Reflect on the interesting things that happened in February and make a few notes for your end-of-year letter. (Add them to the notes you made about January.)
Also comb through photos you took in February and see if there’s one (yes, one will be enough) that might be of general interest.
The plasterer who came today was absolutely charming and apologised for keeping me waiting three weeks (which means that I’ve missed my summer target for getting the painting finished but I guess it doesn’t really matter) but the charm wore thin when he broke the dining room window with his ladder.
He will send a glazier around pronto and he boarded the window up himself before he left. (This will keep the possums out but I’m not convinced that possums would be more trouble than plasterers.)
 My sister Wendy snapchatted me a video of her son Jack today: he was lying upside down on the couch, bouncing balls against the wall and he said he was studying the pressure exerted by gaseous molecules but Wendy insisted that appropriate inside studying was based on books, not balls.
All tied up
Before sticky tape was invented, people tied parcels with string and, if you want to be super-green and use no tape at all, you can do the same with presents:
- Remember the short strands of tinsel you saved when you put away the decorations? If the tinsel is strong enough, you can wrap those round gifts.
- Save ribbon and string that you come across during the year.
- You can make your own string from all kinds of natural fibres but I have never tried this myself.
If you don’t want to be that green but you do want to be cheap, buy a length of organza or sequin-spangled net and cut it into strips to use as ribbons. It looks great and turns brown paper into something special, and a metre will only set you back $10 which should be enough for all your presents.
The glazier came today and did a commendable job of replacing the broken pane in the dining room, and then he asked me if I knew that carpenter ants had been making merry in the window sill. I didn’t and now I guess I need a carpenter of the human variety to fix what the carpenters of the insect variety have wrought. (I am beginning to wish that I’d looked at the fresher, cleaner walls I saw after I’d sugar soaped them and thought “Yes, this is good enough! Even with the colour swatches!”)
 Although tying a perfect reef knot may be tricky.
 But maybe I should because it would be a good skill to have if one were marooned on a tropical island.
 I am assuming typical volumes of presents here. The year my niece Emma was born, Wendy and Don were still driving the jalopy they’d had in their student days and Gertruda bought them a reliable, safe car for Christmas, and tying that with strips of organza would have cost more than a week’s worth of petrol.
Blueprint for blue baubles
You’ve made notes about how you decorated last year and you’ve thought about your cost constraints (both financial and environmental) and now it’s time to consider the big (bespangled) picture. How do you want your whole house decorated for the coming Christmas?:
- Do you want a few classy and classic pieces in key locations (wreath on the door, nativity scene in the hall, tree in the lounge and leave it at that) or a Yuletide cornucopia spilling across every surface (tinsel draped from the picture rails, reindeer in the corners and Santas of every size and shape) or something in between?
- Do you want a restrained colour scheme throughout (carved wood with a little gold), a smorgasbord (silver in the dining room, scarlet on the veranda and purple in the den) or tutti fruiti?
- Do you want a coherent theme (snowflakes or stars) or will you give it everything you’ve got?
This will give you a picture of your ideal, so now look at what you have to work with already, take your constraints into account and make an actual plan. (Graph paper is good!)
Gertruda asked Emma to choose some jewellery for her baby.
“The baby won’t even be born for another two months!” I objected when Wendy when told me. “By the time it’s old enough for gems, the young folk will probably be wearing them on parts of the body we don’t even have names for yet!”
“If it weren’t for the work she’s doing on her bequests,” Wendy said, “I’d have said that Gertruda easily had another twenty years in her and would be around to sort out nipple rings and knee piercings herself.”
Gertruda has some seriously big jewels: I can’t see how you could comfortably wear them on your knees.
 My friend Jill once simply hung a little silver angel from every doorway (from which you can deduce that she’s shorter than average – it didn’t work as well for her tall friends) which looked stylish. She also drew life-sized angels on her fridge, bathroom tiles and splashbacks but, unfortunately, the one she drew in chalk on the patio made the whole house look like a divine murder scene.
 One of the things that I like about Christmas is that quiet, good taste is optional.
 I assumed they were fake the first few times that I met her. So if she was trying to impress me, it had the opposite effect.
Nuffin like a muffin
If you’ve still got cranberry sauce left, it’s clear you’re not using it at any great pace and it’s likely to still be there by next Christmas… unless you make cranberry muffins.
|START||:||30 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||10 + 5 minutes|
2 cups SR flour 1 cup cranberry sauce 1 egg
½ tsp cardamom ¾ cup milk ½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon ¼ cup vegetable oil 1 tsp vanilla essence
Preheat oven to 200°C. Grease a muffin tray or line it with paper cases.
Sift flour, baking powder and spices together.
Beat cranberry sauce, milk, oil, egg, vanilla essence and sugar together. Fold in flour mixture. Spoon into muffin tray. Cook for 20 minutes until golden brown.
Murray tried his hazelnut cake again today and this time, I oversaw his work and gave him a few pointers and it was very close to perfect. So we let it cool and iced it and treated our colleagues at afternoon tea time.
 Mind you, it will keep till next Christmas so you don’t have to use it up.
 My friend Jenny gave me this recipe and she makes fewer muffins if she has less than a cup of cranberry sauce. “But how do you scale one egg down?” I asked and the answer is that she beats it lightly, weighs it, calculates how many grams she’ll need in the muffins and then uses the rest of the egg in pancakes. (She believes very strongly that there’s a solution for every problem. I believe very strongly that we should get Jill into the U.N.)
 With a chocolate rum ganache because I think it goes well with hazelnuts. (Murray loved it and said he thought it would go well with everything from his breakfast muesli to his evening coffee.)
If you have a family of extraverts who love to tread the boards, you could put on a concert to entertain yourselves on Christmas afternoon (but don’t even consider this if you’re all torturously shy.)
The traditional options are:
- Musical pieces (Christmas fits nicely with end of year performances so, if any of your number are learning instruments, they’ll probably have a number ready to go for you on the 25th.)
- Sketches (There are many classics, you can write your own and I’ll give you a few of mine later on)
- Displays of any amusing talents in your crowd (Gymnastics, juggling, underwater crocheting)
- Reading Christmas texts (I’m thinking Seuss’ Grinch here but go for the gospel according to Luke if that that’s the cut of your jib.)
