Add May notes and photos to your Christmas letter material and let us also reflect on what makes a good end-of-year epistle:
- Keep it short: who reads more than two pages these days?
- Keep it light: one crisp, amusing anecdote is worth a dozen dull stories
- Stick to items of general interest: the only people who will enjoy an encyclopaedic list of everything your family did are the people you actually mention
To sum it up, your letter should be a pleasant diversion for your readers and not a weighty historical document, so concentrate on tales you can tell in an entertaining (and pithy!) way.
My friend Todd came round to my house tonight: he’s knitting a jacket as a surprise birthday present for his wife and he still has half the back to go so he sat on my couch and watched television with me while he ploughed through the centimetres. I kept him company by starting the frog beanie I’m making for the snow and Todd was a great help: the pattern only came in children’s sizes, and he helped me scale it up.
 Here’s one of my friend Jill’s: “Leanne took a gap year, moved to England, became a travel agent and went to 26 countries in 12 months. She collected souvenir shot glasses and is planning a schnapps party when she gets home.”
 Children get all the cute things: it’s not fair.
Gift with purchase
Another thing to watch out for in the shops at Christmas is the gift with purchase deal: if you buy a shirt at the usual price, you’ll get a cap for free. (Or you buy moisturiser and get a free sponge bag. Or whatever.)
The retailers are trying to lure you into your favourite shop to buy something for yourself with the bait of getting a present for a loved one at the same time. This works for you if you needed the shirt (or the moisturiser), if it’s a good price, if you know someone who’d like the cap (or the sponge bag) and if that will save you getting them another present. If not, it’s a false bargain.
Two-for-one deals are equally problematic: if you genuinely needed two and if the “one” price is reasonable, jump in. But if you only need one or if the price they’re asking is what it would cost you to buy two elsewhere, avoid it.
Todd came round again tonight to knit. It seems he started the secret jacket when his wife was away at a conference and has been working diligently at it on Thursday nights when she goes to yoga but then she injured a muscle and gave up yoga for a few weeks and that put him behind.
“I suggested she take up lawn bowls while she recuperated,” said Todd, “But I found out that you should never say that to anyone who dyes their grey hair. It doesn’t go down well.”
 My tall nephew-in-law Chris also watches out for low-hanging tinsel.
 A decade ago, you could get a five litre tin of jellybeans if you bought enough paint to cover your bedroom. This was an exciting, magical, generous offer which got people skipping home from the hardware shop, but I can tell you there’s not a person alive who stays interested in jellybeans after the first litre.
 With the exception of socks.
 And consider saying “No” to a paint tin full of jellybeans unless you have lots of friends.
You can’t catch me…
This is a gold star gingerbread recipe: it tastes great, it’s easy enough for small children to make and, if you use non-dairy margarine in place of the butter, it’s suitable for vegans.
It’s also very versatile:
- It’s perfect for classic gingerbread people (with currants for eyes and buttons).
- It’s the recipe I use when I make gingerbread houses. (Roll it thin and bake it hard.)
- It works well with other festive shapes. (I like to do reindeer with currant eyes and a single blob of red icing for their noses which appeals to little kids even though it doesn’t have a kilo of sugar on it.)
Gingerbread people… or reindeer… or anything, really.
|SERVES||:||2 dozen gingerbread people or 6 dozen small biscuits|
|START||:||45 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||40 minutes|
150g butter 2½ cups flour 2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup (200g) brown sugar 2 tsp baking powder
100g golden syrup 4 tsp ground ginger
Set oven to 180˚C. Grease several baking trays.
Heat butter, sugar and golden syrup together until the ingredients have melted and the mixture is runny, but not too hot.
Sift flour, baking powder, ginger and cinnamon together. Pour the hot syrup in, mix into a dough and knead lightly.
Roll out to 3mm thickness and cut out gingerbread people. Decorate with currants and bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
We went to Wendy’s house last night for Ben’s birthday and Emma and Chris are both looking ghastly: Mia has colic. I looked it up on the Better Health Channel and was surprised to find that the medical knowledge around colic hasn’t changed since my own children were tiny: if a little baby starts crying every evening, doctors still say, “Maybe it’s caused by a digestion problem, maybe it’s an allergy, who knows?” and there isn’t a cure so you just hold the baby until one of you falls asleep, and the baby is fine and happy in the morning but you’re a wreck. (Perhaps it’s infant revenge for tardy nappy changes.)
 And for people with dairy and egg allergies, but not for the gluten intolerant or anyone on a diet designed to exclude delicious things. (The raw food diet springs to mind.)
 When my daughter Hannah moved into her own place, she made red-nosed cows because she didn’t have a reindeer cutter. “There should be a biscuit cutter library,” she said. “Who needs a reindeer cutter year round?” I said that she should set one up herself and make her fortune but she said she’d never heard of anyone who got rich by starting a library.
 The currants stick better if they’re wet so put them in a bowl with a little water just before you use them.
Bethlehem zero thousand
This sketch takes place in a shop but all your set really needs is a table to be a counter. Put all the props in a box and label the box “Bethlehem 0AD”. You will need a cardboard backdrop of a stable scene (which doesn’t need to be elaborate so it’s easy to make) and a manger (which can be a small box with straw) and you can be a flexible with the animals if you change the text appropriately. Again, you may use this freely but do acknowledge me as the author.
SHOPKEEPER IS BEHIND THE COUNTER. CUSTOMER ARRIVES WITH BOX.
SHOPKEEPER: Good afternoon.
CUSTOMER: Good afternoon. I’d like to return this. [PUTS THE BOX ON THE COUNTER.]
SHOPKEEPER: Ah, the Bethlehem Zero Thousand. A lovely nativity set.
