Chapter 8 – July

1 July

Boast turkeys

Add June stories and photos to your Christmas letter notes.

And please don’t boast. It’s not endearing, even to those who love you and your high-achieving children. In fact, if your readers are even a little bit competitive,[1] your boasting can leave them rankling.

So understate achievements:[2] instead of saying “Little Georgia was awarded the class mathematics trophy”, just say “Little Georgia is doing well at school”. And instead of “Little Percy was in premiership teams in basketball, football and lacrosse”, go with “Little Percy continues his keen interest in sport”.[3]

2017-07-01
Time to let your trophies a-trophy?

Christmas Day 1970: Matthew was only four and he cried when he opened his present from Auntie Margie: he thought it was going to be a truck and it turned out to be a football and he couldn’t contain his disappointment. Luckily, Auntie Margie knew how hard Christmas can be for kids and she didn’t take it personally.[4]

[1] My nephew-in-law Chris took himself off Facebook when he realised that every time he read about a friend’s trip to Vietnam or the improvements they’d made in their garden or the dinner party they’d had on the weekend, he automatically wanted to go one better than them. Now he doesn’t hear about the river cruises and pergolas and slow-roasted pork bellies and he just does his own thing at his own pace (which, according to his wife Emma, is “snail’s” for anything involving painting but “lightning” for anything involving computers).

[2] If you need to mention them at all: if you won your local Scrabble finals, are you sure this is of interest to anyone beyond your local Scrabble club? And if you won the Nobel prize, there’s a fair chance your audience has already heard.

[3] Although I did like my friend Jill’s letter the year her son William was ten, which said “William achieved three personal bests this year: a front somersault on the trampoline, an award for “most improved” at Chess Club because he went two whole meetings without upsetting a chessboard, and a record four broken windows in five months”.

[4] Although perhaps if Matthew had known how hard Christmas can be for adults, he’d have been a bit more forgiving.

2 July

Spice and ice

At this time of year, a steaming hot suet pudding rich with raisins and spices and brandy might seem appealing but, when December comes around, a deliciously cool ice cream pudding rich with raisins and spices and brandy may be what you long for… and it’s a good bridge between British tradition and antipodean practicalities.

Here’s the easy version but note that, as well as the ingredients, you need a pudding-shaped bowl that won’t mind spending a few days in the freezer.[1]

Easy Plum Pudding Ice Cream

2017-07-02

SERVES : 5
START : 1 day before
PREPARATION TIME

:

10 + 2 + 10 minutes

1/3 cup (50g) flaked almonds               ½ cup (50g) currants               1 tsp cinnamon

½ cup (100g) glace cherries                  1/3 cup (80ml) brandy             ½ tsp nutmeg

¼ cup (45g) mixed peel                         1l chocolate ice cream

½ cup raisins                                           1 tsp mixed spice

Toast the almonds. Quarter the cherries. Mix nuts, peel and fruit with rum and soak overnight.

Soften the ice cream. Stir the spices into the rum mixture and then stir the rum mixture into the ice cream.

Rinse the bowl out with water, fill with ice cream, cover and freeze.

 

My niece Emma is happy again because Mia is now 100% fine,[2] and that’s the other thing about colic: it just goes away by itself by the time the baby is about eight weeks old. (Babies are weird. I love them, but they’re weird.)

[1] When my friend Carol developed a hot, red, itchy allergic rash, she said she wouldn’t mind spending a few days in the freezer herself (but she made do with wet cloths and anti-histamines and she hasn’t eaten lobster since).

[2] And they’re all getting enough sleep (which is the difference between bliss and misery when you have a baby in the house (and most of the rest of the time too)).

3 July

Handcrafted

If you intend to make presents, draft a plan soon. Ask yourself what you’re making, how long it will take,[1] when you’ll start and if you have all the materials.

And if you’re planning on having one big workshop (say to make mosaic picture frames for the whole family), schedule that into your diary.

2016-07-03
Sew good.

Christmas Day 1970: My presents were a book from my Goulburn cousins (a ‘Famous Five” I hadn’t read – very welcome), bubble bath from the Mallee cousins (that’s what was in the bottle), pyjamas from my Queensland cousins (they were very fetching but I wasn’t impressed because I didn’t consider clothes were appropriate presents)[2] and a gold locket and a photo album from Nanna (who presumably had a hot line to Father Christmas and knew about my new camera). I piled them up with the goods from my Santa sack and considered I had a very good haul.

[1] When she was nine, my daughter Hannah decided to grow me a bonsai for my birthday but then she found out it would take a decade which means that to deliver it to me in October, she would have had to start before she was born.

[2] And I didn’t know they were saving me from the Yule Cat (of which more later).

4 July

Sinterklaas

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives on St Nicholas Eve (5 December) riding a white horse called Amerigo (or Slecht Weer Vandaag in Belgium, which means “bad weather today”) and accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who is traditionally portrayed in blackface and is either his black servant, his black slave or a white (but sooty) chimney sweep. He tosses lollies and gingernuts to good children and beats bad ones with his broom.

Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas and is best avoided by staunch non-Christians. Zwarte Piet is best avoided by non-racists.

2016-07-04
Soft, eating liquorice v hard, throwing liquorice.

5 July

XiJ

Xmas in July doesn’t do it for me – the focus, surely, is on eating the traditional winter foods that are associated with Northern Hemisphere Christmases[1] but Melbourne seldom gets really hot on Christmas Day (the average December maximum is 24˚) so I seldom have trouble eating a roast dinner. And I don’t feel a need to air my tinsel bi-annually.

But if you don’t do winter food on Christmas Day, you might like to try it out in the weather best suited to it,[2] and you should be able to find a few restaurants doing XiJ in your closest tourist café zone.

2016-07-05
Everyone likes an excuse to drink mulled wine in winter.