This does need to be planned in advance, so why not talk about it now to see if you’re likely to get a few acts together?
I’m reluctant to paint the walls before the carpenter comes but surely it’s safe to finish the roof now that the dining room is weather-tight again, so I dusted off my roller and did the final coat of ceiling white. Now if I keep my eyes focussed firmly upwards, I can at last see actual progress!
 My daughter Hannah actually did this one year as part of an in-joke with her cousins but it didn’t work very well and it wasn’t much of a spectator sport.
 Why is it that there are twenty different shades of white for walls but only one for ceilings? (Not that ceilings have to be white: my nephew Ben was given free range to redecorate his bedroom when he was fifteen and he painted everything “midnight ebony”. This only lasted six months and I believe it’s because not even a gloomy teenager can feel comfortable in a pitch black room but he said it was because he was sick of his parents’ friends singing, “I see a white room and I want to paint it black” whenever they saw him. (His re-redecoration was a sky blue ceiling with air-brushed white clouds and a galaxy of phosphorescent star stickers and it’s all still there even though he moved out two years ago: Wendy says she likes it and Don says he doesn’t, but he’d rather have the clouds than the task of scraping all the stickers off before he can do that first coat of ceiling white.))
- Brown paper, newspaper, ribbon and string for wrapping
- Coloured cardboard for gift tags
- Classy shopping bags to upcycle into gift bags (of which more later)
- The cardboard tubes from lunch wrap for crackers
- Jars, pretty pieces of cloth to cover them with and glass bottles for hampers. (The best jars are small and have metal lids. The best bottles are pretty.)
And although we’re talking about planning here, do remember that a well-run Christmas requires both organisation and flexibility because you don’t know at this stage of the year exactly what December will bring. In my case, the nursing home has just let me know that Auntie Helen has died. I can’t really say it’s tragic because her last good days were back when she still could still get out of bed, but it is sad that she’s the last of her generation in my dad’s family. And that’s one person off my Christmas card list… you can’t predict December in March.
 Which is a professional term for the stacks of fabrics quilters have, the baskets of wool knitters have and the jars of bugles beaders have. (The amateur term is “clutter”.)
 My artist friend Sharon has more than one: her studio has a whole wall of shelves of supplies, her spare room is all boxes and she doesn’t have room in her garage to park her car.
 Both because big jars of jam sometimes go mouldy before you finish them and because you get more presents from your ingredients if you use small jars!
 Which are easier to sterilise.
 Home-made cordial tastes 25% better from a bottle decorated with a sprig of glass leaves.
A nativity element that is taken way beyond its context is the star of Bethlehem. It’s Christmassy because it shone done on baby Jesus and showed the three kings where to go but stars are used by themselves all over the place with nary a stable in sight: on wrapping paper, on plates, on mince tarts, wherever you look.
So if you’re not Christian but don’t mind referencing Christianity in a mild way, feel free to use stars on your own gift tags and cupcakes.
Angels are more religious, not so much because they heralded the birth and told the shepherds where to go but because they haven’t strayed as far from the manger as the stars have. However, there are plenty of angels in the Old Testament so, if you’re Jewish, you could decorate with non-nativity angels.
 I don’t think astral navigation would work so well on a city grid: it doesn’t allow for one-way streets, off-road travel or private property.
 And the pregnancy too, actually – no pharmacy predictor tests for Mary!
If your budget (or your available kitchen space) allows for just one Christmas biscuit cutter, make it star because this is what you can do with it:
- turn any flavour biscuit at all into Christmas biscuits
- put stars of pastry onto mince tarts
- cut stars out of circle biscuits and fill with crushed lollies to make church window biscuits (of which more later)
So that’s three classic but visually different looks to use on a Christmas plate or in a hamper from just one cutter and you can also make gingerbread stars to hang on your tree and use the cutter as a template for making gift tags and Christmas cards. A star cutter is definitely worth its weight in stainless steel.
My colleague Murray brought in a single slice of hazelnut torte for me today: he’d cooked it at home, it had worked well and he’d had to be stern with his family to save me a piece.
 I’ve done cheese stars before. (They’re not traditional like gingerbread stars but they look just as festive and are not quite as bad for diabetics.)
 Or onto any tarts. My Auntie Margie used to make jam tarts with stars at Christmas time because her daughter had a vehement antipathy to sultanas caused by her brother with a misguided prank. (It involved sheep pooh and I will say no more.)
 Which you can make with a glass if you don’t have a circle cutter. (If you don’t have a glass, cooking Christmas biscuits may not be your highest priority.)
Keeping it real
Another green – but not cheap – wrapping option is to use real things like calico bags or large hankies. As with all presents, do make sure that your “wrapping” is something the recipient will actually want: if you give Uncle Brian a floral scarf and little Tiffany a tea towel, it may be just as wasteful as wrapping the presents in disposable paper.
Here are some possibilities:
- cloth squares (the aforementioned handkerchiefs, tea towels and scarves)
- bags (calico shopping bags, shoe bags, insulated lunch bags)
- storage containers (jars, baskets, boxes)
If you can afford this, include the expenses either in your wrapping budget or as part of the cost of each present (and keep a careful eye on your spending – it can get away from you pretty quickly).
“Gertruda asked Don which of the paintings he likes best,” said Wendy.
“That must be a hard call,” I remarked.
Every Christmas, Gertruda’s husband would give her a piece of jewellery and she would give him a painting. She had a great eye and she went to the right galleries and, whenever the business was doing well, she would spend $5000 on an emerging artist and quite a few of the paintings were worth $50,000 a decade later. The first time I went to her house, I was astonished: I’m hardly an art expert but I recognised a Howard Arkley, a Reg Mombassa and a Jeffrey Smart.
“He chose Jeffrey Smart and Sally Morgan,” she said.
“More bequests?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Wendy. “And I love the Smart but we’ll have to repaint the lounge room to match.”
“Allow plenty of time,” I advised.
 Jars are usually practical but seldom romantic, so do take that into account if your recipient is expecting a love token. (Early in their relationship, Don gave Wendy a fancy preserving jar full of home-made lavendar bath salts, which she loved. So he followed it up the next Valentine’s Day with a jam jar of home-made garlic and soap insect spray which, while just what she needed in the garden, didn’t do him any favours in the bedroom.)
