How could it be May already?
Add April notes and photos to your letter material. And don’t worry if you have some excellent photos that don’t match your notes: they don’t have to. It’s perfectly fine to have unaccompanied pictures, particularly if you can add an amusing caption to them. (So get witty!)
After breakfast on Christmas Day 1970, Wendy and I slipped back into the lounge room to prod the presents: there were three for each of us and one of mine was clearly a book but another felt like a bottle which mystified me: a bottle of what? It would hardly be cordial or tomato sauce and what other liquids could a child want?
 Unless the photos are amusing enough all by themselves: like the snap of my friend Jill’s children proudly making a human pyramid with their friends, completely unaware that little William was rocketing towards them wildly on the family dog.
Sentiments of the season
Peace, love and joy are not exclusive to Christianity (it’s only misanthropes, Satanists and arms dealers and who are opposed to them) and surely are not limited to Christmas.
But, if you’re Christian, Christmas is an excellent time to focus on what Jesus stood for and to make plans to practice those values in the coming year.
And, if you’re not Christian, it’s also a good time to think about what you can do to promote peace and love and joy in the coming year.
 And f you like being argumentative, you can compile a list of major non-Christian pacifists and humanitarians to remind your sparring partners that Christian values are at home in pretty much every community in the world.
If you’re doing Small Presents, do remember that “present” is both a noun and a verb and, if you don’t present Small Presents well, they don’t feel like gifts: three gingerbread people in a crumpled paper bag is just a snack but three gingerbread people in a cellophane bag done up with curling ribbon and a “Merry Christmas” tag is a proper present.
Here are some ways of presenting small amounts of festive food:
- In the aforementioned cellophane bag tied with the aforementioned curling ribbon
- In a paper box (Google origami instructions for something fancy.)
- On a Christmas plate (Sourced from an op shop if you want to be green and/or cheap.)
- Cook Christmas cakes in little flowerpots or in individual silicon patty cases.
A Small Present is a token of your regard for the recipient; for maximum effect, accompany it with a hearty articulation of the depth of your appreciation.
My colleague Murray told me that his family are now sick of hazelnut torte and would like him to learn something else. We settled on a classic chocolate cake and we’ll give it a whirl tomorrow.
 Do choose the paper carefully. Recycled wrapping paper from last year will be Christmassy, but recycled credit card statements will be slightly sinister.
 My cousin Peter just wrote “Couldn’t have done it without you” on every card he gave to every professional on his list last year: from his boss, to his colleagues, to the lass who cleans his windows and he said it worked as universally as Conan Doyle’s telegrams saying “All is discovered! Flee at once!”
 Which has mystified Murray. “I put chocolate rum ganache on it every time,” he said. “I could eat that every day for a decade and still be looking for more.”
Christmas is a good time both to spring clean and to reappraise your non-Christmas décor:
- If you’re going to be hanging tinsel from your picture rail, it’s an excellent idea to dust it down first.
- If you’re looking for a convenient time to wash curtains and cushions and throws, December often brings some excellent drying days.
- If you will be putting reindeer on your coffee table and cards on your mantelpiece, do pack away whatever non-Christmas decorator items you normally have there and wash them before you box them.
So if you’re in control of the festive mayhem and can schedule cleaning time into your calendar, you may want to consider doing more than just a frantic swipe and tidy before your guests arrive: you might want to adopt a program of summer cleaning.
Murray’s lunchtime chocolate cake went well and our colleagues drew up a wish list of gateaux on the whiteboard for him to work his way through but I think he knows enough about cakes now to tackle new recipes at home. (I’ll let him break that news to them himself: the staff of Watson and Smythe take cake very seriously indeed and I am expecting a deluge of disappointment.)
 There are, of course, many people who have pristine picture rails that are dusted frequently but I am not one of them and to have at least one time in the year that makes me think “I really should dust those picture rails” does me good.
 Although this is not completely reliable in Melbourne, unlike in the Mallee where I remember hanging out a load of washing on a December day with a hot North wind and, hand on heart, the first shirt was almost dry when I’d hung the last pillowcase up.
 I was sometimes given this task in my mother’s house and always wanted to break the truly awful ceramic donkey she kept on the windowsill in the lounge room. I managed to resist the temptation and later found out that it had been given to her by an admirer but I still don’t understand why she had a soft spot for a man with such abysmal taste in ceramic donkeys.
 And when you bring them out again in January, you might decide that you can live without some of them which will be one small advance in the war against clutter.
Dishing it up
There are a lot of dirty dishes at Christmas time: how will you handle them?
- One or two martyrs tackle them all? (not recommended)
- Anyone who doesn’t cook does wash?
- Marathon, with everyone chipping in?
- Use paper plates?
Some people swear by the latter method: lay out a disposable table cloth, set the table with disposable plates and cutlery and then, when the feasting is done, just bundle everything up in the table cloth and put it straight in the bin. (Need I mention that this is not an option that will please people looking for green Christmases?)
There is also a halfway position – use your best china dinner set, but cook your turkey in a big foil dish (which is also a good idea if you don’t have a big enough permanent dish) and then you’ll still have to wash up the plates but you’ll avoid the scary baking dishes.
Christmas Day 1970: My Nanna was an early adopter and she had a dishwasher in 1970. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good dishwasher and it broke down frequently and it was hard to get parts out in the country and, on this particular Christmas, it was as dead as a dodo. So Auntie Pat commandeered Bronwyn (who instantly regretted her status as oldest child in the house) and Michelle and got them drying the breakfast dishes as she washed them. (They found it hard to keep up because Auntie Pat washed like lightning. (On a typical day, she ran her home and Uncle Jim’s business and made her children’s clothes and she also renovated houses in her spare time. She did everything efficiently, with graceful ease and in triple time.))
 And some people swear at the methods that require actually washing up.
 Or second best. My friend Carol refuses to use her fancy dinner plates at Christmas because they can’t go through the dishwasher and she has no intention of spending Christmas Day in rubber gloves so she uses her everyday plates instead. (She says the plates are so loaded with food on the 25th that you can’t see the pattern anyway.).
 And if you stood between her and what she was working on, you’d be lucky to get out alive.
Road testing gingerbread
I cook four kinds of gingerbread. Why not work your way through my recipes and see which suits you best?
