1 April – April Fool’s Day
Why did the chicken
Will you be making Christmas crackers? If so, now is a good time to look for jokes because they’ll be fresher for you when you see them again on Christmas Day. You can find plenty online or, if you want to go old-school, your library probably has joke books in the children’s section.
You already know how many crackers you’ll need, so plough on until you find that many jokes… and then add a few more just in case.
Here are some classics, but new jokes are better (and they don’t have to be Christmassy).
Q: Who hides in a bakery at Christmas?
A: A mince spy.
Hannah partridge in a pear tree.
Q. How do you know when Santa’s in the room?
A. You can sense his presents.
Mum, can I have a puppy for Christmas?
No, you’ll have turkey like all the rest of us.
Q: How did Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
A: Deep pan, crisp and even.
Wayne a manger.
Q: What’s the difference between roast turkey and pea soup?
A: Anyone can roast turkey.
Also take out your notes for your Christmas letter and add the highlights of March (in text and photos).
I said to my son Jeremy, “I’ve finished painting the dining room: will you help me move the sideboard back in please?”
He said, “You won’t get me like that: I know it’s April Fools’ Day” and it took me a while to convince him that I meant it!
 My cousin Linda used riddles as a sort of television game show last year and she set her family up with buzzers and the first one to answer scored a point. (She stumped them all with, “Who do you call when someone steals your Christmas stockings?”. (The answer was “Police Navidad”.)
Twice as nice in a slice
Fruit mince is close to immortal: if you still have half a jar at the back of your fridge, there’s a good chance it will last until next December… but half a jar won’t be enough then so you might as well use up those last scraps now.
Here’s a recipe for fruit mince slice (and if you don’t have a full cup of fruit mince, just add extra apple).
Fruit Mince Slice
|START||:||2 hours before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||20 minutes|
185g butter 1 egg 1 jar fruit mince
2 cups plain flour 1 apple
Set oven to 190°C. Line a 28cm x 18cm lamington tin with baking paper.
Rub butter into flour. Add egg and mix until mixture comes together. Toss onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.
Press half of the dough into the tin. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool. Roll out remaining pastry and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Grate apple, mix with fruit mince and put on top of baked pastry. Cut rolled pastry into strips and arrange on top in a diagonal lattice. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden and then cool and slice.
Hannah came round last night. First she asked me how everything was going, then she made me a cup of tea (in my favourite cup), put some mince slice on a pretty plate and told me to sit down.
“I’ve got some bad news for you,” she said, “And it will upset you but you need to remember that it’s not a tragedy and everything will be fine.”
(Cancer? No, that is a tragedy. She’s lost her job? No, she’ll get another.)
“I’m having Christmas in Hawthorn this year.”
“With your father!”
“No, with Pixie and Poppet. Well, yes, he’ll be there but that’s not why I’m going: I worked out that he was a dickhead before I finished primary school.”
“Hawthorn!” I said, still aghast.
“Pixie kept asking me why I wasn’t going to be with her at Christmas when I’m her sister and she loves me and I thought that she was right and I’ll never have another chance to have Christmas with them when they’re this little. So my plan is that I’ll stay there Christmas Eve and be there Christmas morning and have Christmas dinner with them, and arrive here about five for Christmas tea.”
Well, that’s something: at least she’ll be here for tea.
 My mother once followed a recipe for orange-frosted almond nutmeg cake but substituted hazelnuts for the almonds, cinnamon for the nutmeg and lemons for oranges. It tasted great but I don’t think she should have continued to call it orange-frosted almond nutmeg cake.
It annoys me when people say “Christmas is all about the kids, isn’t it?” No, it jolly well isn’t!
- We all like a feast day when the usual rules about sensible eating are thrown out of the window
- We all like presents
- Many of us like tinsel and shiny things (and a time when the usual rules about tasteful décor are thrown out of the window)
- We all like festival-time when work is over and people greet you with smiles and joy
- It’s true that Santa Claus only comes to children, but parents usually have a lot of fun with it too
Anyone who thinks that Christmas is only about the kids isn’t doing it properly.
I went shopping for curtains today and it was disheartening because nearly all of them are awful but I did find some in a nice dark green with a faint white check that I think will be good and I confess that I considered how they would look with my Christmas decorations when I was choosing them!
 I remember my cousin Peter trying to eat some of every single dish that was on offer the Christmas Day he was eleven. He barely survived to Boxing Day.
 My friend Todd’s lilac crocodiles spring immediately to my mind.
 Surely no-one in the world would choose purple leopard spots on a mustard background. Perhaps the manufacturers only make it to persuade you to spend a few more dollars on something that doesn’t look like a diseased zoo animal.
 Sorry, that should probably be “Sherwood Forest”.
Christian trees are traditionally topped with either a star or an angel but if you want to make them less religious, go for a fairy or your own funky, off-beat idea.
As previously mentioned, early ornaments were primarily food but classic glass baubles arrived with the industrial revolution and tinsel was invented in 1610. (It was originally made of silver and then of lead in the first part of the twentieth century and then very specifically not made of lead in the second part of the twentieth century when they realised they were poisoning people).
Now you can find little replicas of all kinds of things hanging from the boughs: classic toys (drums, rocking horses), presents, reindeer and even handbags and baby bottles. Christmas is for everyone… and everyone can find a set of decorations that suits them.
 Got a sparkly toucan? Why not let it lord over Christmas from the top of the tree?
 You don’t see a lot of pretzels on branches now, you do still encounter candy canes and occasional gingerbread people.
 My cousin Peter bought some moose keyrings in Canada and hung them on his Christmas tree, saying that it was species-ist to let reindeer be the only Yuletide deer.
It’s a silver cake-server, it’s pretty, it comes in a lovely gift box and it’s ridiculously cheap. You should buy it and give it to someone for Christmas… or should you? It will be a waste of money if:
- You don’t know anyone who’d want a silver cake-server
- You do, but have something else for them
- They might like it but because you’re not confident of that, you end up adding something else to the present (in which case, you’d have been better off just buying the something else and leaving the cake-server in the shop)
Sometimes a sterling opportunity is best left to someone else.
