Here is a very easy gift tag to make: take one of the pieces of coloured card from your stash, draw a circle on it (by tracing around a glass with a pencil), cut it out, punch a hole into it and thread a 10cm length of ribbon or string through. Anyone over six should be able to manage this one even if they have no artistic talent at all.
So if you feel that this tag is well matched to your abilities, get out your tools and materials, put a good movie on and whip yourself up a batch of gift tags to be ready and waiting for Wrapping Day in December.
Today is my brother-in-law Don’s birthday so there was a barbecue at Wendy’s place and I took along a passionfruit cheesecake I wanted to test drive for Christmas and Don and I both loved it so I’ve put it on my list of potential Yuletide desserts. Then Wendy asked Matthew what he was planning for his own birthday (he’s the next cab off the rank birthday-wise) and he was surprisingly evasive. This was odd because he usually organises something fun and he’ll be turning fifty this year so surely he has something super special in mind.
 Like my cousin Russell who was so impressed by the difference his interior decorator made to his flat (all she did was paint the walls in interesting colours, bring in new curtains and decide which of his Mexican souvenirs should be displayed and which should be locked in a vault from which they would never return) that he married her. He claims he fell in love with Melissa’s kind heart but Russell’s sister says that he was really attracted to the idea of having someone else choose his ties.
 It hit 10 stars on Jeremy’s barbecue rating system which isn’t surprising because both Wendy and Gertruda cooked to beat the band.
 So did Hannah’s friend Lachlan but I don’t believe he’s ever met a food he didn’t like, so that doesn’t count.
It’s not just holly and ivy that do well at my place: blackberries can grow a metre in a week and raspberries (a close cousin of the blackberry) also thrive. In fact, when I first moved in, half of one of the kitchen garden beds was raspberry canes but, within a few years, all of the beds were either raspberries or mint with nothing in between. (I’m not much of a gardener.)
Since my canes fruit in December, when I go to a bring-a-plate Christmas function, I usually take a big bowl of raspberries. This is brilliant because:
Although they cost me nothing, they’re an expensive luxury so it’s considered a generous provision.
Most people love them.
Nearly everyone can eat them (even people with allergies or self-inflicted eating restraints) including those watching their weight in the festive season, and they usually appreciate something that isn’t drenched in fat or salt or sugar.
If you garnish them with a few mint leaves, the red and green look very seasonal.
And I can also make raspberry jam and raspberry cordial and raspberry vinegar for hampers and Small Presents. In fact, the only drawback is that I have to spend time picking and preserving fruit in December when there’s so much else to be done, but it’s a pleasant task rather than a burden.
So I heartily recommend that you find a Christmas crop for yourself. You could go with strawberries if raspberries aren’t right for your climate or with anything else that grows well at your place and fruits in December.
“Change of plan,” said Don. He left it too late to book and the ski lodge is full for the whole of the school holidays. So he’s chosen a weekend in August instead. I’m quite happy with this because:
there’s a better chance of snow at Baw Baw in August
if I’m not using my precious annual leave on the holiday, it won’t worry me if it rains
(But is it worth knitting a frog hat just for a weekend?)
 Or fat and salt and sugar like the salted caramel fudge my niece Emma cooked as Small Presents last year. (Most of the recipients loved it but her Pilates teacher did ask Emma if she was trying to kill him.)
 Unless the day I make jam is a scorcher, in which case I feel as if my saucepan is full of lava and my head is full of rocks for turning on the stove on such a hot day.
If you’re living on old-style English cuisine and your usual dessert is a bland, sweet pudding enlivened with, gosh, a handful of currants or a spoonful of gooseberry jam
If you’re a medieval peasant and your standard winter fare is boiled turnips with small quantities of salted meat
If plum pudding was one of your Christmas traditions and so it’s redolent with feasts and festivities and family fun
If you’re not in one of those three groups, you will wonder what all the fuss is about: plum pudding is heavy, it’s packed with dried fruit (when you could be eating fresh cherries and mangoes) and it’s difficult: you make it weeks ahead of time, you mustn’t get flour on the pudding cloth, you have to hang it from the ceiling and you boil it for hours on Christmas Day and it must never go off the boil.