CUSTOMER [SARCASTICALLY]: Is it?
CUSTOMER PUTS THE STABLE BACKDROP ON THE COUNTER. IT FALLS OVER.
SHOPKEEPER: A bit wonky, but that’s authentic: they didn’t have modern building standards in turn-of-the-millennium Palestine.
CUSTOMER: Wonky? Try shonky – but that’s not the problem. [TAKES ANIMALS OUT OF THE BOX ONE BY ONE AND SETS THEM UP ON THE COUNTER.]
SHOPKEEPER: Ox, sheep, very nice.
CUSTOMER PUTS A TOY CAT ON THE COUNTER.
SHOPKEEPER [DEFENSIVELY]: Cats are nativity animals too – the Palestinians used them in their stables to keep the mice down.
CUSTOMER: That’s not the problem.
CUSTOMER PUTS A TOY DINOSAUR ON THE COUNTER.
SHOPKEEPER [SHEEPINSHLY]: Ah, your nativity set may have got mixed up with our Noah’s ark – we do a fundamentalist version with a very nice mating pair of T‑Rexes.
CUSTOMER: That’s not the problem. [TAKES OUT A MANGER. ADDS JOSEPH AND A SCANTILY-CLAD BARBIE DOLL.]
SHOPKEEPER: Well, none of those Madonna paintings are actually contemporary. Who’s to say what Mary really looked like? …Although I admit that she may not have worn Lycra.
CUSTOMER: That’s not the problem. [TAKES OUT AN ANGEL BEANIE BEAR AND PLACES IT IN THE MANGER.]
SHOPKEEPER: Very cute.
CUSTOMER: Cute! That’s supposed to be the baby Jesus and it’s a Beanie Bear!
SHOPKEEPER: It’s the Messiah Beanie Bear! Check the swing-tag! [READS THE SWING TAG.] Birthday: twenty-five December.
CUSTOMER: I want a refund.
SHOPKEEPER: We don’t do refunds… But we do allow exchanges and I have a very nice Exodus kit you might like if you’ve got a pond you can use as the Red Sea.
CUSTOMER: Is Moses human?
SHOPKEEPER: Yes indeed. Well… humanoid.
CUSTOMER: That might be good.
SHOPKEEPER: It’s out the back: I’ll show you.
THEY EXIT, CHATTING.
If you’re looking for a home-made, biodegradable tinsel substitute, you could try the old American custom of threading popcorn onto string.
- Pop some corn.
- Leave it overnight (because stale popcorn is less fragile than fresh popcorn).
- Thread a needle with heavy thread, but don’t cut the thread: keep it on the reel so that you can make the string really long and won’t be limited by a pre-cut length.
- Start threading. (If you want to fancy it up, you can add raisins or dried cranberries at regular intervals.)
- Note: You’ll have to keep pushing the popcorn down as you go.
- When it’s long enough, remove the needle, cut the thread off the spool and tie it off at both ends.
This is amusing and cheap and, if you use cotton thread, you can compost it when you undecorate.
Todd still has ten centimetres of jacket to knit and only three days to do it in and his wife has started teasing him about having an affair with me. He said he considered saying he was visiting someone else tonight but, if Claire found out he was lying, she really would think he was having an affair so he said I’d asked him for help putting together a new coffee table.
But I had a more practical suggestion: if he catches the train to work for the rest of the week, he should have enough knitting time to get to the bottom, sew it up and attach the buttons and he’s agreed that’s a good plan. (I do enjoy Todd’s company which is why I definitely do not want to fall out with Claire.)
 My sister Wendy had to repeat these first two steps three times one year: the children said that possums got the early batches but Wendy is pretty sure that possums can’t open Tupperware containers.
 It is actually possible to buy strings of plastic popcorn in America but I see no good reason for doing that.
 Which insulted me a little: I am quite capable of putting a coffee table together by myself!
One of key aspects of Christmas is the feast (which is a tradition people of any religion can embrace) and the food aspects of Christmas spill across into the other aspects: pictures of plum puddings can be seen on Christmas cards and suddenly everything is cranberry flavoured.
Possibly the most pervasive of the food motifs is the gingerbread person and it has a lot going for it:
- It’s cute
- It’s easy to make
- It’s economical
and you can put a bevy of them on the tree (if you bake them good and hard) or use them as Small Presents or in a hamper or even as a gift tag.
Investing in a gingerbread person cutter can pay off even if you’re watching your pennies (and you can buy gingerbread people cutters year round so you could get it today).
 My nephew Ben’s girlfriend Cassidy has little plastic mince tart earrings. They look lovely but, since she won’t eat mince tarts herself (she hated orange peel even before sugar became her enemy), I’m not sure she’s entitled to wear the earrings.
 Make them out of cardboard if you have a problem with creatures that nibble. (I’m thinking mice but you may be thinking toddlers.)
Shops will lure you with impulse buys over Christmas: this is cinnamon-scented hand wash, temptingly set out in my supermarket last November. If you need hand wash, if it’s no more expensive than your usual product and if you don’t mind smelling of cinnamon, then splash out. Otherwise, it’s a waste of your money and you’re one step closer to blowing your budget.
You already have the tools you need to avoid impulse buys:
- Your shopping list will tell you what you are looking for today: don’t stray from it by buying something that you weren’t looking for
- Your budget will tell you whether you can afford the item: if you haven’t allocated any money for it then, if you buy it, you can only stay on budget by spending less on something else
When I dropped my book club friend Sharon home tonight, there was an array of cat art on her dining room table – mostly pen and ink sketches which were whimsical and engaging without being twee, but there were also two little pottery cats that were frozen poetry and a cushion cover embroidered with a kitten that was so real you expected it to miaou. She said she was getting her latest work ready for a gallery in Olinda so I promised to come to the opening. I may not be a cat lover but this was mighty fine art.
