16 June

Going out for (Christmas) dinner

Some people like to go to a restaurant for their Christmas dinner. Here are the pros:

  • no cooking
  • no shopping
  • no dishes
  • no arguments

Here are the cons:

  • no leftovers

If dining out sounds like a good idea to you, discuss it with your co‑Christmassers, find out their price appetite and their dining preferences and check out the options. (Yes, particularly if you have a large group, now is not too early to book a restaurant for Christmas Day.)

16 jun 2016.jpg
Eating in restaurants serves you right.

One of the pros of Christmassing at home is that you can add or subtract guests at short notice – so if Jeremy stays smitten with Danni, I won’t need to know if she’ll be part of our celebrations until it’s time to set the table.

I like Danni. She chats merrily to me while she’s buttering toast or doing up her shoelaces whereas his first girlfriend seemed incapable of opening her mouth when I was around and didn’t want to come out of his bedroom even for meals. I have two competing theories about your child’s first boyfriend or girlfriend:

  1. You’ll think they’re terrible, even if they’re an angel sent from heaven or
  2. Your child deliberately chooses a crazed hellhound so that you accept their next boy/girlfriend with relief

And the second theory got some support when Wendy was sympathising with her old school friend Genevieve whose daughter was besotted with a dole-bludging, cheapskate, high school dropout but Genevieve said “No, he’s fine: he’s good with animals and he’s not a drug dealer”.

15 June

Let’s have music

I have a song book which divides Christmas music into three categories:

  1. Christmas hymns are sung in church and may be hundreds of years old.
  2. Christmas carols are traditional, non-church songs from before the 20th century.
  3. Modern Christmas songs date from the twentieth century to now. I like to split this group into sub-categories:
    1. old – which means that it was around before you discovered pop music[1]
    2. new – songs that became popular after you discovered pop music[2]

Hymns are always religious (quelle surprise), carols may or may not be religious[3] and modern songs also may or may not be about the coming of the messiah. This means there is some Christmas music you can revel in regardless of your spiritual bent and I’ll sort the (nativity) sheep from the (Yule) goats for you later on.

But I would like to mention “The Holly and the Ivy” now because it’s not suitable for anyone. Here’s a sample verse:

The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.

You can see that this is too Christian for anyone who doesn’t worship Jesus but it’s also too pagan for anyone who does.[4]

15 jun 2016.jpg
The holly bears a berry as red as any strawberry but, unfortunatley, inedible and suitable for neither jams nor pickles.

I asked my son Jeremy if he had any ideas for a present for his cousin Jack. He suggested a drone or a hip flask (which is an endearing mix of the old and new worlds) but neither appealed to me.

[1] Definitely “White Christmas” for nearly everyone alive today.

[2] My sister Wendy is scathing about Wham’s “Last Christmas” which, she says, makes no sense at all. Her husband Don mildly points out that it is no worse than filling the wine keg while draining the barrel (fa la la la la, la la la la).

[3] There are quite a few about drinking – of which more later.

[4] And my brother Matthew likes to point out that the ivy only appears in the title of the song, so it’s also a fraud.

14 June

Gingerbread houses

Although gingerbread houses have become associated with Christmas,[1] they actually originated in the Grimm brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel so they’re entirely secular (they don’t even have pagan roots) and can be enjoyed by all.

If you’d like to make one in the festive season, here are some pointers:

  • If you’re new to this particular construction industry, start with a very simple house design.
  • Make a paper pattern before you begin cooking.
  • Mix up a big batch of my favourite gingerbread dough (recipe 3 June), roll it out to a thickness of 3mm, cut out the shapes and bake them hard.
  • You must use royal icing as the glue because it’s as strong as concrete.[2] And you must use pure icing sugar to make royal icing: it doesn’t work with soft icing mixture.
  • It’s easier to decorate the walls and roof before you assemble the pieces[3] – and do let the icing dry overnight.
  • Putting the walls together is difficult. It’s good if you can get lots of helpers to hold it all in place while you mortar the joints. I’ve also had success with resting the walls against food cans[4]. Then leave it to set overnight.
  • Add the roof the next day. (Again, helpers and cans are handy.)
14 jun 2016.jpg
Try buying these building materials at the hardware shop!

My colleague Gemma mentioned that she’ll be playing indoor cricket tonight and it seems it’s not because she’s particularly interested in hitting balls in sheds but because she and her husband thought they might meet some fun people there. I refrained from remarking that the one thing you know for sure about their teammates is that they like indoor cricket and that doesn’t bode well but I’m glad I didn’t because Gemma went on to say that she’s looking forward to the team barbecue on the weekend. (I will continue to like Gemma even though I don’t like indoor cricket.)