When is a tree not a tree?
Imagine a lofty pine stretching up to the ceiling, bedecked with glittering gold, sparkling glass and the soft glow of candles. What makes it a Christmas tree? Surprisingly, you can get it down to a really simple element: a large green triangle will convey your message. So will a cone or a conical spiral.
So if you don’t want (or can’t afford) a pine tree (real or artificial) you can absolutely still do a Christmas tree.
- A large green paper triangle, stuck on the wall (ask each of your guests to draw a decoration on it)
- A zig zag tree shape on the wall, made with green tinsel (you can use stick-on hooks to hold it in place, and it’s worth measuring up properly to get it even)
- Any kind of cone (twist tinsel round it or sprinkle it with glitter if you like)
- A spiral (take a large circle of green plastic, cut it spirally, and hang it from the ceiling)
or check fancy shops for something modern and cool.
I met a very surprising elderly lady at Auntie Helen’s funeral today. I assumed she was an old friend of my aunt’s so I went up to her and said “Hello, I’m Janet, Helen’s niece.”
“Hello,” she replied. “I’m Gwen, Helen’s sister.”
“Helen’s sister?” I gasped. “But she only had Dad. And Dad only had her.”
“No,” she said. “There were three children: me, then Robert, then Helen.”
“But I’ve never heard of you!”
“I was thrown out of home when I came out as a lesbian at the age of fifteen.”
“Thrown out of home at fifteen?” I was appalled. “A fifteen year old left to fend for herself! I wouldn’t do that to a murderer if they were only fifteen!”
She looked amused.
“And lesbians aren’t as bad as murderers,” I explained. “No! I mean lesbians aren’t bad at all! Didn’t they keep in touch with you?”
“I never saw my parents again but Helen wrote to me when she could.”
“Robert didn’t speak to me after I was thrown out of home.”
“The bastard!” I said.
“The bastard,” she agreed.
“I have to drive some of the old folks home after this, but maybe… maybe you could come round to dinner one night soon? And meet the family?”
“Can I bring my partner?”
“Then I’d be delighted.”
You expect your family to get bigger through the younger generation but it’s a surprise when it gets bigger through the older generation.
So make a few more cards that you’re expecting to need. You never know.
 I’m trying to build a positive picture here so feel free to add the scent of fir (but not the smell of a smoky, guttering candle that you’re afraid is too close to the curtains) and the taste of ginger and spices (but not the touch of dead pine needles aiming for your bare foot when you stumble through the lounge early in the morning on your way to the coffee).
 Last year, Hannah made a cone of green macarons for morning tea on Christmas Day. It looked great, there was no doubt it was a Christmas tree and, luckily, macarons freeze well. (I think my nephew Jack was the only one of us who ate more than one and he was seventeen at the time so he could put away five – and shortbread and mince tarts and cherries – and still eat heartily at dinner.)
 Fat textas are good for the unartistic, who should be able to manage simple baubles. Erasable pencil is good for the pornographic, who won’t leave anything to the imagination on the physiology of elves.
 Except ice-cream.
 My friend Sharon’s Christmas trees of mouldy bread are best left to actual artists (and those who like to live dangerously).
Did you put any turkey into the freezer? If so, thaw some and cook turkey pie…
Turkey and leek pie
|START||:||90 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||20 minutes|
2 large leeks (white parts only) ¼ cup (30g) flour
4 spring onions 1 ½ cups turkey stock
1 clove garlic ½ cup cream
2 cups (280g) cooked turkey ¼ cup milk
50g butter 3 sheets puff pastry
Slice the leeks and spring onions finely. Crush the garlic. Chop the turkey into bite-sized pieces.
Sauté the leeks, spring onions and garlic in the butter until soft, but not brown. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and blend in the stock. Return to heat and stir until the mixture thickens. Mix in the cream and turkey, pour into a 20cm pie dish and allow to cool.
Set the oven to 200°C. Brush the edge of the pie dish with milk. Cover the pie with pastry, trim the edges and cut a few small slits into it. Cut the remaining pastry into 4mm strips, roll the strips into coils and decorate the pie with them. Brush the pie top with milk.
Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until the spirals are well-browned and cooked through.
Turkey pie is what I was planning to have tonight before my daughter Hannah invited Jeremy and me to dinner with that part of her family that is not part of my family.
Family is such a flexible concept these days. Nanna once said that in her day you were single, engaged, married or widowed and you knew exactly who to count in for a family birthday dinner but how can you tell when someone has moved from being a casual boyfriend to a life partner? And I believe there are some people who can bear to see their ex-husbands socially and then there are half-brothers and step-sisters and foster children.
My ex remarried five years ago and has two daughters who are three and four years old and they adore my daughter (who is two decades older than them) and she loves them. She also told me that I’d like the new wife too which I wasn’t willing even to think about but, last winter, Hannah tricked me into having dinner with her (Caitlin) and the girls (called Pixie and Poppet but I’m glad to say those are not their real names) and we did indeed get on well. And now, every couple of months when he is on a business trip, Hannah does dinner for Caitlin, Pixie, Poppet, Jeremy and me and a good time is had by all.
So my daughter and son, who are the cornerstones of my family, have a stepmother and two half-sisters in their family who aren’t part of my family, but that’s the way Australia works in 2016 and I think we’re the richer for it.
 The little girls are treasures and Caitlin is surprisingly sensible – with the sole exception that she married my ex and it would be the pot calling the kettle black for me to criticize her for that!
 Oh, I remember those! He went as far as the next suburb sometimes to see a paramour but I genuinely believed in the conferences and the interstate meetings right up till it all came crashing down.
Putting on an act
If you floated the idea of a Christmas concert and it was received well, it’s worth doing some preliminary scoping to make sure it really is viable. So take your Christmas guest list and divide it into three groups:
- Those who love the idea and are keen to perform
- Those who will not get up on stage no matter what
- Those who might be persuaded
Your only task with the first group will be to coordinate the program so that they don’t all sing the same aria and your only task with the second group will be to ensure that they understand what is expected of them as an audience, so it is the third group that will take your time because you may need to coerce them and they may need ideas from you for their acts.