This gingerbread is a cake and the treacle gives it a fabulous flavour. I cook it occasionally during the year but you could dust it with icing sugar and garnish it with mint leaves and raspberries for a Christmas morning tea.
|START||:||70 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||25 minutes|
45g stem ginger (optional) ½ tsp cloves 100g golden syrup
2 cup SR flour ½ tsp nutmeg 100g treacle
1 tsp bicarb ½ tsp allspice 1 egg
1 tbs ground ginger 100g butter 250 ml milk
½ tsp cinnamon 100g brown sugar
Set oven to 180˚C. Grease and flour a kuegelhof cake tin. Grate the ginger.
Sift the dry ingredients together.
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in golden syrup and treacle. Add egg. Add dry ingredients and milk alternately. Add stem ginger.
Pour batter into cake tin and bake for 45 minutes.
Christmas Day 1970: After breakfast, we got dressed and bustled outside to play with our toys. My cousin Bronwyn had a walkie-talkie set which was a big favourite and we tried gamely to get my kite into the air but it was a hot, still Mallee morning and even the birds seemed resigned to staying on the ground. Anything sensible was conserving its energy for the sizzling day ahead but we children gambolled and cavorted and – unfortunately – broke Peter’s spud gun before it was an hour old.
 Unless you’re a ginger-hater like my nephew Ben’s girlfriend Cassidy who says eating ginger is lke tasting prickles.
 But only when I have visitors. I am working hard to limit myself to one moderate serve of sugar a day (except at Christmas, of course) so I only cook cake when I’m confident that I can feed most of it to other people.
 Real ones if possible, lollies otherwise.
If you can make haloes from recycled tinsel and package your crackers with recycled paper, then you can devote most of your cracker budget to the trinkets. Here are some points to bear in mind:
- Crackers are random: some people will get something they like and some people won’t but that gamble is part of the fun.
- Nevertheless, you should make it possible that any individual could get a trinket they like so make sure you have all the bases covered. (Don’t make every trinket some kind of hair accessory if your bald grandfather will be part of the party.)
- Divide your trinket budget by the number of crackers you’ll be making to get the average trinket price and then remind yourself what “average” means: if you can find some brilliant bargain trinkets, you can spend a little more money on some of the other trinkets (but only after you’ve made the savings).
Christmas Day 1970: Church was always early on Christmas morning so we were soon forced to change our normal summer outfits for our good clothes which seemed an insult on such a special day: frills and collars and fabrics we were supposed to keep clean didn’t mix well with crawling under the couch to get the little shoe that had got away when Barbie fell off the Meccano crane, and seeing if you could communicate via walkie-talkie if you were behind the chook shed and your cousin was up the mulberry tree.
 Encourage swapping to mitigate disappointment.
 I filled a cracker with water bomb balloons once and the recipient, seven year old Emma, loved it but the recipients of the actual bombs (her parents, aunts and uncles) were less enthusiastic.
 To give the ladies time to get the turkeys on when they got home.
 Answer: you can on Christmas morning when the batteries are fresh, but you can’t on Boxing Day afternoon after you’ve been talking non-stop for two days.
If cosseting your mother doesn’t take all day, you may like to make some more gift tags. Today’s design is exactly the same as the standard circle gift tag except that you make it from one of last year’s Christmas cards.
The physical skill level for this is no higher than for a plain circle gift tag but you need a weeny bit of an artistic eye to position the circle well on the card. (Using a glass you can see through helps you line it up.)
My two children took me out for brunch this morning and Hannah said she’d rather her own kids do that than give her breakfast in bed and Jeremy asked if she was going to produce children by parthenogenesis and she said that he was just as single as she was and he declared that he actually had a brand new girlfriend called Danni. Hannah said it was nice of Jeremy to take pity on a young woman evidently handicapped by a poor sense of smell but it took Jeremy so long to work out that his sister was impugning his odour that the insult lost its bite. (For the record, my son Jeremy is handsome, caring and intelligent and smells fine nearly all of the time (although I did stay upwind when he returned from a 4-day, shower-free camping trip).)
 Or you could use cereal boxes like my crafty niece Emma did one year but Christmas cards are more likely to produce Christmassy designs. (Mind you, Emma wrote “HO HO” all over her cereal pictures with gold ink so most of the recipients did think they were festive… except for her brother Ben who read his tag upside down and asked Emma what kind of mistake she’d made with his present that had led her to write “OH-OH” on the label.)
 I mean that metaphorically: you can’t actually line up anything up with a circle.
The main advent
Advent is the period before Christmas used by churchgoers to prepare for the coming of Jesus. It starts on the fourth Sunday before Easter and finishes on Christmas Day and many churches have an Advent wreath holding a set of four candles and they light the first candle on the first Sunday of Advent, the first and the second on the second Sunday of Advent and so on until they’re all burning.
Advent calendars should start on the first Sunday of Advent which varies from the 27th of November to the 3rd of December but most begin on 1 December instead (which is practical because it allows them to have the same number of windows each year).
Advent used to be a period of fasting and penitence but that certainly wouldn’t work in modern Australia with all those office parties and end of year break-ups. (Mind you, there must be some penitence when people remember what they did at last night’s party.)
An Advent custom you will not want to revive (unless you hate kids) is the Norman one of employing children under the age of twelve to run through fields and orchards with burning torches and set fire to bundles of straw (supposedly to get rid of vermin but perhaps it was also a method of population control for humans).
 And with a daily dose of chocolate from your advent calendar.
Getting some Christmas action
Here’s another potential entertainment for a slow, lazy Christmas afternoon: watch a movie.
You may first think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” but there are a surprising number of action movies that take place over Christmas or have some other Yuletide references so you can consider any of these if you’re looking for something less sugary:
- Batman Returns
- Behind Enemy Lines
- Die Hard
- Die Hard 2
- The Ice Harvest
- In Bruges
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
- A. Confidential
- The Last Boy Scout
- Lethal Weapon
- The Long Kiss Goodnight
- Reindeer Games
And here are a few non-action movies:
- A Christmas Tale
- Eyes Wide Shut
- Happy Christmas
- Trading Places
Note: some of the above are definitely not feel-good films so do check the synopsis before choosing them for your gang. (“Treevenge” is my son Jeremy’s choice and he says it’s seriously deranged. Danni, the new girlfriend whom I met for the first time last night, agrees with him: she says it’s weird, violent and brilliant… and up till that point I had been thinking that she was sweet!)