[1] My cousin Linda made an out-of-season gingerbread replica of her newly built house for the housewarming party and she said it was a joy to be able to put it together without having to wait for plumbers and electricians.

[2] I had some left after I built my last gingerbread house and I was tempted to put it in the pothole at the top of my road.

[3] How many lollies will you need? This depends more on how many the cooks will eat as they go, rather than on the area of gingerbread you have to cover.

[4] If possible, position the cans so that you can get them out once the icing dries.

13 June

Ho Ho Ho

That jolly old guy in red has a lot of different names[1] and a lot of different back stories too. Interestingly though, all of these Christmas characters are beginning to merge into one: across the globe, he now wears red with fur and distributes presents, regardless of his ethnic origins.[2]

The English version is Father Christmas, a personification of Christmas dating back to the early 17th century and associated with adult merriment[3] rather than gift giving and he may have evolved from King Winter who had a wreath of greenery (holly, ivy or mistletoe) on his head and wore green or red robes lined with fur.

Since Father Christmas has no religious links, he can be adopted by all non-Christians (and Christians can cuddle up to St Nicholas – of whom more later).

13 jun 2016.jpg
Here’s your doll: now where’s my whiskey?

[1] Padre Noel in Spain, Daidí na Nollag in Italy and Saxta Baba in Axerbaijan to name but a few.

[2] And regardless of his ethical origins too, since vegetarian Santas can trim their suits with faux fur.

[3] That is, he likes a tipple.

12 June

Eggscellent decorations

You may not be able to blow your own glass baubles[1] but you can make delicate, rounded baubles from egg shells.

Here’s what you do:

  • Get an egg.[2]
  • Put a pin hole in the pointy end and another in the broad end.
  • Blow the contents out into a bowl.[3] This actually requires quite a lot of puff but you can make it easier by using a pointy knife to pick away at the hole in the broad end until it is just a little smaller than a sequin.
  • Wash out the insides of the shell with several flushes of cold water. (Again, this is easier if one of the holes is larger than a pin.)
  • Leave it several days to dry.[4]

So that’s the shell sorted but how do you decorate it?:

  • Paint it gold (or another colour). (Spray paint is easy.)
  • Draw patterns on it with markers. (Stripes are easy.)
  • Cover it in glue and then roll it in glitter. (Glitter is irresistible.)
  • Use a combination of the above methods. (Eg: spray paint it blue, draw green lines on it, paint thin bands of glue onto it and then sprinkle golden glitter on the glue.)

Then you:

  • Thread a long needle with strong thread and slide on a seed bead and a sequin.
  • Push the needle from the broad end of the egg out through to the pointy end.
  • Thread a sequin then another seed bead.
  • Go back down through that sequin (but not the seed bead) and through the egg, coming out at the broad end and through the first sequin and seed bead.
  • Make sure you have enough thread to make a good hanging loop, cut it off and tie the ends together.

My Auntie Betty once had a bantam that laid little blue eggs. Her daughter Linda blew the eggs, threaded them up as baubles and then stuck tiny gold stars on them and they were delightful.

12 jun 2016.jpg
Sparkly nail polish, or bauble paint? You decide.

It’s getting close to Jack’s 18th birthday and I don’t know what to give him. (A jet pack is out of the question!) 18th birthday presents are tricky: they don’t require a big present like a twenty-first[5] but I do think they deserve more than the standard present a 17th gets.[6]

[1] Or maybe you can, if you’re a glass-blower.

[2] This was my Auntie Helen’s favourite joke. You ask a small child, “Which is correct: ‘The yolk of an egg is white” or ‘The yolk of an egg are white’?” and then laugh immoderately when they fail to spot that egg yolks are actually yellow. (Humour dates as fast as hairstyles do.)

[3] And use them to make an omelette.

[4] Put it somewhere safe because empty eggs are even more fragile than full ones. (Although full ones are surprisingly strong. As a teenager, I read that you can throw an egg over a house and it will land intact and I had to try it and was astonished to find that it’s true (provided that it lands on grass, not concrete and that it doesn’t hit a gutter along the way – the experiment only took five minutes but the clean up took half an hour.)

[5] Isn’t it odd that 21 is still the special birthday in many families even though it means nothing legally and doesn’t even have a zero on the end? It’s an outdated tradition that’s almost as tenacious as Christmas customs.

[6] When my friend Jill’s son William turned 18, I sent Jill a card, congratulating her on keeping him alive to adulthood.

11 June

On the carpet

This is a sketch I wrote for mixed company… small children and adults. So it has reindeer and insults for the little tackers and the adults get – well, you’ll spot that when you read it through.

You don’t need a set or any props and we limited our costumes to two sets of reindeer antlers and a white beard so it’s easy to stage.