Here are some suggestions that don’t need huge quantities of talent, provided the performer is willing to do a little practice in December:
- Magic tricks (obviously some of these do need huge qualities of talent but there are plenty that don’t)
- Recitation of poetry (of which more later)
- Carols (Rustle up a harmony if you’re up to it. If not, consider “Good King Wenceslas” with a king, a page and a chorus or “The Twelve Days of Christmas” alternated between two groups (and getting faster if you want to add excitement).)
- Skits (ideal for those who like to dress up)
My friend Carol has a mother who is a certified hoarder and this has given Carol a horror of clutter. She visited me today and could not stop herself from telling me that I had too many pictures on my walls and too many books on my shelves. I like the pictures and I like the books so I changed the subject. (To her kids: I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist).
 Attention, and enthusiastic applause.
 When they were in primary school, Hannah, Jeremy and Ben did “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Ben as the narrator, Hannah as the angel and Jeremy as a sheep who interrupted the singing with random bleating. It wasn’t musical and it wasn’t even very clever but they thought it was hilarious.
The advent of Advent
When I was very little, the average Australian didn’t have an advent calendar. But when I was five, a German friend gave us hers and we used it every December for the next ten years. It was the kind that you stuck up on the window and opened a little door every day to see a new picture and that was enough in the sixties.
Then Australia got richer and we moved on to chocolate advent calendars but I don’t think that was progress:
- Australian children usually get too much sugar without starting the morning with a chunk of chocolate
- It often wasn’t very good chocolate
- Even though the shapes were different, it still felt like getting the same thing each day
Then we moved up another notch and advent calendars became drawers or pouches filled with toys and:
- Australian children usually get too many toys without getting an extra one every day of December
- They often aren’t very good toys
But why not wind the clock back to the days of little cardboard doors with festive pictures behind them and why not get your kids to make their own? If they do them now, they’ll have forgotten most of the drawings by December so the surprises will still pack some punch.
If twenty-four small pictures are too much to do in one hit, you can do it over several rainy afternoons. Or save suitable bits of their art work through the year and build the advent calendar from those.
My friend Carol rang me after tea. She said she’d researched some of my books and thought there were a few I could get fifty dollars for.
“They’re worth fifty dollars because they’re good editions of good books, which is why I like them and want to keep them,” I explained. This did not mollify her.
 And it had glitter on it which was a big deal back then.
 You’d be better off taking a lucky dip into a box of chocolates because at least you’d have the thrill of risking an insipid orange fondant for the chance of a potent rum truffle.
 Although I have to admit that I bought a Lego advent calendar for my kids one year and it was a lot of fun: you got a few blocks each day that you could turn into a little reindeer or a rudimentary Santa and they all added up to make a big thing on the 24th. And when my niece Emma was in high school, she had an advent calendar that provided a bottle of nail polish every day which tickled her pink (and tickled her nails pink, rose and violet).
The holly and the ivy
Holly and ivy are traditional British Christmas decorations, probably because they’re evergreens, so they don’t look dead in winter. They were part of pagan midwinter festivals before they were subverted by Jesus’s crew and the lyrics of the traditional carol “The Holly and the Ivy” shows how the subversion worked:
The holly bears a blossom, as white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our dear saviour.
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
And so on
You can see how tenuous this is so:
- Fervent Christians should eschew holly and ivy as Christmas decorations (way too pagan)
- Fervent non-Christian religious people other than druids should also eschew them
- Anyone with a relaxed attitude to symbols from other religions can go ahead and embrace them.
 Symbolically. Holly really does bear a prickle as sharp as any thorn so don’t embrace it physically.
If you’re planning to give people hampers, you really do need to be planning to give people hampers because filling them with food made by you from ingredients you’ve harvested yourself is both cheap and endearing but it needs to be done in season. You may have:
- Fruit you can jam and vegetables you can pickle
- Lemons to preserve or make lemon butter with
- Herbs to dry
- Neighbours with bountiful crops (Non-cooks will often be happy to give you a bucket of their excess plums if you’re making jam and will tithe them some)
You can round out anything you can get for free with things that you have to pay for but if you build the bones of your hamper collection from your own surplus, you can keep costs down nicely.
So if you think you’d like to make hampers for your family and friends this year, start a new list in your list book of potential contents.
Book club was at Sharon’s house last night. Her new kitten (which came from an animal shelter, thus covering all the items on her wish list) was outrageously cute but I do wish we’d spent more time talking about “The Return of the Soldier” than marveling at kitten antics.
 Within reasonable limits. Auntie Margie used to pickle watermelon rinds and swear that they were good with pork chops but Uncle Geoff called it pig food and refused to eat it. It was a sore point between them and the only subject they disagreed on more was football.
 Do the preserves early in the year because they last a long time but lemon butter has a fridge life of two months so don’t make it till December.
 Actually, people who have buckets of excess plums are usually happy to give them to anyone who’ll take them.
 There are plenty of biscuits that keep well enough to hamper-ise. (Gingerbread and shortbread are particularly hardy.)
I’m dreaming of a green Christmas
Let’s review how you can make the coming Christmas Earth-friendly:
- don’t buy new cards, decorations or wrapping: you should be able to make all of these from recycled materials
- plan a menu that ticks all of the planet’s boxes with local, ethical ingredients
- ensure presents are things that the recipients will use in their normal life and buy second hand gifts where acceptable
- do plan lots of old-fashioned festivities: carol singing, cooking together and games
See! Christmas doesn’t have to be about rampant greed and doesn’t have to pillage the planet. (So if you just hate Christmas and use excessive consumerism as an excuse for acting like Scrooge, you’ll need to find a new rationalisation.)
The carpenter fixed the windowsill in the dining room this afternoon… and didn’t find anything else wrong and didn’t break anything. It looks like I can finally get ahead with the painting that I was planning to do right back at the beginning of the year. (Of course, I’ve spent the paint money several times over on tradesfolk, so it’s just as well I budget for repairs.)
 My friend Sharon once made a card for me from one I’d made for her the year before from old brochures and gift wrap, which came dangerously close to an infinite loop.