 My cousin Peter’s wife has lemon-scented hand wash, coconut shampoo and oatmeal soap: she says smelling of anything edible is better than smelling of anything inedible and she didn’t like Peter’s odour when he had been working in his shed, even before he tried to create methane from cow manure.
 False Bargain #2.
 It’s technically possible that you do have peppermint-scented handwash in a snowman-shaped bottle on your shopping list, but I’m betting you don’t.
 My friend Lisa solves this by having a budget category called “impulse buys”, but this is not what financial wizards recommend.
 But again I stress that this doesn’t make me a cat hater.
In the same way that some people get their houses sparkling before the Christmas festivities, some people also get their garden in tip top Yuletide shape.
Now, I’m not much of a gardener, so the Christmas blossoms at my place are December weeds but my friend Fiona does the following:
- Fills her kitchen garden with vegies that stand a good chance of being ready on the 25th
- Keeps one bed for December-blooming lilies. If they’re running late, she can usually still rustle up one vase full for the house. If they’re on target, she has plenty for magnificent bouquets as Small Presents.
- Plants things around the house that look their best at Christmas
- Sets aside half an hour most December evenings (long, light, lovely, daylight savings evenings) for weeding so that everything is perfect on the Day.
If you’re a gardener, why not do the same?
Christmas Day 1970: Finally, all twenty of us crowded into the lounge room. The adults got the couches and the kids were piled up on the floor and my cousin Caroline, as the oldest child, was delegated the job of handing out the presents. She co-opted Steve (who was five) and Matthew (who was four) and she’d read out a label and hand the present to a little cousin who would deliver it to the recipient. The recipient would unwrap the gift (painfully slowly if they were an adult and in a ripping frenzy if they were a small child) and thank the giver and then Caroline would rinse and repeat.
 Like lawn daisies which are so pretty.
 “I’d like to grow my own cranberries,” she says, “But I’d need my own cranberry bog and my husband won’t let me dig up the barbecue area and my grandchildren won’t let me dismantle the trampoline”.
 And, much as I love the whole concept of Small Presents, I have to admit that a gift you need to carry with two hands packs more initial punch than anything you can slip into your pocket.
 My cousin Russell has a slightly different approach: if a bush isn’t flowering in time for his annual “Santa & Snags” barbecue, he swathes it in fairy lights. (But this is not solely about decoration. “It’s Adults Only,” he explained, “We get through a fair bit of beer, and I’m sick of sending out search parties for people who get lost in the backyard, so now I light it up like… well, like a Christmas tree, really”.)
 Almost always correctly, although I do remember the look of surprise on Uncle Geoff’s face when he mistakenly opened Felicity’s Cry Baby doll.
The good oil
The principal ingredient of flavoured oils is a pretty bottle so, if you collect enough through the year, you might like to make flavoured oils as Small Presents or for hampers.
- They’re very easy
- They look good
- Unless you press your own oil, they will be neither cheap nor particularly green
- They’re not as useful as you’d think. (You end up making salad dressings with them because they’re there rather than because you think, “Rosemary oil is exactly what this dish needs”.)
Here’s the easy recipe:
Easy flavoured oil
|START||:||1 week before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||5 minutes|
1 fancy bottle
enough good, light-coloured olive oil to fill the bottle
a lush sprig of rosemary (or any other herb that appeals to you)
Put the flavouring ingredients in the bottle and with oil. Wait a week. Label the bottle.
Slightly harder recipes involve a lot more ingredients (garlic, herbs, peppercorns, chillies) which you put into a jar with the oil, let seethe for a few days, strain into a festive bottle and then add a final decorative herb sprig and chilli.
Christmas Day 1970: Actually, it’s not quite true that the presents were handled out one by one the Year of the Big Christmas. That’s the way we did it when there were just a few of us but that year, there were five families and twenty people which was over eighty presents and we didn’t have all day so Caroline dished them out as fast as Steve and Matthew could deliver them and so many people were unwrapping presents at once that it was hard to talk over the crackling of the paper. This unwrapping frenzy wasn’t exactly civilised but it certainly was fun.
 Last year, my nephew Jack put a small plastic python into a bottle of canola oil, labelled it “snake oil” and gave it to me for Christmas. The snake probably conformed to Australian safety standards so it was probably non-toxic but I put the bottle in the shed and used it for oiling the blades of the lawn mower anyway.
 Why is paper noisy? I have tried to do origami quietly to amuse myself in dull meetings and it’s not possible so you end up distracting the other attendees as well as yourself (and some presenters cannot be persuaded that it’s good luck to have their handouts turned into paper cranes).
A toast to roast vegetables
My grandmother cooked big chunks of roast vegetable in the pan with the turkey and, although I objected to pumpkin at the time, they were pretty good.
If you want to ring the changes on that classic, consider:
- little roast vegetables: cut everything into mid-sized cubes and add baby carrots and small onions
- different flavours: try rosemary with pumpkin, coriander with parsnips, garlic with beetroot, chilli with potatoes, apple with leek, bacon with anything
- a rainbow: purple carrots, green zucchini, yellow button squash, orange pumpkin, red capsicum (Unfortunately, you have to skip blue.) Tumble them together or lay them out in rows: it will be a kaleidoscope either way.
It’s winter: it’s a good time to practise roasting and it’s always a good time to eat vegetables.
Sharon’s cat art sold so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to buy one of the pottery moggies. But I did snap up a sketch (which Hannah admired so I may give it to her for Christmas).