Christmas Eve 1970: As soon as we had arrived at Nanna’s house, we had supper of caramel slice and Anzac biscuits (the Christmas food wouldn’t come out till the morrow) and then we put up our “stockings” (which were actually pillowslips) in the lounge, next to those of our Goulburn cousins (Bronwyn, Peter and Steve) and our Brisbane cousins (Michelle and Russell). Luckily Nanna was well supplied with pillowslips. (Impressively so: she had beds made up for fifteen people, there were eight Santa sacks out and she’d done it all with the Good Linen.)
 Hopefully because the shop is trying to free up shelf space and not because no-one’s buying them anymore. (My brother-in-law Don thought he got a bargain on computer games for his son and came home to discover that Ben had got rid of that particularly gaming console the week before because it was passé.)
 False Bargain #2.
 I love silver but perhaps it’s because I don’t have very much of it. (My Nanna had most of her silver chrome-plated so that she didn’t have to polish it any more.)
 In Nanna’s house, you didn’t do anything at all on an empty stomach (not even eat)).
My green-thumbed friend Fiona tells me that taking cuttings is easy and that the time of year you should do it depends on the type of plant:
- Do softwood cuttings in spring or early summer, when the plant is growing fast
- Do semi-hardwood cuttings in mid-summer, after flowering
- Do hardwood cuttings in mid-winter when the plants are dormant
It’s also free so if you’ll be growing plants for people for Christmas and you can identify some plants in your garden that would grow well from cuttings and please the recipients, schedule an appropriate time into your calendar to make it happen.
Christmas Eve 1970: In the kitchen was a long row of preserving jars filled with apricots. Nanna had three apricot trees in the backyard that produced huge quantities of excellent fruit and this year the peak of the crop coincided with Christmas. So while other people had spent Christmas Eve with last minute cooking and wrapping and setting up, Nanna and Auntie Betty had been bottling fallout-shelter volumes of apricots. Nanna said that she was going to enjoy looking at the rows of produce… on Boxing Day, but today she was still a little resentful – as was Auntie Betty’s son Brian whose birthday it was and, although he was used to his birthday being eclipsed by Christmas Eve, he was decidedly unimpressed at having to share his mother’s attentions with stone fruit.
 Mind you, it’s not the taking of the cuttings I have problems with (and particularly not if it happens by a friend pressing a pot plant into my hand); it’s encouraging them to actually grow into something.
 I should have mentioned this earlier but I’m not much of a gardener so I didn’t think of it. Sorry about that!
 And if you can’t tell a hardwood from a softwood, don’t do cuttings at all.
 Unless you use rooting hormones but they’re not too expensive.
 With care: my cousin Bronwyn once scooped up some pretty mauve flowers from a creek she passed and transferred them to her own pond where they thrived… until a neighbour spotted them and sent in the environmental department’s SWAT team to blast them to Kingdom Come: they were water hyacinths which are a notorious noxious weed and a major threat to both native wildlife and agriculture. Ashamed and embarrassed, Bronwyn has confined her pond decoration to frog statues ever since.
 My mother always said that, if push came to shove, she’d head home to the Mallee to brazen out the Apocalypse because Nanna’s jam supplies alone could see the whole family through a nuclear winter.
Here’s a questionnaire to help you build your tree decoration plan:
- What kind of tree would you like?
- How big should it be?
- Do you have it already?
- What’s your budget?
- Did you have a style in mind?
- Baubles and tinsel / Stars and candles / Candy canes and gingerbread
- Everything I’ve got
- Do you have a colour scheme in mind?
- Yes, and it’s lovely
- No, I’ll go with the flow
- Is “higgedly piggedly” a colour scheme?
- Do you have enough decorations?
- Yes, in fact, too many
- Yes, but I’d like to get some silver bells and some baby Jesuses
- No, and I’m looking forward to bauble shopping
- No, and I’ll be making my own
I hope that’s helped you crystallise your vision. If so, write your plan down and store it with your Christmas lists.
Christmas Eve 1970: Christmas Eve is always a hard night for children to fall asleep but it was particularly hard this year because, with the house packed to the rafters with guests, the big kids had been assigned to a tent in the backyard. This would have been an adventure at any time of the year and so we were not inclined to settle down quietly.
Peter used his torch to make shadow pictures on the walls and Bronwyn tried to persuade us to play “Truth or Dare” but it was when Michelle started singing “Ten Green Bottles” that Uncle Bill came out of the house, growled at us, and stood guard until we finally stopped wisecracking and giggling. I snuggled down and was asleep before it got quite dark. (It had been a long day.)
 Select this option if you’ll just hang baubles from the hat rack.
 The upper limit is your ceiling!
 Last year’s lopped pine doesn’t count. (They can’t be evergreens beyond the grave.)
 The year after my friend Todd decorated with crocodiles, he borrowed his daughter’s collection of plastic dinosaurs and hung them on his Christmas tree like baubles. When his wife Linda said they looked too cross to be Christmassy, he then bedecked them with little paper Santa hats.
 His rabbit was recognisable; his bunyip was not, but he argued that no-one knows what a bunyip looks like anyway.
If you still have turkey stock in your freezer, here’s a hearty way to finish it off:
Turkey and Corn Soup
|START||:||1 hour before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||20 minutes|
1 onion 1 tbs oil
2 celery stalks 1l turkey stock
2 cobs of corn ½ cup barley, or small pasta
1 cup cooked turkey
Chop the onion and celery finely. Remove the kernels from the corncobs. Dice the turkey.
Sauté the onion and celery in the oil. Add the stock, corn, turkey and barley (or pasta) and bring to the boil. Simmer until the barley (or pasta) is cooked.
And I finished hemming the curtains today too and that means that my dining room renovation is complete – three months after I started what I thought was going to be a three week job. So let me reiterate what I said back then: if you’re planning significant works which may affect your Christmas infrastructure, get a Plan B ready too because you could well need it!
 My nephew Jack tried making a savoury smoothie with chicken stock, kale and watercress. He blended it, poured it into a big glass, drank it all down in a few gulps and then calmly said that he didn’t recommend it. So stick to my soup recipe for your own stock.
 Or start last year. Or move instead of renovating. Or just cover all your problems with throws.
