Chapter 9 – August

1 August

Festive insects

We’ve covered a lot of Christmas history, but let us not neglect Christmas entomology: it’s time to talk about Christmas beetles, a kind of scarab beetle with green or yellow iridescent bodies, often seen around Christmas time. They are considered Christmassy because of their glorious metallic sheen[1] and because most people don’t know that they contribute to dieback in gum trees and cause yellow patches in lawns. (They’re more Grinch than elf, but at least they’re pretty.)

P.S. Add July notes to your Christmas letter material.

2017-08-01
Nature’s tinsel.

There’s really not very much for me to do for Jeremy’s twenty-first: he’s handling the invitations, the restaurant will do the food and since I have a firm rule that speeches should be either good or short (and preferably both), it won’t take me long to write mine.

[1] My daughter Hannah tried decorating with dead Christmas beetles one year. She tied them to the branches of the Christmas tree with thread and scared the bejeezus out of herself when she found that one of them wasn’t as dead as she’d thought.

2 August

Self-raising flower

Here’s another idea for growing presents: since edible flowers are so fashionable as garnishes right now, why not do a tub of those?[1] (Micro herbs are also in vogue but, as I’m not much of a gardener, I’m not sure if they’re special varieties or if you bonsai ordinary varieties or just pick them young. But you could use this question as a litmus test: if you know the answer, you’re probably the right kind of person to grow them successfully and, if you don’t know, stick with sturdy herbs like full-sized mint.)[2]

2016-08-02
Rose-merry.

I cooked a huge casserole today and put it in the freezer for our skiing trip. It will travel up safely frozen on Friday night and should be mostly thawed for Saturday. (And then I’ll heat it up, of course. Slightly icy beef bourguignon is just about the worst thing I can think of coming home to after a hard day’s skiing!)

[1] My gardening friend Fiona sometimes gives big tubs of her best compost to friends but this is not likely to please as many people as marigolds and lavender would.

[2] My sister Wendy has spent the last few years digging up mint from a corner of her garden where she’s now trying to grow ferns and she says that mint is not just sturdy, but indestructible.

3 August

Christmas shipping

If you want the cheapest parcel rates to Botswana, it’s time to get posting (although you have until the beginning of September is you’re sending to Switzerland) and you will need parcel wrapping as well as gift wrapping: the easiest and most expensive option is the padded bags the post office sells, the cheapest and greenest option is the padded bags the post office delivers (to your house around some other parcel – keep the packing and reuse it later).

Choose sturdy gift wrap rather than fragile tissue paper and fluffy bows and, if your present is somewhat delicate, do pad it very carefully.[1]

2016-08-03
Enter a Mind your P.O. queues.[2]
Christmas Day 1970: Finally, it was dinner time, we took our places and Nanna said grace. This was not something we did in our own house but Nanna was a staunch Presbyterian (and was, I believe, the only one in the family who went to church on days other than holy days) and so a fall from grace was not an option. (But she did keep it short: her god was a pragmatic deity who did like to be appreciated but who wouldn’t want the vegies to get cold.)

[1] And if your present is very delicate, don’t send it by mail at all.

[2] Last year, my sister Wendy had to make eight separate trips to the post office in December and she said she tried hard to work out what the off-peak times were… and concluded that there weren’t any.

4 August

Bottoms up

Last year, I had a little cocktail party on the deck to celebrate the turning on of the Christmas lights on 1 December. It went well and I think I’ll do it again this year and maybe it will even become a regular event. Here are some jolly cocktails with a Christmas theme (ie, they’re red or green):

Midori Sour

This is lighter in both alcohol and sugar than the standard Midori sour but people seem to like it anyway.

2016-08-04A

Champagne flute

30ml Midori

30ml lemon juice

soda water

Garnish: slice of lemon, plus glacé cherry

Pour the Midori into the glass, add the lemon juice, top with soda water and add garnish.

Strawberry Daiquiri

Some people add sugar syrup to this but I don’t think it needs it.

2016-08-04B

martini glass

30ml white rum

5 strawberries

5 ice cubes

Garnish: strawberry

Blend the ingredients together, pour into the glass and add garnish.

Mint Cup

04 aug 2016 C

highball glass

peppermint cordial[1]

soda water

Garnish: sprig of mint

Pour the cordial into the glass, top with soda water, and dunk the mint in.

Watermelon Smash

2016-08-04D

old-fashioned glass

chopped watermelon

60ml sour cherry juice[2]

5 ice cubes

Garnish: watermelon wedge[3]

Blend the watermelon and pour into the glass, slowly add the cherry and then float the ice on top.

And remember, just contemplating throwing a cocktail party is a good excuse to practise some cocktails.

*

Christmas Day 1970: The combined “Amen” was like the starting gun for cracking our crackers. All of the kids and half of the adults wore the hats but all the adults took them off as soon as they thought no-one was looking.[4] I got a plastic whistle and so did Steve and Brian and Felicity, and Uncle Geoff confiscated them almost immediately, which I didn’t think was fair, because Auntie Pat got to keep hers.[5] The jokes, of course, were lame and even I, as an eight-year-old, had heard most of them before (although it would take me a few years more to find the pun in “When is a tap not a tap? When it’s dripping”).

[1] This is hard to find but you can make your own by adding a teaspoon of peppermint essence to 250ml of sugar syrup (and you can make sugar syrup by dissolving 1 cup of sugar in 1 cup of hot water and then leaving it to cool).

[2] Or pomegranate juice if that’s easier to get, but cherry juice is darker in colour and heavier too so it makes a clearer layer.

[3] My niece Emma would add frou-frou to the fruit: she says frou-frou is the raison d’etre for cocktails (and she has a large supply of paper parasols, plastic monkeys and novelty swizzle sticks).

[4] Except for Uncle Bill, who wore his for most of the afternoon.

[5] I realise now that it was because she could be trusted not to blow it at the dinner table.