 When I look back at my childhood now, I realise that I was so lucky that the worst thing that happened to me when I was young was that I was forced to eat pumpkin. (But it still felt like an outrage at the time.)
 I have a theory that there isn’t a dish in the world that isn’t improved by adding either a little bacon or a little chocolate (round the right way: it’s bacon for bolognaise and chocolate for cheesecake, not vice versa). Unfortunately, both bacon and chocolate are things we should eat less of, not more.
 Well, you don’t have to. My daughter Hannah added blue food colouring to mashed parsnips once (and she was young enough at the time to think the pretty colour made them taste better).
 Sharon says the gallery owner has two key skills: she can tell a good painting from a bad painting, and she can put together the perfect guest list and this opening was equal parts art lovers and cat lovers.
On the carpet
This is a sketch I wrote for mixed company… small children and adults. So it has reindeer and insults for the little tackers and the adults get – well, you’ll spot that when you read it through.
You don’t need a set or any props and we limited our costumes to two sets of reindeer antlers and a white beard so it’s easy to stage.
Again, feel free to perform this, but do acknowledge me as the author.
SANTA CLAUS: Comet, get in here!
COMET ENTERS AND STANDS TO THE RIGHT OF SANTA.
SANTA CLAUS: You stand here, Cupid. [INDICATING A SPACE TO THE LEFT OF HIMSELF]
CUPID ENTERS AND STANDS TO THE LEFT OF SANTA.
COMET [IMITATING SANTA]: You stand here, Stupid!
CUPID: Well, you stand there, Vomit!
SANTA CLAUS: Stop that! This is exactly the kind of thing that has got you into trouble.
CUPID [ALARMED]: Are we in trouble?
SANTA CLAUS: I hear you’ve been teasing Rudolph.
COMET: I just said “Is that your nose, or are you eating a strawberry?” and [RAISING ARM AS IF TO WARD OFF A DAZZLING LIGHT] “Oh, the light! The light! You’re blinding me!”
CUPID: Come on, Santa: You would even say it glows. [TO THE RHYTHM OF THE LINE FROM “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER”.]
COMET: It was funny. Rudolph has no sense of humour.
SANTA CLAUS: It was mean. It’s not nice to make fun of others just because they’re different.
COMET: So it’s okay to make fun of people who are the same? Hey, Stupid: your antlers look like coat-hangers, and you’re so dumb you’d get lost in a cupboard!
CUPID: Well, you fly like a popped balloon and you smell like a possum’s armpit!
SANTA CLAUS: It is not okay to make fun of anyone! And now you’re in even more trouble!
CUPID: I’m really, really sorry.
COMET: Even a red-nosed reindeer is better than a brown-nosed reindeer.
SANTA CLAUS: How do you think you made Rudolph feel?
COMET: Ugly? Worthless? Like the mutant he is? I hope so, because he is no fun at all.
SANTA CLAUS: I want you to apologise to Rudolph. And I want you to invite him into your reindeer games.
SANTA CLAUS: Yes.
COMET: Scarecrow tiggy?
SANTA CLAUS: Yes.
CUPID: Hide the sausage?
SANTA CLAUS [TAKEN ABACK]: Only if you both freely consent. And it was Rudolph’s turn to clean the sleigh tonight, but I want you to do it for him.
CUPID: Okay, Santa.
SANTA CLAUS: Go out and do it now.
COMET: Do we have to?
SANTA CLAUS: Yes, you have to! Get out! Now!
COMET AND CUPID BEGIN TO LEAVE. AT THE DOOR, COMET TURNS BACK.
COMET: Hey, Santa! Is that your beard, or are you eating a polar bear?
COMET AND CUPID RUN AWAY LAUGHING.
You may not be able to blow your own glass baubles but you can make delicate, rounded baubles from egg shells.
Here’s what you do:
- Get an egg.
- Put a pin hole in the pointy end and another in the broad end.
- Blow the contents out into a bowl. This actually requires quite a lot of puff but you can make it easier by using a pointy knife to pick away at the hole in the broad end until it is just a little smaller than a sequin.
- Wash out the insides of the shell with several flushes of cold water. (Again, this is easier if one of the holes is larger than a pin.)
- Leave it several days to dry.
So that’s the shell sorted but how do you decorate it?:
- Paint it gold (or another colour). (Spray paint is easy.)
- Draw patterns on it with markers. (Stripes are easy.)
- Cover it in glue and then roll it in glitter. (Glitter is irresistible.)
- Use a combination of the above methods. (Eg: spray paint it blue, draw green lines on it, paint thin bands of glue onto it and then sprinkle golden glitter on the glue.)
- Thread a long needle with strong thread and slide on a seed bead and a sequin.
- Push the needle from the broad end of the egg out through to the pointy end.
- Thread a sequin then another seed bead.
- Go back down through that sequin (but not the seed bead) and through the egg, coming out at the broad end and through the first sequin and seed bead.
- Make sure you have enough thread to make a good hanging loop, cut it off and tie the ends together.
My Auntie Betty once had a bantam that laid little blue eggs. Her daughter Linda blew the eggs, threaded them up as baubles and then stuck tiny gold stars on them and they were delightful.
It’s getting close to Jack’s 18th birthday and I don’t know what to give him. (A jet pack is out of the question!) 18th birthday presents are tricky: they don’t require a big present like a twenty-first but I do think they deserve more than the standard present a 17th gets.
 Or maybe you can, if you’re a glass-blower.
 This was my Auntie Helen’s favourite joke. You ask a small child, “Which is correct: ‘The yolk of an egg is white” or ‘The yolk of an egg are white’?” and then laugh immoderately when they fail to spot that egg yolks are actually yellow. (Humour dates as fast as hairstyles do.)