 My cousin Brian bought his first beach house as a present for his wife and that’s the kind of second hand present most people would consider acceptable (although Lynette was cross that she didn’t get a say in choosing the house and she decorated the main bedroom with pink roses to pay him back (which may be why he made sure Lynette picked their next beach house (and I can tell you that she is quite happy with their current Portsea mansion!))).
17 March – St Patrick’s Day
If salads feature on your Christmas menu, there’s a fair chance that potato salad plays a leading role. And there’s also a fair chance that you’ve been making potato salad the same way for years. This is probably good – it’s probably just the way your gang likes it and you’ve probably become quite efficient at it – but there are many potato salads in the world and there may be one you like better. So why not road test different versions throughout the year to see if you can find the best potato salad of all time?
Here’s one from my childhood which came to us from our German friends.
German potato salad
|MAKES||:||about 1 litre|
|START||:||2 hours before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||10+2+15 minutes|
About 1 kg potatoes 2 tbs parsley
½ tbs white vinegar ½ small white onion
1 tb canola oil (or any other nondescript oil) ½ green apple (yes, really!)
GARNISH: chopped chives
Peel the potatoes, cut them into large chunks and boil them. When soft, cool them and then dice them.
Mix the vinegar and oil.
Chop the parsley. Finely dice the onion. Finely dice the apple. Mix the onion, apple, parsley and potato in the dressing.
Decant to a serving bowl and sprinkle with chopped chives.
If you like this, you can see plenty of ways to tweak it if you think they’ll improve it:
- Instead of white vinegar, use cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
- Instead of canola oil, use olive oil or a flavoured oil.
- Instead of a white onion, use a red one or spring onions.
- Instead of parsley, use dill or tarragon.
While waiting for our team meeting to start today, my young colleague Gemma asked, “What crafts can you think of, apart from embroidery?”
“Knitting,” I replied. “Macramé, patchwork.”
“Patchwork is for old people and I don’t even know what macramé is but knitting is cool,” she said and then, seeing my puzzled expression, she explained herself. She recently moved to Melbourne from Perth and she doesn’t have any friends here so she thought she might join a craft group to meet people.
“Look for yarn stormers,” I suggested and then our manager arrived and the meeting started and poor Gemma had to wait for an hour to find out what yarn storming is.
 My son Jeremy has a barbecue rating system that gives one star for sausages, another for potato salad and then a further star for each extra salad or dessert, up to a maximum of ten stars. But I don’t know why he bothers with such a long scale because he’s quite happy with a two star barbecue.
 The same ones who gave us our first Advent calendar (and also Riesling and Strümpfe (those long hiking socks which go with Tyrolean hats and walking sticks with badges on them)).
 I’m not going to say how many that serves because I’ve seen my nephew Jack eat twice his body weight in potato salad in a single afternoon.
 You do want it very small or it comes as too much of a surprise when you get a mouthful.
 Also known as yarn bombing, yarn storming is graffiti by knitting (with no damage to property) and you may have seen a tree trunk sewn into an afghan rug or a bike rack with a knitted cover and I figure anyone involved in yarn storming must have a few interesting conversations in them.
Watching the pennies
Making a budget is a very good start to keeping your expenses under control but the spreadsheet won’t do the job by itself. You also need to:
- Record all of the money you spend on Christmas as you spend it
- Compare your actual expenses to your predicted expenses as you go
- Notice if you’re drifting over-budget and take corrective action
Now, unless you can whistle extra money out of thin air, “corrective action” can really only mean “spending less on something else” which is unlikely to be an attractive option. So use your budget to keep you from buying things that you don’t have enough money for: it’s only March and there will be other opportunities.
My friend Carol texted me to say that she had been talking to a firefighter who had mentioned that bookcases full of books add to the fuel load of houses and make house fires more dangerous and harder to deal with. I didn’t reply. (I just settled down on the couch with a good book.)
 Perhaps self-driving cars could be followed by self-shopping shopping lists. (I imagine they’d look like supermarket trolleys with a pair of robotic arms to pick up a pair of hand-painted vases to hold them up to a pair of robotic eyes to decide which one would appeal most to Auntie Griselda.)
 Which my niece Emma did the year she left home when she realised in December that she had spent all of her discretionary income on cocktails and shoes. So she created made some attractive little booklets of her favourite cocktail recipes, tied them to op shop martini glasses, sold them at the local craft market and earned money to buy her family books for Christmas… with enough left over for a pair of killer scarlet heels for herself.
If you’d like to do a Christmas concert and you have someone who is willing to get up on stage but is not well versed in the performing arts, a poetry recitation may be an option. (They don’t even have to memorise the poem: they can just read it from the book.)
Romantic poetry is unlikely to be a universal favourite but any of the shorter works of Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson could be successful and “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar is likely to stir patriotic hearts.
But my favourite is light verse: any of Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes” are sure to be popular, the pithier Ogden Nash poems are gems and Suess’ “Too Many Daves” is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
And here’s one of my own that you may use provided you cite me as the poet:
Arrange a little stranger in the manger in the straw,
A cow to bow, an ox and sow, a donkey at the door,
Mary (Baby’s dairy), angel-fairy watching her.
Add a star and shout “Hurrah!’: it’s worth its weight in myrrh.
My friend Carol sent me a flyer for her local church fete: they’re looking for all kinds of jumble and she highlighted the word “books” for me. I do cull my books occasionally but I haven’t done it for a while so I think I’ll accept her suggestion (but not because I’m worried about fires. It’s because I looked at quivering stack of tomes piled high on top of one of my bookcases and thought “The books are winning”).
 Like my Uncle Jim who liked to make impromptu speeches. (His children liked to heckle him. This was good-natured and fun so it became quite a family pastime but Auntie Margie declared they’d gone too far when Russell interrupted the grace his father intoned before Sunday lunch with ripostes concerning the dubious parentage of Jesus Christ.)
 If you think you don’t know this one, I assure you you do: it begins ‘I love a sunburnt country”.
 The song of canaries / Never varies. / And when they’re moulting / They’re pretty revolting.
If you have a quiet Sunday afternoon in front of you, why not get out the decorations you put aside for repair?