If you don’t want to do pudding, don’t do pudding and don’t be swayed by anyone who tells you that it’s essential.
If you want easy pudding, buy one of the many excellent commercial offerings you can find in the shops.
If your gang like plum pudding, hop in.
If some do and some don’t, up the ante by cooking silver coins into it or by serving it with to-die-for brandy sauce.
Christmas Day 1970: Before Christmas dinner, my cousin Peter told me that he had got up twice during the night: the first time he crept out, the adults were still awake and he managed to sneak back to bed without being seen. But the second time was four o’clock and he went into the lounge room, had a good look at all his presents (and at everyone else’s) and then he slipped out to the tent and went to sleep again. I was astonished: it simply hadn’t occurred to me that one could ignore a strict parental command. (And even at the age of eight, I wondered whether a sneak preview was really worth the effort and the risk.)
 Or have them do it themself. Uncle Jim cooked the pudding the year Auntie Margie went on strike over Christmas (I never heard the details but I believe it was something to do with a puppy, a box of chocolates and a white couch) and every year after that, he made sure he kept Auntie Margie sweet in December.
 I ate three serves of pudding as a seven year old to get the sixpences and my cousin Peter managed four and this was on a feast day when we were both full before we’d started.
Holly and ivy were both brought into my district by homesick British gardeners and they thrived. In fact, they did better than that: they took over so effectively that they’re now rated as environmental weeds. This means that they are in such abundance that it’s easy to decorate lavishly with them.
It’s even greener than having no decorations because you’re actually weeding
Christmas Day 1970: We were given strict instructions for Christmas morning in 1970:
We weren’t allowed to get up until six o’clock
We weren’t allowed to wake each other up any earlier
We had to be very quiet in case the little kids were still asleep
but what really happened, of course, was that Bronwyn was awake at first light and her hushed questions of “Are you awake?” woke the rest of us and we whispered and giggled until the hands of Nanna’s alarm clock finally reached 6am and then we tumbled out of the tent and into the lounge room. And of course we weren’t as quiet as we thought we were being and of course our little brothers and sisters heard us and joined us straight away. Even the baby was there by five past six and he could neither walk nor get out of his cot by himself (but Auntie Margie was as keen as the children to find out what Santa had brought so she abetted him).
 So are blackberries but my sister Wendy illegally turns a blind eye to the bramble patch in the bottom corner of her yard because she loves blackberry pie. (Her son Ben used to needle her about this, but he stopped when she pointed out that he was guilty of profiting from the proceeds of crime whenever he had a slice of pie himself.)
 Literally. The chance of being prickled is 200%.
 Some people paint them gold but it isn’t necessary (or tasteful).
 Always easy on Christmas morning and particularly in a tent.
An increasingly popular gift idea is the charity donation: Oxfam does a famous line in chickens and pumps for third world villages and produces attractive and amusing cards to give to the donor, and many other do-gooders have jumped onto the bandwagon too.
Here are the pros:
No matter how strapped for cash you are, if you’re an average Australian, you live like a king compared to most of the people in the world, and redistributing some of your wealth in the season of goodwill is generous and useful and is surely in the best spirit of Christmas.
Many of the people you will be giving presents to will have so much stuff in their houses already that it will be hard for them to find room for your gift.
Most people like getting presents. (And some people count a donation as not getting a present at all.)
If you like to disguise how much you spent on a present, you can’t do that with something that’s basically a festive price tag.
Target donations appropriately: middle-aged people with good incomes, cluttered houses and guilty consciences are more likely to appreciate them than young, materialistic couples who are setting up their first homes and would have really liked a fancy cheese grater or a scatter cushion.