 And use them to make an omelette.
 Put it somewhere safe because empty eggs are even more fragile than full ones. (Although full ones are surprisingly strong. As a teenager, I read that you can throw an egg over a house and it will land intact and I had to try it and was astonished to find that it’s true (provided that it lands on grass, not concrete and that it doesn’t hit a gutter along the way – the experiment only took five minutes but the clean up took half an hour.)
 Isn’t it odd that 21 is still the special birthday in many families even though it means nothing legally and doesn’t even have a zero on the end? It’s an outdated tradition that’s almost as tenacious as Christmas customs.
 When my friend Jill’s son William turned 18, I sent Jill a card, congratulating her on keeping him alive to adulthood.
13 June – Queen’s birthday
Ho ho ho
That jolly old guy in red has a lot of different names and a lot of different back stories too. Interestingly though, all of these Christmas characters are beginning to merge into one: across the globe, he now wears red with fur and distributes presents, regardless of his ethnic origins.
The English version is Father Christmas, a personification of Christmas dating back to the early 17th century and associated with adult merriment rather than gift giving and he may have evolved from King Winter who had a wreath of greenery (holly, ivy or mistletoe) on his head and wore green or red robes lined with fur.
Since Father Christmas has no religious links, he can be adopted by all non-Christians (and Christians can cuddle up to St Nicholas – of whom more later).
 Padre Noel in Spain, Daidí na Nollag in Italy and Saxta Baba in Axerbaijan to name but a few.
 And regardless of his ethical origins too, since vegetarian Santas can trim their suits with faux fur.
 That is, he likes a tipple.
Although gingerbread houses have become associated with Christmas, they actually originated in the Grimm brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel so they’re entirely secular (they don’t even have pagan roots) and can be enjoyed by all.
If you’d like to make one in the festive season, here are some pointers:
- If you’re new to this particular construction industry, start with a very simple house design.
- Make a paper pattern before you begin cooking.
- Mix up a big batch of my favourite gingerbread dough (recipe 3 June), roll it out to a thickness of 3mm, cut out the shapes and bake them hard.
- You must use royal icing as the glue because it’s as strong as concrete. And you must use pure icing sugar to make royal icing: it doesn’t work with soft icing mixture.
- It’s easier to decorate the walls and roof before you assemble the pieces – and do let the icing dry overnight.
- Putting the walls together is difficult. It’s good if you can get lots of helpers to hold it all in place while you mortar the joints. I’ve also had success with resting the walls against food cans. Then leave it to set overnight.
- Add the roof the next day. (Again, helpers and cans are handy.)
My colleague Gemma mentioned that she’ll be playing indoor cricket tonight and it seems it’s not because she’s particularly interested in hitting balls in sheds but because she and her husband thought they might meet some fun people there. I refrained from remarking that the one thing you know for sure about their teammates is that they like indoor cricket and that doesn’t bode well but I’m glad I didn’t because Gemma went on to say that she’s looking forward to the team barbecue on the weekend. (I will continue to like Gemma even though I don’t like indoor cricket.)
 My cousin Linda made an out-of-season gingerbread replica of her newly built house for the housewarming party and she said it was a joy to be able to put it together without having to wait for plumbers and electricians.
 I had some left after I built my last gingerbread house and I was tempted to put it in the pothole at the top of my road.
 How many lollies will you need? This depends more on how many the cooks will eat as they go, rather than on the area of gingerbread you have to cover.
 If possible, position the cans so that you can get them out once the icing dries.
Let’s have music
I have a song book which divides Christmas music into three categories:
- Christmas hymns are sung in church and may be hundreds of years old.
- Christmas carols are traditional, non-church songs from before the 20th century.
- Modern Christmas songs date from the twentieth century to now. I like to split this group into sub-categories:
Hymns are always religious (quelle surprise), carols may or may not be religious and modern songs also may or may not be about the coming of the messiah. This means there is some Christmas music you can revel in regardless of your spiritual bent and I’ll sort the (nativity) sheep from the (Yule) goats for you later on.
But I would like to mention “The Holly and the Ivy” now because it’s not suitable for anyone. Here’s a sample verse:
The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
You can see that this is too Christian for anyone who doesn’t worship Jesus but it’s also too pagan for anyone who does.
I asked my son Jeremy if he had any ideas for a present for his cousin Jack. He suggested a drone or a hip flask (which is an endearing mix of the old and new worlds) but neither appealed to me.
 Definitely “White Christmas” for nearly everyone alive today.
 My sister Wendy is scathing about Wham’s “Last Christmas” which, she says, makes no sense at all. Her husband Don mildly points out that it is no worse than filling the wine keg while draining the barrel (fa la la la la, la la la la).
 There are quite a few about drinking – of which more later.
 And my brother Matthew likes to point out that the ivy only appears in the title of the song, so it’s also a fraud.
Going out for (Christmas) dinner
Some people like to go to a restaurant for their Christmas dinner. Here are the pros:
- no cooking
- no shopping
- no dishes
- no arguments
Here are the cons:
- no leftovers
If dining out sounds like a good idea to you, discuss it with your co‑Christmassers, find out their price appetite and their dining preferences and check out the options. (Yes, particularly if you have a large group, now is not too early to book a restaurant for Christmas Day.)
One of the pros of Christmassing at home is that you can add or subtract guests at short notice – so if Jeremy stays smitten with Danni, I won’t need to know if she’ll be part of our celebrations until it’s time to set the table.
