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A Christmas comedy with crackers, crackling and crack-ups Janet organises her Christmasses with the precision of a marching band; from turkey to tinsel, she has it under control… but while she’s making gift tags and Christmas crackers, her family are making other plans. In this first slice of plum pudding, Janet starts a Christmas blog, paints her dining room and finds a long-lost aunt, while introducing us to the correct way to pack up Christmas decorations and the best recipes for Christmas leftovers.
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A Christmas comedy with crackers, crackling and crack-ups
Janet organises her Christmasses with the precision of a marching band; from turkey to tinsel, she has it under control… but while she’s making gift tags and Christmas crackers, her family are making other plans.
In this first slice of plum pudding, Janet starts a Christmas blog, paints her dining room and finds a long-lost aunt, while introducing us to the correct way to pack up Christmas decorations and the best recipes for Christmas leftovers.
To my friends and family,
I’ve stolen all the Christmas stories you ever told me. I hope you like what I’ve done with them.
Boxing Day is my second favourite day of the year: all of the tinsel, all of the trappings and all of the turkey of Christmas (well, not all of the turkey, but there should still be plenty left) without the hustle and the hassle.
Yes, this day deserves its name in lights.
But Christmas doesn’t have to be harried. If you plan ahead, the day can flow like the pipers at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and my own Christmases are Yuletide clockwork because I coordinate them with precision.
“Janet,” said my colleague Donna admiringly (I think it was admiringly),“you organise Christmas within an inch of its life. No-one starts Christmas earlier than you.”
My secret is that I don’t start Christmas at all … because Christmas need never stop. From Boxing Day on, if you do just one little thing every day, you too can have a dazzling, beautiful, merry Christmas. And that’s why I’m writing this blog: to share my festive organisation tips with the wider world.
And I’m not just talking about Christendom. Here in Australia, Christmas is far more than a mere religious festival:1 it’s the end of the year, the start of the summer and the beginning of the holidays, as well as a feast, the most important family gathering on the calendar and a mistimed winter solstice festival.
So Christmas belongs to every Australian. Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists can hang baubles, exchange presents, feast with friends and make merry. And this is one of the things I’ll guide you through in the year ahead: I’ll let you know which bits of Christmas are purely secular (like crackers) and hence available for absolutely everyone, which bits have mild religious connotations (like pagan Yule logs) and can be adopted by anyone flexible, and which bits are strongly religious. (You may not want to set up a nativity scene right next to your lounge room shrine.)
I’ll also be giving you some hints for an economical Christmas (because no-one needs to go into debt for Christmas. It really isn’t necessary, not even if you want to make a splash) and some ideas for a green Christmas (because celebrations don’t have to break the planet).
But let’s get down to the heart of the matter: what should you be doing today so that next Christmas dances to your beat? Although much of Boxing Day will be a pleasant progression through the leftovers from yesterday, stretched out on the lawn, playing with your presents2 and chatting with your relatives,3 there is one important task that you shouldn’t neglect. While it’s still fresh in your mind, think over yesterday and note what went well and what could be improved:Did you run out of a particular food? (I come from a long line of over-caterers and we don’t like to finish even one dish at a party: if all the lamingtons are gone, then there might have been someone who wanted another and couldn’t have it and that will be on your conscience for all eternity.4)Were there enough spoons? Did they get through the dishwasher fast enough?Did you have trouble with the rubbish?Was the present opening a happy festival or a chaotic frenzy?
And so forth.
But apart from those reflections, kick back and enjoy my second-favourite day of the year!
It’s time to put away the good china, checking it for chips5 and cracks, and counting it as you go.
Now estimate the number of people you’ll be feeding on Christmas Day next year, and remember that you can’t be certain of the exact number at this stage. In my case, even though I know my children and my sister and her family and my brother and my aunt will be here, it’s possible my brother may bring home a new partner (which he has done off and on through the decades6 but he’s nearly fifty now and he’s slowing down).
It’s wise to add a few to the number you come up with to budget for surprises. If you don’t have enough plates for everyone on your guest list or if you broke your favourite serving bowl or have decided that you really do need a gravy boat,7 note what you’re missing so that you can fill the gaps when you find a bargain.
It’s back to the dungeon for you, fine china!