 My old neighbour Gustav preferred war documentaries at Christmastime but he also preferred to spend Christmas alone so it worked out well.
Fleas, fungi and department stores
All kinds of commercial organisations want your money at Christmas and this can be a parasitic relationship (if they trick you out of your dough) or a symbiotic one (if you work together and both benefit). So it’s important to know about their techniques and timing so that you can avoid being ripped off and can get good value for the money you spend.
The first thing to consider is the shopping cycle:
- Early in the season, Christmas goods are full price.
- Midway through the season, Christmas goods that haven’t been selling well may be reduced in price.
- Late in the season, Christmas goods will be discounted, often to half price.
- After the season, Christmas goods may be sold at clearance prices and there may be two or even three rounds of these. (50% off may increase to 75% off and even 90% off.)
Bear in mind that the “season” varies with the category: craft items can be discounted early in December (because it’s already too late to make appliqué Santa hats for the whole family), decorations may be discounted in mid‑December (because most people will have loaded themselves to their maximum carrying capacity for tinsel by then) but presents and gift wrap are usually full price right up till Christmas Eve (because lots of people do lots of last-minute present shopping).
Time your shopping accordingly:
- If you want to buy something that may sell out (like fashionable toys and gadgets), shop early to ensure you get it.
- If you want to get seasonal goods at the lowest possible price, buy them in the new year (but the range will be limited and most of the plums will be gone, so choose carefully) and then save them till the following Christmas.
- If you want to walk in the middle of the road, shop mid-season when you may get some bargains but are unlikely to miss out on anything you need.
Christmas Day 1970: As we walked to church, Mum and Auntie Margie bantered about who would look after baby Russell. Neither of them were keen church-goers and they were hoping that he would start crying and they’d then have an excuse to leave the service and walk around in the church garden. Auntie Margie won, of course, but Mum put up a good fight.
 Which is more like a sine wave than a circle (and not at all like a bicycle).
 This can work well for you if you have unconventional taste.
 Only once have I seen a 100% discount: one of those mega-service stations on the Hume Highway was giving away Christmas wrapping paper on Boxing Day. (My guess is that they were selling it at full price right up to Christmas Day (“Oh no! We forgot Benjy’s present and we’ll be there in an hour! Do you think he’d like a box of Paddle Pops? And do we have room in the esky?”) and just wanted it out of the way when Christmas was over, to free up space for their usual sunglasses and CDs of trucking songs.)
 My colleague Murray deliberately leaves his Christmas shopping to Christmas Eve. He says the crowds are gone, the shop assistants are beginning to relax, and having a limited time and a limited range of stock concentrates the mind wonderfully: would Cousin Magda like some zebra socks? Well, you’ve only got half an hour before the shops close and you’ve still got four presents to buy and the cornflower blue teapot Magda expressed an interest in sold out weeks ago, so she’ll get the zebra socks regardless… and so will the other three people left on your list.
 And seasonal bads, too – like appliqué Santa hats.
If you’re planning to set a fabulous table for Christmas dinner, start your design with your china, cutlery, glassware, linen and colour scheme.
Once you’ve sorted out your parameters, here are some standard ideas that may work for you:
- Tie the napkins with festive ribbon. (Or tinsel. Or ivy.) Or roll them into the loop of a fancy decoration.
- Put a sprig of holly (or pine or a flower) on each place.
- Scatter glass bowls filled with baubles along the length of the table. Or, if it’s standing room only once you add the cranberry sauce and the mustard and the walnuts and the shiraz and the water jug and the Christmas cake and the gingerbread house, hang baubles above the table.
- Fancy candlesticks.
- Add your favourite reindeer ornaments. (Or Santas. Or little Christmas trees.)
- Jam pack the table with big bowls of beautiful fruit, fancy bowls of nuts and lavish bowls of sweets.
- Base a floral centrepiece on conifers or holly.
- Bestrew the table with pinecones and whole spices (cinnamon sticks, star anise, nutmegs).
I’m planning white damask with my gold patterned china and whatever gold accoutrements I can get hold of (I’d like some gold bowls and I’ll make gold crackers) and pine branches scattered across the table. (Would it be too much to hang gold and green baubles above the table? Probably.)
Christmas Day 1970: Auntie Betty’s family got to the church shortly after us: they lived on a farm seven miles out of town so this was the first time we’d seen them that day so we bounced around excitedly and told each other Santa tales. My 13 year old cousin Caroline impressed the socks off me: she had got nail polish for Christmas – how grown up! (This was not her favourite gift: she was quite a tomboy and I think the present pleased the mother more than the daughter because Auntie Betty was afraid that a girl who wouldn’t wear dresses and whose favourite conversation topics were foot rot and fertilisers wouldn’t find a husband. (Caroline did end up happily married but I don’t think it was due to nail polish.)
 But not big Christmas trees, unless you’re actively trying to discourage conversation (which can be an appealing strategy in dysfunctional families).
 My friend Jenny told me a horror story of her mother-in-law deliberately decorating with pine boughs and unintentionally decorating with pine beetles which decided to emigrate at about the time the pudding came out, to the surprise and discomfort of the guests. (If they had been Christmas beetles, perhaps it would have been okay.)
 Is that a reason not to do it? No – not at Christmas.
 She ended up taking over the farm – to the relief of parents and her brother because Brian preferred fleecing customers to shearing sheep.
There are a lot of stuffing recipes out there so, unless you have a family favourite, you might like to try some others through the year (maybe with a roast chicken for a traditional Sunday lunch).
Here’s a serviceable option:
Cranberry Pinenut Stuffing
|START||:||20 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||20 minutes|
1 onion 1 bunch parsley 2 tsp dried sage
1 stick of celery ¼ cup pine nuts 2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp oil 1 egg
4 slices of bread ¼ cup dried cranberries
Chop the onion and celery finely and sauté in the oil until soft. Cool.
Crumb the bread. Chop the parsley. Toast the pine nuts. Beat the egg lightly.
Mix all ingredients together.
 Which is a good thing to do with stuffing, and here is the worst thing to do with stuffing: the year before last, my nephew Jack found the expression “stocking stuffers” in a Christmas catalogue and this inspired him to fill a sock with sage and walnut stuffing and present it to his mother as an extra Christmas gift as a joke. (Need I add that she didn’t think it was as funny as he did?)
 Although the father is pretty frazzled.