My book club friend Sharon mentioned the people she’s been talking to because of her cat art (which is selling like hot cakes so she keeps raising the prices and clearly hasn’t hit the upper bounds yet) and it seems that her social circle is expanding way beyond Mr Whiskers and I’m delighted for her. (This seems to be the good kind of cat-astrophe.)

[1] Although my nephew Ben was invited to his girlfriend’s father’s tennis club’s XiJ fundraiser last year and he so enjoyed wearing a Santa suit without sweltering in the boots and the fur that he kept his whole costume on for the whole night (and ended up eating a fair bit of the beard with his dinner).

[2] Or, better still, out of the weather best suited to it, inside next to a roaring fire, looking at the rain through the window.

6 July

Why dried fruit

Some of the traditional British Christmas foods are based on dried fruit which made sense in medieval Europe in winter when no fresh fruit was available but is quite silly in Australia where we’re surrounded by cherries and mangoes in December. So it’s entirely reasonable to say no to mince tarts, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake (and to go for strawberry tarts, summer pudding and hummingbird cake instead).

On the other hand, if these things are part of your idea of Christmas, why not have a slice of Christmas cake with a side of fresh pineapple and take the best of both worlds? (The year I worked out that sulphites treated me unkindly, I eschewed all mince tarts (since dried fruit is usually chock full of sulphites which means that mince was gunning for me) and really felt like I’d missed out.)[1]

2016-07-06
Christmas pine.

Matthew will be gorging himself on tropical fruit right now: he’s touring Angkor Wat with a recently divorced old friend, because Matthew is no longer waiting for a partner to do things with and John no longer has a partner to do things with.

[1] So now I make my own (from organic raisins) and I’m back at the party.

7 July

What dried fruit

If you’re going to do some of the dried fruit things, your next question is make or buy?[1]

  • The cheapest option is to buy budget supermarket offerings.[2]
  • If you’re after high quality and low effort, there are plenty of boutique offerings (for boutique prices).
  • If you want flexibility and don’t mind paying for it, you can cook your own. (This might be because you want a good range of fruit in your tarts[3] or you want a pudding that’s free of sulphites or you like to use your grandmother’s fruitcake recipe.)

If you are going to cook your own, get out your recipes now and put the dried fruit ingredients on your “watch out for” shopping list because dried fruit will easily keep for a year[4] so, if you see it at a rock bottom price, snap it up.

2016-07-07
Cut (priced) and dried (fruit).

Christmas Day 1970: Nanna had the most under the tree: as well as gifts from her children and her older grandchildren, she had presents from neighbours and piano students too. We adored her and I was a little sorry that so many of the offerings were so dull: hankies, soap and biscuits.[5] But Nanna kept scented soap in her linen cupboard as if it were lavender so she was quite happy and said you could never have too much. (And, with her impressive stores of pillowslips, she could indeed soak up a lot of scented product.)

[1] Not steal. Back when my ex-neighbour Gustav was still working as a security guard at an upmarket food hall, he caught an old lady with a tin of shortbread, half a dozen mince tarts and a box of glâcé fruit in her capacious handbag and a family sized plum pudding under her sunhat. (It was the hat that drew his suspicions: it didn’t sit right.) He intended to throw the book at her but the manager didn’t want to spoil her Christmas and even sent her home with a little Christmas cake he was sure she couldn’t afford but Gustav says he saw her in January paying cash for expensive cheeses and chocolates.

[2] My brother-in-law Don says that if you make a good brandy custard, you can skimp on the pudding, and if you make a really good brandy custard, your pudding could be mostly sawdust and you’d still be happy.

[3] My sister Wendy sneers at the products of one popular bakery which, she says, are almost entirely sultana and shouldn’t be allowed to be called fruit mince.

[4] So it’s a good food for your fallout bunker (along with baked beans and honey. You’ll eat like a king).

[5] All things that your parents were supposed to provide for you and hence not fair game as presents.

8 July

Spice and ice 2

This is a from-scratch ice cream plum pudding recipe (which doesn’t need an ice cream maker) and it does require a bit more work than the easy version [See 2 July] but it is really, really good[1] so you’re likely to think that it’s worth the effort.

Ice Cream Plum Pudding 2016-07-08

SERVES : 10
START : 1 day before
PREPARATION TIME : 10 + 20 minutes

150g glacé fruit                        3 tbs castor sugar                     ½ tsp cloves

2 tbs sultanas                           450ml cream                              pudding tokens (optional)

2 tbs rum                                   ½ tsp cinnamon

3 eggs                                         ½ tsp nutmeg

Chop the glacé fruit and soak it and the sultanas in the rum overnight.

Separate the eggs and beat the yolks with the sugar until white. Whip the cream. Beat the whites until very firm.

Rinse the pudding bowl in cold water.

Fold the fruit and spices into the yolks, then fold in the cream and then the whites. Pour into the mould and drop the pudding tokens in. Freeze.

 

I believe in moderation in all things, including moderation itself[2] so, although I know it’s smart to cut back on sugar, I don’t think cutting it out entirely is a good idea and certainly not if it makes you as cross as Cassidy, who snapped at Wendy last night when offered a gin and tonic.

“Do you know how much sugar there is in tonic water?” she growled.

“No idea,” said Wendy calmly to Cassidy and then she turned to Don and added, “I’ll have hers.”

[1] The children would often have a second slice of this even if I didn’t put money in it.

[2] Which is why having a serious feast at Christmas is such a good idea even though we should eat sparingly the rest of the year.