5 August

The way the Germans do it

Lebkuchen is German gingerbread[1] which is traditionally made in heart shapes and I always make these for Christmas because:

  • I love them
  • The chocolate makes them an indulgent treat that I save for special occasions[2]
  • They keep well so you can make them in advance (and keep them going strong in those lazy, post-Yule days)[3]

Lebkuchen

2016-08-05

MAKES : 3 dozen
START : 3 hours before
PREPARATION TIME : 10 + 40 + 10 minutes

120g butter                                                 1 tsp ground cloves

400g (4/3 cup) golden syrup                    1 tsp cocoa

3½ cups (520g) plain flour                       2 tbs milk

2 tsp bicarb                                                 zest of 1 orange, 1 lemon and 1 lime

1 tsp ground ginger                                   approx 4 tbs raspberry jam

1 tsp ground cardamom                           185g dark chocolate

1 tsp ground cinnamon                            2 tsp vegetable oil

 

Melt butter and golden syrup together then cool for 10 minutes

Zest orange and lemon. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into syrup mixture with milk and zest. Cover and stand for 1½ hours.

Set oven to 180˚C. Grease several biscuit trays.

Knead dough on lightly floured surface until it loses its stickiness. Roll dough until 8mm thick. Cut into heart shapes and place on trays, 3 cm apart. Make small round indentations in middle of biscuits (with the rounded end of a wooden spoon handle) and half fill with jam.

Bake biscuits for until 10 minutes until lightly browned. Cool.

Melt chocolate with oil, spread onto bottoms of biscuits and leave until set.

We went to Baw Baw in a convoy of three cars – you’d think we could fit six people into two cars but there were skis and jackets and a hell of a lot of food. (At once stage, it was looking like I’d have to choose between the lemon biscuits and my mittens but I’m glad to say we fitted everything in.)

[1] With cardamom in it which makes it different to English gingerbread.

[2] Although I have heard my nephew-in-law Chris claim that the sixth food group is chocolate biscuits, and that you can’t have a balanced diet without them.

[3] My nephew Ben often visits me around the 27th of December and he has fun with my son Jeremy and then we all have a good chat over afternoon tea but I don’t think his motive is purely social because, when he rings up to check if we’re home, he always asks if we have any lebkuchen left first.

6 August

Brussels sprouts

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Brussels sprouts are disgusting and those who say, “Oh you just aren’t cooking them right!” I hate the bastards with a passion[1] and when I first heard of a substance that some people taste as bitter and some people can’t taste at all, it became clear to me. You see, before this substance was tested, there was no evidence that people tasted things differently: it was entirely possible that you and I experience exactly the same sensations when we eat pears and it might be that you don’t particularly like how they taste and that I do. But now we know that, in at least one case, people are having a physically different experience when they eat. I’m sure that’s what’s going on with Brussels sprouts: those of you who think they are palatable cannot possibly be tasting what I’m tasting. To me, they literally taste like poison and I cannot imagine how someone once tried one and considered it to be food.[2]

My antipathy to these nasty little cabbages is so great that I’m reluctant to mention that they’re considered a Christmas dish in Britain, but I must say:

  • Don’t do it.
  • If you really have to, make sure they’re optional.

And please shut up about there being nice ways to cook them. We will never believe you and, if you tasted what we taste, you’d realise that they are too horrible to be fixed even with bacon: it’s as pointless as spraying eau de cologne on a skunk.

2016-08-06
These are not the vegetables you’re looking for.

My casserole was appreciated at the ski lodge tonight but not because I’d balanced the flavours so well.

“Thank God you cooked something soft,” said Don after a hard day’s skiing. “I don’t have enough energy to chew.”

We played a hearty game of canasta last night after tea but I don’t think anyone is up for more than a round of after-dinner mints tonight.

[1] That’s the vegetables, not the people who tell you to sauté the leaves with bacon. (Mind you, I’m not fond of the latter and I wish they’d shut up.)

[2] My friend Sharon’s father lost his sense of taste after a blow to the head in a car accident. This is the point at which he started eating brussels sprouts, saying, “They can’t hurt me now and there’s a theory that they’re actually good for you so it’s time the buggers worked for me rather than against me.”

7 August

Pick another card

Nearly as easy as bauble cards are Christmas tree cards. Cut a Christmas tree out of green paper. You can either use a template or fold the paper in half and cut out a jagged triangle shape.[1] Glue it onto the card and add a bit of glitter.[2] If you want to make it fancy, put a star on top.[3]

07 aug 2016
O Tannenbaum.

We skied hard all day, packed our bags and poured our damp, exhausted selves back into the cars for the trip home. Luckily Wendy had plenty of chocolate left over: I’m not sure we would have lasted the journey without it.[4]

[1] My daughter Hannah tried pressing and drying pieces of actual fir one year and they did smell lovely but they crumbled into dust if you touched them and it was impossible to stick them down. So her brother Jeremy suggested using paper shapes for the visual effect, and a sprinkling of Pine O Cleen to add olfactory impact.

[2] Or a lot of glitter. Or make it solid glitter (in which case you don’t have to start with green paper).

[3] It’s like the cherry on the top of the sundae: entirely unnecessary, but appealing nonetheless.

[4] “Having too much chocolate is a survival tactic,” says Wendy. “You’re far more likely to use it than a pocket knife.”

8 August

Goats of Yule

In Scandinavia, the Christmas gift-bringer was the Yule Goat. This is possibly connected to Thor, the son of Odin and namesake of Thursday, who rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, but it’s also the last sheaf of grain gathered in the harvest and saved for its magical properties for the Yule festival, and these goats may or may not be connected.

These days, a Christmas fairy or gnome called a julenisse in Norway and Denmark and juletomte in Sweden is more likely to bring the presents.

Yule Goat related activities that you may like to absorb into your own traditions include:

  • decorating with goats (traditionally made of straw or wood)
  • hiding a Yule Goat in your neighbours’ house (and when they find it, they hide it in your house)[1]
  • taking a goat with you[2] when you go carolling from door to door (and also play pranks and let your audience know that the goat is demanding gifts)
  • or you could dress like a julenisse in grey, with a long white beard and a red hat.[3]
2016-08-08
What gets your goat?

[1] Use one of the straw decorations – not a real goat.

[2] This one is a real goat.

[3] Uncle Bill does this accidentally sometimes.