(I like Danni. She chats merrily to me while she’s buttering toast or doing up her shoelaces whereas his first girlfriend seemed incapable of opening her mouth when I was around and didn’t want to come out of his bedroom even for meals. I have two competing theories about your child’s first boyfriend or girlfriend:
- You’ll think they’re terrible, even if they’re an angel sent from heaven or
- Your child deliberately chooses a crazed hellhound so that you accept their next boy/girlfriend with relief
And the second theory got some support when Wendy was sympathising with her old school friend Genevieve whose daughter was besotted with a dole-bludging, cheapskate, high school dropout but Genevieve said “No, he’s fine: he’s good with animals and he’s not a drug dealer”.
Church window biscuits look amazing but taste as artificial as cheap lollies. So cook them for the spectacle rather than to tickle your palate, or with children (who generally have a lot of fun with them, and often like cheap lollies). Damp air is not kind to sugar so bake them on the day you plan to serve them.
Church Window Biscuits
|START||:||45 minutes before|
|PREPARATION TIME||:||30 minutes|
10 boiled lollies 1 tsp vanilla essence
125g butter 2 cups plain flour
2/3 cup icing sugar
Set over to 180°C. Line 2 baking trays with baking paper. Crush lollies.
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in vanilla and egg. Stir in flour.
Roll dough to a thickness of 5mm, cut circles from dough and place the circles on the baking tray. Then cut small shapes out of the middles of the circles and add the crushed lollies to the hole.
Cook for 10 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool on trays.
I asked my sister Wendy what Jack would like for his birthday. She said that she’s getting him some gym equipment which didn’t help me at all. (When the kids were little, it was easy to walk into a toyshop and come out five minutes later with a gift they were bound to love. I wish they had toyshops for adults too.)
 My niece Emma once made a gingerbread house on a gingerbread road and she used church window biscuits to make traffic lights. (I can’t see her cooking something as fiddly as that again until her baby is quite a lot older.)
 Wait. They do: hardware megastores.
Going for a song
In the olden days, people used to gather round the piano and sing songs together and it was more about making music than listening to music so you didn’t have to be a diva to join in. Now we’ve got superb, word‑class music in earshot all day long so there’s no particular reason to listen to untrained amateurs trill shaky renditions of the song of the day… no particular reason to listen, that is, but there are still particular reasons to sing as one of those untrained amateurs, including that singing is fun and it’s also good for you physically.
Given how hard it is to get modern Australians even to sing “Happy birthday”, your chances of organising a sing-along are pretty low at any time other than Christmas, but carol singing is one of those archaic activities (like buying biscuits in tins) that still gets a Yuletide airing and here are some forms of it that might appeal to you:
- the aforementioned gathering around a musical instrument
- carolling from door to door
- your local “Carols by Candlelight”
- a proper choir
and the standard can be whatever your bunch are capable of:
- foghorn unison on “The Little Drummer Boy”
- someone does the descant on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
- four-part harmony on “Silent Night”
- Handel’s Messiah in your city’s concert hall
You may be surprised by how much you’ll enjoy carol singing: why not give it a go?
I asked Jack what he wanted for his birthday. He started with jet pack, then went to drone and then to droid. (My aunt gave Matthew a dictionary when he turned eighteen but that was back when books were still a thing.)
 Or the organ or the guitar or the squeezebox.
 Mostly. My friend Fiona’s sister Melanie sprained her throat trying to sing a note that could shatter a glass. (There was no damage to the glass.)
 Best to let your neighbourhood know about this ahead of time. (My neighbour Gustav once set the dogs on some carollers. (To be fair, he thought they were collecting for charity.))
 Some are happy to take on members just for the Christmas season and, if not, why not join for the whole year?
In the 70s, it was fashionable to make Christmas decorations with polystyrene balls and pins. Here’s how it works:
- Take a dressmaking pin (the shorter the better)
- Load it up with a seed bead and then a sequin
- Push it into the polystyrene ball
- Repeat until you’ve covered the ball
- Add a hanging loop
This is not cheap and it’s easy to make really horrible baubles this way but it’s also possible to make pretty sparkly things (and everyone’s tree needs its fair quota of pretty sparkly things).
Hannah invited Jeremy and me round for lunch: her friend Lachlan had cooked a huge pot of borscht for her the night before and Hannah’s plan was that we’d help her with the leftovers (which were delicious). When I asked Hannah why Lachlan had cooked her a bucket of borscht, she said it was a combination of him being given a lot of beetroot by a neighbour and living in the kind of share house where it was impossible to find a clean saucepan so he liked to come round to her flat to cook. (She also mentioned that she now has a pink wooden spoon due to the tenacity of beetroot pigments, but that it was an acceptable cost for a vat of good soup.)
 Add a bugle bead between the seed bead and the sequin if you think that “prickly” is a good quality for a bauble.
 Which is what my cousins did as children and those baubles remain on Auntie Margie’s Christmas tree to this day (which is awe-inspiring but not in the modern sense of “magnificent”: in the medieval sense of “striking one with dread and fear”).
St Nicholas was a bishop from Myra (now in Turkey) who lived in the 4th century. Legend says he used to give gifts secretly, putting money into shoes and dropping coins down chimneys, and his Yuletide image has him in red bishop robes with a red mitre riding a white horse, leaving out presents for children on his feast day (6 December) while the children leave carrots or hay in their shoes for his horse.
St Nicholas is well suited to staunch Christians and not well suited to staunch non-Christians.
 Which was surely a risky tactic whether the fire was going or not.
 Hardly a subtle disguise for secret do-gooding.
The bleak midwinter
It’s midwinter and it’s a good day for winter planting!
I’m not much of a gardener, so I don’t know when to plant geraniums (although I do know that you plant garlic on the shortest day of the year and harvest it on the longest) but if you plan to:
- grow presents
- grow fruit and vegetables for the Christmas board
- grow flowers for your Christmas display
decide what you want, work out when to plant it and get it into your calendar… or, in the case of garlic, into the garden.
