Christmas has always been a family time for me and it certainly holds many special memories. As a child it never seemed to come around quickly enough, now it seems to come around too quickly – although I have not lost the feeling of excitement that Christmas Day brings.
It has been an interesting exercise to sit down and reflect back on Christmas memories especially those relating to food.
Strangely enough when I think of Christmas fare, my first memory is one of frustration. We would always go to Church on Christmas Day and with much persuasion my sister and I would somehow manage to eat breakfast before we went. When we came home I was absolutely busting to open the presents under the tree, but my parents had other ideas and made us wait until they had eaten their breakfast and put the roast on to cook. It seemed to take forever for them to be ready.
I have to laugh though as I see that my husband and I inflict exactly the same torment on our two girls today — although instead of waiting for us to eat breakfast they have to wait while the champagne is opened and the fruit mince pies are heated through.
Our Christmas stockings always offered food treats among the toys and nick-nacks. Bulging in the toe was an orange and a chocolate Santa and large candy cane were always to be found. We knew it was a special day when we were allowed to nibble our candy cane before or just after breakfast, a luxury which on any normal day would be unheard of.
When I was growing up, Christmas nearly always involved some, if not all, the cousins getting together. We would often have the main meal of the day at my grandparents’ house. The children were always seated at their own special table which was set beautifully – table cloth, Christmas serviettes, crackers, best plates and cutlery and sparkling grape juice served in wine glasses. We felt so grown up.
Give me a new potato any day and it takes me back to Christmas. Both my father and my grandfather — Pop — would grow new potatoes and the digging of the spuds for Christmas day was an important undertaking. I can still picture the green bucket they went into. Mum would always prepare them the day before, adding a piece of coal to the water to stop them going brown. Pop also grew peas and shelling these was often a job that the children would get roped in to help with. The only problem was a lot more had to be picked as quite a few got eaten on the way! We also enjoyed picking our own berries at local orchards – fresh berries straight off the plant is something you can’t beat!
My sister, Kathryn, remembers strongly that Pop always took charge of carving the turkey. He also enjoyed encouraging us to try different cheeses at Christmas – probably given to him as Christmas presents. Kathryn remembers her first taste of a ‘disgusting’ looking blue vein cheese, and her surprise at enjoying it.
Mum always made delicious Christmas cakes, and still does. She makes me one each year, even now, and gives several others as gifts as well. These lovely cakes are topped off with a fabulous icing – quite firm and with a lovely brandy flavour. Sadly, the humidity here in the Bay of Plenty means that I can never quite get the same texture with my icing (or perhaps I add too much brandy!?).
My first Christmas with my husband’s family made me realise how different each family’s traditions are. Donal’s family of Irish Catholics would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, afterwards eating hot ham while they sat around the tree opening their presents before going to bed very late.
I nearly fell out of favour with my in laws one year when they came to stay with us for Christmas. My mother-in-law makes the most wonderful traditional Christmas pudding – it has so much Guinness and other alcohol that it is almost impossible to get it fully frozen. The first year she did one of these puddings for us no-one told me that it was essential to serve it with custard. It was not until about two hours after the meal that they felt they could tell me I had ruined it for them as I had failed to make custard! Never really having had traditional Christmas pudding before and not being a custard girl, it never entered my head – I thought the ice-cream I served complimented it perfectly!
Today when we consider what to have for Christmas dinner we tend to focus on something simple. My mother always prepared two meats, usually a choice of poultry or lamb, and a huge array of vegetables. These days a barbecue seems a good option, with a selection of salads rather than hot vegetables — but new potatoes are still a must, and Hallelujah! for neighbours with a good vegetable garden! This year, however, I have decided to cook duck – never having cooked a duck in my life the stress levels could be running high!
Christmas is also a time for baking. I often make truffles of some sort, probably because my mother always made truffles or ‘bumble bees’ at this time of the year. It’s a family affair — Donal makes great shortbread, and my specialty is Florentine slice.
Other family traditions that have carried down the generations are having Christmas lilies in the house in the lead-up to Christmas. The children enjoy the advent calendars — a great help with the Christmas countdown. One is a patch work one I made which has a small decoration in each pocket along with a mini candy cane.
A new tradition is that I have assumed responsibility for making Christmas crackers – I’m not sure that the family always appreciates the bad jokes, the awful paper hats and the charade challenge found in each one. But usually the wee gift enclosed makes up for that, and we are still waiting for the year when we hit the jack pot on the obligatory scratchy enclosed therein.
I’ll close with my best Christmas memory, which has nothing to do with food but plenty to do with fun. One year when I was about 14 I was desperate for a hula-hoop. There was a very clear message that no-one was going to buy me one. So I bought one for myself, wrapped it up, cut out letters from a magazine and stuck them on the wrapping. The message read ‘happy Christmas Fiona from a secret admirer’ I snuck out of bed at 5am slipped out the back door and delivered it to the front door. In the morning dad found it and brought it through to me. I managed to put on a good act and no one knew who it was from. All day dad would ask relatives, neighbours or friends who rang with Christmas wishes if they had given it to me. Finally after dinner I had to break my silence. It was a great laugh. I have no idea if I even used that hula-hoop but the mystery surrounding it was well worthwhile.
With young children to help us celebrate Christmas the magic never ends, but the greatest gifts we have are our family and friends. Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year.