What’s the difference between
Review your cracker jokes and cull the weakest ones and then type them out and print them. Cut them into snippets, fold them and put them away… making a note of where you put them in your Christmas book.
“If we went skiing for a week, could you come?” asked Don. “Or could you only do a weekend?”
That’s a tricky one: I’d be happy to have a good, long skiing holiday but I’d hate spending five days of my annual leave sitting in a ski lodge in the rain looking out at the mud.
“The school holidays are 25 June to 10 July,” he replied.
I like teachers, I think they’re a vital part of the community and I’m glad my sister and her husband are in the profession but they’re very annoying to travel with because it’s always peak season.
Q: What do you call a person who’s afraid of Father Christmas?
 To be very green, use secondhand paper.
 I use a small font to keep the snippets small but, if you’ve got plenty of space, you can use a large font that grandparents can read without glasses (although this was wasted on my friend Jenny’s father-in-law who used to pretend to read a cracker joke while actually substituting one of his own and his sense of humour was – shall we say – nautical, and not suitable for polite company).
What the dickens
The story of the birth of Jesus is one of the important tales of Christmas. Another is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and I’ll summarise it for you in case you haven’t read it.
Ebeneezer Scrooge is a rich miser who hates Christmas, rejects appeals to charity and won’t pay his clerk Bob Cratchit for the Christmas holiday. He is visited by four ghosts:
- His dead partner Marley who tells Scrooge of the three spirits to follow him
- The ghost of Christmas Past who shows Scrooge the happy Christmasses of his youth, and his fiancée Belle (who left him because he loved money more than her)
- The ghost of Christmas Present who shows Scrooge the happy but humble Christmas preparations of the Cratchit family which includes Tiny Tim who is sick and will die soon
- The ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who shows Scrooge his own poorly-attended funeral a year later
Scrooge changes heart, celebrates Christmas with his nephew, sends the Cratchit family a turkey, pays Bob more and becomes a second father to Tiny Tim, who says “God bless us, everyone!” and does live on after all.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” is quite faithful to the original text and can be a quick way to get up to speed if you don’t feel like reading something (literally) Dickensian.
“Should I invite that boyfriend of Hannah’s to go skiing with us?” Don asked me.
“He’s history,” I replied.
“Just as well I asked,” said Don.
 But if you’re planning to read it, run away and do so now before I spoil it for you.
 He was the first to say “Bah, humbug!” and many have quoted him since.
 With a few small variations – like two ghosts of Marley (and Bob Cratchit being a frog, of course).
Baubles are very Christmassy and the good news for atheists is that they mean nothing: the glass blowers of Lauscha in Germany started making them in the 17th century for decorating Christmas trees and we haven’t looked back since. These days, you can still find plenty of glass baubles in many sizes and most price ranges and you can also find a plethora of plastic baubles in a larger range of sizes and a cheaper range of prices.
They’re also a very easy shape to depict on Christmas cards and tags and wrapping paper. (Bear that in mind if you’re keen to make cards, tags and/or wrapping but are not confident of your artistic skills.)
So Christians and non-Christians alike should feel to free to decorate their trees, their houses, their umbrella stands and any slow-moving pets with as many baubles as they can get their hands on. (Christmas is not a time for restraint.)
 I used to be snobbish about the plastic ones but they really do look good, and they don’t shatter into dangerous shards when you drop them so now I prefer them.
Long life lemons
Preserved lemons are handy for hampers but perhaps you should include a recipe that uses them so that they don’t end up at the back of the pantry along with the Cumberland sauce and the pimentos.
|START||:||1 month before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||30 minutes|
250g salt 1 stick cinnamon 4 cloves
1 bay leaf 10 lemons
Sprinkle some salt at the bottom of each jar. Crumble the bay leaf and the cinnamon.
Scrub the lemons, quarter them and mix with the remaining salt. Push the lemon quarters into the jars, adding spice pieces as you go. Scoop out any salt that remains in the bowl and pack it into the top of the jars. Leave them in a cool spot for 1 month.
I saw a film with Matthew last night and we had our usual post-movie strüdel in our favourite café and he spoke of Debbie, his first serious girlfriend. He gets particularly sad on the anniversary of her death (from a heroin overdose about a year after he told her to choose between him and drugs) and Wendy is sick of it.
“She was a train wreck, Matthew,” she said to him a while back. “She was hell-bent on destroying herself and you couldn’t have saved her: she would have just taken you down with her.”
So Matthew doesn’t talk about her much anymore but he clearly still thinks about her sometimes. And I pondered the situation on the way home and I believe Debbie really is the reason Matthew hasn’t married: his next girlfriend was the dreadfully dull Donna, who was clearly a rebound choice after the delightfully dangerous Debbie and he was with Donna until he was nearly thirty, locking him out from other options in his most marriageable years. So I guess you could say that Debbie had an effect on him long after her death… and maybe I should believe in ghosts after all.
 Matthew used to help me wrangle my two kids and Wendy’s three in school holiday matinees. This generally involved animated magical creatures when they were little and they graduated to equally unrealistic action movies when they were teenagers and now the kids are all adults and organise their own cinema-going but Matthew and I still take in a film together whenever there’s one that interests us. (And we haven’t seen a talking dog or a flying super hero for a long time: we’ve had our quota of those.)
An increasingly popular gift idea is the charity donation: Oxfam does a famous line in chickens and pumps for third world villages and produces attractive and amusing cards to give to the donor, and many other do-gooders have jumped onto the bandwagon too.
Here are the pros:
- No matter how strapped for cash you are, if you’re an average Australian, you live like a king compared to most of the people in the world, and redistributing some of your wealth in the season of goodwill is generous and useful and is surely in the best spirit of Christmas.
- Many of the people you will be giving presents to will have so much stuff in their houses already that it will be hard for them to find room for your gift.
- It’s very green.
- It’s tax-deductible.
Here are the cons:
- Most people like getting presents. (And some people count a donation as not getting a present at all.)
- If you like to disguise how much you spent on a present, you can’t do that with something that’s basically a festive price tag.
- Target donations appropriately: middle-aged people with good incomes, cluttered houses and guilty consciences are more likely to appreciate them than young, materialistic couples who are setting up their first homes and would have really liked a fancy cheese grater or a scatter cushion.
