17 February

Biscuit tin wrapping

One Christmas Day, when I looked at the huge pile of shredded paper that had been the pretty wrapping of a treeful of presents an hour before but was now just a heap of junk, I thought that there had to be a better way… and what I hit upon was biscuit tins.

So I snapped up the Christmas biscuit tins I found at op shops[1] and that’s what I put the next year’s presents in. Here are the advantages:

  • A second hand tin is very green because you’re not using up new materials and you can reuse it later.
  • It was a beautifully festive stack of presents (angels, gingerbread houses and reindeer galore)[2]
  • Some people were happy to keep the tin[3] and considered it a supplementary present and some handed their tin back to me to be used again the next year. (Both options are good.)
  • If you like to frustrate present prodders, using a tin is a good way to ensure they can’t feel what they’re getting in advance.

Here are the disadvantages:

  • Although you can keep your average tin price under 50c and this compares favourably with expensive paper and ribbons, it’s not the cheapest option.
  • Some things don’t fit into even the biggest tin.[4]
  • It frustrates present prodders but it plays into the hands of people who cheat: they can easily lift the lid and see what’s inside when no-one else is around.[5]

If you’d like to give this a shot, start checking op shops well ahead of time. (Now is not too early.)

 

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Putting a lid on it.

To the relief of everyone in my office, Donna has announced that she has found a new job and is leaving as soon as she’s served her notice. But my boss Catherine told Donna that’s it’s okay to go on Friday (and I suspect it’s because Catherine’s own birthday is next week and she’s afraid of the cake roster.)

[1] And they’re plentiful: I didn’t have to look hard.

[2] So I found designs for Christians and non-Christians alike but it’s much harder to cater for people with impeccable taste than for those who like cute things!

[3] Matthew gave Auntie Helen hankies last year and Wendy gave her a lavender bag and she bundled them together into my holly tin and put them straight in her drawer when she got back to the nursing home, but she left the embroidery kit I’d given her under her chair: I guess she liked the tin holding the present better than the present itself! (I worked out later that the problem was that she was no longer confident with a needle. I should have gone with talking books.)

[4] I solved this by putting a note in the tin saying, “Look in the laundry”.

[5] And thwarting this by adding a motion sensor seems like overkill.

16 February

Wishing well

Now that you have your present list and your budget, jot down any thoughts you have for presents for particular people. You may not have many yet but you can often collect enough ideas through the year so that the actual shopping is easy. (Or mostly easy. I don’t know what my brother-in-law Don likes[1] and I seldom get inspiration throughout the year.)

So listen when people talk about books they’d like to read and when they admire other people’s things or express a need for a really good vegetable peeler, and then jot the ideas down in your present list[2] as soon as you can sneak away and do so.

 

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She said she wanted cake forks.

I always give my friend Sharon books, and that’s easy because we’re in a book club together so I know her literary preferences very well.

When I dropped Sharon home after book club tonight, she invited me in to give me some jam[3] and continued to talk about “Penelope’s Sandals” and I realised that its underlying theme of bone-deep loneliness had resonated with her. I have assumed that Sharon was happy alone and it looks like I’m wrong, and I’m sad that she’s sad.

[1] Apart from cheesecake. And you can’t give someone cheesecake as a Christmas present.

[2] Provided they’re practical. Jack has mentioned that he’d like a jet pack for his eighteenth birthday and although that might not lose me a nephew, it would certainly lose me a sister!

[3] If you’ve ever thought, “I won’t make jam because I really don’t want three kilograms of the same stuff”, think again: if you give a jar of your nectarine jam to all the jam-makers you know, they’ll return the favour in kind when their own fruit comes in and you’ll end up with a pantry full of peach and plum and melon-and-pineapple.

15 February

Yule love it

If you’re taking Christmas seriously, I think it helps to be well-versed in Christmas history: it will let you sort religious elements from secular pastimes, give context to your traditions and may also provide ideas for new family frivolities. (We played “Hide the Yule goat” last Advent (of which more later) and it was such fun we’ll do it this year too.)

 

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I see you!

So I’ll take you on a walk through the meanings of Christmas (that’s a deliberate plural: there’s not just one meaning… and it’s not all Christian) and I’d like to do it on Monday which is the start to the working week (for many of us) and a good time to take new information on board and to make new plans.

So here’s Lesson One – Yule.

Although “yuletide” is often used as a synonym for “Christmas”, Yule is actually a midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic pagans[1] with drinking, feasting and the sacrifice of boars (the last two elements of which come together very neatly in roast pork). It runs for three days or twelve days or a month, depending on who you talk to and is a snowy celebration of Odin’s wild hunt across the sky.