9 August

Bring a plate

If you’re asked to bring a plate[1] and you’re looking for cheap options, consider:

  • hummus with crudité
  • potato salad
  • coleslaw[2]
  • baked potatoes with garlic butter
  • meatballs[3]
  • pikelets, buttered, with a delicate slice of strawberry on each
  • apple tart
  • rainbow jelly (of which more later).

Make these dishes yourself from scratch and avoid recipes with expensive ingredients and it won’t hurt your pocket too much (but I’m not guaranteeing that it won’t hurt your waistline).

2016-08-09
Having a (meat)ball.

Christmas Day 1970: The women ferried out plates buried beneath piles of turkey, ham, gravy,[4] peas and five kinds of roast vegetables. I wasn’t much of a meat-and-three-veg girl[5] so I didn’t understand why this was supposed to be so special but I felt everyone else’s excitement (and I did like the potatoes).

Naturally there were seconds and even thirds. (Nanna had, of course, catered to allow for this.) Just as traditional were the remarks about why we were eating a hot roast on such a hot day but it was good-natured banter and no-one really considered any other option. It was Christmas, it was turkey: it was as simple as that.

[1] Incidentally, it can be useful to have a sturdy festive plate to put your function food on. My friend Jill has a big melamine platter with a picture of a slightly leery Santa on it and she hates it and has been sending it to school break-ups and end-of-year Scouting functions for a decade (covered with fairy bread or sausage rolls or shortbread as appropriate) and is disappointed every time it makes its way back to her. She wants bring-a-plate to turn into leave-a-plate, but it just won’t work.

[2] Which sounds so much more appetising than cabbage salad.

[3] My nephew Jack whipped up a batch of meatballs for a family barbecue that were very popular until someone asked him what meat he’d made them from and he replied, “I’d rather not say.” (Mind you, knowing Jack, I’m guessing he used standard beef mince from Wendy’s freezer and his only reason for being cagey was to disconcert us.)

[4] But not cranberry sauce, which hadn’t reached the Mallee yet.

[5] And wasn’t even interested in two-meats-and-six-veg.

10 August

The fruits of the sea

If you’re doing the traditional Australian seafood Christmas, working out your menu and ordering your sea creatures in advance, then picking them up on Christmas Eve is definitely the best plan if you’re keen on the popular favourites like lobster and oysters. But you can trundle down to your fishmonger on Christmas Eve and ask what they’ve got that’s good, thus giving yourself an opportunity to work with the catch of the day. Either way, take your esky with you, and make room in the coldest part of your fridge for the incoming fish before you leave home.[1]

2016-08-10
Something’s fishy.

Hannah has volunteered to make bunting for her brother’s party. Jeremy insisted that she do it in the colours of the restaurant (orange and green is what he said but terracotta and cactus is more accurate) and she agreed readily but had a devious gleam in her eye. I think she’s up to something.

[1] My cousin Linda still talks about the time her husband left the third tub of fish in his car one hot Christmas Eve and found it again on Boxing Day.

11 August

Candy canes

A candy cane is a hard peppermint lolly made in the shape of a walking stick and painted with barbershop stripes of red and white. There is a story that it was given to children in Cologne Cathedral in 1670[1] and that it represents the crook of the shepherds of the nativity[2] but there’s another story that it signifies St Nicholas’s bishoply crosier, and neither story explains the stripes. What is certain is that candy canes have been around for centuries.

Candy canes are sturdy and distinctive so you can decorate with them; put them on the tree; have a glass of them on your desk at work; stick them into otherwise ordinary cupcakes; or use them as a garnish on Christmas cocktails.[3] They’re cheap so you can tie one onto a Small Present of any kind to make it suddenly Christmassy and they’re very easy to draw so you can use them as a design for your own cards and wrapping paper even if your artistic skills are minimal.

2016-08-11
Can you have too much candy?[4]

[1] Which seems dangerous. One of the most embarrassing moments of Gran’s life was when she gave her small children lollies in church to keep them quiet and realised too late that they had left gobs of stickiness all over the pews and the hymn books.

[2] Which isn’t convincing because, if you were scouring the nativity story for symbols to translate into candy, you’d find a score of more obvious things before you got to shepherds’ crooks.

[3] They work better on grasshoppers than on whisky sours.

[4] Dentists say yes.

12 August

Hail Caesar

Caesar salad remains popular in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it doesn’t have a high vegetable content; it’s basically lettuce with a rich dressing and a selection of animal products. (Cheese, eggs, bacon and anchovies. No wonder it’s popular!)

To make it more Christmassy (if a high-fat indulgence doesn’t sound Christmassy enough!), make star-shaped croutons by:

  • taking slices of white bread[1]
  • cutting star shapes out of them with a small star cutter
  • baking the stars at 180°C until golden brown (5 to 10 minutes)
  • allowing them to cool.

And then put the star croutons into an airtight container until just before you toss the salad (which means that you can make them a day or two ahead of time, which is handy).[2]

2017-08-12
Added crunch.

The guest list for Jeremy’s twenty-first is firming up: just about the only declines are his Sydney cousins. (Buenos Nachos will need a lot of sombreros.)

He has chosen a chocolate spice cake for his birthday so I’ll cook a big one in my lasagne dish and it should go round nicely, even with all of the acceptances. He said he’d like cactuses on it and I think I’ll be able to make those out of marzipan but I’ll do a trial run first. (I don’t want anyone asking why I’ve decorated with ogres.)

[1] The better the better.

[2] When Jeremy was four, I left croutons cooling on the kitchen bench and he ate them all while I hung the washing out, so we sat down and made another bunch together. I’m sure he wouldn’t have eaten plain bread if he’d found that – there’s something a little bit special about croutons.

13 August

Carol cacophony

If you wanted to avoid hearing Christmas music, you would have to get all of your shopping done by the middle of October, and that includes your grocery shopping, so you’d spend two months living on canned food and might as well be snowed into a cabin on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie.