 And it makes me a great aunt – although I actually think I was one before now!
Tracking down trinkets
The ideal mix of trinkets for your crackers:
So keep an eye out for possibilities in every shop you go into: toy shops (of course) are a rich trinket source but hardware shops can yield baby screwdrivers and other blokey items and discount stores will present you with surprising opportunities in jewellery, kitchen gadgets and things you wouldn’t have thought of until you saw them on the shelf.
Also consider any free samples you acquire through the year (weeny vials of perfume can be popular and I got this little packet of crystal gel balls in a show bag that I thought would be perfect) which will have the pleasant bonus of bringing your average trinket price down.
Christmas Day 1970: The best thing about the church service on Christmas Day was that it was short. Also, one of Nanna’s friends gave us all boxes of Smarties which was a bonus (except to Auntie Betty who had to clean her toddler up for the fourth time that day and the sun was barely over the yardarm).
Russell did start crying in church and Auntie Margie took him outside and boasted to Mum later that she’d managed to miss the sermon.
“And the good hymns,” Mum added, trying to deflate her a little.
“Nope: I heard them from outside,” said her sister-in-law triumphantly. (She sang along too, while walking the garden paths with the baby. You might have thought this would surprise the neighbours but this was a very small town and everybody knew all their neighbours and all their visitors and all their peculiarities.)
 Although this can surprise you: my father kept a plastic figurine of a giraffe on the windowsill of his tool shed for years.
 I like plastic ants myself: they’re so versatile. (My son Jeremy made a diorama with them, my niece Emma had them as pets in her dolls’ house, and I like to put them on cakes.)
 Pâté knives shaped like Christmas trees are very jolly, they fit into Christmas crackers very well and the recipient is unlikely to have one already. (Unfortunately, they’re hard to hold when spreading pâté, but you can’t have everything.)
 Although it does depend on the perfume. (My daughter Hannah had a bottle of something dreadful when she was a teenager that her brother called “Eau de Odour”.)
 Who can say they don’t need this?
 Had to get home to those turkeys!
Playing tag again
If you have the skills to cut out stars, you can produce classy gift tags. Either:
- Cut a star shape out of gold or silver card and punch a hole in one point or
- Cut a star shape out of gold or silver paper and paste it onto coloured card and punch a hole in the corner
Christmas Day 1970: After the final amen, the congregation spilled out of the church and into the churchyard. We children were desperate to get home to open the presents under the tree but the adults lingered to catch up with old friends and neighbours and they chatted about cakes and cousins and crops while we tugged at their sleeves and wheedled.
“You’re talking about the weather!” hissed an outraged Linda to her mother. “Don’t waste Christmas Day on rainfall!”
Auntie Betty administered a token rebuke but she did draw her conversation to a speedy conclusion and then she rounded up the adults with the efficiency of a sheepdog and we all headed home. (She used the turkey as the excuse but I believe the grown-ups were nearly as keen to open their presents as we were.)
 The easiest way to do this is with a proper hole punch but my friend Jill kept her restless son William occupied for a whole half hour once by giving him a hammer and a nail to pierce the gift tags with. (It kept her occupied for a whole half hour too because she felt it prudent to stand by with a watchful eye and a first aid kit.)
 That’s star power for you.
On the first day
The twelve days of Christmas are the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany and are the official Christmas season, so the eponymous twelve days of Christmas song is about the singer’s true love sending them a new present on every day of that Christmas season which, at this point, makes a plausible story.
The song was probably sung as a memory game (with each person in the circle adding a new present to the list for everyone to remember) but it eventually solidified as:
- 12 drummers drumming
- 11 pipers piping
- 10 lords a-leaping
- 9 ladies dancing
- 8 maids a-milking
- 7 swans a-swimming
- 6 geese a-laying
- 5 gold rings
- 4 calling birds
- 3 French hens
- 2 turtle doves
- and a partridge in a pear tree
By this stage, the gift list doesn’t make sense but that’s not the point.
In Australia, I think we’d do better having the twelve days before Christmas (or perhaps to Boxing Day) since we’re usually flat-out festively from about the 14th of December and generally don’t consider New Year’s Day to be part of Christmas.
 Why would you want ten lords a-leaping, how would you get them and what happens when they stop jumping?
 My father always said that the New Year was a time to make a New Start in the pantry, by which he meant that we shouldn’t be eating Christmas leftovers any more (but he never objected to my mother’s brandy shortbread trifle, no matter how late in January it appeared).
The sale before Christmas
Some stores have early Christmas sales… because the retailers want your money as soon as they can get it (partly to grab it before you spend it at other stores and partly because they might get a second crack at you if they can persuade you to shop again later on) but, if you’re canny, you can make the early sales work for you:
- Spot the patterns and work with them. (My favourite bookseller offers double loyalty points in the last week of November so I do my book shopping then.)
- Don’t buy anything unless you’re sure it’s right – otherwise you will indeed stand a significant chance of buying twice and wasting money (which is False Bargain #2, of which more later).
So, as always, shop wisely.
“Gertruda’s paintings are gone,” Wendy told me. “Apart from the ones Don chose and her own special favourites, the walls are bare.”
“She’s sold them? How could she be down to her last shilling? She knows more about investments than economics professors, and there’s no way she’d be sucked in by an on-line dating scam. Could she have a gambling problem?”
“I don’t think that’s possible. She growls that our annual Cup sweep is a waste of money and she refuses to buy raffle tickets even at the Polish club. If Gertruda’s been playing the pokies, we can safely deduce that aliens are controlling her body.”
“Let’s rule that out then,” I agreed.
 Have you ever bought a bag of chocolate Santas in November to save for Christmas and then had to go back two weeks later for more because the first bag was gone? The retailers know what they’re doing.
 Although, from the retailers’ point of view, this is generating money, so it depends on whose side you’re on.
 And steer clear of the chocolate Santas unless they’re on your shopping list. (Confectionery-free aisles aren’t just for children.)
The biscuit tin method of Christmas
Let me tell you about the biscuit tin method of Christmas. It goes like this:
- Acquire one new Christmas biscuit tin every year (of which more below).
- Once you’ve eaten the biscuits, you can keep decorations in the tin
- And as you decorate in December, you empty tins which you can then fill up with festive treats
- And, as you polish off the biscuits late in December, the tins are ready for packing away the decorations again.