- If a tree ornament needs a new loop of string, replace it with black hat elastic instead: it’s much easier to get over branches and it’s less visible than light thread.
- Things that have simply come apart or simply shed pieces can often simply be glued together.
- You may be able to cannibalise one broken decoration to fix another.
- If children make great lengths of paper chains, they often want to keep them for the next year but the links crush very easily so if you’re looking for an excuse to ditch them, you can probably do it today (when the children’s affection for the chains has diminished) and you can probably do it on the grounds that the links haven’t survived storage.
Anything you can’t fix or that still looks shabby even when repaired, throw out. (Be ruthless.)
I invited my new Auntie Gwen (who, at the age of eighty, is also my old Auntie Gwen) and her partner Susan round for Sunday lunch today and my sister and brother and both of my children and two thirds of Wendy’s came too and so it was like a family reunion (except that the “re” isn’t appropriate since we’ve never done this before, so it must have just been a family union). I discovered that:
- When thrown out of home, Gwen moved to Fitzroy and got a job as a nursing aide
- And then she moved to Sydney and trained as a nurse
- And met Susan when they were both 27 and were both nursing at the same hospital.
- They retired at the age of 65 and they moved to the country (Berrigan to be precise, which is the only thing in this story I don’t understand)
- But they moved to Ballarat a year ago because Susan now needs some fairly serious medicine (which is one of the many things you can’t get in Berrigan).
Gwen and Susan have been together for 53 years! (No telegram from the queen, though.)
 I wonder if anyone still uses this for hats?
 Unfortunately, while this is usually true for wooden ornaments, it’s seldom true for relationships.
 If the two decorations come from the same set and are identical, that is. You’re unlikely to be able to stick part of a clockwork train onto a broken angel and get something that belongs on a Christmas tree rather than in a horror movie.
 Although my son Jeremy made chains out of transparent plastic when he was ten and they were both pretty and indestructible. (Or nearly indestructible: they died on the third year when his teenage sister issued an edict saying that plastic chains were awful, that only a brain-dead style tragic could like them and that if they went up again, she’d report us for child abuse.)
 Luckily it was fine and we could eat on the deck because, of course, my dining room is out of action.
The most Christmassy colours are red and green which echo the green leaves and red berries of the holly in pagan midwinter festivals (so any strict non-druids might want to avoid them but it’s pretty abstract and surely there’s no harm in it) but gold and silver are another common Yuletide combination. You also see a lot of white at Christmas, which is presumably for snow, so if we wanted to adjust that for Australian Christmas we could go for sky blue and sandy yellow or desert orange.
So here are the classic options for Christmas colour schemes:
- red and green; red and gold; green and gold; red and green and gold
- gold and silver
- white and gold; white and silver
Any of these will:
- look festive
- be a doddle to add to later on because you’ll easily find things in those colours every year
and hence they’re safe choices for your decoration plan.
 And abstractly pretty!
 The theory here is that they represent the gifts of the magi but I think it’s because they’re shiny and then the wise men rationale was tacked on later.
 Which Santa would sneer at, but I think the elves would appreciate a change.
 Or maybe even dessert orange: My Auntie Betty does such a fine whole-orange pudding that her grandchildren tried to persuade her to do it on Christmas Day instead of the plum. But they made a tactical error when they hid her dried fruit: that made her so cross that she didn’t cook them orange pudding again for a year.
If you have surplus vegetables, pickle them for your hampers or for Small Presents.
And if you have access to a pomegranate tree, make grenadine which is:
- really easy
- beautifully red
- the classic syrup to use in tequila sunrises and other cocktails (and hence you can give it to single adults and not just to households with children)
- free of artificial colourings (so you can also give it to households which do have children but avoid commercial red cordial)
Here’s what you need:
- a big glass jar
- a knife, a chopping board and a spoon
- a measuring cup
- small, pretty bottles
- about 2 weeks
Here’s what you do:
- Cut the pomegranates into quarters.
- Scoop the kernels into the measuring cup. (You don’t have to remove the white stuff between the kernels.)
- When you’ve filled the cup, empty it into the jar and add ¾ cup of sugar to the jar
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you run out of pomegranates.
- Put the lid on the jar and give it a shake every day for a fortnight.
- At the end of the fortnight, strain the syrup into sterilised bottles, seal and label.
I wasn’t originally planning to repaint my dining room window sill because it was already gloss white and it was in good condition but, of course, after the work the carpenter did, I have to and I did the first coat today. (I used low-VOC paint but perhaps I should have gone for old-fashioned “Can’t sleep in this room for a fortnight” paint to fumigate any remaining carpenter ants.)
 Not to be confused with St Vincent and the Grenadines which is both a chain of islands in the Caribbean and a terrible pop group from my youth.
 Including the zombie which adds four kinds of rum, orange liqueur and apricot brandy to the grenadine and, according to my cousin Russell, adds three new dimensions to hangovers too.
 Or a big glass bowl that you can cover.
 Or bowl.
 Or bowl.
 Or cover the bowl.
 Or a stir.
Red light for green lights
There is no green way of doing Christmas lights. It’s true that solar powered fairy lights don’t draw electricity from the grid, but they are built of plastic and metal that could have stayed in the ground if you hadn’t added to the demand and they’re all made in China so getting them to your house adds to your carbon footprint.
So if you want to keep your impact on the planet low, you’ll have to decorate without fairy lights. Sorry about that.
I cleared out three bags of books from the bookcases in the hall and I took them round to the church that’s having the jumble sale and I photographed myself dropping them off and sent the picture to my friend Carol and she replied with more smileys than I have ever seen in a single message. (I know she has my own interests at heart but I like books and I refuse to see them as a problem.)
 If they were made of China, it might be a different story.
 Particularly if they’re out in the weather… which, of course, they are.
 My cousin Peter is trying to convert solar-powered lights into lunar-powered lights so that he won’t need batteries but he hasn’t managed to get a flicker out of them yet. His wife is encouraging him but not because she thinks he can succeed at all: it’s because this smells better than his last project which was creating methane from cow manure.
If your decoration colour scheme is “Everything! All at once! In every colour!”, that’s easy to work with so go troppo.
