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A Christmas comedy with crackers, crackling and crack ups. Janet organises her Christmases 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.
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A Christmas comedy with crackers, crackling and crack ups.
Janet organises her Christmases 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.
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.
For those without hangovers, New Year’s Day is traditionally picnic day – by the water, if possible. Lakes are very popular and the beach is good too (although I, for one, don’t like sand in my sandwiches).
After so many days of heavy-duty feasting, a light and refreshing repast is generally more welcome today. Think fruity drinks and slices of watermelonand antipasto-style smorgasbords with good, fresh bread.1 (Both of my grandmothers took cold sausage rolls to picnics. I still think it’s a little odd, but I can tell you that they are always received very well.)
If you go into the woods today… check the fire danger first.
January is the perfect time for organisation and another document that you’ll need in your Christmas dossier is a shopping list. (I have promised you tips for doing a low-cost Christmas, but I’m not sure it’s possible to do a zero-cost Christmas.2)
Set up a shopping list today and divide it into three parts:things you should buy soonthings to keep an eye out forthings you don’t need to buy soon.
And you can use your earlier notes to put a few items on the shopping list already, like decorations you need for your tree (unless you’re saving money or the planet); and gaps in your china collection you need to fill (ditto).3
And don’t buy anything at all if you can borrow it: my sister Wendy and her son Jack came around to pick up my inflatable crocodile and Wendy asked if I’d like to come camping for a couple of days – Jack is heading back one weekend for a friend’s eighteenth so they’ll have a spare stretcher. Wilson’s Prom is probably the most beautiful place in the world so I accepted with pleasure.4 Then Jack asked if I’d bring one of my egg and bacon pies (which is what my mother used to cook before quiches were invented). When Wendy pointed out that the night I’d be there would be the night he wouldn’t, he then asked me to bring two egg and bacon pies and save one for the next day.
Wendy runs a very efficient campsite, so I suggested she write a camping blog but she said, “You do realise that one of my tips is to invite people down at different times so that they can bring fresh supplies?”
“Mum!” said Jack, aghast. “Don’t say that! She won’t bring the pies!”
“I already knew,” I said, “and I think it’s a fair exchange.”
Because Wilson’s Prom really is stunning. It’s even worth sleeping on a stretcher for.
The best time to go to the sales for Christmas stock is now. Prices plummet from 25% off on Boxing Day to 50% a few days later to 75% early in January, but do remember that a ten-dollar trinket that has been marked down to $2.50 is a waste of $2.50 if you don’t need it5 (which is False Bargain #1 and we’ll meet the other false bargains later on). This is where your shopping lists come in handy – check them to see what you actually need. If you’ve got plenty of baubles, don’t buy more. If your colour scheme is red and green, don’t buy blue tinsel. (And don’t buy teddies in Santa hats at all, not even if they’re giving them away.)
If you have children and you give their teachers presents, snap up a few fancy decorations if you can find them at knock-down prices. A single, luxurious decoration is a welcome gift because you can’t really have too many6 and it doesn’t matter if you’ve already got one the same. Also, if you’re one of the dwindling numbers who still send Christmas cards, today is a good time to stock up for next season; but only buy what you need, don’t buy them if they’re too expensive and only buy them if they’re attractive.7
If you want to keep your costs or your planetary footprint low next Christmas, don’t buy cards or decorations at all: you can easily make them for nearly nothing (of which more later).
I confess to succumbing to an impulse buy in the sales: a large, pink, inflatable flamingo. My justification is that I want to float down Tidal River and I’ve already lent my sister Wendymy crocodile but, although I paid a lot less than you’d usually have to fork out for a flamingo, I could have got a plain blow-up ring for much less money. This makes it an indulgence and not a bargain, but I fell in love with it at first sight. (Flamingos have flair; they’re the princesses of wading birds and they lend themselves surprisingly well to inflatable sculpture.)
I haven’t persuaded Wendy to write a camping blog. “My advice can be summed up in five words,” she said. “‘Keep dry, and pack chocolate.’” But she is thinking about a database of camping equipment she and her friends have so that they can share it around. She had the idea when her friend Gretchen gave her husband a camp oven for Christmas, because Wendy has an excellent camp oven that she is happy to lend them, and Gretchen’s second choice was a vacuum sealer, which Wendy would have been keen to borrow.
“So you want your friends to give each other presents that suit you?” I asked.
“It’s win-win.” she replied.