And even though it’s old fashioned, it’s jolly convenient to keep biscuits in pretty tins. Surprise visitors at Yuletide? Open up your shortbread tin and your gingerbread tin and there’s morning tea. No need even to decant them and then you just whack the lids back on when you’ve had your fill and you’ve packed up in 30 seconds.
Here’s how you can acquire one new Christmas biscuit tin every year:
- Buy one when they hit the shops. (This gives you the best selection but is also the most expensive option.)
- If there’s someone who would like to give you a present but they don’t know what you’d like, you could suggest a tin of biscuits.
- You can wait till January and buy a tin on sale. (This is likely to be 50% cheaper than Option 1 but you won’t have as much choice.)
- Or can buy an old Christmas tin in an op shop: they’re quite common, so you stand a good chance of finding a nice one and you’ll pay somewhere between 20c and $5 for it, depending on the op shop. (This is also the greenest option.)
I had lunch with my aunt Gwen and Susan today. Susan is not looking at all well and she has some fairly nasty medical treatments ahead of her but she was excited to be seeing “Matilda” and was sure it would be worth the train trip from Ballarat. Before they left, they gave me a present to give to Mia: a triceratops Susan had crocheted and Gwen had stuffed. Of course, Mia doesn’t know a triceratops from a trumpet right now (she doesn’t even know what her hands are for) but I’m sure she’ll love it eventually.
 After washing, of course. Crumbs do not enhance Father Christmas beards.
 This was what I did with Auntie Helen although it did get a little silly when I started doing her Christmas shopping for her. (Mind you, it also meant that I got a biscuit tin that I really liked!)
Test drive the table
Once you’ve planned your table setting, take it for a test drive. You don’t have to do the full monty but you might like to check some of these aspects:
- Do the tables really fit in the space you’ve allocated to them?
- Can you get all the chairs around comfortably?
- Is the table cloth long enough?
- Are your decorations going to work? Will you be able to see over the centrepiece? What will you suspend hanging things from? Will you have enough space in the middle of the table?
It’s also a good idea to lay out one full place setting and take a photo of it for later reference.
Christmas Day 1970: “We’ll open the presents after church,” our parents had said but we soon found they didn’t mean “immediately after church”: first we had to get out of our good clothes (and back into our lightest tops and shorts because it was already hot and it was going to get a lot hotter). “There’s just so much work to do on Christmas Day!” groaned four year-old Matthew who had now changed three times before lunch but it didn’t impress Mum who was calculating how many potatoes she would have to peel for twenty people.
 Spilling out into a corridor may be acceptable. Spilling out into a cupboard probably won’t be.
 This just means “Will you achieve the artistic effect you’re aiming for” unless you’re running the Christmas Express down the table, in which case you’ll also need to test the batteries and calculate if you have enough track to loop around the cranberry sauce.
 Particularly if someone else is going to set the table on the day. (My son Jeremy, for example, doesn’t seem to be able to remember which side a fork goes on, or to think about serviettes long enough to put one down on a plate, but he can follow a diagram (and he’s easily bribed with Christmas sweets).)
Make some jelly. (What kind? Well, colour is more important than flavour in this case so go for red and green to be traditional, blue and purple to wow the kids or your favourite colour.) You might like to make it in wide, flat tin so that you can cut it into small cubes.
When the jelly has set, choose a serving bowl – glass with straight sides is perfect but you can use anything really.
Cut a cake into one centimetre slices and layer it on the bottom of the bowl. (How much cake? Depends on the size of your bowl. What kind of cake? Whatever you have on hand or buy one from the shops.)
Sprinkle the cake with sherry. (Or brandy. Or liqueur. Again, whatever you have on hand should be fine.)
Add fruit. (Fresh fruit cut into smallish chunks is great but you can use any frozen fruit or drained, tinned fruit that you have.)
Cover with custard. (Supermarket custard is perfectly adequate.) Whip some cream and spread on top.
Decorate the trifle with jelly (a generous ring of jelly round the edge always looks good and you don’t have to cut it into cubes: you can spoon it out into small quenelles or just fork it out freeform).
Cover and leave it in the fridge overnight. (Or two nights. It can take it.)
You can see how easy it is to ring the changes on this trifle:
- Upgrade the cake.
- Match the liqueur, the fruit and the jelly to increase the sophistication. (Eg: coconut liqueur, mangoes, and pineapple jelly for a tropical trifle. Peach schnapps, peaches and peach jelly for a (wait for it) peach trifle.)
- Make your own custard.
- Change the decoration. (Piles of strawberries sprinkled with pistachios look impressive.)
Christmas Day 1970: When we had changed out of our good clothes, we found Nanna was busy with the turkey and the aunts were chopping pumpkin and peeling carrots and the uncles seemed quite content to wait. So we showed our Mallee cousins what Santa had brought and eventually the dinner was On and surely the presents were too.
 And hence have more time on the Day.
 My brother Matthew can’t go past trifle either: it’s his favourite dessert. ‘Please put it at the far end of the table,” he asked me last year, “And that will give me a bit more exercise with each serving”.
 To be honest, colour is more important than flavour for jelly nearly all the time.
 Sponge fingers are classic and jam roll works well and looks pretty too.
 Well, nearly anything. My nephew Ben made a trifle with his home brewed beer and it was a failure on every level. (Even his brother Jack refused to eat it.)
 I think most people would rather wait if the alternative was chopping pumpkin.
 Linda suggested we use my new textas to turn little Felicity into Rudolph by colouring her nose red and Felicity was willing but I wasn’t (but, I’m sorry to say, it was the textas I was concerned about and not the two year old).
Crackers traditionally have snaps (which make them crack and give them their name) and you can’t make these at home. Your options are:
- Don’t use them. (They often don’t work anyway.)
- Buy them from craft shops (which increases the cost of your crackers).
- Find some innovative way of doing crackers – and I’ve been working on this for years and haven’t had a stand-out success so if you find something, do let me know! I’ve tried egg shells (which are very pretty when painted gold but are fiddly and limit the trinkets you can use) and balloons (put the stuff inside and then blow them up – but you need to wrap the trinkets first to disguise them) and spring-loaded boxes (which I couldn’t get to work at all).
So this is one case where you should make a snap decision.
