasn’t busy and she packaged it up in cellophane bags and froze it and then she just grabbed one out of the freezer whenever she needed a Small Present in December, added a gift tag and was good to go.
Lynette’s Portsea palace is very comfortable indeed and there seems to be something new to astonish me around every corner: a statuette that predates the English language, a chair you see in lists of iconic twentieth century furniture, an electronic system that watches you move through the house and adjusts the lights and temperature accordingly. But we’re spending our time swimming at the beach, or looking out at the ocean and these are simple pleasures available to everyone who can get to the seaside.
 My black-straw jam definitely qualifies now that I’ve called it “fruits of the forest”.
 Depending on your talents and their tastes.
 Or combine the last two points and give them a chic, homemade decoration.
 I mean, of course, when she wasn’t especially busy – she still had work, yoga and chauffeur duties for crèche, school, piano, violin, circus skills, football, Brownies and Cubs.
 Thus eliminating the need for servants, which Lynette seems to have had in squadrons in most of the countries she’s lived in.
 Although not everyone gets to do the latter from a marble balcony drinking seriously good coffee in the kind of china that makes you want to tip it upside down to see the maker’s mark.
Making presents can keep your costs down but take care to match them to the recipients: just because you like making patchwork baboushka peg bags doesn’t mean that everyone you know would actually like to own a patchwork baboushka peg bag.
Here are some presents that may be received well:
- Small children usually like classic wooden toys and soft toys
- Practical items (oven mitts, chopping boards) will be appreciated by people who need those items
If you like to knit (or weld or whatever) and someone you’ll be giving a present to likes your knitting (or welding or whatever) and doesn’t do it themselves, sometimes they’d be happy to pay for the wool (or metal or whatever) and have you create something special for them. (It won’t be a surprise but presents don’t always have to be.)
It’s always nice to get home again, even when your possessions are humble and even if you have to do your own repairs, and I painted the first coat onto the dining room ceiling today which meant that I spent a lot of time staring upwards and I remembered how much I hate the light fitting and I think it’s finally time I replaced it. And I should do that before the next coat of paint because I may need to paint around whatever the electrician does. (And this is why you should renovate well ahead of Christmas: because it always takes longer than you expect. But I should easily be finished by the end of February so I’ll still be getting good value from the paint-drying days of summer.)
 Depending on the materials you use: gem-studded trinket boxes can’t be done on the cheap.
 (And there are many people who don’t own a single baboushka peg.)
 And non-classic toys too: my friend Jenny still has the wooden robot her brother made for her when she was small (although I believe the antennae were replaced several times – there’s a reason real robots don’t have wooden antennae).
 My friend Todd is a keen knitter and he makes all of his wife’s jumpers. He’s fine with this but she is a little embarrassed and she used to tell people that she knitted them herself but she was caught out whenever they asked her tricky questions about cable patterns or fisherman’s rib.
 And some presents shouldn’t be surprises: pets (and even fussy house plants) should be agreed to in advance, and you should wait until you’re actually asked before giving anyone a self-help book, a weight-loss program or a toupee.