Short of taking that drastic action, you will be hearing Christmas music and there are bound to be carols you don’t like[1] and carols you do like sung by people you don’t like in styles that are abhorrent to you.[2] You could carry your own music with you and pop the ear buds in whenever something horrible comes up, or maybe you just have to accept that there are parts of Christmas that are uncontrollable even for the most organised person.

13 aug 2016.jpg
What you need to avoid Christmas carols.

Hannah showed me the bunting she has made for Jeremy’s party: it’s triangles of green and orange paper, each with a photo of Jeremy on them, and some of them are not flattering. I am not sure he’ll like it but I do think it will entertain the guests and it’s a novel alternative to a photo board or a slideshow.

[1] Like the abominable “Frosty the Snowman”.

[2] My cousin Peter loathes disco and walks straight out of any shop that starts playing Boney M’s Christmas repertoire, leaving his wife holding the shopping basket.

14 August

Glitter-arty

Another easy card, provided you’re okay with a paintbrush, is the glitter card. Start with a dark card blank, paint a word in glue (like “Yuletide” or “Celebrate!”) sprinkle glitter on it, shake off the excess and voila! Or you can use a glue stick, provided you choose a big card and short words (“Noël” rather than “Season’s Greetings”, and “Pud” rather than “Smorgasbord”).[1]

Here’s a card I made a few years back:

2016-08-14
… goes on the Christmas tree!

My niece Emma emailed some photos of baby Mia today and mentioned that she thinks Mia recognises her own name. I’m sure she’s right – we breed smart babies in my family. (Mia probably also knows the names of her favourite toys, recognises a dozen kinds of bird, and will know more about dinosaurs by the time she starts primary school than paleontologists did when I was five.)

[1]I got this idea from my friend Todd, who made glitter cards saying “Madelgave!” with a picture of a pig on the inside, completely mystifying everyone who didn’t have a Danish heritage. If pressed, Todd would eventually explain that Danes eat a vanilla rice pudding at Christmas that contains finely chopped almonds and has just one whole almond. The person who gets the whole almond also gets a mandelgave (“almond present”), which is often a marzipan pig. (Todd does like to be obscure.)

15 August

Yule lads

Those wacky Icelanders take the jolly Christmas guy a whole order of magnitude further with the thirteen Yule Lads, each of whom arrives on a different day in the Christmas season and leaves about a fortnight later. They originally dressed in traditional Icelandic clothes but now are more likely to wear Santa suits and bring presents for good children and rotting potatoes for bad children. They are the sons of trolls and have a Yule cat who eats children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas.[1]

Each lad has his own particular prank and characteristic. Watch out for peg-leg Stekkjarstaur, who arrives on 12 December and harasses sheep; Hurdaskellir on the 18th, who slams doors; Bjugnakaekir on the 20th, who hides in the rafters and steals sausages; and large-nosed Gattapefur, who sniffs out laufabrauð (Icelandic Christmas leaf bread).

If you like practical jokes, the Yule Lads are for you (provided you’re sure you’ll be given clothes for Christmas).

15 aug 2016
Sheep may safely graze… until 12 December.

[1] Which means that being beaten by Zwarte Piet isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a child at Christmas.

16 August

Sinister

If you find slightly sinister decorations appealing,[1] here’s an idea I had some success with. I drew a little elf face, wrote “always watching” under it, photocopied it lots of times and stuck it up all over the house: on doors, on the corners of mirrors, in drawers, tucked away in cupboards and in the last places you’d expect. Don’t try this on young kids though: restrict it to those who can handle black humour … and surprises.

2016-08-16
He knows what you’ve been doing… and with whom.

Jeremy’s birthday desk arrived today. I would have preferred to have hidden it away and given it to him on his actual birthday but I didn’t have anywhere to stow something the size of a desk and I needed Jeremy at home today to accept the delivery.

He really liked it though, so we’re both pleased.

[1] Which my friend Todd does and his wife Claire doesn’t. She tolerated the dinosaurs on the tree and the six-legged horse in the backyard but she refused to let him put his wreath of reindeer skeletons on the front door.

17 August

Music for sale

As a young woman holidaying in Fiji in December, my sister Wendy bought a Christmas reggae tape. (That’s how long ago it was: cassettes were a music medium and not a retro motif.) She loved it so much she decided to buy a Christmas album every year and this seemed like such a good idea that I copied it myself – and found that the vast majority of Christmas recordings are truly awful.

Here’s what you will find:

  • albums of traditional hymns and carols sung by renowned choirs with orchestral accompaniment (If you like classical Christmases and classical music, it’s good to have at least one of these in your collection.)
  • compilations of Christmas hymns, carols and songs recorded by:
  • one of your favourite musicians (You will be surprised how bad this is but there’s a chance you’ll get one good piece out of it.)
  • the singer who made the song famous (So if you want Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”, go for this option.)
  • a who’s who list of currently famous musicians, sung in that Carols by Candlelight style that – in my opinion – completely wrecks the songs
  • anonymous studio musicians (I have not yet found one of these CDs worth the plastic it was made of.)
  • new Christmas music, maybe with a particular theme: rock Christmas, Australian Christmas, etc. (You will sometimes find one good song in these.)

So, if you would like to build up a carol collection, start early, keep the bar low and expect it to take years to get a decent playlist.

As with nearly everything else at Christmas, if you have no money, don’t do this at all.[1] If you have a very small budget, wait till late in December and buy Christmas music cheap, or if you have enough money to afford A-list prices, buy in November while the range is good.

2016-08-17
Angels (and baritones) we have heard on high.

My nephew Jack is close to the end of his last year of school.

“Have you chosen what course you want to do next year?” I asked him.

“Metallurgy, paediatric nursing or clowning,” he said.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who are interested in metallurgy, paediatric nursing and clowning and I’m also sure that Jack isn’t one of them. (Oh, maybe clowning. Not that he needs any formal training – he seems to get by on his native talent.)

[1] I won’t suggest you download the songs illegally because I do genuinely think artists should be paid royalties.

18 August

The office shindig

How soon do you need to book your office Christmas party? If you’re a very large group or if you want one of the most popular days (like the Friday before Christmas), you need to book a venue well in advance.[1]

But if your team is smallish or if you’re happy to celebrate on a Tuesday or early in December, you can still find somewhere good even if you don’t book until late November.