9 July

Silver lining

While we’re on the subject of puddings, let’s talk about the sixpences that were once baked into them.[1] This old tradition took a body blow when decimal currency came in because the old silver coins really were silver but decimal silver coins are actually cupro-nickel which isn’t good when cooked in suet.[2] So here’s what you can do to play it safe:

  • Don’t put coins in pudding (This is the option most people take and it’s certainly the easiest but it’s also dreary.)
  • Get some old threepences, sixpences, shillings and florins[3] and use those. (You can either trade them back (effectively using them as tokens) or let people keep them as curios if you’re willing to get more next year.)
  • Buy some pudding tokens. You will have to search around a bit but they do exist and they’re certainly fun.[4]
2016-07-09
These fabulous pudding tokens came from the Australian Mint last century. I wish they still made them.

Christmas Day 1970: Before long, there was a huge pile of wrapping paper in the centre of the lounge room[5] and someone said that baby Russell was more interested in the paper than the presents – which was a remark I have heard every year since then[6] and I’m over it. If there must be a perpetual Yuletide joke, at least let it be the Mary Christmas knock knock.

[1] You’ve got to like being paid to eat dessert, as my cousin Bronwyn was when she worked for a company that made fruit pies and used the staff to taste test them. She said half of her colleagues were permanently happy and the other half – who were on perpetual diets to compensate – were permanently grumpy.)

[2] But I haven’t been able to find out if it’s not good for people, or merely not good for the coin.

[3] There are plenty of non-rare (and hence not prohibitively expensive) coins around. Check out your closest coin shop.

[4] My cousin Linda once used planned to use metal Monopoly tokens and she assigned a fortune to each piece (the dog was “You’ll work like a dog all year” and the top hat was “I hear wedding bells!”) but then she discovered that some metal Monopoly tokens contain lead so she dropped the idea. (“I would have had to change all of the fortunes to ‘You will experience gastrointestinal symptoms and memory loss,” she said, “And that’s not very merry.”

[5] Cheap wrapping paper. This was not a family who thought temporary style was worth diverting funds to.

[6] But not in relation to Russell who is now forty-eight.

10 July

Running rings around it

There are a lot of ways to make Christmas wreaths for your door and many classy designs start with a twisted circle of cane which you can easily make yourself if you have any vines overgrowing your garden. Simply:

  • Trim the vine back (as part of your normal pruning)
  • Take any piece that is more than a metre in length and strip the leaves from it
  • Twist a handful of vines together and wrap them round a bucket[1]
  • Leave it in a dry place (like a garden shed) to cure

In a few months’ time, it should be rigid and all ready to be decorated in December with fresh greenery, baubles or whatever else takes your fancy.[2]

2016-07-10
Twined vines.

Jack told me that he’s worked out his magic trick with his brother Ben: Ben will wield the saw and it will be Jack in the box.[3] He asked me if we were having a Christmas concert this year and explained that he’d like to be the finale. (Murray assured me that the illusion was safe so we won’t need to check blood types before we start.)

[1] Or anything else circular that you can do without for several months. (My brother Matthew nominated his slow cooker. “Why would anyone wait all day for stew,” he says, “When you can cook schnitzel in ten minutes?”)

[2] And is suitably sturdy. My friend Carol decorated hers with wrapped toffees and the local ants had a banquet. It seems that a mere foil square is no challenge at all to our formic friends.

[3] “And that makes it easier for me to sort out the trousers,” he said and then added “Oh! I’ve said too much!”

11 July

Santa Claus is coming to town

Santa Claus started in America in the 1700s and went viral when Clement Moore’s “Night Before Christmas” was published in 1823.[1] The name is a corruption of Sinterklaas but the actual character blends the Dutch guy, the English Father Christmas and modern American consumer culture. (It is alleged that his appearance stems from a Coke ad in 1931 but the mythos was well established by then and there are plenty of images of a very familiar Santa that predate the famous picture of him drinking Coca Cola.)[2]

Santa Claus lives at the North Pole where he has a toyshop staffed with elves who make the toys he gives to children around the globe.[3] On the night of Christmas Eve, he travels round the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and he goes down chimneys of houses to deliver presents (into stockings in some places, and typically into pillow slips called Santa sacks in Australia). This is clearly impossible and is achieved with magic.

Since Santa Claus is mostly secular, he’s suitable for everyone with a degree of flexibility but not for strict non-Christians who can’t ignore his saintly bishop roots, nor for strict actual Christians who think he has moved too far away from his saintly bishop roots. The same goes for elves, toyshops, stockings, reindeer and present-laden sleighs.[4]

The original stocking stuffer.

[1] The poem calls him St Nick but describes him physically as the Santa we picture today except that he was very small: “a right jolly old elf” with “miniature reindeer” (and he smoked a pipe, which politically correct modern Santas never do).

[2] Including a cover from the “Saturday Evening Post” in 1925.

[3] Although predominantly to children of Western Christian cultural roots.

[4] Sleighs without gifts can be considered to be secular snömys.

12 July

Doing the groundwork

Although I’m not much of a gardener, I do put a bit of work into my raspberries and winter is a good time to weed the beds. (You’re also supposed to prune the canes but I only cut back the ones that are growing over the paths and I’m really not convinced that they do better than the ones I let go.)[1]

Leaving the ground bare at this time of year seems to give the new plants the best chance to spring up. Then, once the growing season is underway in spring and I can see the new seedlings, I mulch everything. I also keep the canes well-watered once they start bearing fruit and that’s about it: kilograms of fabulous fruit on an outlay of a bit of weeding, a bit of mulching and a bit of watering.[2] Definitely worth the effort.[3]

If you’re planning a Christmas berry crop, get your groundwork in soon.

2016-07-12
I put mulch on my raspberries (but you may prefer cream).

Christmas Day 1970: When the last present was unwrapped, Wendy gathered up all of the ribbons and tied them round her pigtails. Then Peter started diving into the wrapping pile saying that he was Scrooge McDuck in his money bin until Uncle Geoff collared the oldest boys and told them to take all of the paper out to the woodshed. I carried my Famous Five book to the banana lounge on the veranda and cracked open the first chapter. Bliss. Enid Blyton should have been canonised.