It is said that King Haakon converted Norway to Christianity in the tenth century of the common era and that he rescheduled Yule to correspond with Christmas as a cunning (and successful) ploy to get everyone celebrating at the same time. And it is indeed the adoption of pagan practices by Christians that sees Yule logs burnt in Christian fireplaces on 25 December and the Yule boar being eaten to this day as the Christmas ham.[2]

[1] Which includes ancient Scandinavians, Icelanders, Dutch folk and the Anglo-Saxons (who gave us words like “beserk”, “ransack” and “frumbyrdling” (a youth growing his first beard)).

[2] That’s not exactly the same boar, of course. Even in the most economical of households, it wouldn’t have lasted that long.

14 February – St Valentine’s Day

Say cheese… cake

If you were going to make a special dessert today (because sugar goes with sweethearts),[1] consider using up the biscuit crumbs you froze after Christmas by making a crumb crust for a fancy cheesecake.

Here’s my favourite cheesecake recipe – make it with strawberry yoghurt if you have chocolate crumbs, apricot yoghurt if you have gingerbread crumbs and any yoghurt that takes your fancy if you have vanilla crumbs.

Strawberry Cheesecake

2016-02-14

SERVES : 8
START : the day before
PREPARATION TIME : 5 + 20 + 5 minutes

3 tbs butter                              500g cream cheese                   ¼ cup brandy[2]

200g biscuit crumbs               ¾ cup castor sugar                   200ml strawberry yoghurt

2 eggs                                        1 tbs cornflour

 

GARNISH: whipped cream and strawberries

Melt the butter, stir in biscuit crumbs and press into the base of a 20cm springform pan. Refrigerate.

Set oven to 150°C. Separate the eggs.

Blend the cream cheese with half a cup of sugar until smooth. Add egg yolks and beat thoroughly. Blend cornflour with brandy and add to mixture with yoghurt.

Beat egg whites with remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into cheese mixture.

Pour into the prepared crust and bake for 45 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave undisturbed for a further hour. Chill thoroughly and decorate with whipped cream and fruit.

Speaking of love, I don’t speak of love with my book club friend Sharon (who is quite reserved so we mostly discuss books and social politics) but I have deduced from her comments on the romances in our literary choices that she had a terribly deep and terribly sad love affair a decade ago. (I’d like to ask her if she thinks it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all but I can’t because I don’t officially know anything about her love life.)[3]

[1] One Valentine’s Day, Matthew made a chocolate cake for his partner Dharma and received in return a bitter tirade on the damage sugar does to teeth. He later realised that this was the first sign that she was having an affair with her dentist.

[2] Or green ginger wine if you’re going with the apricot / ginger combo.

[3] For the record, my own marriage gave me my two beloved children so I don’t regret it for a second and, even if you take Hannah and Jeremy out of the equation, the first few years were so wonderful that I side with Cupid even though my love affair ended as a hate affair.

13 February

Op shop till you drop

If you have anyone on your present list who is happy to receive second-hand presents, here are some things you can reasonably expect to find at op shops:

  • Books… if they’re keen readers of a genre that people whip through at a rate of knots (detective novels and romances being key examples) you may be able to snap up as many as twenty with little effort and minimal cost.[1]
  • China and glassware… if they like quirky, individual pieces. (Again you need to know their tastes here.)[2]
  • Jigsaws… if you like jigsaws yourself (Because it’s a real gamble buying these from op shops so it’s best if you do the puzzle yourself first to make sure you have all the pieces. Again, at op shop prices, you can probably afford to buy a few of these and there will be plenty so don’t just grab the first you see: wait till you find one with a particularly good picture.)[3]
  • Toys… avoid cheap plastic toys and nasty soft toys[4] but you can usually find good quality toys too (In particular, it’s a buyer’s market for second hand bears, so you can get high quality teddies in near mint condition for just a few dollars which would be perfect for small children…. except that small children receive their bodyweight in teddy bears every year and really don’t need any more.)

The thing about op shops is that you can’t rely on them having anything in particular so if you go to just one, the chances are they won’t have what you want. So instead you can do an op shop crusade and go to every op shop in your area[5] or you can go back to your closest op shop at regular intervals to check the new arrivals.

So if you’re planning to give people op shop presents, start early and go often.

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Rescuing (toy) dogs at your local op shop.

My office is on the verge of an uprising because Donna has mucked up three people’s birthday cakes in a row. (I don’t know why she insists on being in charge when she couldn’t organise a round of applause. She should accept her weaknesses and stick to her strengths. (Surely she has some, although snarky comments and bitter jibes are the only ones that come to my mind immediately.))