But it may worth starting the discussion now. Ask:

  • Who are the organisers? (It shouldn’t just be you – not only is it too much work for one person, but there needs to be a committee to share the blame.)
  • Who’s on the guest list?
  • What’s the budget?
  • Are there any constraints?[2]
2016-08-18
Now, where did I put my pencil?

Jeremy’s real birthday was today. Hannah and Matthew and Danni came round and we had his favourite lasagne followed by rhubarb crumble with birthday candles [3] and Matthew gave Jeremy our father’s watch. It’s a very good one and Jeremy was overawed.[4]

[1] If it’s the kind of venue you need to book, that is. At Watson & Smythe, we traditionally do a sausage sizzle on the banks of the Yarra and, although we do send someone there early to unpack the condiments and reserve the barbecue, he sets out a few hours in advance, not in August.

[2] One year, when I worked for Palmer & Sons, the Christmas party was held in a fashionable new microbrewery. The beer flowed like water but the catering wasn’t well managed and we’d all been there two hours before the food finally came out … with the inevitable inebriation ensuing. It was literally a piss-up in a brewery. So the next year, the social club insisted that the Christmas party would be a formal sit-down dinner with plenty of courses between the drinks.

[3] And we had to move fast, because they started melting from the bottom up.

[4] He also said that he was glad he’d learned to tell analogue time, which sounded like a joke but wasn’t. Jeremy’s friend Zac could not be persuaded to learn the difference between the big hand and the little hand because he was confident that digital clocks were everywhere.

19 August

The joint

For many people, a big chunk of meat is the heart of the Christmas feast.[1] Turkey is the front runner[2] but Britons ate geese at Christmas until a century or two ago and Australians quite often had chicken. A leg of ham is also a classic but you can consider a loin of pork, a shoulder of lamb, a rack of beef or a haunch of venison if it tickles your tastebuds.

I’m not keen on crackling myself but those who are are usually big fans. Here are my cousin Linda’s top tips for good crackling:

  • The fat needs to be scored finely and your butcher will usually have done this for you but, if you do it yourself, use a good sharp knife.[3]
  • Make sure it’s really dry by dabbing it with paper towel.
  • Drizzle oil on the fat and rub in plenty of salt, ensuring you get it into the cracks.
  • You need a fairly high temperature to get it to crackle: try 230˚C.[4] And don’t cover or baste it.
  • Once the fat has crackled, you can then drop the temperature to slow cook the meat.
2017-08-19
Crackle, crackle.

Jeremy’s birthday cake is cooked and the little marzipan cactuses look great.[5] I’ve prepared my speech (three sentences: it wasn’t hard), and I’m ready for Jeremy’s party tomorrow. (I would usually be busy cleaning the night before a party and it feels odd to be choosing a movie to watch instead.)

[1] My cousin Linda always does a whole roast and stuffed pumpkin for her vegetarian daughter Yvette but Yvette was very annoyed the year Linda carved a smiley face into the gourd. She said the key reason that she was vegetarian was that she didn’t want her dinner looking at her.

[2] Only figuratively: a goose will outpace a turkey any day.

[3] And a lot of care. Blood doesn’t enhance crackling, and pork fat doesn’t enhance finger wounds.

[4] The year my Queensland cousins rotated to Russell’s house for Christmas dinner, he cooked a leg of pork in his pizza oven. He said that the trick is that you get the oven really hot, put the pork in and then let the oven cool down slowly but his sister Michelle says that the real trick is to wave goodbye to any hope of scheduling the meal, and resign yourself to waiting to eat until the meat is ready.

[5] Jeremy wanted me to put real prickles on them for verisimilitude but I thought it was more important that they were edible.

20 August

What do you know?

Here’s another possibility for Christmas afternoon: a Yule-themed trivia quiz. You should aim for most of the people to get most of the answers right, so drop any you think are too hard for your gang from the list of sample questions below. Or, if you’re catering to people well-versed in festive lore, mine the Christmas theory entries in this blog for really hard stuff.

  1. List three aliases for Santa Claus.
  2. Who is playing in this year’s Boxing Day test?
  3. Do plum puddings contain plums?
  4. What did my true love give me on the fifth day of Christmas?
  5. Where do reindeer live?

2016-08-20

  1. Do mince tarts contain mince?
  2. Name a Christmas plant.
  3. Provide a good joke for a Christmas cracker.
  4. Who were Jesus’s parents?
  5. What race starts on Boxing Day?
  6. What did Good King Wenceslas take to the peasant?
  7. Name three of Santa’s reindeer.
  8. Does gingerbread contain ginger?
  9. [If you’ve got a house rule about backyard cricket, that can make a good question too.]

Answers:

  1. You can accept any of these names: Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas and St Nicholas. And why not give bonus points for these ones? Angios Nikolaos, Babbo Natale, Christmas Father, Daidí na Nollag, De Goedheiligman, Dyado Koleda, Dzmer Papik, Grandfather Christmas, Kleeschen, Moş Crăciun, Noel Baba, Padre Noel, Pai Natal, Papá Noel, Papai Noel, Pare Noel, Père Noël, Samichlaus, St Basil, Svet Miklavz, Télapó, the Yule Lads, Zinniklos.
  2. I don’t know – so research this one beforehand!
  3. (“Plum” was used as a generic term to mean something good, so they’re effectively saying that plum pudding is full of good stuff – like raisins.)
  4. Five gold rings (plus four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree).[1]
  5. In the Arctic, specifically in Russia, Canada, Alaska, Finland, Greenland, Norway and Mongolia. But you could consider accepting “North Pole” from anyone under ten.
  6. They contain fruit mince, but not minced meat.
  7. I’m thinking pine, holly, ivy and mistletoe and maybe Christmas bush and poinsettia, but you may get some other answers that you can accept.
  8. Judge this one on merit!
  9. Mary, and Joseph or God, depending on whether you’re going for birth father or adoptive father.
  10. The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
  11. Flesh, wine and pine logs.
  12. Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Rudolph, Olive.
  13. Yes.