- Check with the recipient before you go ahead.
- You don’t have to stick to the obvious charities: you can choose your own, donate in the name of your intended recipient and make your own card to go with it. (Just because your local primary school doesn’t solicit alms for its library doesn’t mean that won’t be glad to receive the cost of a few new books.)
Don emailed me the skiing proposal: beginning of July, Baw Baw. Wendy and Don are in, Emma and Chris are out, Jeremy, Ben, Cassidy and Jack are in and Hannah is out. (I wonder if I have time to knit myself a new beanie before we go. I recently saw a pattern for a green hat shaped like a frog’s head and the young ones will absolutely hate it and sometimes we middle-aged folk like to get our own back on the next generation.)
 WWF do “adopt an animal” (and I’m betting they get more takers for snow leopards than for Vesk’s plant-louse).
 And compared to most of the plant-lice in the world too.
 The year before last, my Auntie Margie moved into a granny flat at the back of her daughter’s place. So when her son gave her a coffee maker at Christmas, she handed it straight back to him and said “You’ll have to keep this at your house”. (She was a tea-drinker anyway.)
 Yes, these presents cost you less than you pay for them.
 And have a Plan B in place in case they say, “Hell no! Give me a real present!”
Leave it to leaves
Holly and ivy were both brought into my district by homesick British gardeners and they thrived. In fact, they did better than that: they took over so effectively that they’re now rated as environmental weeds. This means that they are in such abundance that it’s easy to decorate lavishly with them.
- It’s free
- It’s traditional
- It’s even greener than having no decorations because you’re actually weeding
- Ivy doesn’t last long
- Holly does, but it’s a pain to clean up
If you don’t have access to unlimited holly and ivy like I do, there’s a fair chance you have some pine trees around and you can:
- Put boughs over doors and along hallways
- Put small branches in vases
- Add baubles and bows if you want, or leave them plain
- Add pinecones
Christmas Day 1970: We were given strict instructions for Christmas morning in 1970:
- We weren’t allowed to get up until six o’clock
- We weren’t allowed to wake each other up any earlier
- We had to be very quiet in case the little kids were still asleep
but what really happened, of course, was that Bronwyn was awake at first light and her hushed questions of “Are you awake?” woke the rest of us and we whispered and giggled until the hands of Nanna’s alarm clock finally reached 6am and then we tumbled out of the tent and into the lounge room. And of course we weren’t as quiet as we thought we were being and of course our little brothers and sisters heard us and joined us straight away. Even the baby was there by five past six and he could neither walk nor get out of his cot by himself (but Auntie Margie was as keen as the children to find out what Santa had brought so she abetted him).
 So are blackberries but my sister Wendy illegally turns a blind eye to the bramble patch in the bottom corner of her yard because she loves blackberry pie. (Her son Ben used to needle her about this, but he stopped when she pointed out that he was guilty of profiting from the proceeds of crime whenever he had a slice of pie himself.)
 Literally. The chance of being prickled is 200%.
 Some people paint them gold but it isn’t necessary (or tasteful).
 Always easy on Christmas morning and particularly in a tent.
The proof of the pudding
Here’s when plum pudding will excite you:
- If you’re living on old-style English cuisine and your usual dessert is a bland, sweet pudding enlivened with, gosh, a handful of currants or a spoonful of gooseberry jam
- If you’re a medieval peasant and your standard winter fare is boiled turnips with small quantities of salted meat
- If plum pudding was one of your Christmas traditions and so it’s redolent with feasts and festivities and family fun
If you’re not in one of those three groups, you will wonder what all the fuss is about: plum pudding is heavy, it’s packed with dried fruit (when you could be eating fresh cherries and mangoes) and it’s difficult: you make it weeks ahead of time, you mustn’t get flour on the pudding cloth, you have to hang it from the ceiling and you boil it for hours on Christmas Day and it must never go off the boil.
- If you don’t want to do pudding, don’t do pudding and don’t be swayed by anyone who tells you that it’s essential.
- If you want easy pudding, buy one of the many excellent commercial offerings you can find in the shops.
- If your gang like plum pudding, hop in.
- If some do and some don’t, up the ante by cooking silver coins into it or by serving it with to-die-for brandy sauce.
Christmas Day 1970: Before Christmas dinner, my cousin Peter told me that he had got up twice during the night: the first time he crept out, the adults were still awake and he managed to sneak back to bed without being seen. But the second time was four o’clock and he went into the lounge room, had a good look at all his presents (and at everyone else’s) and then he slipped out to the tent and went to sleep again. I was astonished: it simply hadn’t occurred to me that one could ignore a strict parental command. (And even at the age of eight, I wondered whether a sneak preview was really worth the effort and the risk.)
 Or have them do it themself. Uncle Jim cooked the pudding the year Auntie Margie went on strike over Christmas (I never heard the details but I believe it was something to do with a puppy, a box of chocolates and a white couch) and every year after that, he made sure he kept Auntie Margie sweet in December.
 I ate three serves of pudding as a seven year old to get the sixpences and my cousin Peter managed four and this was on a feast day when we were both full before we’d started.
It’s not just holly and ivy that do well at my place: blackberries can grow a metre in a week and raspberries (a close cousin of the blackberry) also thrive. In fact, when I first moved in, half of one of the kitchen garden beds was raspberry canes but, within a few years, all of the beds were either raspberries or mint with nothing in between. (I’m not much of a gardener.)
Since my canes fruit in December, when I go to a bring-a-plate Christmas function, I usually take a big bowl of raspberries. This is brilliant because:
- Although they cost me nothing, they’re an expensive luxury so it’s considered a generous provision.
- Most people love them.
- Nearly everyone can eat them (even people with allergies or self-inflicted eating restraints) including those watching their weight in the festive season, and they usually appreciate something that isn’t drenched in fat or salt or sugar.
- If you garnish them with a few mint leaves, the red and green look very seasonal.
And I can also make raspberry jam and raspberry cordial and raspberry vinegar for hampers and Small Presents. In fact, the only drawback is that I have to spend time picking and preserving fruit in December when there’s so much else to be done, but it’s a pleasant task rather than a burden.