My nephew Ben and his girlfriend Cassidy visited me today because Cassidy had lost a necklace. She couldn’t find it at home and thought she might have left it here on Christmas Day so they turned the place upside down but the jewellery didn’t appear. Then Ben knocked my trifle bowl off the dining room table and smashed it to smithereens (which saved me putting it away, but was a waste of washing). It’s a shame but I try not to get too attached to fragile possessions, it’s just asking for grief.8
You’ll be sick of (or sick from)9 eating Christmas food by now so it’s time to deal with the leftovers:Wrap the remains of the Christmas cake in foil, plonk it in a cake tin and stow it in the pantry. It will keep for months so you can get it out in March when you feel like fruitcake again.10Mince tarts and shortbread will stay good for weeks, so put them into airtight containers but don’t forget about them.11Gather up any Christmas biscuits that are feeling their age, blitz them into crumbs in the blender and freeze them. You can use them later to make a special crumb crust for a cheesecake, but you won’t be wanting cheesecake today.Christmas pudding can be frozen now and successfully reheated later.12If you still have jars of fruit mince or cranberry sauce, hang onto them. They’ll last forever if you’ve lidded them properly and kept them cool.13Move leftover bottles of cream to the back of the fridge: you can make scones with sour cream later. (Recipe on a later date.)If you have any creamy or eggy desserts left, throw them out, even if you’ve kept them refrigerated. They’re not safe any more.Leftover salads have also had the gong.14Ham is fine and will keep for weeks if you’ve been looking after it, but if you’re sick of it, whack most of it into the freezer and bring it out in February for toasted sandwiches.Throw the stuffing out but if you’ve kept the turkey in the fridge, it will be okay. Carve it up, freeze it in meal-sized portions and use it later in risottos or any of your favourite chicken recipes.15 Keep the bones for stock. (Recipe tomorrow.)Anything else that has been sitting around buffet-style should certainly be thrown out today (or even yesterday): it’s been too warm too long.
The grandmother of a school friend of mine died of food poisoning at about this time in December many years ago (and the family have had their Christmas dinners in restaurants ever since). Bear that in mind if you’re feeling sentimental about the potato salad.
Keep the ham. Ditch the salad. Don’t touch the tiramisu with a ten-foot spoon.
My nephew Ben and his girlfriend Cassidy came back again today to give me a new dish.16 Ben told me that Cassidy had made him buy a straight-sided glass bowl because she knew that was best for trifle, which surprised me because she refused the trifle on Christmas Day and disparaged the pudding and satisfied herself with the merest sliver of lemon tart, so I had her marked as a dessert-phobe. I don’t have much time for people who see ice cream as an insult but, after I’d thanked Ben for the bowl, Cassidy gave me a little china reindeer plate to express her gratitude for Christmas Day and said she appreciated how hard I must have worked to get everything perfect. I may have misjudged her.
Cassidy also explained why the missing necklace meant so much to her: on their very first date, she and Ben passed a fence covered in jasmine and Cassidy put some in her hair. Unbeknownst to her, when the flowers fell out, Ben gathered them up and kept them. Then for Christmas he took them to a jeweller and had them squinched between two little circles of glass and framed in gold to remind her that he has loved her ever since that first date.
Make stock with the turkey bones. (Don’t be scared – it's easy.) Just boil the bones up in a big pot with an onion, a stick of celery, the heel of a carrot and the stalks of any parsley you have left after you’ve used the leaves elsewhere. Also add 2 tablespoons of acid (vinegar or lemon juice) because this leaches the calcium out of the bones and makes your stock calcium-rich and excellent for anyone who doesn’t eat enough dairy.17 Simmer it all day (a slow cooker is perfect but you can do it in an ordinary saucepan on the stovetop – in fact, the largest pot that came with your saucepan set is called a stockpot for a reason), strain it, cover it and cool it in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, scoop off the fat that has accumulated on the surface and discard it (although in leaner days, they’d have called it “turkey dripping” and fried things in it)18 and freeze the stock in one-cup portions for use in anything that asks for chicken stock, like soups and casseroles.
You’ll be surprised what a sense of achievement you’ll feel with a freezer full of homemade stock. It’s the kind of wealth you can’t win in a lottery.
The other Christmas stock-ing.
Today I suddenly remembered that my son Jeremy vacuumed the cracker glitter off the dining room floor between dinner and tea on Christmas Day19 so I thought it might be worth looking in the dust bag and, sure enough, there was Cassidy’s necklace. She was delighted to see it. (I washed the dirt off before she came around; when your love token looks like garbage, it’s easy to take it as a bad omen for your relationship!)