*

Jeremy’s party went very well indeed – the food was great and the people were merry. And only two of his friends got sloshed on margaritas, which was better than I was expecting. No-one ate the cake[2] but I had anticipated that and gave them all slices to take home. (One of Jeremy’s friends said she’d sleep with it under her pillow to dream of her future husband and I had to explain that’s wedding cake, not birthday cake and it’s fruit cake, not chocolate spice cake. And, although Jeremy’s cake would probably be just as good at foretelling the future as dried fruit, the only thing you can predict with certainty is that it would make a mess of your sheets.)

[1] So day five was the first day the recipient got something other than birds, and they must have been greatly relieved.

[2] When your first course is way too many nachos, you won’t embrace a second dessert with enthusiasm.

21 August

Enveloped

Now that you have your cards made, line up your envelopes. If you used pre-made card blanks, they probably came with envelopes, otherwise, you can buy cheap envelopes for very little money, or you can fold your own envelopes from luxury papers[1] for maximum visual impact. Or you can fold your own envelopes from used paper, for minimum global impact.

If you’ll be folding your own, you can use a commercial envelope of the right size as a template. (Keep an eye on your own mail – you may receive something just right.)[2] Or simply fold the cards up in a sheet of paper, much as if you were wrapping a present.[3] Or make an origami envelope. (My favourites are the ones with little rabbit faces.)

2019-08-21
If I can work out how to turn rabbits into reindeer, I’ll be set.

I woke up this morning to find that the young ones had finished off the remaining chocolate spice cake after midnight and that someone (presumably Hannah) had transferred the birthday bunting to our lounge room.[4] But there was no party debris at all and there’s nothing I need to clean up today: definitely an advantage to entertaining in restaurants.

[1] But, since this is something that’s going to be looked at for half a minute and then discarded, if you’re containing your costs, envelopes should be the first thing you economise on.

[2] Probably around a card from a friend who’s keener to spend money on new envelopes than you are.

[3] You may omit the ribbon.

[4] This was made easy because of the tinsel hooks I have positioned strategically around the walls.

22 August

All the rest

We’ve talked about Father Christmas, St Nicholas and Santa Claus and we know they have different back stories and different traditions but are beginning to merge together: Father Christmas now drives a sleigh, the Yule Lads wear Santa suits and St Basil is often shown with a white beard. But although their habits are converging, they are still men of many names and, depending on what country you’re in, you may encounter:

  • Angios Nikolaos
  • Babbo Natale
  • Christmas Father
  • Daidí na Nollag
  • De Goedheiligman
  • Dyado Koleda
  • Dzmer Papik
  • Grandfather Christmas
  • Kleeschen
  • Kris Kringle
  • Moş Crăciun
  • Noel Baba
  • Padre Noel, Pai Natal, Papá Noel, Papai Noel, Pare Noel or Père Noël
  • Samichlaus
  • Svet Miklavz
  • Télapó
  • Zinniklos

Just as well he doesn’t need a passport for his Christmas trek!

If you want to create Christmas cards or wrapping paper and don’t want to expend artistic talent, take that list of names, add the chaps we’ve already discussed[1] and type it up, giving each name its own font and alternating between red and green, and print it out.

2016-08-22
AKA.

The Christkind also has more aliases than a drug runner and is known as:

  • Gesù Bambino
  • Isusić
  • Ježiško, Ježíšek and Jézuska
  • Menino Jesus
  • Niño Dios.

[1] Father Christmas, St Nicholas, St Basil, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus and the Yule Lads.

23 August

Left hanging

I’m not much of a gardener but here’s what my friend Fiona tells me you need to consider if you’ll be making hanging baskets as presents:

  • You can spend a lot of money on the actual basket so, if you need to be thrifty, make sure you go for the economical options.[1]
  • Fuchsias and impatiens are clear winners for hanging baskets. (You’re looking for a hardy plant with the right amount of dangle: enough to trail prettily over the edge of the pots, but not something that will reach the ground, snake across the floor and try to colonise your backyard the moment you turn your back.)
  • Fiona recommends a good quality potting mix (and she makes her own).[2]
  • Mulch the baskets well.
  • Water them well while they grow, and tell the recipients how thirsty they are.
  • Rotate the baskets every few weeks so that they grow evenly.
2016-08-23
Hang in there.

Christmas Day 1970: Next, the pudding. This was the last year it had money in it because you could still find a few florins and shillings in your change in 1970. There was plenty of custard and when Brian asked for ice cream too, Nanna was happy to oblige. Peter skipped the ice cream, saying, “You can have that any day,” and had minimal custard to maximise stomach space for pudding, but it wasn’t for the currants: it was for the currency.

[1] My friend Sharon has used old colanders and bird cages to excellent effect but she’s an actual artist who can make shabby chic look chic rather than just shabby. (She has a bookcase she put together out of old champagne crates that could hold its own (and books, of course) in an art gallery.)

[2] I don’t want to know what from. (It can stay one of gardening’s dirty secrets.)

24 August

After many years of searching, I now have a fine collection of Christmas music. I’ve split it into a number of playlists and I’ll give you my top three from each, just in case you share my taste in music.

Classical (choirs and orchestras playing traditional carols) – This is good background music for refined cocktail parties and my favourites are:

  • “Away in a Manger” by Yvonne Kenny
  • “Hallelujah!” by The Welsh Classic Chorale
  • “We Three Kings” by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields.[1]

High energy – good if you’re feeling tired but still have to wash the floors. I like:

  • “Buenos Reyes” by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
  • “Celebrate” by Praise Chorale
  • “The Night Before Christmas (The Devil in the Kitchen)”by Ashley MacIsaac.

Kids – These songs won’t send adults nuts:

  • “Come On Children, Let’s Sing” by Judith Durham
  • “Santa Wear Your Shorts!” by Hi-5
  • “Waiting All Night”by Gillian Eastoe.

