22 December

Uncrate the plates

If your good china is in a dark dungeon somewhere, it’s time to get it out. If you need to dust off your champagne flutes and get the spiders out of the punch bowl, do so. If your silver is tarnished, set your lackeys (or children) to polishing it. And iron your tablecloth (unless it’s plastic).

Unpacks quite a punch.

Wendy just rang. In the two days since they set sail from Brisbane, half the passengers have come down with viral gastroenteritis and the other half with food poisoning and there’s a cyclone heading for Vanuatu. (Mind you, cyclones are nearly as devious as Gertruda, so who knows where it will actually land?)

“It was terrible!” Wendy said. “You’d walk around another corner and there would be another person spewing. And we didn’t dare eat anything from the buffet so we dined on the chocolates Ben had bought Getruda for Christmas and we’ve been hungry, utterly miserable and holed up in our cabins in the rain.”

So they disembarked at Noumea (because none of them were willing to risk gastro mid-ocean) and they’re flying home and they’ll be here tomorrow.

Which means that they’ll be here for Christmas! Hooray! It really is the season of joy! But I’m going to have to go shopping tomorrow to get enough food (what looked like an abundance of potatoes on Saturday is an embarrassing dearth today) and suddenly I don’t have enough crackers!

I rang Matthew. “My table seats fourteen,” I said. “We can’t have seven people in other people’s laps and I don’t have time to work it out because I have to completely redraft the menu.”

“Leave it to me,” he said. “They’re predicting perfect weather for Christmas so we’ll carry your dining table out onto the deck and add my trestle table and that will give us… fourteen minus two plus six … eighteen. Hmm, we’ll need two trestle tables.”

“Chairs!” I said. “And my tablecloth isn’t big enough! And if it’s going to be sunny, won’t we need umbrellas?”

“I’ll sort it,” he said. “Save your fretting for the turkey.”

The turkey! The little free-range bird I ordered from the butcher and Hannah’s small turkey breast roast won’t be enough![1] I did see a few at the supermarket when I got my extra ham yesterday (not on the bone: it’s a gypsy ham in plastic, which will Have to Do) so I’ll go back this afternoon and hope I’m not too late.

[1] There’s a limit to how far you can stretch a turkey: they’re not elastic.


15 November

China check

How many people are you feeding at Christmas? Do you have enough plates? What will you do if not? Buy more? Borrow some?[1] Mix different sets? Is there anything you could adjust? Are the kids small enough to use salad plates? Would they prefer festive plastic plates?[2]

15 nov 2016
Christmas assortment.

Also check your cutlery, and glasses and if you don’t have enough, I can probably lend you some of mine, because Wendy rang me last night and said, “Janet, you know our cruise?”

Of course I do.

“We set sail on the twentieth. I’ve just found out.”

“The twentieth of January? How’s that going to get you back for first term?”

“The twentieth of December. We’ll be away for Christmas.”

I was aghast.

“I told you Gertruda was devious! And I can’t say no now. Everyone is looking forward to it so much – and it is a tropical cruise. I don’t want to miss it either.”

Do you know who that leaves on my guest list for Christmas dinner? Just Matthew and me. I confess I cried, but it wasn’t for the loss of the splendid Christmas I’ve been looking forward to, it was because my whole family seems quite happy to do without me. But crying doesn’t change anything, so I eventually pulled myself together and started to recut my plans. (We won’t need the extension for the dining table. In fact, we could use the little table on the porch and still have plenty of room for water jugs and walnuts. And crackers: I made fourteen, so we can have seven each. How festive.)

[1] My friend Fiona and her sisters couldn’t decide who should get their mother’s dinner service when she died, so they split it. This meant that none of them had enough dishes for even a weekday dinner so they all went out and bought more. Between them, they ended up with three dozen identical place settings so they all borrowed from each other whenever they had a big party. “The initial fight ended up with us working together,” says Jill. “I think my mother would have liked that.”

[2] They can be pretty gaudy, but kids usually like gaudy.