Still got some ham left? You don’t have to eat it all in sandwiches. You can:Shred it and put it in an omelette.Dice it and put it in fried rice.8Cook it into pasta sauce.Add it to anything cheesy, like cauliflower bakes or quiches.
You could make ham stock from the bone and freeze it for later. (Use the turkey stock recipe from 29 December; it works for the bones of any animal.)9 Or skip the middle man and go straight to pea and ham soup, if it’s not too hot where you are today.
Makes 4 litres Preparation time 30 minutes Start 3 hours ahead
1 large ham bone (approx. 1 kg)
1 brown onion
1 cup split peas
1 cup soup mix (barley, lentils, etc)
Place the ham hock in a large saucepan, cover it with water and simmer for an hour.
Then chop the onion and add it to the pot. Rinse the split peas and soup mix and add them too.
Cook until the meat comes away from the bone (1 to 2 hours) and the peas turn to mush, adding more water whenever necessary, and then remove any fatty skin.
Remove the ham bone from the soup, shred the ham, and return it to the saucepan.
Serve with crusty bread.
My daughter Hannah and my brother Matthew came around for lunch today and I made them each a croque monsieur (which is really just a fancy ham and cheese toastie), which they enjoyed because they haven’t been living in the home that houses the Christmas ham. My son Jeremy has, so he was less impressed but the fruit salad cheered him up because I splashed liqueur onto it (which is a good way to get adults to eat fruit.)10
Hannah had dropped in on Auntie Helen on her way over and reported that she was being spoon-fed because she can’t manage cutlery by herself any more. Then Jeremy reminded us of the time Auntie Helen was sharp with him when he spilled honeyed carrots on her nice tablecloth. He wondered if her decline was karma and said that perhaps he should try harder to be nice to people.
“Start with me,” said Matthew. “You could wash my windows.”
But Jeremy replied that he could be kinder still to his uncle by keeping him fit by letting him wash his own windows. He added that, since Matthew’s waist is noticeably broader than his own, perhaps it would be kindest of all to let Matthew take on Jeremy’s lawn-mowing duties, at which point I said that they clearly needed to work together and I delegated the making of the coffee to them.
It’s time to pack up your Christmas cards. Open your Christmas document and create a “Cards” list and then, as you take each card down,11 write the name of the sender into the list so that you remember to send them a card in December. Also update the co-sender names in your address book12 as you go: if your bridge partner Natalie sent a card from “Natalie, John, Monikka and Troy”, list those names and those spellings and you can be sure to get them right in next year’s card (and any other correspondence during the year).13
Finally, bundle the cards up into a shoe box or a Christmas biscuit tin because you can use them later on in the year for Christmas crafts(of which more later).14
Tin them: don’t bin them.
Today was my first day back at work15 and I went to the cupboard to get a new notebook (for the new year) and found the stationery had been completely reorganised.
“Donna changed it around while you were on leave,” said young Gemma.
I had done it myself just a few months ago, putting the frequently used items at the front and the annoying little things in tubs, but this morning it took me a few minutes to find the notebooks and I knocked over a stack of erasers on the way.16 I went back to my desk without a word. (You don’t need to defend yourself when you’re right: the truth will out.)
Tomorrow is the official day for taking down Christmas decorations but you can really do it as soon as you’re ready and I always do it early in January.17 That’s because, when my ex-husband and I separated, I never wanted to talk to him again and we quickly settled on a default formula for holidays so that we didn’t need to discuss it: he’d have the kids for the second week of the Easter, winter and spring holidays and also from 2 January to Australia Day. So this time of year has always been lonely in my house and I keep myself busy with tasks like taking down the tinsel.18
Start by taking your Christmas notebook to the first room and note which decorations worked and which didn’t and if you need more hanging stars or fewer snowflakes.19 Once your notes are finished, take the decorations down, package them as you go, discard anything that has had its day and set aside anything that needs repairs. (If you’re inclined to be soft-hearted when evaluating old decorations, enlist the advice of a teenager.20 You can count on teenagers to be absolutely ruthless in matters of anything that predates them so they are invaluable when you want to cull old things. Just make sure you retain the right of veto.)