If your colour scheme is one of the classic combinations (see 21 March), that’s easy to work with too. (And often a little easier to live with!)
But if you hanker after a non-standard colour scheme (pink and purple, teal and steel) things get a little harder because decorations may be hard to find.
So you could:
- Mix your favourite colour with a classic Christmas colour so that some avenues are still open to you. (Add silver to turquoise and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Add gold to burnt orange and you’ll never go unadorned.)
- Make your own decorations: craft shops should be able to provide paper and beads and paint in exactly the colours you want.
- (Or you could change colour schemes every year but that’s not very green, even if your colour is chartreuse.)
My sister Wendy told me she was at her mother-in-law’s place and she wrote the date of Jack’s school debate on the calendar and noticed that Gertruda had three appointments to see her accountant in a fortnight.
“It’s way too early for a tax return,” she said. “What else could she be up to?”
“Were there any doctor’s appointments?” I queried.
“No,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“If a doctor gives you six months to live, there’s an unspoken rule that you’ll spend two of them in medical waiting rooms. I don’t think Gertruda is sick.”
“She certainly doesn’t look sick,” agreed Wendy. “And she’s made so much plum jam in the last two weeks that it will take her a decade to get through it all, which is not the act of a dying woman. I don’t think we need to plan her funeral yet.”
 Which is indeed a traditional Christmas look.
 Although they don’t have to be Christmas decorations: my friend Todd once acquired a gross of small lilac crocodiles and hung them all over his lounge room (which was undeniably festive but I wasn’t entirely sure which feast he was celebrating!)
 My cousin Bronwyn won’t go into craft shops any more because she comes home with more stuff for her stash than she has room for (so she sends her husband instead, and then snaps at him when he doesn’t get it quite right).
25 March – Good Friday
If you’ve ever said “What’s so good about Good Friday? It certainly wasn’t a good day for Jesus,” I can give you the answer: “Good” is a corruption of “God’s”, so it’s actually God’s Friday which makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So that’s that sorted but the origins of Boxing Day are less clear. There are several popular theories:
- It was the day servants received Christmas bonuses (in boxes) from their bosses (and they also got the day off and could go home to their own families, after serving their masters on Christmas Day itself)
- It was when churches opened their charity boxes and distributed the money to the poor
- It was the traditional date for post-Christmas sparring matches (now eclipsed by the Boxing Day Test and the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race)
(And if you don’t like any of those, why not make up your own theory?)
I made hot cross buns this morning – of course – and ate them for breakfast by myself: my brother Matthew is spending Easter with friends in Queensland, my sister’s Wendy’s family are camping in the Grampians and my children have both been eating hot cross buns for weeks so they weren’t motivated to get up early for mine. But I won’t eat HXB before Good Friday (otherwise there’s nothing special to do) so I enjoyed them (which is good, because I made a big batch and it looks like I’ll be eating them non-stop till Easter Monday!)
 That’s formally arranged events of boxing-as-a-sport, not the impromptu fisticuffs of my cousins Peter and Steve when Peter hit a cricket ball through Steve’s open window and broke Steve’s fish tank. (Peter got the fish into the bathroom basin with commendable promptitude but the stack of Christmas presents Steve had on his desk suffered horribly.)
 “Gramping,” Jack called it.
When should you put up your Christmas tree?:
- If you will be using a lopped tree, they last for three weeks at most so wait until the 4th of December, or even later if you want it looking good beyond Christmas Day.
- If you will be using a living tree, they don’t like spending much time inside so the 11th is about as early as you can get if you’re kind to plants.
- If you will be using an artificial tree, you’re not constrained by natural limits and can work with convention instead:
- In Australia, the 1st of December is often considered the earliest day you should put up decorations…
- … except for Adelaide, where they go up after the Adelaide Christmas Pageant in late November.
- In parts of America, they go up on Christmas Eve.
- In Ireland, the 8th of December is the start of Yuletide and hence the day to decorate.
- In some places, you erect your tree at the start of Advent (ie the fourth Sunday before Christmas – 27 November, this year).
Choose a date and write it in your Christmas calendar. (You can change it later if you get other invitations but it will remind you to allow time for this quintessential task.)
I finally got the first coat of paint onto the dining room walls and the colour is not quite what I was expecting but I’m assuming that’s because the last colour is still peeking through the green. (If we had a way of calculating exactly what colour you’d get when you painted one on top of another, we could work backwards from the hue we wanted to the paint we’d need to get it in one coat, and we could save a lot of paint and a lot of time. (Now, that would be green paint!))
 Although this does depend on your definition of “good”: my son Jeremy’s emo friend Josh had a dead tree in his bedroom that he decorated with skull and crossbone ornaments that he’d saved from a pirate party he’d had when he was ten.
 Except for my Uncle Jim who used to put a fake tree on the apex of his roof each year and Auntie Margie would only let him do that when the weather was clement.
 But shops consider themselves exceptions to this rule because they want you to do your Christmas shopping as early as possible and so they try to mesmerise you with tinsel from the middle of November.
 I presume the song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” is sung in those parts as “It’s beginning to look 25% like Christmas” right up to the 24th.
 Correction: through the “clover garden”.
27 March – Easter Sunday
Do you like to have an excuse to save your Easter egg papers? Here’s one: you can use their shine in gift tags and Christmas cards. (They make good glitzy splashes on pictures of Christmas trees and you can use gold and silver paper as the caps on bauble-shaped gift tags.) They’re also good for festive cutting and pasting for children’s crafts and four year olds will like to glue them onto the wrapping paper they make. So smooth away and put the papers into your stash.
My children were both home for Easter Sunday lunch but roast lamb followed by raspberry sorbet served in halved Easter eggs didn’t amuse them long and they headed off to festivities with friends in the afternoon and I had enough time to paint a second coat of clover garden in the dining room. It’s still not the green I thought it would be and I can still see the ghosts of those colour swatches too. (Damn that “Tuscan terrazzo”!)
 When I was a child, my mother told me that they saved aluminium foil in the war to make aircraft with and I pictured an RAF Mosquito made of a patchwork of Easter egg papers, but my father told me I was wrong: Mosquitoes were made almost entirely from wood and it was the Lancaster bombers that were a patchwork of Easter egg papers.