It was Matthew’s birthday dinner tonight. The young ones all headed off after the cake but Matthew, Wendy, Don and I sampled the single malt whisky Ben gave Matthew… and Matthew did more than merely sample it. In fact, he got quite teary and it all came out: he’s fifty and he thinks he’ll never have children.
Don suggested that he get a young floozy but Matthew quoted stats about declining fertility in men and said that he tried dating a twenty-five year old a while back and it made him realise that he’s looking for an equal partner and that’s likely to be someone his own age.
“That could net you stepchildren,” Wendy observed.
“More likely to be step-adults,” corrected Michael.
Then I reminded him that he is practically a father to my children: he took them to Little Aths for years, was always there for their birthdays and school concerts, has played uncountable games of Uno and beach cricket with them and actually saw more of his nieces and nephews that some live-in, workaholic dads do.
Wendy added what he’d done for her kids and reminded him that they’d all been keen to celebrate his birthday. (Emma, in particular, insisted on coming which means it was week-old Mia’s first party.)
This did cheer him up a little and then I put him to bed in my spare room because he was certainly not in a fit state to drive home.
 Q: What do you call a cracker that doesn’t crack?
A: I don’t know, but if you can think of a witty answer, you’ll have another riddle for Christmas Day.
 Which shows he’s been researching this.
 That will have been Sienna who was terminally obsessed with fashion and who lasted four weeks.
If your craft skills are low, stick with the tags I’ve described to date. If you’re seriously artistic, you don’t need my suggestions. If you’re in between, here are some trickier gift tag options you may enjoy making:
- Cut Christmas tree shapes from paper or cloth and glue onto coloured backgrounds. You can add sequins or stars or buttons for baubles.
- Or do Christmas wreaths in a similar manner.
- Cut paper lace snowflakes and glue those onto card.
- Make holly leaves from green card and add red beads or sequins as berries.
- Do a decoupage thing with a photo of the recipient on one side of the tag and the giver on the other (and you may avoid the need for words entirely).
At Matthew’s birthday dinner last night, Cassidy refused birthday cake. I know she’s not eating sugar but I think she could have been a bit more gracious. And what will we do if everyone gives up sugar? How could you do a savoury birthday cake? Would it be a cheese and bacon loaf with hummus instead of icing? I just can’t see anyone making that into a teddy bear shape for a kid’s birthday.
 Or if you’re seriously quirky. Just after he left uni, my friend Todd used liqueur miniatures as gift tags for his family presents and he didn’t write on them: he just matched the initials. So the kirsch was for Katy and advocaat was for Andrew (and the maraschino was for his mother which was a bit of a stretch because her name is Norma).
 Or not.
 If you don’t mind snömys.
 Again, this is not for snömy-phobes. (Or for those who try to lead a sequin-free life.)
 This is particularly good for toddlers (and particularly bad for people who feel they are not photogenic).
Wreathed in history
Wreaths evolved in parallel around the world: olive wreaths were prizes at the original Olympics; the Romans used laurel wreaths as crowns; the Polish celebrated harvest with wreaths of grain; the English decorated maypoles with wreaths of flowers; Tahitian women wear floral wreaths to their weddings.
Christmas wreaths began as rings of greenery (but now can be circles of plastic) and are typically hung on front doors as a welcoming decoration. (Also see advent wreaths on 9 May.)
So, you can see wreaths as:
- A bit of everything
- So confused that you have to ignore a lot of their history and might as well ignore all of it and hence treat them as non-religious
Choose whichever suits your worldview best.
 But wouldn’t have lasted as long as medals, thus reducing athletes’ opportunities to sell their prizes when down on their luck.
 Thus reducing kings’ opportunities of selling off the crown jewels when the treasury was bare.
 With stalks intact, of course. It would be hard to make a wreath from a handful of rye grains.
 Do they toss them like a bouquet at the end of the wedding? (And do they move like frisbees?)
Forks on the left
Here’s how to do a standard table setting.
- Position your table in the room but don’t place the chairs yet: setting the table is easier without them.
- Spread your table cloth out if you’re using one and make sure that it hangs evenly on all sides. (This can take longer than you anticipate so you may choose to change from “tweak until perfect” to “tweak until you run out of patience”.)
- If you have some kind of festive centrepiece, place it next.
- Create one spot for each diner around the table. (Mark them with Christmas crackers.).
- Put the cutlery in hot water, pull each piece out and polish it dry with a tea towel as you set it. (Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.) Put the cutlery for the first course down – level with the table edge is usually best – then the cutlery for second course inside that and keep going till you run out of courses.)
- Polish the glasses with a dry tea towel and lay those out above the cutlery, on the right.
- Put the napkins in the centre of the plate setting or in the glass if you prefer. (You can fold them into fans or Opera Houses or flying Rudolphs, but plain triangles are usually fine because the serviettes are not likely to be the wow factor on a Christmas table.)
- Crackers can be moved to the top of the napkin or along the top of the place setting or piled in a jumble in the middle of the table: wherever you think they look good.
- Position anything that needs to go in the centre of the table: condiments, water jugs, wine coasters, bowls of nuts and lollies.
- Finally, move the chairs into place.
Christmas Day 1970: “We’ll just have a cup of tea,” was the next delay to opening the presents and the Christmas cake was cut with a fanfare and served with tea for the adults and milk for the children. This was nothing compared to a normal day (sandwiches followed by three kinds of cake and four kinds of biscuit) but the adults were saving themselves for the feast and we children had already eaten half of our stocking lollies so we weren’t hungry.
“Hurry UP!” we said.
 It’s also easier without toddlers but this is not always possible.
 This is not necessary (or advisable) if you’re using plastic cutlery.
 Again, this is not needed for disposable “glass”ware.
 The etiquette guides are more flexible on crackers than they are on fish knives!
 As a small boy, my nephew Jack wanted tomato sauce on everything. Wendy refused to let him have it with his Christmas dinner but he’d try to sneak it onto the table ahead of time, once disguising it in a cranberry sauce jar (which was not a successful ploy: Wendy can tell cranberries from ketchup from a mile away).
 Although pedants will say it was cut with a knife.
 But milk is a good antidote to a surfeit of confectionery and it gave Peter a second wind that allowed him to polish off the last of his jubes, which pleased him. The year before, he had hoarded his sweets and, when Auntie Pat found that he still had three packets left in January, she made him share them with his siblings. The injustice of that still rankled with him.