[1] But don’t take gardening advice from me: my prettiest flowers are all weeds.

[2] And a fair bit of picking. But I’ve usually been able to get my kids to help with that if I don’t expect too many berries to end up in their buckets.

[3] My lawyer brother Matthew told me how many kilograms of frozen berries he could buy with an hour’s salary but that’s not relevant because I do my berry work out of hours when I wouldn’t be doing paid work anyway. Michael should really ask himself how many kilograms of frozen berries he could buy with what he’s paid for an hour of binge-watching television shows (which is a negative figure, because he pays for a gym subscription to undo the effects of the television).

13 July

Beyond houses

If gingerbread houses are old hat to you, branch out! Here’s a gingerbread nativity triptych I made which won second prize in my office Christmas bake-off and was also a noteworthy centrepiece for our Christmas table at home.

2016-07-13
The only problem with gingerbread nativities is who eats Jesus?[1]
Christmas Day 1970: Once the presents were finished, Nana put “Readers’ Digest Joyous Music for Christmastime” on her record player. Auntie Margie danced around with her broom to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and Matthew sang along to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and tried to act out all the parts himself.

Uncle Geoff, who had been harvesting right up to Christmas Eve, took himself off to the hammock in the backyard for a pre-dinner nap. (He had to shoo Bronwyn and Brian out of it first: they were using it as a swing and trying to flip themselves over. Bronwyn protested but Uncle Geoff just said “When you’ve stripped a thousand acres in three weeks, then you can have the hammock.”)

[1] My son Jeremy was also concerned with who got to eat the liqueur chocolate bottle which represented the frankincense.

14 July

Carols for heathens

Although most traditional carols are set in the stable, these ones are secular and are typically about eating (which is a pastime available to all religions) and drinking (which is available to many religions):

  • The Boar’s Head Carol[1]
  • O Christmas Tree
  • Twelve Days of Christmas
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas[2]
  • A surprising variety of wassailing songs

And there are cartloads of modern, secular songs. Here is a small selection:

  • All I Want for Christmas Is You[3]
  • Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy[4]
  • Feliz Navidad
  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer[5]
  • Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
  • White Christmas[6]

Note that “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is not a good song for children: it’s a song about children for adults[7] so expunge it from your selection of yuletide children’s music.[8]

2016-07-14
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer: an unseasonal tale of bullying.

My son Jeremy will be turning twenty-one this year so he’ll be having a party. (“We don’t have to, Mum,” he said. “Yes, we do,” I replied.) He said he’d like to invite about twenty pals and I added twenty relatives and family friends but I’ve asked Hannah what to do about my ex-in-laws.[9]

“Do you want Dad to come?” Hannah asked Jeremy.

“I’m not expecting him to come,” Jeremy replied. “The last birthday party he said he was coming to was my nineteenth, but the last one he actually came to was my eleventh.”

“So do you want me to invite him?” Hannah persisted.

“I really don’t want to spend another birthday waiting for him to arrive,” said Jeremy, “But I guess I have to,” (Unlike Hannah, Jeremy has an easy-going relationship with his father but the missed birthdays do rankle with him.)

[1] Not suitable for vegetarians.

[2] Plenty of figgy pudding here.

[3] This is far more convincing that “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”, a song from the 40s that is best left to old fogeys from the 40s.

[4] Okay, it’s a dance rather than a song but it still counts as Christmas music.

[5] If you’re very strictly non-Christian, you might choose to omit Santa songs since Santa is related to the Christian bishop known as St Nicholas.

[6] This used to be my Uncle Bill’s favourite Christmas song until his son married a Tongan and he became very sensitive about calling things “white”.

[7] It’s also not a good song for anyone with any musical or literary discernment.

[8] And from every other yuletide playlist you have.

[9] Not the same as outlaws.

15 July

A salad you can’t refuse?

This is the way Sicilians make potato salad.[1] (Common variations include red onion instead of pickled onion and the addition of green beans.)

Sicilian Potato Salad

2016-07-15

SERVES : 4
START : 1 hour before
PREPARATION TIME : 15 + 10 minutes

1 kg (about 5) Sebago potatoes                        40 ml (2 tbs) white wine vinegar

50 g (¼ cup) capers                                            80 ml (¼ cup) olive oil

2 Lebanese cucumbers                                     1 tsp thyme leaves

½ cup pickled onions                                        1 tsp oregano

60 g (½ cup) pitted black olives

Peel the potatoes and then boil them until soft, drain, cool and chop into medium chunks.

While the potatoes cook, drain the capers, chop the cucumbers and pickled onions and halve the olives.

Whisk the vinegar and oil together and then combine with all the other ingredients.

I sorted Jeremy’s twenty-first birthday present months ago: he admired a desk we saw in a furniture shop and it was beautiful, well-made and surprisingly affordable so I ordered one for him and I can imagine him still using it in fifty years’ time. (His old one is tiny, shoddy and covered in Pokemon stickers. Not a keeper.)

[1] The way my cousin Russell makes potato salad is to go to the supermarket and head straight to the deli counter. (There are many fine cooks in my family but Russell isn’t one of them.)

16 July

Punching above your weight

I was once asked for my recipe for punch and I had to laugh because this is how my Nanna always made it: collar two mid-sized children and have them set up the bowl. Then give them an assortment of fruit juices and soft drinks and ask them to mix up the punch, tasting as they go to get the balance right. Add ice (see 30 June) and some extra fruit and mint and you’re good to go.

It’s different every time, but it’s good every time too.[1]

2016-07-16
Packs a mighty wallop.

Hannah got back to me today. “Good news, Mum,” she said. “If you make the party the weekend after Jeremy’s birthday, Dad will be at a conference in LA and won’t be able to make it.”