So I heartily recommend that you find a Christmas crop for yourself. You could go with strawberries if raspberries aren’t right for your climate or with anything else that grows well at your place and fruits in December.
“Change of plan,” said Don. He left it too late to book and the ski lodge is full for the whole of the school holidays. So he’s chosen a weekend in August instead. I’m quite happy with this because:
- there’s a better chance of snow at Baw Baw in August
- if I’m not using my precious annual leave on the holiday, it won’t worry me if it rains
(But is it worth knitting a frog hat just for a weekend?)
 Except picking time.
 Except for berry allergies, of course.
 Like vegans.
 Or fat and salt and sugar like the salted caramel fudge my niece Emma cooked as Small Presents last year. (Most of the recipients loved it but her Pilates teacher did ask Emma if she was trying to kill him.)
 Unless the day I make jam is a scorcher, in which case I feel as if my saucepan is full of lava and my head is full of rocks for turning on the stove on such a hot day.
Here is a very easy gift tag to make: take one of the pieces of coloured card from your stash, draw a circle on it (by tracing around a glass with a pencil), cut it out, punch a hole into it and thread a 10cm length of ribbon or string through. Anyone over six should be able to manage this one even if they have no artistic talent at all.
So if you feel that this tag is well matched to your abilities, get out your tools and materials, put a good movie on and whip yourself up a batch of gift tags to be ready and waiting for Wrapping Day in December.
Today is my brother-in-law Don’s birthday so there was a barbecue at Wendy’s place and I took along a passionfruit cheesecake I wanted to test drive for Christmas and Don and I both loved it so I’ve put it on my list of potential Yuletide desserts. Then Wendy asked Matthew what he was planning for his own birthday (he’s the next cab off the rank birthday-wise) and he was surprisingly evasive. This was odd because he usually organises something fun and he’ll be turning fifty this year so surely he has something super special in mind.
 Like my cousin Russell who was so impressed by the difference his interior decorator made to his flat (all she did was paint the walls in interesting colours, bring in new curtains and decide which of his Mexican souvenirs should be displayed and which should be locked in a vault from which they would never return) that he married her. He claims he fell in love with Melissa’s kind heart but Russell’s sister says that he was really attracted to the idea of having someone else choose his ties.
 It hit 10 stars on Jeremy’s barbecue rating system which isn’t surprising because both Wendy and Gertruda cooked to beat the band.
 So did Hannah’s friend Lachlan but I don’t believe he’s ever met a food he didn’t like, so that doesn’t count.
One year, I was browsing through the Christmas paraphernalia at Ikea and noticed that all of it – decorations, trees, wrapping paper, cards – was labelled “snömys” so I tried to translate that from Swedish to English… and stumped Google. Next, I emailed an Australian friend who had lived in Sweden for many years and this is what she said:
- Snö = snow
- Mys is probably related to “mysig” which means something like cosy, pleasant, nice. Close to gemuetlich, I think, in German.
- So I’d guess overall something like “snow fun” or “the joy of snow”.
You have, no doubt, noticed that a lot of Christmas is based on winter and I now think of this as “snömys” (which I treat as a plural because it works for me but I know that’s not a fair translation of the Swedish) and here is a list of very common snömys you’re likely to see:
They don’t actually work in Australia’s summery Christmasses so I avoid them but there’s no harm in them and they’re religion-free and hence inoffensive to all. So go ahead and ice up our summerfest with winter imagery if you think it’s cool.
 And snowmen. The worst Christmas of my life was the year that my brother Matthew was seven and would not stop playing “Frosty the Snowman”. Eventually, I hid the tape but then he started playing it on the recorder which was worse.
 Fir is also a snömy but is usually seen in pots rather than on Santas.
Say it with cinnamon
Food makes good Small Presents because:
- Everyone eats
- Most people enjoy delicious things
- It takes up no space
Homemade food makes even better Small Presents because:
- It feels personal
- Those who don’t cook much generally appreciate home cooking
- You can produce quality goods for quantity prices
So here are some suggestions for edible Small Presents:
- Festive biscuits (all one kind or a collection)
- Fancy truffles
- A little Christmas pudding
- A little Christmas cake
- Relishes, sauces
- Pickles, flavoured oils and vinegars
- Jams, cordials
- Classic confectionery (fudge, coconut ice, toffee)
Christmas Day 1970: Father Christmas left me a camera: an Instamatic with a smart vinyl case and a few rolls of film. I also got a set of textas and a Knitting Nancy and a kite and a Narnia book. I was delighted.
 Once it’s eaten, that is.
 Maybe too personal if, like my friend Jill, you make a batch of fortune cookies for each of your friends and tailor the fortunes rather too closely to their personal lives.
 Eg: hedgehog. (See 19 February.)
 My friend Fiona’s mother used to make toffee apples saying that they were cheap, the kids loved them and she was getting fibre into them along with the sugar. However giving a small child a lolly on a stick is surefire way to cover your whole house in stickiness so I don’t recommend this one myself.
 My first few attempts were more like the products of a Knotting Nancy, but that would be a few days later.
I’m not fond of regifting (which is where you give person A a present that person B gave to you):
- If B finds out, they could be quite insulted
- If A finds out, they could be quite insulted
- If you didn’t like the present in the first place, there’s a chance A won’t like it either
But if you can find a way of neutralising all three objections, it is both economical and environmentally sound.
So if you are given something that you think would suit someone else better than you, put it in your present box but do attach a label listing the donor: you don’t want to give it back to the person who gave it to you, or even to anyone they’re close to.
Christmas Day 1970: The adults quickly made their way to the lounge room on Christmas morning because they wanted to be in on the fun too. So there we all were in our pyjamas, with parents saying artfully “What did Father Christmas bring you?” and little kids excitedly telling all and big kids giving knowing winks to the grown-ups. There was a moment of suspense when Uncle Jim staggered backwards onto Michelle’s Santa sack and we all heard an ominous crunch… but it turned out to be a stray Christmas decoration and so Uncle Jim and Michelle were both quite relieved (but Nanna was a little annoyed).