My brother Matthew isn’t much of a gardener either and he told me today that although he has always assumed that his inner city terrace house was a mere stepping stone to a rambling suburban house in a shady, classic garden, now that he is reviewing his life based on what he has, rather than what he thinks may be around the corner, he has recognised that he is happy with his current abode: it’s the right size for him, he likes the furniture and decor, the location is very convenient and he barely manages to control his two square metres of cumquats and low maintenance ground covers and doesn’t particularly want to spend his weekends pruning and mowing. So he’s going to stay where he is… and renovate the bathroom. (Just as well he doesn’t have to have it done by Christmas!)
 I’m thinking hanging baskets here, not my artist friend Sharon’s mould Christmas trees.
 Or even fungi. When my friend Jill was living in a flat in her student days, she grew three different kinds of mushrooms in her bedroom (Deliberately. Although her best friend was living in a share house that was so damp that the occupants grew toadstools in the shower accidentally) and she used to bring a bouquet as a present when she went visiting.
 My friend Fiona’s daughter Eloise seriously believed for most of her primary school years that the absence of vampires around their house was entirely due to her mother’s garlic crop.
 He once assumed that spirit gum and ghost gums were the same thing.
 I think his vision included a hammock but not a hedge trimmer.
 “Having a small wardrobe is a good excuse not to go clothes shopping,” he says.
 Matthew says his signature style is low key, easy living. Wendy calls it “Lazy Bachelor”.
If you’re fervently Christian, you have a wide choice of Christmas music. All of the Christmas hymns are yours and you can also make hay with these carols and songs about the nativity:
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- Away in a Manger
- Calypso Carol
- Do You Hear What I Hear
- The First Noel
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
- I Saw Three Ships
- Mary’s Boy Child
- O Holy Night
- We Three Kings
- What Child Is This
- Little Drummer Boy
I have gone right out on a limb for Jack and I do hope it isn’t too far. I was discussing conjuring with my colleague Murray and he mentioned that he was into illusions as a young man and still has the apparatus one needs for sawing a lady in half. He also said that:
- He hasn’t used it for years
- He was never very good at it
- His wife is always complaining about how much room it takes up in the garage
You can see where I’m going with this: I bought it for a pittance and I do hope Jack will like it.
 Hannah, Ben and Emma did their own version of this for our Christmas concert many years ago. They called it “Carol of the Bum” and I assume they were headed for a pants-down finale but I don’t know for sure because Don bustled them off the stage early in the second verse.
 But surely this doesn’t mean that he had to have an ambulance in attendance!
Weeny tiny gingerbread houses make excellent Small Presents. Use a standard 4‑walled design with sloped roof but keep the sides under 10cm and decorate with small lollies. (You won’t need many.) Again, this is a good December activity for children but, again, they need a lot of supervision.
“The snow is looking good,” I said to Don.
“All it will take is a couple of days of rain and we’ll be bushwalking in sleet,” warned Don.
If he’s this grumpy when there’s half a metre of snow, I must remember not to talk to him if it does all get washed away before we head up.
 My son Jeremy once tiled a little roof with red lentils. It looked quite realistic but no one wanted to eat it.
 And they might not want a lot of dinner afterwards.
A walk in the Black Forest
Chocolate cake + kirsch + cherries + chocolate custard = black forest trifle
Top with whipped cream, decorate with shaved chocolate and fresh cherries and wait for the cries of pleasure.
The lady-bisecting machine is huge, awkward and impossible to wrap! Murray kindly dropped it at my place (where it is now dominating the lounge room) and I’m going to have to work out how to get it to Wendy’s house on Tuesday. (I think I’ll just get a few metres of poplin and tie it round the device in a big bow, which is a handy hint for you for wrapping big presents.)
 Or yodels. (When we’re ready to order our post-movie dessert and coffee, my brother Matthew invariably says that he’s going to yodel for strüdel and that’s not funny enough to be on high rotation.)
 Even handier is not wrapping them at all, and just shouting, “Surprise!”
Round and round we go
If your singing skills are at the let’s-all-sing-the-melody level but you’d like to get a bit of harmony going, then rounds are the answer for you. I propose “Christmas Is Coming” and “Christmas Bells” but see what else you can find.
You can practise them early in December and go a-carolling, you can practise them in mid-December and sing them in your Christmas concert or you can get everyone together on Christmas afternoon, learn the song together and bash it out.
(It’s 6 months till Christmas… so if you’re feeling half-ready, well done!)
I enlisted Jeremy to work out how to transport Jack’s present to Wendy’s place and he suggested Hannah’s friend Lachlan who has a ute (which was a hand-me-down from his farming family and, apparently, it makes him quite popular in the city).
 And the goose is getting fat. This may be a song of pleasant anticipation for humans but it doesn’t bode well for poultry.
 My brother-in-law Don bashes our carols out literally on the bongos. (He doesn’t sing at all so we assign him to percussion.)
 Jeremy thinks the magic machine is cool which gave me some comfort when I woke up in the middle of the night and thought “What have I done?!”
 Although surely Murray and I are the only people in town who’ve been transporting full scale magical illusion equipment recently.
If you like origami, there are many fine Christmas decorations you can construct: whip up a batch of your favourite cranes and orchids in your chosen Christmas colours and then thread them up and dangle them from anything that needs them, or make Christmassy things like trees and stars, or traditional snömys like snowflakes.
To be super-green, make them from used paper and recycle them afterwards.