“Saturday the 20th of August it is,” I replied.

“So that leaves Caitlin, Pixie, Poppet, Grandma, Alice… and the Sydney cousins but they’re unlikely to come.”

That’s a guest list of about fifty which is do-able and it means I won’t have to see my ex till the first of our children get married which is excellent. (And I’m looking forward to catching up with Alice: if my ex and I hadn’t divided our relatives along blood lines, I’d have kept my sister-in-law.)

[1] Except when Auntie Margie added a bottle of bitter lemon while Wendy and I were out getting the punch ice. We couldn’t understand why the punch suddenly tasted bad (we were children: bitterness was abhorrent to us) and we had to add a lot of apricot nectar before we thought the punch was drinkable again.

17 July

Get cracking

You’ve got everything ready for your crackers: trinkets, haloes, jokes and construction materials; so build them today and put them away in your Christmas box and that will be one more thing ready to roll in December.

It’s simple if you’re organised:[1]

  • Cut the paper to size. (You’ll need 10cm overlap at each end of the tube)
  • Lay out the tubes (One per person, and it’s a good idea to make a spare)
  • Put a snap, joke, trinket and halo in each tube[2]
  • Roll the paper round the tube and fasten with rubber bands. (Don’t pull too hard: it’s easy to rip the paper at this point and it simply doesn’t need to be tight)
  • Adorn: perhaps you’re tying ribbons around the ends? Perhaps you’re putting decorations on the tubes?
  • Put them in a box and stow them safely away.[3]
2016-07-17
Off to a cracking start.

Jeremy has been talking to his father. “He’s sorry he can’t make my birthday party,” he said, “And he offered to pay if you’ll do the organising so I said I’d like to go to Buenos Nachos and he thought that was a good idea.”

(I’m already looking forward to the quesadillas but I’m not so keen on the idea of two dozen students downing copious margaritas.)

[1] Most things are (with the possible exception of children’s parties).

[2] My cousin Linda once added peppermints but found that they exploded forth like shotgun pellets if the crackers were cracked too vigorously.

[3] And write where you’ve put them in your Christmas notes. (You’ll be miffed if you don’t find them until Easter.)

18 July

Das Christkind

Martin Luther was the guy who kick-started the Protestant Reformation when he protested about the Catholic Church selling indulgences (ie “get out of purgatory” cards), translated the bible from Latin into the language of the people (German) and formed his own church (the Lutheran Church). He didn’t like St Nicholas so he had a blond, angelic incarnation of the baby Jesus bring children presents instead and this Christkind comes on Christmas Eve, (not St Nicholas Eve) sometimes ringing a bell on his way out to let the family know when the presents are ready under the tree.

This one is obviously only for people who believe in Jesus… and it probably helps to be under ten too.

If one biblical gift-bringer isn’t enough for you, you could line up with the Spanish on El Dia de los Reyes (the day of the kings = Epiphany = the 6th of January). If children leave their shoes out the night before, the three kings leave presents in them (or lumps of coal for bad children.)[1] Again, this is best suited to actual Christians.

2016-07-18
The Baby Jesus says it with presents.

[1] What is it about coal that makes people think it the worst possible present that could be given? I can think of a lot of things that are nastier. (I know coal is dirty but that’s not usually an issue for small children.)

19 July

Born on Christmas Day

Babies who are born very close to Christmas Day often find that their birthdays are overshadowed:

  • Some people just give them one present (and even if they double the budget, that can still feel as if you didn’t get a birthday present at all)
  • It’s hard to get invitees to show up to your party if it’s on the 24th or 26th of December. [1]
  • Even when they do, they often don’t feel like indulging yet again (and who wants someone saying “More dessert?” disparagingly to their birthday cake?)

So do be kind to people with December birthdays: give them a separate present, attend their festivities and put as much oomph into it as you’d give to a September baby.

2016-07-19
Birthday cards and Christmas cards slug it out on the mantelpiece.

Jeremy and I went down to Buenos Nachos and booked the back room for his birthday. Jeremy is happy with their standard set menu and is feeling proud of himself for having negotiated sombreros for all. But I’ll do the birthday cake.

[1] My cousin Brian loved the two years he spent working in Thailand because, as a Christmas Eve baby, it was the first time he’d ever had 100% attendance at his birthday dinner. (He framed a fancy copy of the guest list and put it up in his office where it has mystified his staff ever since.)

20 July

Songs of ice and snow

The following list of alleged Christmas songs are actually all about winter and not about Christmas at all – they’re just snömys and I eschew them.[1]

  • Frosty the Snowman
  • Jingle Bells
  • Sleigh Ride
  • Winter Wonderland
  • Let It Snow

They’re also free of religious symbolism and hence suitable for people of any faith[2] (provided they don’t mind snömys).

2016-07-20
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I would have liked paper invitations for Jeremy’s birthday but he has convinced me that it’s simply not done any more and that a Facebook event is the answer (even for his grandmother who is pretty good with technology for an eighty year old).[3]

[1] Well, I eschew most of them but I do have a mighty fine recording of “Sleigh Ride” that I can’t resist and it is not possible not to sing “Jingle Bells” at least once in the festive season.

[2] Maybe not sun-worshippers, like my nephew-in-law Chris. (He’s the lying-on-the-beach-kind, not the ancient Egyptian kind.)

[3] She’s pretty good at removing herself from dull conversations for an eighty year old too: she can stop a bore mid-sentence, dismiss him with a few graceful words and walk off to more interesting people in under a minute. (I wish I’d asked her to teach me her secrets before I divorced her son.)