11 jun 2016.jpg
Is that your beard, or are you eating a polar bear?

Again, feel free to perform this, but do acknowledge me as the author.

SANTA CLAUS:        Comet, get in here!

COMET ENTERS AND STANDS TO THE RIGHT OF SANTA.

SANTA CLAUS:         You stand here, Cupid. [INDICATING A SPACE TO THE LEFT OF HIMSELF]

CUPID ENTERS AND STANDS TO THE LEFT OF SANTA.

COMET [IMITATING SANTA]: You stand here, Stupid!

CUPID:                       Well, you stand there, Vomit!

SANTA CLAUS:         Stop that! This is exactly the kind of thing that has got you into trouble.

CUPID [ALARMED]: Are we in trouble?

SANTA CLAUS:         I hear you’ve been teasing Rudolph.

COMET:                     I just said “Is that your nose, or are you eating a strawberry?” and [RAISING ARM AS IF TO WARD OFF A DAZZLING LIGHT] “Oh, the light! The light! You’re blinding me!”

CUPID:                       Come on, Santa: You would even say it glows. [TO THE RHYTHM OF THE LINE FROM “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER”.]

COMET:                     It was funny. Rudolph has no sense of humour.

SANTA CLAUS:        It was mean. It’s not nice to make fun of others just because they’re different.

COMET:                     So it’s okay to make fun of people who are the same? Hey, Stupid: your antlers look like coat-hangers, and you’re so dumb you’d get lost in a cupboard!

CUPID:                       Well, you fly like a popped balloon and you smell like a possum’s armpit!

SANTA CLAUS:        It is not okay to make fun of anyone! And now you’re in even more trouble!

CUPID:                       I’m really, really sorry.

COMET:                     Even a red-nosed reindeer is better than a brown-nosed reindeer.

SANTA CLAUS:        How do you think you made Rudolph feel?

CUPID:                       Sad?

COMET:                     Ugly? Worthless? Like the mutant he is? I hope so, because he is no fun at all.

SANTA CLAUS:        I want you to apologise to Rudolph. And I want you to invite him into your reindeer games.

CUPID:                       Uno?

SANTA CLAUS:        Yes.

COMET:                     Scarecrow tiggy?

SANTA CLAUS:        Yes.

CUPID:                       Hide the sausage?

SANTA CLAUS [TAKEN ABACK]: Only if you both freely consent. And it was Rudolph’s turn to clean the sleigh tonight, but I want you to do it for him.

CUPID:                       Okay, Santa.

SANTA CLAUS:        Go out and do it now.

COMET:                     Do we have to?

SANTA CLAUS:        Yes, you have to! Get out! Now!

COMET AND CUPID BEGIN TO LEAVE. AT THE DOOR, COMET TURNS BACK.

COMET:                     Hey, Santa! Is that your beard, or are you eating a polar bear?

COMET AND CUPID RUN AWAY LAUGHING.

10 June

A toast to roast vegetables

My grandmother cooked big chunks of roast vegetable in the pan with the turkey and, although I objected to pumpkin at the time,[1] they were pretty good.

If you want to ring the changes on that classic, consider:

  • little roast vegetables: cut everything into mid-sized cubes and add baby carrots and small onions
  • different flavours: try rosemary with pumpkin, coriander with parsnips, garlic with beetroot, chilli with potatoes, apple with leek, bacon with anything[2]
  • a rainbow: purple carrots, green zucchini, yellow button squash, orange pumpkin, red capsicum (Unfortunately, you have to skip blue.)[3] Tumble them together or lay them out in rows: it will be a kaleidoscope either way.

It’s winter: it’s a good time to practise roasting and it’s always a good time to eat vegetables.

10 jun 2016.jpg
Eating the rainbow.

Sharon’s cat art sold so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to buy one of the pottery moggies.[4] But I did snap up a sketch (which Hannah admired so I may give it to her for Christmas).

[1] When I look back at my childhood now, I realise that I was so lucky that the worst thing that happened to me when I was young was that I was forced to eat pumpkin. (But it still felt like an outrage at the time.)

[2] I have a theory that there isn’t a dish in the world that isn’t improved by adding either a little bacon or a little chocolate (round the right way: it’s bacon for bolognaise and chocolate for cheesecake, not vice versa). Unfortunately, both bacon and chocolate are things we should eat less of, not more.

[3] Well, you don’t have to. My daughter Hannah added blue food colouring to mashed parsnips once (and she was young enough at the time to think the pretty colour made them taste better).

[4] Sharon says the gallery owner has two key skills: she can tell a good painting from a bad painting, and she can put together the perfect guest list and this opening was equal parts art lovers and cat lovers.