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Christmas was, Christmas is ...

"We've reached the most wonderful time of year" Coles Magazine

"Christmas magic exists in the little things doesn't it?" Woolworths Fresh Ideas Magazine

I have reached countdown time for the big Christmas thing and so I thought I would try and do a few posts on what Christmas is for me - in the food sense mostly. But today some more general musings.

Our next door neighbours are doing their Christmas thing today. It's a gorgeous blue sky day and they have all been out in the garden. They have several small grandchildren and they have been running around cheerfully yelling, screaming and laughing. I think possibly for a moment there my lovely David thought that we too would be having the same thing happening here next Sunday and so wanted time for the grandchildren to play - as they used to do. Alas, three of them will not be here - they are 'doing' Japan, and currently Bali, for the holidays. The other two are teenagers, although they may well kick a football around for a time. Maybe with the son of my niece's sister-in-law, as I think he is just a little younger. And my great nephew Stanley is only two. So - no this is more or less an adult Christmas party. Food, drinks and good conversation. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Adults can have fun too.

This is my 'Christmas was ...' I was the grandchild. My beautiful grandma (my mother's mother) is in the middle. I am in the back row, pulling faces next to my mum. My father is in the front row with my brother in the middle and sister at the side. The other man is my uncle who lived with my grandma - they must have been visiting for Christmas - and the photograph must have been taken by my aunt who lived with us. It's a relatively OK photo for a group photograph - and the times. Nobody has their eyes closed.

These were the important people in my life. There were other aunts and uncles of course, and cousins too but the people in this room were my core family. The ones who really mattered.

We would have made those paper chains and draped them around the house. Do they still have paper chains? I suspect not which is a pity because we had such fun making them. Nowadays it's all fancy LED ligts sparkling everywhere. And what about those incredibly elaborate and somewhat awful hats? Did we make them too? They would not have come out of a Christmas cracker. Three balloons bravely bouncing above a cheap painting - or print - that I think my sister still has. And my dad is there - without any teeth by the looks of things. People lost their teeth so much earlier back then. I note that my dad is there because he was often away at sea. But everyone is truly smiling. Happy.

Through all of my growing up, living at home years, Christmas would have been much the same. In my mid teens my father gave up sailing away across the world, so he was always there. The front room in our small semi-detached suburban London home, which was never used throughout the year, was cleaned up and decorated and for a brief period it was inhabited. Such a curious thing. Everybody did it. It was almost a display room. I vaguely remember a massive mirrored cocktail cabinet in there. Now why didn't we convert it into another bedroom? Heaven knows we needed one. I always shared with my sister and my brother inhabited the tiny boxroom. Well at least it was his.

David and I married a few days before Christmas, partly I think, so that we had an excuse to be blissfully on our own. Which was spoilt by university friend James turning up just after Christmas. And our remaining English Christmases were divided between the two families of our union. They took it in turns to have us on Christmas or Boxing Day.

But for all of those years family was the key thing. A time to get together and splurge on fancy food and presents. A time, as well to make all those traditional things, beginning with the Christmas pudding a month or so before. Christmas cake, mince pies - maybe even the fruit mince for those pies - and brandy snaps. But yes, family.

Jump a few years and now we are in Australia - on our own - no family - and so we gathered together with similarly deprived ex-pats, going from house to house before going home. I don't think I cooked a Christmas dinner then. I think on maybe our second Christmas we set off with our friend Graham and his then wife, along the coast to Sydney. So Christmas was a barbie on the beach in true Australian style, though I doubt it was prawns. Or turkey for that matter.

I found this lovely photograph that encapsulated those years of coupledom in Australia - not a family time although efforts were made to phone home - long waits - sometimes you had to book a call. And expensive. How times have changed. Yet even without family it was a special day.

Then we began our own family. A nuclear family - just us and our two little boys, although occasionally grandparents joined us from England. They were particularly special Christmases. So we tried to make up for the lack of presents from cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents by buying up big - big being the operative word here. Children love BIG presents, and when you are a child Christmas is all about presents and Father Christmas. Well food too but probably the food for Santa's reindeer is just as, if not more, important than turkey. Food doesn't figure that largely in the picture, It's all about exciting things that you don't do at any other time.

Although even back then the stuffing was the best thing when it came to food. It's Jane Grigson's and you can find it here on The Great British Chefs website where Anna Tobias reproduces it for us. Honestly it's the best thing for turkey, light, lemony and buttery. These days Christmas isn't Christmas for my two, now middle-aged sons, without the turkey and celery stuffing.

Over recent decades we have undergone the cycle again. The child centred Christmas with all that that entails, the coupledom phase from a different perspective when our sons were overseas doing their coupledom thing, the child centred phase again with the grandchildren, and now the large extended family feast with young and old. How long before the next child-centred phase? A decade, probably more I suspect and we shall be long gone.

Currently we do it all twice. As my younger son's family goes overseas for the holiday period - he puts on a Christmas dinner for our extended family which now numbers 15. Then I do it for the remainders which this year includes a whole lot of overseas visitors.

Enough of my boring family reminiscences. Is it all worth it? Is it truly Coles' 'most wonderful time of the year'. Maybe for Coles, but not necessarily for us.

Family. A word that encompasses everything from hatred to love, joy to angry dissent. I know of one, now great grandmother, who after hosting her large extended family last year vowed never to do it again. It took months to get back on speaking terms. And you could say that without Christmas all would have been perfectly fine. We, I am happy to say have a wonderful family, but even so the stress of it all can widen the tiny cracks that sometimes appear.

So maybe Woolworths 'magic in little things' is more appropriate. Maybe several little gatherings are better than one big one. But then it wouldn't be Christmas would it?

Tradition. Turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes - crucial. Ham, accompanying vegetables less so, but crucial none the less. The rest - variable. Christmas crackers - I'm still pondering on that one. They are stupid and those silly hats are marginally embarrassing, but they make the table look good, and somehow they are perhaps the little thing that actually makes the whole thing really Christmas. I think I tried something else one year - some chocolates packaged like mini crackers, but I think the real crackers were missed.

The Australian Women's Weekly in its beautiful Christmas Cooking with the Weekly says:

"It is an occasion to indulge in good food as we celebrate with family and friends. But Christmas entertaining isn't all bubbles and giggles; it can be a daunting experience. ... Creating lists and time plans will be your saving grace for a smooth running Christmas. Having a list lets you see exactly what has to be done and when."

Too right. I have made my lists, done a bit of shopping, organised assistance because this year I'm doing it with one hand . And everyone is pitching in. But I still keep wondering what I have missed. And worrying about the weather - so much easier to seat everyone outside and it's looking increasingly dodgy weatherwise. The worries will remain until everyone is sitting down with a plateful of turkey. Then I shall relax. Like when you have got rid of your cases at the airport checkout.

Why indeed do we do it? Our family is not at all religious, although going to church was part of the tradition when I was a child. It is after all a religious festival, and yet, even though we have lost the religion, or in some cses never hadit, or have different one, we still celebrate big time. It's also a tradition that has been increasingly debased and commercialised over time - like all such festivals I guess. It's a paradox. It's the most stressful, and for many the most distressing time of the year. If you are alone that aloneness is magnified surely? For the rest of us it's a major series of crises, from presents and decorations, to food, and seating, and let's not mention the economics of it all. And yet there is magic - somehow. And ironically perhaps, most of it is to do with family.


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