 Although Hannah’s friend Stephanie’s mother was surprised when Steph came home from our house with a trinket box she’d made by covering an old camembert carton in patches of green and gold aluminium. The surprise was that Steph had made a feature of the logos of my favourite brandy-filled Easter eggs and her family are straight-edge greenies so this was wrong from the alcohol to the unnecessary wrapping to the food miles in the German chocolate (but at least we were keeping the materials out of the waste stream).
 I’d say it was more spearmint than clover, but I am not a botanist so I’ll bow to the experts.
O Christmas tree
Christmas trees may have pagan origins as evergreens brought inside as part of midwinter festivals but they have been used by Latvians and Estonian Christians since the 1400s, German Christians since the 15th or 16th century and the rest of Europe from the 19th century as rich nobles got on the bandwagon. Tradition has it that it was Martin Luther who first added candles to Christmas trees and this was updated in the 20th century to those horrible bulbous lights of the fifties and the pretty, twinkling LEDs of recent years.
In the old days, Christmas trees were decorated with food but once sparkly things became cheap, they took off like bamboo in a bonfire.
Since the origins of Christmas trees are murky, anyone can claim them:
- Stout Christians can point out that they’ve been used for centuries in religious contexts and can decorate with stars and angels
- Practising pagans can cite earlier origins
- Non-Christian, non-pagans can say that it’s hard to know the true history so it doesn’t count and can decorate their trees with totally secular decorations.
So do make room in your Yule for a Christmas tree.
 Queen Charlotte in England, the duchess d’Orleans in France and Countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg in Denmark to name-drop a few.
 Ie there is no actual evidence.
 Which have now become a retro Christmas motif. What’s next? Nostalgia for souvenir ashtrays, two bob watches and measles?
 Apples and nuts in most places but those zany Latvians added pretzels.
What will you put your hamper items in? Baskets are classic but fancy gift boxes are good too and so are useful containers. Wrapping the finished collection in cellophane is the icing on the cake (although it does add to your total cost).
But do be careful to keep most of your money for the contents: you certainly can get beautiful baskets and jars in beautiful shops but they can set you back so much that your hamper could cost as much as an ordinary present. So buy baskets in op shops and save any pretty jars you come across (be they full of jam, mustard or goats cheese at the outset) and use those for your produce instead.
If you like things really neat, you may have pictured a hamper full of identical jars but you can get the same effect with a job lot of jars by using identical labels (eg brown cardboard tied with brown string or white circles tied with gold curling ribbon) or you could cover all of the jars in the same cloth.
“Are we going skiing this year?” asked Don.
“Have you organised it?” asked Wendy.
“It usually just happens,” he replied.
It doesn’t: Emma usually organises it, but she’ll have a young baby in winter and she doesn’t think babies make good snow bunnies so she has let it slide. (The holiday that is: not the baby or even a bunny.)
 Eg: Put a garden hamper in a big flower pot or a kitchen hamper in a mixing bowl. (My sister Wendy put storage containers in an even bigger storage container for her friend Gretchen’s birthday and Gretchen said, “If you give me a few extra shelves for Christmas, I’ll have somewhere to put these”.)
 It adds to the dollar cost but it’s biodegradable so the environmental cost is not extreme. (Wicker baskets are also biodegradable. Ceramic mixing bowls and plastic storage tubs are not.)
 My nephew-in-law Chris complained about eating too much whipped cheese spread the year Emma decided that the ornate spread jars were perfect for the dukkha she was making for Small Presents. (He didn’t complain about the Polish vodka she plied him with the following year when she wanted the decorative bottles for blackberry nip.)
 My friend Todd’s wife Claire recycled the plastic crocodiles he used as Christmas decorations and turned them into labels on the collections of jam she gave to her kids’ teachers the following year. It certainly brought the collection together (You were too busy thinking “What’s with all the crocodiles?” to notice how the jars differed in shape and size) and even looked quite stylish when tied with lilac gingham ribbon, but it was hard to read the details of the jams across the bellies of the crocs.
 Gertruda once covered a batch of plum jam with circles of bright fabric cut from a silk scarf. “I don’t like paisley,” she said and I’m on her side here: even one paisle is too much for me.
Grow your own
I’m not much of a gardener but those who are might want to consider growing presents, which can be cheap and are green in both leaf and environmental impact. Here are some popular ones:
- Colourful hanging pots
- Window boxes of herbs
- Tubs of salad greens
If you have a green thumb and this idea appeals to you, put together a plan about:
- What plants you’ll grow
- When you’ll start
- What you’ll grow them in
- How much it will cost you
(Unfortunately, there’s no point in planning the weather: it will be what it will be.)
I did the final coat of paint in the dining room today and it’s still more spearmint than clover but I’ve decided that I love it, even though it’s not the leaf I was expecting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite match the curtains so now I need to think about whether I care about that enough to get new curtains.
 My friend Fiona gave a pot of catnip to her cat-loving sister Melanie. One of Melanie’s cats totally ignored the plant but the other acted like a drunken hooligan and Melanie said it reminded her too much of her previous boyfriend and asked Fiona to take the plant back.
Some shops have such fancy paper shopping bags that they rival gift bags, so could you use them as such?
- Yes, if you want to tease someone by pretending that you’re giving them something from the Beechworth gold shop when your present is actually a jar of blackberry jam.
- No, if you don’t want to remind them that you bought yourself something made of gold but are giving them something made of roadside weeds
- Yes, if you can upcycle the bags by covering the logos (of which more later) – but you do need to have a degree of artistry to do this well.
If this fits your skill set, start saving good shopping bags now.
“Would you like to go skiing?” Don asked me.
“Sure,” I said. (My enthusiasm for skiing is moderate: enough to say yes when invited but not enough to arrange it myself.) “When?”
“Winter,” said Don.
“You’re going to need a bit more organisation than that,” I replied.
 I used them as an actual gift one year when my book club friend Sharon was looking for colourful cardboard to make art with: the object was a life-sized native cat, the technique was quilling and it was supposed to be ironic but she didn’t convince me that curling strips of paper could ever be anything other than a misspent middle-age. (I did like the title of the piece though: “Quilled Quoll”.)