Label each box, and you may want to label some of the individual decorations too, like noting that the long holly garland is for the hall and the short holly garland is for the study.21
Here’s a tip for young players: if you’re putting your Christmas supplies into some deep, dark, unfathomable storage place (which makes sense, because you won’t need them again for nearly a year), keep one box somewhere accessible for that forgotten decoration you find in March or that fabulous Wedgewood bauble bargain you buy in February or that beautiful little angel you are given for your birthday that you think would make a good Christmas ornament.22
This is Twelfth Night – why not watch Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to celebrate? (Particularly if you like love triangles, dukes and cross-dressing.)
Tins of tinsel, trinkets and trees.
I met my cousin Brian’s wife Lynette in the Fitzroy Gardens during my lunchbreak today. We had a picnic of cheese pastries and Waldorf salad, which was what we’d agreed, but I added raspberries and she added fancy chocolates and take-away coffee, so we ended up with three courses. I said we should have brought more cutlery and she said that we should have brought a waiter. I had assumed that Brian and Lynette lived very comfortably in Singapore, but now I think that they may live very comfortably in Singapore. Then we went to Captain Cook’s cottage and she loved it but she asked me two questions I couldn’t answer:Why did someone think it was a good idea to move a stone cottage from Yorkshire to Melbourne?Why do tourists go there in droves?
When Hannah was ten, she was besotted with a weighty tome called Great Unsolved Mysteries – I may add Cook’s cottage to it!
Christmas belongs to everyone, which may be why there are so many different versions of it:Christmas Day is 25 December, unless you’re Armenian, in which case it’s 6 January, or you follow an Orthodox church that follows the Julian calendar, in which case Christmas Day is 7 January.25 December is also the start of Christmastide, which lasts for twelve days … and finishes either when the three kings reach Bethlehem or when Jesus is baptised, both of which were said to be on 6 January.And this makes Twelfth Night either the evening of 5 January, if you count it as Epiphany Eve as the Anglican Church does or 6 January, if you count it as the night that follows the twelfth day.And Epiphany itself is on 6 January. (Hello today!)
The only consistent thing is that there are never twelve drummers drumming because that’s just a song and it was based on a memory game rather than on traditional pastimes. (The seventh day of Christmas is one of many days you might find seven swans a-swimming and, if milkmaids only went a-milking on the eighth day of Christmas, we wouldn’t have a dairy industry.)
But the majority of people count today as the last day of Christmas and that’s why today is the day you officially take down your decorations.23
Easter eggs for sale in January! Outrageous! (It may take a year to prepare for Christmas, but you can wrap Easter up in a week.)
Today I was packing up the tree at work when I heard yet another person swearing at the stationery cupboard when they went to get a new notebook (for the new year). I think Donna’s arrangement was alphabetical and that’s not practical if you’re not sure if whiteboard markers are under W or M – or even P for pens.
Adherents of the Serbian Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas Day today. They prepared yesterday by gathering around an oak branch (called a badnjak) and walking around the church three times widdershins.24 Outside Australia, guns are often fired. Inside Australia, that’s likely to land you inside jail. If it’s not appropriate to burn the oak branch (because it’s too hot for a fire inside or because it’s a total fire ban outside), using a bundle of oak twigs as a decoration is a suitable substitute.
The first person to visit your house today is the polaznik, who will bring you luck for the coming year. Good luck is what you’re looking for but they could bring bad luck (in which case you don’t invite them back again next year). In some areas of Serbia, they go outside again, make a circle with the rope that the Christmas straw was tied with, put grain in it, catch the rooster and behead him for Christmas dinner and are paid with socks for their trouble. You may want to skip that tradition if you don’t have chickens … (or if you already have plenty of socks).
Decorating with oak leaves: just as pretty as holly, and far safer.
I was on a ladder a few days ago,25 taking down my Christmas decorations, my nose up against the wall as I unhooked a swag of tinsel, and I noticed how shabby the paint in my dining room is. I’ve been pondering since then and I’ve just decided that I will repaint and I’ll do it soon to take advantage of warm, dry summer air.26 If you have any renovations coming up yourself, either ensure they’ll be finished well before December or make a Plan B for your seasonal festivities, because the only guarantee with renovations is that they’ll take longer than you expect.27
Before we get too far into Christmas plans, there is one thing I’d like to make very clear: Christmas should be fun28 so don’t do feel obliged to do anything you don’t like:If you despise decorations, don’t have any. (But if you don’t want people calling you a bah-humbugger, one small, strategic Christmas tree allows you to say, “I have decorated! Look!”)If you don’t like buying presents, shave your recipient list to the bone and give gift cards to anyone left on it29 (and buy the cards online to avoid the shops).If you don’t like wrapping presents, shop where they do it for you.If you don’t want to receive presents, let people know well in advance. (There may be a few who won’t accept this, so consider having a charity in mind to suggest for donations.)30If you can’t cook, you can buy just about every dish you need ready-made so you can organise a feast without lifting a spoon.If parties are not your thing, prepare a string of excuses.31
At Christmas – possibly more than any other time of the year – you can outsource everything and there are so many elements to it that it’s not even a tiny problem if you skip some of them. You really don’t have to go carolling or eat shortbread, so put your energies into the bits you enjoy and wave the rest goodbye (from a deckchair, with a cocktail in your hand).