12 November

A bit drafty

It’s time to draft your Christmas letter to get it into the mail at the end of the month. Start with the basic structure:

  • What are your main stories? (If tossing up between something important (like the reason you decided to move house), and something amusing (like what happened when you packed confetti in the same box as the clockwork toys), choose amusing.)
  • Will you list the tales in chronological order or do they flow better some other way?[1]
  • Which are the must-have photos?
  • If any whimsical, light-hearted phrases pop into mind, jot them down as you go.
  • Then knock the outline into sentences and paragraphs and remember to keep it under two pages (even with photos), to make it entertaining and keep it modest.

The letter doesn’t have to dance with merriment in this first draft[2] but do ensure it’s coherent.

Letter opener.

I emailed my nephew Jack to ask him what he’d like for Christmas and he sent me a link to some board shorts he wants for the New Caledonia beaches.

“When exactly are you going?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard the dates,” he said, “but Babcia said she made sure it was in the school holidays.”

Late December or early January, then. I won’t count them into my New Year plans.[3]

[1] My cousin Caroline’s last letter went in reverse order: she started with photos of a new hayshed decorated with balloons and streamers, followed it with the dramatic tale of how the old one burnt down, then told us about the rats that dragged oily rags under a faulty popcorn maker, and ended up with the fortuitous visit of her insurance agent two weeks before that who got all her policies in tip-top order. (The only detail she omitted was why she had a popcorn maker in a hayshed.)

[2] Although some people can’t help it: Todd once sent me a packing list before we took our two families off to spend a week at his ski lodge and it was hilarious.

[3] There are some people you can never count in for your NYE plans. Uncle Geoff was a (very) early riser who got hours of farm work done before most of us sat down to breakfast so he tended to nod off in front of the television at about eight thirty each night. He would join in the early NYE festivities each year but, at about nine o’clock, he’d say, “I guess the new year can see itself in without me,“ and shuffle off to bed.

7 November

Trickle cards

As with the Christmas shopping, you can do all of your cards in one big hit or you can trickle-feed them, depending on your schedule and inclination.[1]

If you’d like to do your cards in small batches, writing a few every night in the evening (or on the train, or waiting for the kids at swimming lessons)[2] can work well and it also makes it easy to stay fresh when adding personal notes.[3]

If you’re using commercial cards, write the names of the people you send them to inside the box. Then, if you have a few leftovers, you can use them next year but you’ll be able to ensure that you send different cards. (Or just send the leftovers to the kind of people who won’t notice the same card two years running.)

Pick a card, any card.

My nephew Ben was talking about their South Pacific holiday. It seems they’re all going: my sister Wendy and her husband Don, and their kids, and the kids’ partners and baby Mia. It would be lovely to be rich enough to be able to take all of those people on a luxury cruise but, when confronted with other people’s wealth, it’s also important to remember your own: if you’re well fed, well housed and have access to good hospitals and schools, you’re better off than most people in the world, so you’re rich too.

[1] And the number of cards – Hannah sent just two cards last year so doing them all at once and doing them two at a time turned out to be the same thing.

[2] But not in the rain at Little Athletics, which is what Lisa did one year and they were unreadable.

[3] Sending exactly the same “personal” note to everyone is even easier.

4 November

Reining it in

Sticking to your budget requires discipline:

  • Don’t buy a present that’s over budget unless you’ve already made the savings elsewhere.
  • Don’t buy dubious presents early in November: you may come across something better later.
  • It is okay to buy dubious presents late in November but only if you promise yourself that you won’t replace the compromise present with something else at the last minute. (Buying twice is False Bargain #2.)
  • If you get a surprisingly good bargain, don’t feel obliged to add anything else: a good present is a good present even if it’s cheap.[1]
“Surprise me,” she said. “I’ve got you something you’ll hate,” I replied.

Of course, all of this is much easier if you have a very generous present budget.

“You won’t believe what Gertruda is giving us for Christmas!” Wendy said to me in an excited phone call at lunchtime. “A tropical island cruise! New Caledonia and Vanuatu! In suites with balconies!”

Gertruda, although stubborn (and, apparently, devious) is both well-off[2] and generous, which is a happy combination for both the giver and the receivers.

[1] My mother tended to do this. She’d buy a scarf for her sister and be worried that maybe it wasn’t quite right so she’d add a book and, although logic says that the combination should have felt like an even more generous gift, the extra book just telegraphed that she thought there was something wrong with the scarf.

[2] Although she’s not so heavily laden, now that she has sold most of her jewels.