21 July

First past the post

Closing dates for Christmas sea mail can be sooner than you expect. You’ll have to send parcels to Europe in the beginning of September to take advantage of cheap postage and you may need to be popping presents in the post in early August if you’re mailing them to Africa or South America. So if you have loved ones on different continents, do look up the sea mail closing dates today and do schedule appropriate timeslots for buying, wrapping and posting parcels to catch the boat.[1]

2016-07-21
Whatever could it be?

Christmas Day 1970: Everyone was put to work to prepare for the feast: Mum and Auntie Betty stirred gravy and made sure that the pudding never went off the boil and Nanna directed everyone else. Uncle Bill sharpened the carving knife and limbered himself up to dismember the turkey. The other men extended the dining table to its full length and rustled up every chair in the house.  Bronwyn and Brian were in charge of setting the table with Nanna’s enormous lace tablecloth and Caroline was given the responsibility of getting out the good plates.

Auntie Pat brought in a selection of December flowers from the garden and created a stunning low arrangement for the centre of the table with Linda acting as her assistant and trying to absorb the whole history of floristry in a single lesson.[2] Peter, Michelle and I made the punch and Nanna gave Wendy a stack of crackers and asked her to put one at each place. This was such a pretty task that she did it three times over, trying different colour combinations and cracker angles until she was sure her arrangement couldn’t be bettered. (Don’t expect efficiency from six year olds.)[3]

[1] Or send them eBooks and apps and digital music and avoid parcels entirely but that’s not an option if you’re wedded to giving everyone hand-made pom pom hats.

[2] Linda’s ambition was to be a country lady like her mother and she could already make chutney to a high standard but Auntie Betty’s idea of a beautiful home included plastic flowers and too many doilies and so Linda turned to Auntie Pat for style tips.

[3] That’s one of two reasons that we don’t send them down the mines anymore: because they’re not very good at the work.

22 July

Harvey Wallbanger trifle

One day when I was in my twenties, I was sitting around the kitchen table with my family and we were talking about how much we all liked trifle and wondering why we practically never had it, and we realised it was because we never had stale cake.

Now, having stale cake is an excellent reason for making a trifle, but not having stale cake is not a good reason for not making trifle and it was my brother Matthew who first rose to the challenge. He bought an orange cake and found Galliano in his liqueur cabinet and realised that if he added orange segments, custard and orange jelly, he would have a Harvey Wallbanger trifle. So he invited us round to his place for a barbecue and we were all so impressed with his dessert that we decided to have a trifle competition.

My sister Wendy’s entry (at a lunch a few weeks later) was a cherry berry surprise trifle with cinnamon cake, raspberry vodka and lashings of strawberries and blueberries.[1] I made black forest trifle a few weeks after that (see 24 June) and I can’t even remember who wore the laurels but I promise you that, when you have a trifle competition, everybody wins.

So if you’re looking for an interesting trifle, try Matthew’s Harvey Wallbanger concoction, or adopt your favourite cocktail.[2]

2016-07-22
You may trifle with it.

Christmas Day 1970: It was Nanna herself who filled crystal bowls of lollies and nuts and placed them along the table. These were considered an absolute essential of both the table decoration and the feast. My favourite sweets were called fruit bon bons and they were rectangular prisms of coloured toffee[3] filled with sweet goo in a variety of fruit flavours. They were neatly folded into paper wrappers with delicate pictures of blackcurrants or cherries or oranges and I haven’t seen them since.[4]

[1] The surprise was that there were no cherries.

[2] And possibly adapt the name too: Matthew’s current speciality is a mixture of Irish cream liqueur and butterscotch schnapps which he calls “special cowboys” when he’s in polite company.

[3] They had a tendency to crack into sharp edges that would lacerate your tongue, making them an unusual fusion of hedonism and masochism.

[4] They may have been a casualty of the Great Confectionary Company Amalgamations of the eighties and nineties. Or maybe OH&S outlawed them (because of their tongue-shredding tendencies).

23 July

Let sleeping fish lie

It was the year my daughter Hannah was four and it was Christmas afternoon. Two year old Jeremy was having his afternoon nap and the rest of the crowd were adults who were stuffed to the gills with turkey and pudding and fancying the idea of naps themselves. But Hannah was full of (jelly) beans and insisted we play games.

“What did you have in mind?” my mother asked cautiously.

“Dead fish,” Hannah replied.

Here’s how you play dead fish: one person is the game controller and everyone else lies down and tries to stay still. The controller watches for movement and the first person found wriggling loses and becomes the next game controller.

This is quite a hard game for four year olds but it’s super easy for weary, replete adults so we all lay down on the lawn in the sunshine and Hannah prowled around us, vigilantly alert to the slightest perturbations. She had a great time… and so did we. In fact, my father won three straight rounds without even moving in the intervals (although I did hear a small snore escape him at one point).

Dead fish: one of the few games that appeals equally to pre-schoolers and grandparents on Christmas afternoon.

2016-07-23
Gone fishing.

Christmas Day 1970: When things were nearly ready to roll, I wanted to snap everyone at the dinner table so I asked Dad if I could put film in my camera and he said yes. In fact, he thought it was such a good idea that he got out his own camera, set the timer and photographed us all poised to feast. (He even managed to get Auntie Betty out of the kitchen while the turkey was resting, which was impressive work.)[1]

[1] Turkeys may rest, but Auntie Betty never did.

24 July

A blank expression

It is surprisingly difficult to turn plain cardboard into cards with really square corners.[1] So, if you’re making your own cards:

  • the safest – and most expensive – option is to buy ready-made card blanks[2]
  • the middle option is to make your own from plain card (being careful with the measurements, the scoring and the cutting)
  • the greenest option is make your own from reclaimed card (and you can make your own envelopes from any second hand paper that has one blank side, provided that you don’t use anything confidential)[3]

Whichever way you go, your card list will tell you how many you need, so build up a good supply now in preparation for later card-making sessions.

2016-07-24
Drawing a blank.