Begone dull care!
There’s something that’s been puzzling me for a while and I took the opportunity to ask my nephew Ben today.
“When you kept the sprig of jasmine that Cassidy had worn in her hair, how did you know how to press it?” (It’s not something that’s taught in Cubs and I don’t believe soccer teams sit around discussing their preferred flower preservation techniques.)
“When you have a sister as crafty as Emma, things rub off,” he explained. “I can also do a five-strand plait and I make a mean origami gift box.”
Here’s another thing you might not enjoy about Christmas: your family. I’ve always had amiable, happy Christmases with a supporting, loving family, but I do know that there are plenty of families where some relatives are just plain unpleasant, some are carrying injuries that they can’t move on from (perhaps minor and unjustified, like trivial cases of sibling rivalry; perhaps major and unforgivable, like rejection and abuse), or someone gets drunk and then everyone gets nasty.
I don’t have experience here and I don’t feel I should offer advice on something this important so, if you dread getting together with your “loved” ones, do think about it. Is this something small that you can find a practical solution to? (For example, if you have messy fights about washing dishes, you could go to a restaurant, but this won’t help if the fights are really about something else and the dishes are just the trigger.) Is this something significant that you’d be justified in avoiding? (I knew a couple who holidayed in Europe every Christmas, ostensibly for the skiing but actually to evade the in-laws.) Or is this something big that you should seek help with?
You’re not obliged to be miserable so that someone else can have a good Christmas. If you’ve suffered enough, it may be time to change something.
Some things can’t be put back together.
Let’s work on an easy list today – your Christmas card list:You already have a record of everyone who sent you cards last year (see 4 January) so add other relatives and friends that you’d like to give cards to.32Then consider your co-workers and staff, including people like your postie, garbo and cleaner.33Count them, count any cards you have already, and work out how many new cards you’ll need this year. Then round it up by a few – it’s always nice to make new friends!
And that’s it. You’re halfway there with your cards and it’s not even Australia Day!
I’ve just painted some sample colours on my dining room wall and I’m tossing up between “Butter Shake”, “Clover Garden” and “Swedish Linen”. (This got me thinking about the absurdity of paint names and how descriptive some of them aren’t so I set myself the challenge of creating names that sound like swatches on a colour chart but which actually give you no clue at all to their hue. My favourites were “Pixie Dust”, “Chameleon Summer” and “Jellybean”.)
I’m tempted to choose “Clover Garden” because the green will look so good with Christmas decorations, but a dining room is not, of course, just for Christmas!
Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany and is the day when English farming work resumed and a plough was dragged from house to house, accompanied by a pantomime dame and a jester collecting money.34 Traditional food for the day is boiled suet pudding with meat and onions, but that’s probably not what you’ll be feeling like in the middle of summer.
It’s time to start another key Christmas document: your budget. You will need a spreadsheet that contains:categories of expenseindividual items that you’ll be spending money on. (My brother Matthew always includes a category called “surprises”, which has covered firewood the Christmas it hailed, dried fruit for his friend’s pudding party and his (enforced) contribution to the life-sized polar bear toy that his colleagues decided was a must for winning the office Christmas decoration competition.)how much you’re planning to spend on those itemshow much you actually spend on those itemsspace for ideas and notes. (My friend Fiona’s sister Melanie’s idea that all of her siblings would like rescue kittens is one that you’d want to check with your siblings before you wrapped the kittens.)
Make the first category Christmas cards (if required). You know how many cards you’ll need to buy, so add that cost and include the price of the stamps too.
Now add a presents category and populate the list of recipients by thinking about which relatives, friends, colleagues and employees you give gifts to. (My formula is that I give proper presents to the people I see on Christmas Day and Small Presents (of which more later) to others.)35 Then add people you buy presents for on behalf of others, like your young children or your elderly parents.