The official day for taking down Christmas decorations is 6 January, Twelfth Night (of which more later), but if you have a potted pine, it will be pining for the great outdoors, and if you have a cut pine, it will be getting long in the tooth. So look at your tree, critically assess the overall decor and note anything you’d like to improve.20 Then pack up the decorations one type at a time21 – all the large baubles, say, or all the wooden elves – and inspect each one carefully as you go, throwing out anything that’s shabby22 or irreparably broken (and it’s much easier to be ruthless when you’re packing up than when you’re decorating.)
If it needs a new string or a minor repair, put it in a Christmas tin (we’ll talk more about this another day too) to fix later. Show no mercy to tinsel: if it’s bald in spots or matted with sticky tape or flattened or faded, chop out the bad bits and throw them away. If you’re left with a hangable length, put it away. If it’s too short to hang but long enough to wind round a present, you could save it for next year’s Christmas wrapping. If it’s too short for wrapping but longer than 50cm, keep it for next year’s Christmas crackers (of which more later). If it’s shorter than that, throw it out.23
Soon you will have a well-organised stack of boxes of decorations for your Christmas tree and good notes about what you need for an even more spectacular display next year.
Finally, take your potted Christmas tree outside, stand it in the shade and water it well; after being inside for a couple of weeks, it won’t be ready for full sun yet. Leave your cut tree out for the rubbish truck.
Catch a falling star and put it in your work basket. Save the repair for a rainy day.
My cousin Brian is a jet-set exec who currently lives in Singapore but he’s home for Christmas so we had a family get-together at our cousin Peter’s house. This is where I learnt that Singapore’s rain has caused Brian to become so obsessed with umbrellas that he has bought a brolly factory, cousin Linda has climbed a few more rungs of the CWA ladder, cousin Caroline is piloting virtual fences for her sheep (which have had technical problems so her neighbours are calling her Little Bo Peep),and cousin Peter has a scheme for trading half-filled coffee loyalty cards with his colleagues that he says is giving him a free cappuccino every week.
I also enjoyed a long chat with Brian’s wife, Lynette, and discovered that she has never been to Captain Cook’s cottage but she’d really like to, so we’ve set a date for next Tuesday. She asked me to bring more of the cheese pastries I brought to Peter’s house, I asked her to bring some of her Waldorf salad and, since we evidently have the same taste in picnics, I think we’ll have a good lunch!
New Year’s Eve sounds like it’s a big day but very little happens while the sun is up, which means today is a good time to begin the planning for next year. So let’s create some lists. You’ll need:a schedule (“What” won’t work without “when”.)a guest list (Even if you’re flexible about “who”, “how many” is vital.)a master menua present lista card list24a decoration plana budget (Unfortunately, “How much?” is also an important question.)a shopping list.
An efficient way to do this is with documents and spreadsheets in a folder on your favourite electronic gadget but, if you want to go old school, you can set up a little notebook instead.25
Begin the schedule by creating a December calendar page and then pencil in the Yuletide functions you expect to attend next year. (Boxing Day picnic with the in-laws? Carols by Candlelight supper? Big end-of-year turn for Rotary?) Of course, you won’t have all the dates (or even all of the events) yet but you can probably guess a few26 and you can change the others as the information firms up.
Once you have your draft schedule, create a draft guest list for the events you’ll be hosting. (You may not be sure of all the names yet, but you can probably get ballpark numbers.) Here’s my own guest list for Christmas Day next year:myselfmy daughter Hannahmy son Jeremymy brother Matthewmy sister Wendy27her husband Dontheir children Emma, Ben and JackEmma’s husband Chris and their baby28Ben’s girlfriend CassidyDon’s mother GertrudaAuntie Helen.29
Which is fourteen. I wasn’t expecting that to be the final number because I didn’t think Ben would still be with Cassidy by Easter but, now that I’ve heard the story of the jasmine necklace, I have changed my mind. (And perhaps she can be taught to appreciate pudding.)
1 Yes, it’s bigger than Jesus.
2 Maybe you’re going to the Boxing Day sales, but I can’t recommend it: you don’t get the best bargains and the crowds are horrible so you have to be someone who likes both shopping and extreme sports to take pleasure in risking a mall today.
3 Or maybe you’ll be watching the Boxing Day test. (You’d have to like cricket more than I do for this to be a good idea but, since it’s impossible to like cricket less than I do, you may well be in this category.)
4 My sister Wendy still feels ashamed that the croquembuche at her daughter’s wedding wasn’t quite big enough for everyone to have second helpings.