Miserable – You’d be surprised by how many sad Christmas songs there are that aren’t just “my baby done left me on Christmas Eve”. Try:

  • “Stuck at the Airport” by Money Mark, a self-explanatory piece about a common holiday irritation
  • “Santa Never Made It Into Darwin” by Bill and Boyd, about Cyclone Tracy, which killed sixty-six people and destroyed 70% of Darwin’s buildings, so it certainly trumps being stuck at the airport in terms of abject human misery
  • “The Coventry Carol” by the Frankfurt Kinder choir, which describes how Herod had all the babies in Jerusalem killed when he heard about Jesus’s birth. It will leave you crying in your cornflakes.

Comedy (I do like a good comic song):

  • “A Christmas Carol” by Tom Lehrer
  • “Fabian” by Tripod
  • “Bah Humbugger” by the Dubrovniks.

Christmas favourite – this one started as a joke and it’s all “The Little Drummer Boy” and I am astonished at how many renditions of it that I have.[2] I recommend those by:

  • Anne Murray
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama
  • David Bowie with Bing Crosby.

Apparently, there are a few radio stations in America that play Christmas carols all year round. Much as I love “Joy to the World”, I’d start praying for global destruction if I heard it every day.

2016-08-24
Stuck at the airport.

Christmas Day 1970: The moment she put her spoon down (after her third slice of pudding and thirty cents richer), Caroline looked at her (new Christmas) watch and said “Twelve minutes to two!” and we younger children were very grateful to her. We were planning to swim after lunch, but there was a strict rule that you had to wait an hour after eating and Caroline had now made it quite clear that we would not be delayed a second past twelve minutes to three. We admired her strategy and her focus.[3]

[1] It isn’t, you know.

[2] Jeremy insists we play them all while we wrap presents. Luckily, it really is a favourite song of mine.

[3] And I have no doubt it contributed to her later success as a farmer (even though her brother attributes it to her witch-like ability to predict the weather).

25 August

You wouldn’t credit it

This is a trick for reining in expenses that is simple but surprisingly effective: use cash instead of credit and debit cards. Studies have shown that people pay more when they pay with plastic so you’re more likely to go over budget if it’s your credit card that’s getting the workout rather than the folding money in your purse.

If you think you might overspend at Christmas, plan now to leave the credit card at home[1] because you’re less likely to pay high prices that you’d later regret,[2] you’re more likely to stick to your budget, and you won’t dread your January credit card bill.

The downside is that you have to be organised enough to carry the cash you need, (which is very old-fashioned but so is most of Christmas).

2016-08-25
Cashed up.

Someone who manages money well is my brother Matthew (he also has a very healthy income which helps enormously!) and he told me yesterday that, now that he’s no longer planning to upgrade his terrace house, he’s decided to use the investments he’d been reserving for that purpose on a beach house instead. He’s always had an open-door policy so that means lots of seaside holidays for the whole family and he also said that we could consider having Christmas there next year, which is a very attractive idea. I’ve been giving it some serious thought and that means that next Christmas will technically involve more than 365 days of planning!

[1] My friend Lisa also leaves her spendthrift husband at home.

[2] My sister Wendy bought her son Ben a “Tickle Me Elmo” doll in November at top-of-the-market prices when he was little. By mid-December, Ben was completely over Elmo but the shops were completely sold out and there were huge numbers of parents who had promised their kids the tickle toy and were frantic to get it, so Wendy sold it on at a handsome mark-up. She had no regrets.

26 August

Mulling it over

Here’s my recipe for mulled fruit and I absolutely love it because it combines familiar Christmas flavours (namely spice and wine) with summer fruit, making it an excellent marriage between Northern traditions and modern Australia. It’s a refreshing addition to a dessert buffet[1] but I actually serve it for breakfast, hot if the morning is cool, and chilled if the morning is hot, and with a classy natural yoghurt either way.[2]

Mulled Fruit

2016-08-26

SERVES : 4
START : 3 hours before
PREPARATION TIME : 20 + 1 +1 minutes

 

½ cup red wine                                    1 piece lemon rind                   2 pears

½ cup water                                          6 cloves                                      100g cherries

1 cinnamon stick                                 4 apricots

1 bay leaf                                               2 peaches

 

Put all ingredients but fruit into a saucepan and bring to the boil.

Peel and slice the peaches and pears. Pit the cherries. Pit and quarter the apricots.

Add the fruit to the saucepan and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes.

Chill. Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, lemon rind and cloves.

You can add a little brown sugar if you want it sweeter… and my sister Wendy gave me excellent news today: Cassidy has given up giving up sugar and is much pleasanter to be around. Apparently she is still steering clear of soft drink and lollies but she no longer thinks that dessert is the devil’s work, and fruit is back on the table. Wendy added that she has never been so relieved to see someone eat an apple.

[1] Sometimes people are looking for something that isn’t loaded with fat and sugar at Christmas. (And sometimes people push the fruit aside at Christmas so that they can get to the dishes that are loaded with fat and sugar.)

[2] I used to do a non-alcoholic version with grape juice if children were on the guest list but, when Jeremy was sixteen, he persuaded me that there’s really not much alcohol left in it by the time it’s served (although I’d still play it safe with younger children. I don’t’ want tipsy tots on my conscience).

27 August

Party plan

Looking for some party ideas for Christmas festivities? Decoration is a doddle and you can easily apply Christmas colours to Christmas buffets. Red and green work well with food. Gold and silver are harder but not impossible: you can sprinkle silver cachous and edible gold glitter on desserts and you can serve cupcakes in silver patty cases and baked potatoes in foil:[1]

  • Have everyone dress as Santa Claus. Or put red noses on everyone and call it a Rudolph party.[2]
  • Hold a cookie exchange: everyone brings a batch of their own Christmas biscuits and you all go home with an exciting assortment (unless you eat them all on the spot).
  • Have a decoration day: invite the crowd in to help you decorate, or decorate beforehand and invite them in for cocktails to check out the lights (as I’m planning to do on 1 December).
  • Promenade around whichever local street does the best Christmas lights. Start at your house with an appropriate festive drink and nibbles and finish back at your house with coffee and more festive nibbles.[3]
2016-08-27
Cookie party.