You don’t have to stick to the obvious charities: you can choose your own, donate in the name of your intended recipient and make your own card to go with it. (Just because your local primary school doesn’t solicit alms for its library doesn’t mean that won’t be glad to receive the cost of a few new books.)
Don emailed me the skiing proposal: beginning of July, Baw Baw. Wendy and Don are in, Emma and Chris are out, Jeremy, Ben, Cassidy and Jack are in and Hannah is out. (I wonder if I have time to knit myself a new beanie before we go. I recently saw a pattern for a green hat shaped like a frog’s head and the young ones will absolutely hate it and sometimes we middle-aged folk like to get our own back on the next generation.)
 WWF do “adopt an animal” (and I’m betting they get more takers for snow leopards than for Vesk’s plant-louse).
 And compared to most of the plant-lice in the world too.
 The year before last, my Auntie Margie moved into a granny flat at the back of her daughter’s place. So when her son gave her a coffee maker at Christmas, she handed it straight back to him and said “You’ll have to keep this at your house”. (She was a tea-drinker anyway.)
 Yes, these presents cost you less than you pay for them.
 And have a Plan B in place in case they say, “Hell no! Give me a real present!”
Preserved lemons are handy for hampers but perhaps you should include a recipe that uses them so that they don’t end up at the back of the pantry along with the Cumberland sauce and the pimentos.
1 month before
250g salt 1 stick cinnamon 4 cloves
1 bay leaf 10 lemons
Sprinkle some salt at the bottom of each jar. Crumble the bay leaf and the cinnamon.
Scrub the lemons, quarter them and mix with the remaining salt. Push the lemon quarters into the jars, adding spice pieces as you go. Scoop out any salt that remains in the bowl and pack it into the top of the jars. Leave them in a cool spot for 1 month.
I saw a film with Matthew last night and we had our usual post-movie strüdel in our favourite café and he spoke of Debbie, his first serious girlfriend. He gets particularly sad on the anniversary of her death (from a heroin overdose about a year after he told her to choose between him and drugs) and Wendy is sick of it.
“She was a train wreck, Matthew,” she said to him a while back. “She was hell-bent on destroying herself and you couldn’t have saved her: she would have just taken you down with her.”
So Matthew doesn’t talk about her much anymore but he clearly still thinks about her sometimes. And I pondered the situation on the way home and I believe Debbie really is the reason Matthew hasn’t married: his next girlfriend was the dreadfully dull Donna, who was clearly a rebound choice after the delightfully dangerous Debbie and he was with Donna until he was nearly thirty, locking him out from other options in his most marriageable years. So I guess you could say that Debbie had an effect on him long after her death… and maybe I should believe in ghosts after all.
 Matthew used to help me wrangle my two kids and Wendy’s three in school holiday matinees. This generally involved animated magical creatures when they were little and they graduated to equally unrealistic action movies when they were teenagers and now the kids are all adults and organise their own cinema-going but Matthew and I still take in a film together whenever there’s one that interests us. (And we haven’t seen a talking dog or a flying super hero for a long time: we’ve had our quota of those.)
Baubles are very Christmassy and the good news for atheists is that they mean nothing: the glass blowers of Lauscha in Germany started making them in the 17th century for decorating Christmas trees and we haven’t looked back since. These days, you can still find plenty of glass baubles in many sizes and most price ranges and you can also find a plethora of plastic baubles in a larger range of sizes and a cheaper range of prices.
They’re also a very easy shape to depict on Christmas cards and tags and wrapping paper. (Bear that in mind if you’re keen to make cards, tags and/or wrapping but are not confident of your artistic skills.)
So Christians and non-Christians alike should feel to free to decorate their trees, their houses, their umbrella stands and any slow-moving pets with as many baubles as they can get their hands on. (Christmas is not a time for restraint.)
 I used to be snobbish about the plastic ones but they really do look good, and they don’t shatter into dangerous shards when you drop them so now I prefer them.