 Although my colleague Murray gave his wife a book on bonsai (which is something he thought she’d like because she appreciates picturesque trees) and she (who loves strolling around gardens but doesn’t read at all) put it in her present box and then gave it back to him for his birthday and Murray was actually quite pleased. He’d chosen the best bonsai book in the shop and he’d been looking forward to reading it himself.
 If you sneer at conspiracy theorists, do remember that there is a huge conspiracy to mislead children about the bearded guy in red and everyone’s in on it. So if that’s possible, maybe the CIA really did shoot JFK and maybe Harold Holt really was taken by aliens. (But I doubt it!)
Doing your tables
Christmas is a time to take your table setting up a notch:
- So that’s actually setting the table, if you don’t do so on a normal day
- Or adding napkins and flowers if your daily table setting is plainer
- Or, if napkins and flowers are part of your normal routine, adding really fancy linen and spectacular centrepieces
But before you can get stuck into planning the setting, you need to plan the table itself, taking into account its length, the number of diners, the quantity of chairs and the size of your dining room. If it’s not an easy fit, you may need to add trestle tables and borrowed chairs and move into the family room, onto the veranda or out to the backyard.
My table, when extended, seats fourteen comfortably, and sixteen if you put two chairs on each end. Now that we’re down to twelve for dinner, (including Emma’s baby who won’t need a chair) we should fit easily.
Wendy gave me an update on Emma (doing fine but sick of being pregnant) and also said that she’s confident that she’s worked out why Matthew is being cagey about his birthday.
“He doesn’t want to turn fifty,” she explained.
“He was fine with forty,” I objected. In fact, he had a picnic day at his favourite water slide (which disconcerted management because they assumed that a booking for thirty people for Matthew’s birthday party was going to be for children).
“I’m sure I’m right,” she said and we agreed that I’d try to wrangle the truth out of him.
 Jeremy says he’d like to live entirely on finger food because you don’t need to set a table, wash cutlery or even own a fork if your entire diet is canapes.
 Or based entirely on finger food.
 Like a double dozen double damask dinner napkins (which is a tongue twister from my mother’s youth).
 And maybe the size of the diners if any of them are as big as my friend Fiona’s brother-in-law Tim who, Fiona says, looks like he ate Santa Claus.
 Where you will need an adverse weather plan covering rain, high temperatures and wind. (There was a shower of fish in Atlanta on Christmas Day in 1910, but I think you can safely assume that won’t happen to you.)
If there’s a time for dessert, it’s definitely Christmas Day – in fact, you should be spoiled for choice. So, if you love cooking desserts, the Christmas spread will be a piece of cake for you. And you’ll also be fine if you can call upon the skills (be they culinary or marketing) of your guests to provide the sweet course.
But if you’ll be obliged to do sweets and if that’s not really your thing, fear not: you can buy everything you need, ready to go, if you know where to shop.
However there is a middle way: easy desserts that you assemble from ready-made components (like meringues and lemon butter). This:
- Is more creative that opening a box from a patisserie
- May be cheaper than ready-made desserts (but is usually more expensive than desserts made from scratch)
- Gives you cooking points, even if the only implement you needed was a spoon for ladling custard.
If this idea appeals, here are some suggestions:
- Put a layer of custard (or whipped cream or chocolate mousse) into brandy snap baskets and pile sliced fruit on top. (Mango is great.)
- Put a slice of banana into a chocolate cup, cover with caramel, add whipped cream if you like and sprinkle with chocolate hail.
- Buy a pav base and top it with cream and something pretty. (Lashings of fresh fruit always looks good but grated chocolate and/or smashed honeycomb are popular too)
- Spread shortbread rounds with lemon butter and garnish with half a strawberry (or a sprig of red currants).
- Squash profiteroles into a cake tin, pour melted chocolate over them and refrigerate. Scatter with raspberries (or macadamias) and slice into wedges to serve.
- Make a strüdel with puff pastry, tinned apple, sultanas (soaked in rum for extra impact) and cinnamon.
- Thaw a frozen cheesecake and pile it with pineapple, passionfruit and pistachios.
I lost my Yuletide innocence at the age of five. A school friend said, “You know the tooth fairy? She’s not real. It’s just your mum and dad.”
I pondered this and, since the idea of a supernatural midget buying teeth for cash really didn’t add up, I accepted his thesis.
“And the Easter Bunny, that’s your mother and father too,” he added.
This idea I was less happy with but the reckoning was sound: if the tooth fairy was a fantasy, then the Easter Bunny wasn’t likely to be real either.
“And it’s the same with Father Christmas,” he concluded.
No! Not Father Christmas! But the logic was inescapable so I went home and asked my mother and she admitted the truth.
I was unhappy but I discovered there was little difference. Father Christmas didn’t come any more but “Father Christmas” did and it was nearly as good. (I feel much the same about Jesus, actually. I don’t believe in God but I do believe in humanity and kindness and forgiveness, and the quality of mercy is not strained if it’s human rather than divine.)
 Cheesecake, that is, and trifle and pav and lemon meringue pie.
 My cousin Peter hyperventilates in a kitchen but will tend a barbecue for hours. So he mostly cooks meat and charred vegies but he also does surprisingly good chocolate puddings baked in halved oranges (and unsurprisingly bad pineapple and marshmallow kebabs).
 You need to make these just before you serve them because time is not the friend of the cut banana.
 Are you seeing a pattern here? You can put fruit on anything because it’s delicious and colourful and, if you go for summer fruits like berries and cherries and tropical fruit, it’s also luxurious and festive.
 Theoretically, this is a useful recipe for leftover profiteroles. In real life, there’s no such thing as leftover profiteroles.
 This is my nephew Ben’s favourite. He tried making it when he was fifteen but failed miserably… because he ate too many profiteroles during the construction phase to have enough left over to fill the tin.
 I still think five’s too young, although I know that finding out too late is also a problem.
 I had a little sister and a little brother so I was set for years.
Snap, crack, trinket and motto
The classic components of a Christmas cracker are snap, cap, trinket and motto (and yes, they sound like a firm of lawyers).
Here’s the classic shape of a Christmas cracker:
To create it, you will need cardboard lunch wrap rolls, pretty paper and some kind of ornament (which can be as simple as a bow of ribbon).