I always lock my present spreadsheet with a password – otherwise it might not just be Santa who knows what I’m up to!
My boss got back from leave today. She spent three weeks riding in the high country and half of this morning telling us how much she loves horses and the other half how much she hates mosquitoes. Then she went to the stationery cupboard (to get a new notebook for the new year) and was not impressed by what she found, so she instructed Donna to put everything back the way it was. I enjoy being right as much as the next person but Donna really didn’t like having to consult me to find out where everything should go.
At Christmas, you look at a sideboard groaning with desserts and ask yourself not “Which?” but “Which order?” So I serve sweets in dainty portions and then we can have the strawberry mousse and the butterscotch panna cotta and the passionfruit pav and the key lime tart.36
Here are some ways to do that:Set jellies and mousses in sherry glasses.Cook tarts in cupcake trays. (Use classic cupcake trays where each cake is six centimetres in diameter rather than muffin trays, which are eight centimetres in diameter.)37Make trifles and puddings in small ramekins.Roll smaller rum balls and cut fudge into smaller slabs.When you’re buying pre-made ingredients, choose the smallest size available: mini meringue bases for pavlovas, little strawberries for dipping in chocolate, baby sponge fingers, and so on.38
A soupcon of flummery.
My friend Jill is going on holiday and she asked me to water her garden. Most of it is drought-proof but vegetables are as thirsty as alcoholics and she said that everyone else she could ask is away too. I told her that my gardening skills are rudimentary at best and she said that all I needed to do was hold a hose, and so I accepted the challenge. (And the strawberries. There’s plunder in this job.)
Today’s list is a master menu for every dish you’ll need for the Christmas meals you’ll cater. Although you can’t finalise the menus (or even the schedule) until December, if there’s anything you always have,39 you can put that down now and add any good ideas you have in the future. (Baklava for tea? Beans with almonds and garlic for lunch?)40
You might also be able to identify some major themes now: maybe you like to do dips for bring-a-plate functions; maybe you cater a big seafood bash on Christmas Day; maybe you have a stable of classic desserts you roll out once a year.41
When you’ve sorted those out, add a new item to your budget spreadsheet for food costs and estimate how much you’ll spend for each of those events. Don’t be scared by the total, we can knock that down later.
While we’re talking about food, I should mention that I can help you with many aspects of Christmas but my festive background is primarily British so I apologise for not knowing how (or even when) to cook byrek me kungull dhe are. But here are a few dishes my research tells me are popular around the world:
Bûche de Noël – cake shaped like a log (France)
Cougnou – bread shaped like the baby Jesus (Belgium)
Candy canes – peppermint lollies shaped like walking sticks (USA)
Gingerbread houses – buildings built from biscuits (Germany)
It’s clear that what Christmastide is lacking is vegetables in festive shapes. The only thing I’ve thought of so far is Mr Potato Head angels but I can’t see these guys taking off! (They’re not aerodynamic, for a start.)
In Poland at Christmas, they eat pierogi (filled dumplings) and I know this because my sister Wendy phoned through an order from her mother-in-law last night.
“Janet,” she said after the usual pleasantries, “Gertruda asked me if she can cook sauerkraut pierogi next Christmas.”
“Of course she can,” I replied.
“She wants to serve them at Christmas dinner.”
“Well, she can’t because we’ll be having turkey, but we can eat the pierogi for Christmas tea along with the cold meats and the salads and I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”
“She was very particular. She said she wanted them at dinner.”
“She can have them at tea.”
“Janet,” said Wendy. “I know Gertruda better than you do and she is very devious. If she really wants sauerkraut pierogi for Christmas dinner, I advise you to put them on the menu … and the turkey too, naturally.”
I didn’t budge. What can Gertruda do? Sulk all day? That might ruin her Christmas, but I’ll ignore it and it won’t ruin mine.
The heart of the festive season, both socially and etymologically, is the feast, so Christmas is a time for lashings of luxury food – which is as bad for the planet as it is for your stomach. If you usually try to keep your ecological footprint low, you have three main options:Feast. (One day is a small fraction of a year so eat lots of lovely food on the 25th and make up for it later.)Feast, but choose the greenest options for all of the traditional offerings. (I’m not talking peas versus carrots here.)Eat sparingly of sustainable dishes.
Here are some suggestions for Option 2:Buy free-range meat42 and sustainably fished seafood.43
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