[1] My sister Wendy once found a large cache of current whodunnits at her local op shop but, before she paid for them, she discovered that the last chapter had been ripped out of each. “There are vandals who disrespect property by tagging people’s fences,” she said with disgust, “There are vandals who endanger our safety by ruining road signs, but the most despicable of all is this person who has destroyed the innocent pleasure of a teacher who educates other people’s little darlings all day and just wants to unwind at night with murder, criminals and buckets of blood”.

[2] You also need to know how to wrap breakables or else you might be giving them a handful of shards.

[3] My mother liked jigsaws but she once put the last piece into a dull picture of a grey church on a winter’s day and said “Why did I bother?”

[4] My son Jeremy had a plush bandicoot with a disturbing squint and an evil leer. If you live near me, you may find it in your closest op shop because it didn’t last long at my place and I doubt anyone would have ever taken it home to theirs.

[5] Once a month, my friend Jill does an op shop tour with her pal Bernadette. They treat it as a catch-up and they have lunch at their favourite café and they both now have very impressive collections of twentieth century literature but Jill’s children have banned her from bringing home any more ornamental owls.

12 February

Cracking up

Christmas crackers:

  • are fun
  • can be a colourful or classy or quirky part of your table decoration[1]
  • make the Christmas feast stand out from the other feast days in the year[2]
  • are entirely devoid of religion so they can be used by all feasters at Christmas time

However:

  • they’re either expensive or tacky[3]
  • the jokes are awful
  • practically no-one will wear the stupid hats, and they seldom fit those who will
  • the trinkets are usually odd things you don’t want

The solution: make your own to improve:

  • The quality of the trinkets
  • The freshness of the jokes[4]
  • The stylishness of the hats
  • The appearance of the crackers and how well they match your table decor

You can keep the costs low (both economically and environmentally) but you can’t get them down to zero so, if your budget is very, very tight, give crackers a miss[5] but, if you can spare a little money, you can produce excellent crackers.

So here are today’s tasks:

  • Work out how many crackers you’ll need
  • Decide what you’re willing to spend on them
  • Decide whether you’ll make or buy
12 feb 2016.jpg
This is a small, rubbery crab that I got in a Christmas cracker. Only someone under three could possibly find it appealing – and for them it would be a choking hazard,

And I have an extra task myself today: the electrician came this morning and installed my new dining room light but he managed to knock a hole in the ceiling so he’s sending a plasterer mate around and I need to arrange a convenient time. (I am irrationally annoyed that the electrician didn’t bring the plasterer when he came himself which would have saved us all some effort, but I guess it would actually have been worse if the electrician had predicted he’d damage the ceiling but hadn’t been bothered to prevent it.)

[1] Choose the option you like best.

[2] So do truly heroic quantities of food.

[3] And far too often both.

[4] It’s difficult to guarantee the hilarity of the jokes since senses of humour vary so widely. (My Uncle Bill, for example, still thinks it’s funny to pull a little girl’s pigtail and ask “How’s your boyfriend?” This used to disconcert my sister Wendy but I’d just say “Which one?” and that shut him up.)

[5] Or ask someone else to provide them.

11 February

Green wrapping paper

It’s only people who lived through the Depression who think that it’s okay to reuse wrapping paper (and they’re thin on the ground now) but there are other recycled options:

  • Brown paper
  • Newspaper – dense print with few headlines is best. (Classified ads used to be perfect but they’re thin on the ground now too. Form guides are a reasonable substitute and Chinese newspapers are superb.)
  • Maps (You may not have any of these lying around but pages from old street directories are excellent for little gifts.)
  • Sheet music (Again, most people don’t have spare sheet music but, if you play saxophone in the local band, you just might.)[1]
  • Children’s paintings (They don’t have to come from your own children!)

Tie brown paper and sheet music with something colourful but maps and paintings will be bright enough already.

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A map – a wrap? A snap!

Now I have a giant teddy bear sitting in my lounge room: Hannah asked me to take it to an op shop for her.

“Why not give it to Poppet?” Jeremy had asked, thinking of their little half-sister.

“Because Caitlin would never forgive me,” Hannah replied, thinking of their stepmother’s aversion to the ever-growing mountain of shonky toys that accumulates around children if you turn your back for a second.[2]

[1] Or if you tidy up after the local band: my cleaner used to do the town hall after the choir had been in and she wrapped all of her presents in discarded SATB scores. (They were occasionally embellished with hand written notes to “Sing up!” or “Watch conductor like a hawk!” but she said that added to the authenticity.)

[2] Which is the other reason for not turning your back on children: the first is that they’re in self-destruct mode and are just waiting for you to be distracted for long enough so that they can stick their fingers in the closest power point. It’s their mission in life.