5 That’s nicks in the rim, not crispy potatoes. (Although if you do find fried vegetables on a plate, you should certainly sort that out before you pack it away!)
6 Of his three long-term girlfriends, he asked Debbie to ditch drugs for him but she did the opposite, Donna was dull and he decided he couldn’t live any longer without jokes, and Dharma dropped him for her dentist. Unless he finds someone new whose name starts with D, I’m assuming he’ll die a bachelor and I don’t think that’s a problem. After all, I’ve been single since I left my husband many years ago and my life got dramatically better when I did (even factoring in the dresses I had to stop wearing because they zipped up at the back).
7 My brother-in-law had a family competition to name his canoe. The Good Ship Lollipop and The Gravy Boat got honourable mentions but he went with Canoe Wahoo.
8 Of course, the same could be said of pets (and even children) but I think I’ve drawn the line in the sensible place!
9 My brother Matthew says that his over-indulgence in pâté, port and trifle on the 25th is strategically planned to make him keen to start his perpetual New Year’s resolution to eat sparingly.
10 My son Jeremy says that you’d have to wait for eternity for him to feel like fruitcake. In that case, you’d need something more impervious than foil.
11 I once worked in an office where the fridge contained a dish of perfect, fluffy spheres of mould which were about the size of mice but may once have been strawberries. Grown men were afraid to touch them.
12 My paternal grandfather used to fry pudding in butter for breakfast on Boxing Day but he died young of a heart attack so don’t follow his example.
13 They keep so long, Jeremy could have them with his fruitcake.
14 My cousin Russell is scrupulous about throwing out salads the moment they grow weary. “I might risk a stomach ache for a pork dumpling,” he says, “but you’d have to be mad to eat a dodgy vegetable. Where’s the reward?”
15 It is technically possibly to substitute turkey for chicken in your least favourite chicken recipes too, but why bother?
16 “Oh you shouldn’t have!” I said, and I really did mean it: restaurants budget for a certain amount of breakage each year and I think it’s a good thing to do at a domestic level too. Although I regret mentioning this to my son Jeremy, because now, whenever he smashes a glass, he says, “Hey Mum! Have I got you on budget yet?”
17 Except vegetarians (with the possible exception of my cousin Bronwyn who doesn’t like seafood and decided she was allergic to dairy products and called herself an ovo-bovo-vegan).
18 My grandfather also did this but remember that he didn’t live long enough to pass this tip on to his grandchildren in person.
19 He’s twenty so he didn’t think of this for himself… but he did it quite cheerfully when I asked him to..
20 Auntie Helen used to have a red plastic tree that she thought was cutting-edge because she decorated it entirely in black. No-one else was sorry when she didn’t have enough room at the nursing home to take it with her.
21 Unless you’ll use them later in the year: my friend Fiona puts mirror baubles on her fruit trees to scare away the birds and my sister Wendy bedecks her tent with solar-powered fairy lights so that she can read in “bed” as easily when camping as at home.
22 Auntie Pat kept the decorations her children made in primary school so long that they ceased to be recognisable: if you can’t tell if it’s a reindeer or an angel any more, euthanise it.
23 Christmas garbage is so pretty.
24 If required. If you’re under thirty, you’re probably asking “What’s a Christmas card?”
25 My nephew Ben’s footy coach planned a barbecue in chalk on the side of the club rooms but it wasn’t portable, and he’d have been in trouble if it had rained.
26 My colleague Pete Vanderhoven always reserved the first Saturday in December to go to a Dutch grocery store so that he could bring Dutch liquorice into work on the morning of 6 December. (And, since none of us had developed a taste for triple-salted black sweets, he always took Dutch liquorice home from work the same afternoon.)
27 Who rang me today to ask if she could borrow my inflatable crocodile. (She’s about to spend a fortnight camping at Wilson’s Prom and there’s a great thing you do at the top of the tide: when the first waves wash over the sand bar and push their way up Tidal River, you jump onto an air mattress (or an inflatable crocodile) and let the warm, clear water take you right up to the bridge.) I wasn’t planning on using my croc anytime soon, so I said yes.
28 Due in May, so it will be about seven months old at Christmas, meaning it will only be eating mush, but will certainly need a present. What fun!
29 Maybe – she’s declining rapidly and if she reaches the stage where it’s not possible to take her out of her nursing home, we’ll have to work out some kind of visiting thing.
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