Preserves – pickles, chutneys and jams – work well in hampers and are also good Small Presents but do pay attention to the preferences of the recipient: diabetics may not want jam, some people can’t abide pickles, and banana chutney is a taste that not many people have acquired.
If economy is your main driver use seasonal fruit and veg (preferably from your own garden) and steer clear of recipes that use expensive spices. If you want to keep things green use local ingredients and either way, use recycled jars.
Here are a few kinds of preserve to consider:
- Tomato relish (popular with nearly everyone, even with primary school children if you keep the chunks small and call it “sauce”)
- Pickled onions and pickled cucumber (most people know what to do with these)
- Pickled cauliflower (save this for pickle lovers).
Christmas Day 1970: Peter grabbed me before the last teacup returned to its saucer.
“Let’s volunteer for the morning tea dishes!” he said. “They’ll be much easier than anything else!”
I admired his strategy and we garnered both the kudos of actually volunteering for housework and the ease of a sinkful of cake plates – no gravy, no custard and no baking dishes. 
 Or weed patch, in the case of blackberries.
 If you can’t get local pickling vinegar, you could make your own apple cider vinegar – but if you’re producing home-made apple cider vinegar, use that as a Small Present and forget about the pickles.
 My friend Carol’s hoarding mother had a phenomenal number of jars, so Carol used to pretend to make jam once a month to have an excuse to take a box of them out of the house. Then Carol would buy a jar of jam from a fete to take to her mother as “proof”, but her mother did wonder why the quality varied so much.
 Peter grew into the kind of man who always knows the best way to get a bargain and the short cut to everywhere and I am not even slightly surprised.
Here’s how to make the classic potato salad that people expect at barbecues.
Peel and boil some potatoes.
When they’re cool, dice them.
Mix in just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together.
To fancy it up a little, add chopped parsley or chives or spring onions.
To fancy it up a lot – which is entirely appropriate for Christmas – add bacon, hard‑boiled eggs, gherkins, anchovies or capers, and sprinkle it with chopped herbs or with pinenuts and pepitas. Or you can swap the mayo for a yoghurt or sour cream dressing.
Hannah was home for dinner tonight and we had the plain version of classic potato salad, which went very well with the fancy sausages I got from my fancy butcher.
“So when are you going to introduce Dylan to Mum?” asked Jeremy, over his second helping.
“Who?” I asked.
“The hot guy Hannah was with last night,” said Jeremy. “Danni and I ran into them at the movies.”
“He’s a dud,” said Hannah. “He’s off the list.”
“He seemed nice,” said Jeremy.
“Only for the first five minutes,” explained Hannah. “After that, he’s pompous and self-righteous.”
“You’re too fussy,” said Jeremy. “I think you’re going to have to start researching parthenogenesis.”
“There are others on the list,” said Hannah. “In fact, there’s quite a queue. And I have a plan B to fall back on if they’re all duds like Dylan.”
I’m trying to work out what Plan B is. (Maybe she is researching parthenogenesis!)
 My cousin Brian once added chopped lavender leaves because he didn’t know his own herb garden.
We’ve already encountered two kinds of bad buys:
- False Bargain #1: You don’t need it (and were living quite happily without it) so no matter how low the price is, it’s a waste of money. 
- False Bargain #2: You buy it, but don’t use it. (At Christmastime, this is often a present you buy for someone but don’t give to them, maybe because you’re no longer sure they’ll like it or because you don’t think it’s good enough.)
But there are some others:
- False Bargain # 3: It’s not actually cheap, in spite of the “Sale!” stickers all over it. (Unscrupulous retailers can shout that something is 25% off when they never intended to sell it at the “full” price.)
- False Bargain # 4: You can’t afford it. Make sure you focus on the dollar sign rather than the per cent sign and remind yourself that a $200 crystal vase is not a good buy at an 80% discount if your budget is only $30. Concentrate on what’s still on the price, rather than what’s been taken off it.
I’ve been thinking about Hannah’s Plan B and I haven’t cracked it. She has had a standard number of boyfriends and they’ve all been nice enough but I’m not sure that she’s ever given her heart to one. She took the divorce pretty hard and I sometimes wonder if that’s a factor but I don’t see what else I could have done at the time and I don’t see what else I could now either. But she’s such a treasure that I’m sure she’ll find Mr Right soon.
 Ben saved enough money from his part-time job in his last year of uni to buy quite a decent secondhand car. He said he achieved it by never, ever going shopping, so he was never, ever tempted to buy anything and never, ever missed what he hadn’t seen. Wendy, while appreciating and encouraging her son’s thriftiness, mentioned to me later that Ben was only able to never, ever go to the shops because she gave him clothing for his birthday thus preventing him from being arrested for indecency for wearing transparent rags that were unlikely to hold together even to the next set of traffic lights.
 I remember my mother taking a pottery pumpkin out of her present cache one December and saying, “What made me think I knew anyone I could give this to?”
 And if the sale sign says “All shirts slashed!”, check that they’re in one piece.
 My ex was charming and fun and selfish and feckless. (I thought I had enough feck for both of us, but I discovered that it doesn’t work like that.)
Cow and possum
Are you looking for a skit for your Christmas concert? You may use this one of mine if you like and if you acknowledge me as the author. Hannah and I originally did it with a cow puppet and a possum puppet – hence the name – but you could do it with different puppets or as actual people.
Note that Possum is excitable and increasingly annoyed and Cow is placid and ponderous throughout.
POSSUM: Would you like to play Twenty Questions?
COW: Yes, that would be good.
POSSUM: Do you want to choose a person?
POSSUM: Have you got one?
POSSUM: Okey-dokey: is it a female?
POSSUM: Is she alive?
POSSUM: So, that’s two questions so far?
COW: No: six.
POSSUM: Six! It couldn’t possibly be six! There’s no way…. hold on: did you count it when I asked if you if it was two questions so far?
POSSUM: And when I asked if you’d chosen a person? And when I asked you if you wanted to play Twenty Questions?
COW: Yes. And yes.
POSSUM: That is not the way you play Twenty Questions! Do you really think this is normal?
COW: Yes: it’s the way I play Twenty Questions.
POSSUM: That’s ridiculous! That’s stupid! That’s [SUDDENLY RESIGNED]…. all right, we’ll play it your way. So we’re up to six questions?
COW: It’s eleven now.
POSSUM: Oh, this is not fair at all! You don’t really think this is fair, do you?