So here are some things to add to your scavenger list:
- Cardboard tubes
- Decorative paper. Perhaps:
- Recycled wrapping paper from last year
- Plain coloured paper (Crepe paper wraps well but you’re unlikely to get any for free and the colour comes off on your fingers if it gets wet and that’s way too likely at a Christmas feast.)
- Ribbons or anything else that might look good tying up the ends
- Decorations to garnish them with
Christmas Day 1970: When Dad got up on that Christmas morning in 1970, he showed me how to use my camera. It was point-and-click so the technology was easy but he talked about shadows and framing shots and fingers over lenses. He also suggested that I resist putting in a film straight away and instead just practice across the morning. This was good advice but Bronwyn was not impressed when I said I’d take a picture of her and her stocking contents so she arranged them nicely and posed in front of them, and then found out there was no film in my camera.
 Cardboard toilet rolls would work in theory, but don’t work in practice because of the “yuk” factor.
 The year my friend Todd decorated with lilac crocodiles, his wife Claire used white paper around the crackers and got her kids to draw crocodiles on them in purple ink.
 My niece Emma used multiple strips of coloured cellophane one year. It looked brilliant – like rainbows in a blender – but she said it was a bugger to tie.
 If needed. Anything over Emma’s rainbows would have been over the top.
Circle gift tags are a cinch and bauble-shaped gift tags are nearly as easy: again you draw a circle on a piece of coloured card but this time you add a small square on the side. Paint the square gold (or glue Easter egg foil onto it) and punch a hole into it.
Christmas 1970: Something Father Christmas gave us every year was a “stocking” which was a sock-shaped piece of red cardboard about the size of a loaf of bread covered with lollies and with a strange red mesh stapled over the top to keep everything in. We didn’t have sweets every day so this was quite a treat, but the red dye of the packaging came off on our hands, making us look way too piratical for Christmas Day.
 I did try actual baubles as gift tags one year. They looked pretty and it was quite easy to write on them with a gold pen but it was also quite easy to smash them to smithereens under the tree.
25 April – Anzac Day
If the Northern Hemisphere has snömys that are merely wintery and not actually Christmassy, we in the Southern Hemisphere could have the opposite. Here is my list of things that are as Christmassy to Australians as snowflakes are to Danes:
- Beaches, beach towels, beach umbrellas
- Board shorts, Hawaiian shirts, straw sunhats
- Summer fruit, long drinks, ice cream
My vote for the sunny equivalent of “Frosty the Snowman” would be “I Made a Hundred in the Backyard at Mum’s” by the Coodabeen Champions.
Yes, this Christmas tree is made of thongs.
 Would we call them “sunnys”?
 My nephew Ben has a very loud shirt covered in surfing Santas. (When he wears it out of the house, his sister pretends she doesn’t know him.)
I’ve got a little list (of web sites)
Here’s a Christmas list that you should definitely keep electronically rather than on paper: bookmarks of internet shopping sites that promise to be a good source of Christmas presents. (If you’re fond of internet shopping, you can use this as an excuse to prowl the virtual malls – just call it “research”.)
I saw “Eye in the Sky” with Matthew last night and I took advantage of our post-movie strüdel to put it to him that he was avoiding a birthday party because he didn’t want to turn fifty.
He eventually admitted it and I finally persuaded him to have a small family party even if he didn’t want all of his friends and acquaintances and he proposed dinner in a classy restaurant which will be a snap to organise. (The birthday cake may be a little trickier but I’ll sort it out. Cake is mandatory.)
 And, if you’re afraid you’ll be suckered into impulse buys for yourself, hide your credit card before you start. (My friend Lisa eliminated impulse buys by putting her credit card in the ice cube tray in the freezer so that it took two hours of defrosting – and reflection – before she could spend a cent (but she stopped doing this the day she had a flat tyre emergency, microwaved the ice cube and discovered that nuking a credit card nukes your chances of buying anything at all. (The card didn’t survive and it was touch-and-go with the microwave.))
 So are fifty candles. When your age ends in a zero, it’s obligatory to have the correct number of candles on your cake (and to put up with jokes about bushfires from those who are younger than you).
If you’re hosting some Christmas events, you’ve probably got some cleaning ahead of you. You could see it as an onerous task that mars the festive season but, if you set out to enjoy it instead, you’ll have a better Yule.
Start by focusing on the positives:
- Think about how nice it will be to have the place really clean
- Think about how good it will feel on Boxing Day, kicking back with a glass of sparkling, looking over a sparkling clean house
- Think about how virtuous you’ll feel: the presents wrapped, the cooking done and the house spotless. You’ll be flying with the superheros and waving condescendingly to the mortals as you pass.
And now add some sweeteners:
- My Auntie Margie used to set aside two hours to do her cleaning every week and she’d put her favourite music on and pour herself a glass of cumquat liqueur and consider it a pleasure: you could do the same for your December clean-up.
- Or set yourself a reward for the end: lunch at the local café for example or simply the fun of putting up the decorations once the lounge room is clean.
And add some helpers too:
- Everyone who lives in your house should contribute (schedule it into their diaries, allocate tasks according to preference, make a game or a party of it if possible and lay out the rewards (which might be lunch at the local café or the pleasure of putting up the decorations or it could be a box of chocolates dished out at the rate of one every quarter hour)
- If you’re flush, outsource any of the work you don’t want to do yourself
- Or share the work with a friend or neighbour: spend Saturday morning working together on your house and Saturday afternoon working together on their house and enjoy the company.
And now organise it: list the work that needs to be done, block it into your calendar and give your helpers plenty of warning.
But the biggest thing to bear in mind is that Christmas isn’t just the opening of the presents and the eating of the turkey: it’s all of the little pieces you put together beforehand and you can enjoy the cleaning up as part of that.
Christmas Day 1970: I don’t remember having special Christmas breakfasts at Nanna’s house. But that may be because there wasn’t much room to escalate: an ordinary breakfast started with cereal and then moved onto a hot course which might have been bacon and fried eggs, or sausages and tomatoes, or scrambled eggs and mushrooms, or fish fingers and potato gems or items called “chicken legs” which were made by the local butcher and were rissoles of mystery meat squidged onto sturdy wooden skewers and coated in breadcrumbs and we loved them. Then there was a toast course with a variety of jams and spreads to choose from and then the adults finished up with tea. (Not coffee. Not in the country in the seventies.)