Wendy told me that she made a fruit salad for dessert because Cassidy was coming round, only to discover that Cassidy has now given up fruit because it contains fructose. This is arrant nonsense – we were clearly built to eat fruit[4] – and I am beginning to think that Cassidy has worked her way up to a subclinical eating disorder (which should make me sympathetic to her but I’m afraid I’m just annoyed.)

[1] Not that you have to: my niece Emma once made cards shaped like elves which didn’t have any corners at all. (Her father, who does the vacuuming, said she used too much glitter. Her reply was that there’s no such thing as too much glitter.)

[2] Or ready-made cards: my artist friend Sharon once appliquéd purple lamé stars and lime green comets over the top of a box of cheap nativity cards and ended up with such a spectacular astral vista that you wondered why the shepherds were bothering looking at the angel.

[3] Or that you don’t have any secrets.

[4] Although I’m not arguing that fruit flavoured protein powders, fruit bon bons or lolly bananas are part of our natural diet.

25 July

An ode to Odin

Odin (after whom Wednesday is named) is a member of the Norse pantheon and is the psychopomp[1] who brought poetry to humanity. In the Yule season, he leads a hunting party through the sky and rewards children who leave out food (traditionally hay for Sleipnir (his eight-legged horse)[2] in their shoes and porridge with a pat of butter on top for Odin (which, I assume, is not left in their shoes)).

This is best suited to actual Germanic pagans and to those who particularly enjoy thumbing their noses at popular culture.[3]

2016-07-25
Fit for a psychopomp,

[1] Someone who guides you into the afterlife. (That’s not important but I didn’t want to miss what is quite possibly my only chance to use the word “psychopomp”.)

[2] I am indebted to my friend Todd for what I know about Odin. Todd deliberately mixes Yule into his Christmastide (he pretends it’s because of his Danish heritage but he’s really just a maverick) and he built a life-sized, six-legged horse to put on his front lawn. However his wife Claire claims it scares the neighbours and insists he “display” it in the backyard.

[3] I am also indebted to Todd for this attitude!

26 July

Food snömys

Since most traditional Christmas food comes from Northern Hemisphere customs, quite a lot of it is decidedly wintery. Consider:

  • chestnuts roasting on an open fire (A bowl of nuts in the shell should be fine.)[1]
  • egg nog (You may well prefer something long and fruity.)
  • mulled wine (Try sangria instead.)
  • roasts (Serve them cold.)
  • steamed puddings (Replace with ice cream, sorbets and semifreddo.)

At least most of us no longer need to cook these things on wood-burning kitchen ranges. But if you can’t stand the heat, serve salads.

2016-07-26
Chestnuts praying for a total fire ban.

Christmas Day 1970: Dad’s picture of the family at Christmas dinner was so good that he enlarged it and framed it and gave it to Nanna for her next birthday and she loved it because it was the whole family together. In fact, it turned out to be the last photo of the whole family together[2] but this wasn’t because death was lurking around the corner:[3] it was because we didn’t manage to get 100% of the family in the same spot at the same time ever again. That’s one of the reasons I look back on that Christmas Day so fondly and consider it one of the treasures of my life.

[1] My mother could crack walnuts with her bare hands which impressed the hell out of young grandchildren. I believe it was a knack rather than an application of brute force but the secret died with her.

[2] Or, depending on how you look at it, the only photo of the whole family together because baby Russell hadn’t been in any of the previous ones.

[3] Nanna was the first to pop her clogs and that was fifteen years later.

27 July

Once a jolly Santa Claus

There are some good Australian Christmas carols and they are refreshingly summery (and an antidote to snömys). The most famous are by William James and John Wheeler (and their religiosity ranges from somewhat to quite) and you may have heard:

  • Carol of the Birds (Orana)
  • Three Drovers
  • Christmas Day

You can also find plenty of Australian re-writes of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” and there are many fine, modern Australian Christmas songs including:

  • Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” (Not religious)
  • John Williamson’s “Christmas Photo” (Not religious)
  • Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” (Specifically atheist. Should be on high rotation in non-believing households)
  • Rolf Harris’s “Six White Boomers” (Avoid his version[1] but The Healers did a surprisingly good cover)
2016-07-27
Who’s gonna make the gravy?

Christmas Day 1970: Although Nanna loved the informal all-family Christmas dinner photo Dad gave her, she would often say that she wished that it has been taken before we had changed out of our good clothes[2] but I worked out that there was not a single moment that day when we were all spic and span because, by the time the Mallee cousins arrived at church, Felicity’s dress was already covered in multi-coloured Smartie smears. (Dressing a two year old in white is asking for trouble.)[3]

[1] The only thing I’ve ever heard my sister Wendy and her husband Don seriously argue about is Rolf Harris: Wendy says we should never play “Six White Boomers” again but Don says that the music is innocent even when the musician isn’t. (Their son Ben says we should never have played “Six White Boomers” in the first place.)

[2] When Nanna was young, T-shirts were considered underwear, and she never really changed her mind on that one, not even if the item in question was bright blue and adorned with political slogans. (When Nanna saw Brian’s “Shame Fraser Shame” T-shirt in 1975, she told him that should definitely be kept in the dark.)

[3] My friend Jill dressed her messy son William in khaki camouflage prints whenever she could. (Her husband said it might give William a military complex but Jill said that there are days when she thought the army might be the best place for him.)