COW: Perfectly fair.
POSSUM: Well how about you count out loud as we go from now on, so that I know where we’re up to? Can you fit that into your stupid rules?
COW: Yes, I can: fourteen.
POSSUM: Fourteen and I’ve hardly started! I have no hope! …Have I already asked if she’s alive?
COW: Yes. Fifteen.
POSSUM: That doesn’t count! It’s just a confirmation of the second question! What makes you think you can count that?
COW: Because it’s a question. Sixteen.
POSSUM: So, was she alive?
COW: Yes. Seventeen.
POSSUM: Okay, so she’s an alive female?
COW: Yes. Eighteen.
POSSUM: No! That was introspection: I wasn’t asking you!
COW: You get twenty questions regardless of who you ask.
POSSUM: Eighteen! I’ve only got two questions left?
COW: Yes. Except that was nineteen so you’ve only got one left now.
POSSUM: The queen?
COW: Yes, that’s right. Well done.
 Shy performers can sometimes be persuaded to do puppet shows so do bear that in mind if some of your gang are retiring types.
Stringing it along
The first year that I bedecked my tree with home-made decorations, I missed having tinsel to pull it all together. The next year, I made these bead strings which worked just as well. Beads aren’t cheap, so this is not a budget option but beading is a rhythmically soothing activity for both adults and children.
If you like the idea of bead strings, do start early: you don’t want to have a huge yardage target in December.
My great-niece Mia was christened today. The party was at Wendy’s house (and a more doting grandmother you have never seen!) and her mother-in-law Gertruda did most of the cooking so it was a Polish banquet. Borscht, bigos, cheese pierogi, mizeria and poppyseed cake.
My brother Matthew took what was possibly his third slice of poppyseed cake and sat next to Chris, who was holding Mia.
“Can she do anything yet?” Matthew asked.
“Of course not,” Chris answered. “She’s only three weeks old.”
“You need to get your act together, young lady,” Matthew admonished, waggling his finger at the baby. “When Mary Stuart was your age, she was queen of Scotland.”
 Mind you, they become a serious tripping hazard if they break and I was afraid I’d killed Auntie Helen the year before last when she slipped on a scattering of seed beads. Luckily, she regained her balance before she crashed to the floor but Don joked that I must be expecting a legacy from her which I thought was not in the Yuletide spirit at all.
 And is cheaper than anti-depressants.
Christmas and candles seem to go together like Easter and the odd little scraps of foil you find in the lawn long after you’ve forgotten the egg hunt. I’m not a candle fan myself but here are some traditional uses of Christmas candles:
- Use them on your Christmas tree instead of (the far more sensible) fairy lights
- Or in your Advent wreath (See 9 May)
- The Irish use candles as a symbol for the hospitality they want to offer Mary and Joseph
- They are the eponymous but impractical light source at Carols by Candlelight
(Some people use candles as the gift they give to people they can’t think of presents for and you will certainly find plenty of candle makers who cater to this by gift-boxing special Yuletide wax. Personally, if you’re handing out thoughtless presents, I’d rather receive Christmas chocolates.)
My son Jeremy and his girlfriend Danni are out celebrating their one-month anniversary tonight and they’ve gone to his favourite Mexican restaurant. I don’t think one month is much of an anniversary, but then I don’t think the taco special at “Buenos Nachos” is much of a romantic dinner either.
 Yes, I know they cast a romantic light over mundane interiors but they also burn down houses and if you want your lounge room to smell like pine or lilac, why not put some actual pine or lilac in a vase?
 You’ll need special holders, you have to be very careful and you’ll fill your house with smoke and blobs of wax but I agree it looks very pretty.
 Jesus would not have been born in a stable if Bethlehem were in Ireland.
 Hard to hold if you have a song sheet in your other hand, not suitable for small children and unable to be used at all on total fire ban days.
 My cousin Peter gives everyone the same book for Christmas. Last year it was Magda Szubanski’s autobiography and the Christmas before it was “My Salinger Year”. He says it gives them a common talking point, but I know he really does it for efficiency.
My mother always used to buy two medium turkeys and she’d cook one on Christmas Eve to eat cold with the next evening’s salads, and she’d cook the other on Christmas morning to eat hot with the roast vegies in the middle of the day. Now, she could have cooked one big turkey for dinner and used the leftovers for tea but the second turkey was her plan B: if something went wrong on Christmas Day – and here’s a list of potential catastrophes:
- You lose power
- The oven breaks
- The dog gets the bird
- A mishap ties you up all morning (medical emergency, transport problems, branch smashes your lounge room window in a freak storm)
then we could simply get out the pre-cooked evening turkey and eat that cold for lunch instead (thus Saving Christmas).
It took me a while to realise that she had a plan B for the pudding too: every year she would make an ice cream plum pudding a few days ahead (of which more later) and even when we’d explain that we already had more desserts than it would be humanly possible even for hungry teenagers to consume in one day and even when we already had three different kinds of ice cream lined up and even when the last few years running, the ice cream plum pudding hadn’t even made it to the table and had been eaten on New Year’s Day instead, she would persist. But I did finally work out that it was a substitute to Save Christmas from a pudding disaster.
If there’s a key feature of your own Christmas dinner, consider a backup plan. It could be very easy (“We’ll just eat ham”) or more involved (“We could barbecue the vegies”) but knowing that you already know how you’ll deal with calamity can give you peace of mind.
Matthew dropped round to my place this evening, busting with a revelation he couldn’t keep to himself.
“I’ve had my life on hold!” he said and then explained that he’d been putting off lots of things till he had a partner: he hadn’t planned an overseas holiday because he was assuming he’d do that with his next girlfriend, and he hadn’t upgraded his inner city terrace house to a kid-friendly, expansively gardened, suburban domicile because he had wanted to meet the mother of his children before he moved.
“Everything has been waiting for something that may never happen!” he concluded.
So he’s decided that he’s going to make a list of things he wants to sort out and then he’s going to jump in and tackle them, even if that means he’ll have to undo some of them if he finds a new love. (Turning fifty isn’t so bad after all!)
 I don’t think he had it as a first-date question though. (“Would you like red or white? Do you like jazz? How does a two-week trip to New Zealand sound?”)
 And I think that one would be worse: “Are you ready to order? Did you want an entrée? What’s your favourite suburb and do you think two bathrooms is enough?”