 Unless you’re like my cousin-in-law Lynette with a servant for each serving dish.
 This is not a rare event for mulit-servanted Lynette.
 Or a bowl of Christmas trifle or a really good cup of coffee or the perfect ham sandwich, to taste.
 Here’s her recipe: take equal parts of brandy and honey and as many cumquats as you’ve got and put them in a big glass jar. Leave it for a while (taste it every month or so) and when you think it’s ready, strain it into glass bottles. (My mother once remarked that this was an unusual recipe for Margie, because all of the ingredients of her cumquat brandy were just what you’d expect but Dad said that cumquats are an unusual ingredient of anything.)
 Or, in Lynette’s case, absolutely all of it.
 Nanna kept a cupboard full of all her grandchildren’s favourites and mine was Froot Loops (which I forbade to my own children because I didn’t want them starting their day with confectionery).
 Yes, really!
 Probably mostly sheep, because this was the Mallee.
Is it okay to prod the presents under the tree to work out what you’re getting in advance? Is it acceptable to search the house to find where the gifts have been stashed? Is it kosher to secretly unwrap the presents and then wrap them up again? You will draw your own line somewhere, but the people of your household may have a different line and those who are opposed to present prodding are usually quite irked when those who consider it a sport take to it with gusto.
If you don’t have a strong opinion on this and the other person does, fall in with their wishes.
If you do have a strong opinion on this and you don’t want the presents prodded:
- Hide them really well in the lead-up to Christmas (Consider putting them in someone else’s house. In fact, if you have a friend with the same problem, swap – and then won’t the hunters be surprised when there’s no sign of the fire engine they found in your cupboard and they unwrap a light sabre they’ve never seen before!)
- Put them under the tree very late. (I do think it should be before Christmas Day but you could leave it until Christmas Eve.)
- Put them in boxes rather than wrapping paper (because you can feel shapes through paper) and pack them well in bubble wrap or tissue paper so that they don’t move around when shaken.
- Use tamper-proof closures. (Strong tape on soft paper, knotted ribbon that can’t be slipped off, cable ties!)
If you want to prod and you’re being thwarted, don’t invade anyone’s personal space and do remember that you can get clues from:
- the shape of the present
- the size of the present
- the weight of the present
- the sound of the present
I’ve been keeping in touch with Auntie Gwen by email and we’ve arranged to have an early lunch in May when she and Susan come down to see “Matilda”. (A matinee, of course. Some people lose the ability to stay out late at the same time that they lose the ability to read fine print without glasses.)
 This is good advice in general: not just for Christmas.
 Inspired by dig-your-own-dinosaur-bones kits, my friend Jenny’s brother set the cheese knives he was giving her in plaster. She had no clue what was in the package but she says he should have handed her the present on the 21st so that she could have it full unwrapped by Christmas Day.
 My nephew Ben wrapped a present for his little brother in chains but he shouldn’t have fastened them with a combination lock. There are only a thousand possibilities on a three-digit lock and Christmas is in the school holidays so Jack found the combination before his mother had all the tinsel up.
 I really don’t think you should search other people’s closets – although the linen cupboard may be fair game.
 My little brother could tell the sound of a box of Lego when shaken at a hundred paces.
 That’s what works best for her but Matthew’s preferred channel of communication is text, Wendy’s is Facebook and Jeremy’s is currently SnapChat (although he seems to change when the weather changes so he has probably already moved to an app I haven’t heard of yet).
Let them eat cake
If you’ve still got any Christmas cake tucked away, you can still eat it: it should last long after its official use-by date and it was the custom to save the top layer of a wedding cake to eat on the first wedding anniversary.
If you don’t feel like eating it by the slice, consider:
- Dousing it in brandy, frying it in butter and serving it with ice cream
- Cutting it into cubes and dipping it in chocolate fondue
- Crumbling it into a trifle
We’ve pinned down Matthew’s birthday cake too: we’re going to Chez Monique for dinner but instead of dessert, we’ll adjourn to my house for black forest gateau. Just as well my dining room is back in action!
 This was back when wedding cakes were always fruitcakes and never mud cakes. (Don’t try it with red velvet cake.)
 Not for the faint-hearted… by which I mean people with heart conditions who have been advised to avoid cholesterol.
 Or just invite someone round who does like to eat it by the slice, like my nephew-in-law Chris who considers it his duty to ensure that my Christmas cake is gone by Australia Day.
 This was Matthew’s favourite in the 80s and he spent two decades waiting for it to come back into vogue before he decided that he didn’t need anyone else’s permission to eat unfashionable cakes.
The halo effect
One of the strongest reasons to make your own crackers is to move away from those awful hats which fit no-one, suit no-one and are worn by very few. My alternative is the adjustable tinsel halo which is really just a length of tinsel which you tie around your head which means that everyone from baby Betty to boofhead Brian can have something exactly the right size. The haloes are attractive, they’re festive and you’ll be surprised how many people will be willing to wear them (at least until the turkey arrives).
If you’re working a serious colour scheme for Christmas dinner, match your haloes to that. If you’re not, the more tinsel colours you can get, the better.
So sort through your stocks of tinsel scraps (the short pieces you put aside when you packed the decorations away) and see if you can make a 40 cm length for each cracker… and if you don’t have enough, make a note in your planner to get some in November when the decorations hit the shops.
At Wendy’s place tonight, her son’s partner Cassidy gave us a lecture on how bad sugar is for you. I do actually know that which is why I cut my sugar intake down a few years ago so I didn’t need the diatribe (or the diabetes, which was what motivated me). I am trying very hard to like Cassidy but she does make it difficult.
 If you have a theological objection to haloes, call them tinsel garlands.
 I did once make the mistake of chopping a few halo-lengths off a long stretch of gold tinsel spangled with little silver stars and then realised on 1 December that it no longer reached down the hallway. (Although I confess that I never mind having an excuse to buy more tinsel.)