Hannah’s friend Lachlan’s ute is in good order and he is free on Tuesday and Wendy is happy to invite him to the party. And it also gives me enough young things to do the lifting (Jeremy, Lachlan and Hannah). I might even be able to stand back and direct.
 Definitely your Christmas tree. (And probably your hat rack.)
 Roast turkeys are somewhat harder.
 Carefully. When my niece Emma ditched years of origami creations in a big teenage clean-up, she tripped on the way to the recycle bin and delicate paper lilies and fish and rabbits fluttered all over the backyard. They were still finding them months later (but so sodden that you could no longer tell a frog from a flower).
 “He’s practically family and, if there’s another mouth to feed, my own household won’t be eating potato salad and apple tart for quite as many days afterwards”, she said.
St Basil behaves a lot like Saint Nick but he has a different origin (he was a second century Greek bishop who was one of the founders of the Nicene Creed and he established rules for monks) and he brings presents to children on New Year’s Day, when you set a place at your table for him. You leave out for him a glass of wine and a festive cake called vasilopitu with a coin baked in it.
In Georgia they decorate Christmas trees with curly wooden shavings to represent Basil’s beard.
Like St Nick, St Basil is best suited to actual Christians.
 I assume one of the regular miracles St Basil performs is to stay under the legal limit no matter what.
 I wonder if the Greeks, like the Australians, hit a festive roadblock when they moved from silver coins to cupro-nickel (and if St Basil likes Euros as much as he liked Drachmae).
If you’re already an experienced gingerbread house carpenter, you may want to take it to a new level. Here are some ideas:
- Make a fancy building: a church, a skyscraper, a school.
- Do a particular building: your own house, Santa’s workshop, the Parthenon.
- Use the church window biscuit method (See 17 June) to make stained glass windows.
- Pipe icing into lacy patterns.
- Use your lollies architecturally: you can tile roofs with pastilles or freckles, outline door and window frames with liquorice or raspberry rope, and make vines from spearmint leaves and apple shoelaces.
- Populate it with gingerbread people going about a variety of activities.
- Sculpt things from marzipan.
Jack was absolutely delighted with his magical apparatus. Wendy wasn’t.
“The only free space in the garage has just been taken up by Jack’s new gym equipment which means he’ll keep this strange thing in his bedroom and it will get covered in dirty socks,” she said.
“It’s not as bad as a jet pack,” I temporised.
“True,” she agreed. “And the socks would have been there anyway.”
 But not the Sydney opera house: it doesn’t lend itself to gingerbread.
 My Auntie Pat once made her son Peter a gingerbread pirate ship with intricate icing rigging for his birthday. I saw photos of it and it impressed the socks off me, but it wasn’t her piping skills that amazed me: it was the weeny icing crows she had in the crows nest.
 The year Emma made a gingerbread house on a gingerbread street, she included gingerbread cars and a gingerbread pedestrian with a marshmallow poodle.
Mildly religious carols
If you’re flexible about religious content, sing any Christmas songs that tickle your fancy. If you prefer to dial the noels down a notch, the following carols are suitable for people who don’t mind a bit of religion in their Christmas, provided it’s not too dogmatic:
- Deck the Halls
- This is about decorating and drinking (and has mild pagan references to holly and Yule logs)
- Good King Wenceslas
- A tale of a saintly king who helps the unfortunate (which is considered worthy by most codes of ethics). He does a minor miracle in the last verse which brings God into the punchline
- Here We Come A-wassailing
- A drinking/carolling song with a blessing in the chorus
Jack is contacting everyone he knows, trying to find someone who’s willing to be sawn in half, but he hasn’t found any takers yet. (I’m not volunteering myself, because I can’t forget that Murray said he never got the trick 100% right himself and worse than being a guinea pig is being half a guinea pig!)
 Be careful with those glass baubles if you’ve had a few!
 My cousin Bronwyn went to a December fancy dress party as Good King Wenceslas. No-one had a clue who she was, she kept tripping over her robe and she had to carry a bottle of wine, a packet of ham and a pine log wherever she went. She said that next time, she’ll just go as a Christmas elf, like everyone else.
In Melbourne, you don’t know if it will be hot or cold at Christmas. In the Mallee, you can guarantee it will be toasty but you don’t know if it will be 32° or 42°. And that means plenty of thirsty people so, at Christmas, Nanna would get out the punch bowl and whip up something fruity and refreshing (of which more later) and she would put a huge piece of ice in it that would keep the punch cool all day even though it was sitting on the dining table and not in the fridge.
Here’s the easy way to do punch ice: fill a few cake tins with water and put them in the freezer overnight.
And here’s the fancy way to do punch ice:
- Get a ring tin (a kugelhopf is perfect), pour one centimetre of water into the bottom and allow it to freeze.
- Then add a few more millimetres of water and arrange a selection of fruit on top (I always use raspberries because I have so many but strawberries are great and so are sliced oranges) and freeze again.
- Next cover the fruit in water and freeze again.
- Now add a tiny bit more water and add plenty of mint leaves and freeze.
- Finally, fill the tin to the top with water and freeze one more time.
Result: a Christmas wreath that will keep your punch cool and gradually release delicious fruit and fragrant mint.
I used to know (and laugh at) the traditional anniversary presents (paper, cotton, leather, fruit – really!) but Jeremy seems to think that the appropriate 2-month anniversary present is a Doctor Who monster mask. Mind you, Danni loved it and that’s what counts.
 Uncle Geoff used to run a sweep on the top temperature of Christmas Day but he stopped doing that the year he caught Peter manipulating the results by warming up the thermometer.
 And icy cold punch helped keep the guests cool all day, even though we were also sitting at the dining table and not in the fridge.
 And plastic ants, at my place the year before last. (I told you they were versatile!)
 An Ood, I think.