My father died when I was 12. Christmases were a little less perfect after that. Grandmother did her best to make the holiday special, but her heart wasn’t in it as she watched my mother slide into alcoholism. My brother left home. As soon as school ended I headed for grimy, raw edged London determined to create my own life and Christmases.
That first year, the London hostel I was living in emptied at Christmas and my grandmother, now living on her own, sent me a ticket home. It was just the two of us. On Christmas Eve, we walked through the dark streets of Salisbury to sing carols from the choir stalls of the gloriously gothic cathedral and then rushed back home to the Rayburn. We drank mugs of frothy Horlicks and nibbled my favourite custard creams whilst toasting our toes on the guardrail. As Christmases go, it was stress free, warm, and memorable.
The following year I found myself married and in Ghana, a first posting of what became 13 years of expat life. Christmases in warm climates took some acclimatising to. Barbecues on the beach didn’t sit well with my idea of Dickensian conviviality, of snow falling, roaring log fires and a huge turkey for one and all – the Crachit family had left their mark. In Bahrain, the expatriate community clubbed together for a lunch that morphed well into the night. Twenty-five people of differing nationalities sat around a table with a motley crew of kids, but not one elderly relative in sight. The air conditioning blared away as the temperature outside rose to 40C. Amahs sweated over turkey and roast ham in the kitchen, whilst guests loaded the table with their own seasonal specialties. Candied sweet potatoes and pecan pies jostled for room with Brussels sprouts and plum pudding smuggled in from Blighty. Much alcohol was drunk, silly hats worn and games played. Merriness and conviviality were achieved if a winter wonderland was not.
One Christmas I arrived in the teeming urban sprawl of Jakarta, Indonesia with two small children in tow and only three days to put together a festive meal for the four of us. The children were jet lagged and cranky. Oblivious to what was happening in the kitchen I was shocked when the rather rotund cook girl plonked the turkey on the table and then asked if it was okay if her number two could take over. Four hours later she had given birth to a baby boy who then came with her to work every day swaddled to her chest. A Christmas birth is always magical, but my guilt at not noticing the immediacy of her situation was not.
In Haiti, one Christmas was held in a Swiss type chalet in the hills of Kenscoff. Over 1500 metres above sea level, the temperature could be said to be on the cooler side. Seeking the Christmas Carol effect, I snowed all the window panes, installed a fake tree bought from an all year Christmas shop in Miami and insisted on a log fire despite the temperature never being below 20c. A French butcher sold me the raw suet from around a cow’s kidney so that I could melt it down to make a proper pudding. The result was inedible, even a mountain of brandy butter couldn’t take away the smell or taste of cow. Brussel sprouts were off the menu too, something not regretted by our American and French guests. I had planted some in the spring but they had grown no bigger than a pea, without a doubt missing that all important frost.
Back in London, for one of my first Christmases I rented a cottage in Northern Wales, not only so we could invite the relatives, but also in the hope that we would have more chance of snow. I was eight months pregnant at the time, which alarmed the cottage owner so much he had the holes filled on the farm track so it wouldn’t rattle me into labour too soon. There was frost on the ground, but no snow fell. In our local town, Rhayader’s we attended a carol service in the market square, standing around a Christmas tree. As the carols reached the local pubs, men poured out to join us and lend their lyrical depths to the choir. The Christmas spirit was alive here, whether on their breath or in the deep baritones that lifted the carol up into a night sky decked with stars.
A few years later, I was divorced and with four children. I was even more determined as a working mother to make Christmas special and have the Victorian celebration that I thought everybody else was managing to provide. Paper chains swung from light fitting to light fitting, a swathe of fake fir wound itself up the banisters. Windows were snowed with stencils and glass balls dangled mixed in with holly, ivy, and mistletoe. I made everything from scratch. The cake was stirred in November and then fed weekly on rum or brandy before being covered with homemade almond paste and thicks waves of royal icing. Bronze turkeys were queued for at Lidgates in Holland Park whilst darkly smoked hams were delivered from Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street along with a round of good British Stilton. I took to serving cocktails on Christmas Day morning, maybe to steady my nerves if not to get the party going. Goose eventually replaced turkey, but ham was always ham, cooked in Coco Cola with advice taken from Nigella’s Lawson ‘Feast’. Despite the change of bird, the accoutrements had to remain the same. Roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, sprouts, carrots, giblet gravy, pork chipolatas, Devil’s on Horseback, chestnut stuffing and a fruity one too. The board truly did groan. A pause was supposed to be timed with the Queens speech but we didn’t often make it. As the children were older, games were introduced to create some physical activity to burn off the calorific intake and make room for Pudding. The lights were then dimmed and the flaming pudding stuffed with ‘favours’ was carried to the table with a dish of ‘highly inflammable’ brandy butter. A somnolence came over the carb-laden group as they collapsed onto sofas glasses of port in hand, whilst the younger ones surfed for the Christmas movie. All was replete and throughout the house, nothing was heard except a few snores, quieter fortunately than a mouse.
Looking back, I suppose that was as near as I got to my idea of the perfect Christmas, but I was exhausted in the attempt to achieve this perfection. Most of the time I longed for nothing more than to get to Boxing Day when I would spend the day lying on the sofa in my pyjamas watching back to back movies and nibbling off cold cuts and pickles.
These days my children are all grown up with children of their own. Celebrations have to be divided amongst expanded families and every other year we do alternative Christmases. I have learnt that a memorable Christmases doesn’t have to come with weeks, if not months of effort. I’ve had brilliant times, whether it’s running around a snowy Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Christmas Day morning, then lunching on an American sized slab of rare ribeye drizzled with garlic butter or eating stuffed partridge looking out over the rooftops of Rome after attending a service in St Peter’s square. Take it from me making new Christmas rituals can be as much fun as celebrating some of the older ones.
A Few Christmas Rituals I’ll Keep
Place a lump of sugar in your glass – this really suits a coupe shape, not a flute. Put a drop or two of Angostura bitters onto the sugar, followed by a measure of brandy and then top up with chilled Champagne. This is a great icebreaker.
Devil’s on Horseback. – 24 rolls. You can never make enough of these, liked by all ages. If any are left over they will be gobbled up with the cold cuts on Boxing day.
12 rashers of streaky bacon
Heat the oven to 190C. Soak stoneless prunes overnight in enough port to cover. You need to stretch the streaky bacon using the back of a knife and then cut in half. Wrap a prune in one half and skewer with cocktail stick. Line up on a baking dish. Roast in oven for 15 to 20 minutes. NB: the prune soaked port should be allotted to the cook, but only after he has served up lunch.
The Charms of Puddings
For the last three or four years, I have made Nigella’s non-conformist pudding from her ‘Feast’ Book. It’s lighter than a traditional pud and it contains chocolate which goes down well with the children. Her recipe also isn’t fussy what dried fruit you use – a perfect time to empty your store cupboard before the New Year. Yes, you can tuck in a few pound coins – Nigella cleans hers in coco cola overnight, but I prefer wrapping mine in greaseproof. I often use charms instead as it adds a game of chance to energise the jaded palates. These silver charms come in different forms and signify the fate of the finder. A bachelors button is lucky for a man, whilst a thimble represents spinsterhood for a female. A bell protects the finder from evil, whilst a horseshoe will bring good luck. A wishbone gives the finder a wish, whilst a sixpence portends great wealth. They are more difficult to buy these days, but Amazon is a good source.
NB: I am still tempted to buy a small traditional pudding, that can be fried for breakfast on Boxing Day and eaten with a rasher or two of crisp streaky bacon