Christmas Day 1970: With the food eaten, the children asked to leave the table – climbing under it if we were on the wall side and navigating through the subterranean tangle of legs – and headed outside to play. But the adults kicked on and reached for the nut bowl. “Christmas should be a day when it’s never worthwhile cleaning your teeth,” said Caroline, and Uncle Jim went from breakfast to fruit bonbons to lunch to pecans without pause.

[1] My niece Emma did a black dinner for her father’s birthday once: caviar on pumpernickel, followed by squid ink pasta with olives, and then poppyseed cake with liquorice ice cream. This sounds scary, but she added white and silver to everything and it looked stunning (and her brother Jack said it was great to have an excuse not to eat his greens).

[2] My cousin Brian tried antlers but found them unwieldy.

[3] My son Jeremy says I should call these “light” snacks.

28 August

It’s in the bag

If you’re been collecting fancy shopping bags, you may now have enough to upcycle into gift bags. I aim to cover up the logo[1] but my niece Emma (from whom I stole this idea) likes to subvert it, by drawing butterflies all over brand names and sticking angel stickers on slogans. Old Christmas cards are instantly festive. Magazines can also provide useful pictures, and you can match your illustrations to your recipient.[2]

2016-08-28A 28 aug 2016 B

2016-08-29C 2016-08-28D

Here are some of my successes to inspire you.[3]

Christmas Day 1970: Before too long, we children were called back from our postprandial shenanigans to do the dishes. Nanna had decided that the uncles would manage the show and the children would provide the muscle.

“Janet and me don’t have to,” said Peter. “We did the morning tea dishes.”

“That gets you out of the afternoon tea dishes,” said Uncle Geoff, “but everyone is rostered on for the dinner dishes.”

Peter was furious. (The greatest pleasure a schemer has is when a plan goes like clockwork but this is balanced by bitter disappointment when a spanner is thrown into the works.)

[1] Although I did make an exception for the bag Jeremy brought home from “Reindeer Footwear” – and if only the pictures had been actual reindeer rather than boots, I wouldn’t have had to do any work on it at all.

[2] I used a portrait of two goldfish for my nephew Jack last year (and framed it in tinsel to ensure it looked Christmassy. (I wish gold fish really were gold and not just orange.))

[3] I’ll leave my failures to your imagination.

29 August

From me to you

Since different cultures give gifts on different days, if there are some significant others with whom you exchange gifts but who won’t be sharing Christmas Day with you, consider one of these traditional days:

  • In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas comes on 5 December (riding on a white horse).
  • In Greece, St Basil brings gifts for New Year’s Day (possibly on foot).
  • In Spain, the three kings leave gifts on 6 January (journeying by camel).
  • In England, Father Christmas has presents ready for Christmas morning (arriving in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer).
  • In Germany, the Christkind arrives on Christmas Eve. (I don’t know how he travels. Perhaps on an angel in a baby seat?)

It’s best to talk to those significant others about it now and get it into your calendars so you can start a new tradition of exchanging gifts on that day.[1]

2016-08-29
Rapt.

[1] My niece Emma sees her in-laws for Christmas on 27 December. This is Emergency Rescuers’ Day in Russia, so the family has an emergency services theme running through their food, decorations and picnic games and, instead of Kris Kringle, they all make donations to the Country Fire Authority. I assumed that there was some long-standing family connection to the Russian police force or fire department but Chris explained that it went the other way: they choose 27 December as a mutually convenient date and then looked for significance, and found Russian ambulances and fire trucks.

30 August

Cellar beware

Once you have a menu for the festive season, add a list of the drinks you’ll need to lay in[1] and, if you spot anything that’s on your list on special between now and December, snap it up.[2] Early in December, actively seek specials out, because this is the time bottle shops try to lure you in with bargains (and free shot glasses and stubby holders).[3] Make sure you have what you need by mid-December; bottle shops know that people buying late are putty in their hands and it will be full price from here on in.

2016-08-30
Gift with purchase… or a constant reminder of the dangers of alcohol?

Danni took Jeremy on a romantic four-month anniversary picnic today. When I saw that she had packed champagne flutes, I assumed a bottle of bubbly was involved and it was, but it was sparkling apple juice, because they’re both still on their P plates and have to have a zero blood alcohol level to drive home. Oh, to be young!

[1] My cousin Russell has a cupboard in his kitchen he uses for dry food like rice most of the year, and for grog at Christmas. He counts this as good housekeeping because he spends November eating up the rice to make room for the beer and so, he says, he’s never left with food that’s past its use-by date.

[2] Provided you have room for it, and you don’t have to eat the rice up first.

[3] My brother-in-law Don is in charge of our Christmas wine list and he relishes the bonus items. One year, he dressed for Christmas in a T-shirt from one brewery, a cap from another and a jacket from a distillery … but then he looked in a mirror and thought better of it.

31 August

Acquire a choir

Even better than listening to Christmas music is making Christmas music.

If you’re already in a choir, you probably already sing carols.[1] There are also some choirs that only pop up for the Christmas season: we had one at an office I worked in which had a twenty-year history and was beloved by all. (In fact, when our new CEO discovered he had a company choir, he said he was nearly as excited as if he’d discovered he had a company jet.)

It’s fairly easy to get your own Christmas carol choir going. You need:

  • some music (many carols are out of copyright and you can find plenty of arrangements that are in the public domain too)
  • a conductor
  • a rehearsal pianist (or violinist or glockenspielist – whatever their instrument, they need to be able to play each of the parts so that you can learn them)
  • singers – at least two for each part
  • someone to organise rehearsals, wrangle sheet music and get decisions made.[2]

You may not achieve cathedral quality but, depending on your audience, if most of the people sing most of the notes right, that may be good enough.

2017-08-31
Sing choirs of mortals, sing in joyful chorus.

Christmas Day 1970: Uncle Jim decided to tackle the baking dishes. He collared Bronwyn and Wendy and had them pile the trays in the laundry trough and fill it with boiling water and plenty of soap. (Nanna was not impressed when she found out about the misuse of her laundry later but, luckily for Uncle Jim, that wasn’t until after he had headed home to Queensland.)

[1] Unless you’re a member of the Sydney Atheist Choir, who very pointedly don’t.

[2] This was my job! (And I’m not too modest to say that I nailed it.)