28 July

Bowled over

If you want to make punch, you will need a punch bowl. You can:

  • buy one of those glass drink tanks with a tap at the bottom that are so popular right now (an option which is fashionable but expensive)[1]
  • buy a new punch bowl (also expensive, and classic rather than trendy)
  • buy a second hand punch bowl from an op shop (there are plenty so this should be both green and cheap)
  • use any old bowl (preferably a big, fancy glass one, particularly if you want to make it a feature on your table)
  • When catering for a lot of people, my Nanna would buy a brand new plastic rubbish bin, wash it well and make a huge volume of punch in it (and then wash it out again and use it as a rubbish bin from then on) and you can try this trick with anything from a wastepaper basket up, depending on the size of your crowd.[2]

You also need glasses[3] and a ladle.[4]

One final word: people seem incapable of using the same punch cup twice, even if you clip wine glass charms to the handles so that they can identify their own, so psych your dishwasher up for a lot of fast glass loads.

2016-07-28
Tanks a lot.

I made a big batch of lemon biscuits for the skiing trip today. (We haven’t worked out the menu yet, but I’m sure they’ll fit in somewhere.) I also finished knitting my frog hat. (I can’t say that it actually suits me, but that wasn’t the point.)

[1] My nephew Jack got out his mother’s glass tank out for a Halloween party the year before last, filled it with water, put a gruesome plastic hand at the bottom and added a few of the family goldfish… and was horrified to find a guest pouring themselves a drink from it later in the night. He still doesn’t know if they were trying to scare him (which they did) or if they just weren’t paying attention.

[2] And on their squeamishness.

[3] Which may or may not come with your punch bowl but you can use any glasses really and they don’t even have to match.

[4] Plastic is best because it doesn’t chip glass bowls.

29 July

Hooked

As a teenager, I worked in a restaurant that had high wooden ledges on the walls and the owner had put small nails along each ledge at equal intervals that were barely noticeable from the floor but which made hanging tinsel (for Christmas) and streamers (for New Year’s Eve) a breeze. If you always festoon your hallway or lounge room, you can put small nails or cup hooks or removable hooks in strategic places and if you position them ahead of time (like today), you don’t need to do it on the day you decorate and can concentrate then on spangles and glitter and not on dividing your walls into equal sections.[1]

29 jul 2016
A cup hook lying in wait for December’s decorations.

Don dropped round with a serious menu plan for our skiing trip.

“Could you do the dinner on Saturday?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said.[2] “And I’ve already cooked some lemon biscuits.”

“Great!” said Don. “Now if you let me know what you like for breakfast, I’ll put it on the shopping list.”

“Just use Emma’s list from last year,” I suggested and he was pleased with the idea.

Hey, one of the secrets of being organised is not to organise more than you need to. (So if you’re really lazy, it pays to be really organised as well.)

[1] My Uncle Bill was a carpenter and, every time he came home to visit his mother, he and Auntie Pat would renovate a bit more of Nanna’s house. She appreciated this and was keenly aware that they gradually turned her home from a rambling, run-down mish-mash into a solid, stylish period piece but she said she missed the 30s wallpaper in the living room because the repeating pattern made it so easy for her to hang her tinsel evenly.

[2] And “Casserole,” I thought.

30 July

Go outside and play

Classic parlour games (like charades and dead fish) can be a fun thing for Christmas afternoon but outdoor games can be even better if the weather is clement. (Do have an alternative though, in case the weather is not.)[1]

As well as backyard cricket and your favourite version of tiggy,[2] here are some games you may enjoy:

  • Tug-o-war
  • Picnic races like three-legged, sack and wheelbarrow
  • Capture the flag
  • Blind man’s bluff
  • Hide and seek, or sardines[3]
2016-07-30
Let the games begin!

Jeremy and Danni are up to their three-month anniversary and I’m nearly ready to get on board: only one of his former girlfriends made it this far (and it would have been better if she hadn’t, because they were snarling at each other by the fifth week) but Jeremy is still doe-eyed and misty about Danni and she seems to be just as keen on him (although Hannah is predicting the Danni will drop Jeremy as soon as she finds out that he’s inclined to sing Wiggles songs in the bath (and, in particular, “Henry’s Underwater Big Band”)).

[1] Parlour games in the parlour (or lounge or rumpus room) may suffice.

[2] Unless it’s kiss chasey, which is playing with fire.

[3] While generally happy to play games with his nephews and nieces, my brother Matthew refused to take part in Yuletide sardines, saying that his stomach was stretched too tight for it to be a good idea to crowd it into a cupboard with five small children.

31 July

Baubling over

Remember how easy it was to make bauble-shaped gift tags? Well, bauble Christmas cards are also a cinch:[1]

  • Cut a circle out of coloured paper (or Easter egg foil)[2]
  • Paste it into the middle of your card blank (but leave one “corner” up)[3]
  • Cut a small square out of gold paper
  • Tuck it under the corner and paste it down
  • To be really fancy, tuck a loop of gold thread under the square before you glue it.

If you want to do all of your Christmas cards like this, and you get a production line rhythm happening, I reckon you could do a dozen in half an hour.[4]

2016-07-31
Bauble card. (It isn’t hard.)

Wendy rang me today to ask me for the phone number of the electrician who installed my dining room light, because she has a dangerous power point in her bathroom and she said she hadn’t been able to get anyone out for love or money. I quizzed her on this and she admitted that she hadn’t actually tried love but we both agreed that this would be unlikely to help. I explained that she might need to have a plasterer standing by if she used my guy and she said that if she didn’t use my guy, she might not get the power point fixed before Mia started crawling and she would rather risk wall damage than grandchild damage, so she’ll ring him anyway.

[1] And are suitable for non-Christians.

[2] Or plan to do this next year, to give you a good excuse to eat too many Easter eggs next Easter.

[3] This sounds like “squaring the circle” which is both a geometric puzzle and a metaphor for trying to do the impossible, but I trust your powers of figurative thinking.

[4] Although the land speed record for making Christmas cards must surely go to my friend Lisa for the year she simply stapled lengths of pretty tinsel across card blanks. She did them all while watching a single episode of her favourite sitcom (but it took a bit longer to stuff the cards into the envelopes because they were quite bulky).