Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas: I’m doing it wrong

I’m late appreciating the joys of the season this year, mostly because I’m still just liking the sensation of not being sick. But sometimes I also think I’m just not doing Christmas right.

Present-buying
I remarked to a friend on Facebook this morning that I’m unsuited to modern life. It’s sadly true. You see, I know I should accomplish all my Christmas shopping with the click of a button, especially taking into account the transatlantic requirements of many of my presents, which mean things have to be procured early and packaged up and brought to the post office and so on.

But I like shopping. Actual real shopping, where you walk around a store looking at things and waiting for inspiration to strike. Of course, there are only a few people I know well enough to have an item call out their name to me, but when it does, it’s very satisfying. And then I buy it and I bring it home and wrap it and then I put it in a box and address it and bring it to the post office and they charge me and arm and a leg for the pleasure of it. And it all takes about a hundred years, but that’s how I do my Christmas shopping. Because when you buy something online you have to know what you want to buy the person before you go looking for it. What sort of shopping is that? That’s how you buy Lego for nephews, yes, but not random items for beloved friends.

Cards
In America, many people like to make a card using a family photograph. This is very easy to do, whether you go professional or amateur. You can even print them at your local CVS, for heaven’s sake. And it’s a lovely way to keep everyone up to date with your family’s progress (whether you choose to include the traditional “newsletter” or not). However, I do not do this. It may be hill upon which I have chosen to die as a non-American, but I can only imagine all my English and Irish aunties saying, as they opened it “Oh, a photo card. That’s very American.” And then they would just write me off forever as one who had embraced mammon. (America is mammon. Didn’t you know?)

And so, instead, because I know that they do like to see what we look like from year to year and I pretty much only send cards to those people I’m not in touch with on Facebook, I print out some photos and put them in with my low-tech old-fashioned nicely non-religion-specific holiday card. (I like the Unicef ones that Ikea sells.) Because that’s completely different.

The tree
Our tree is lying on its side in the front room because its trunk turns out to be too fat for my Christmas tree stand. I’m sure this will be remediated any time soon. Or we could just decorate it where it lies, horizontal.

The experience
In Ireland (and the UK) families go to the pantomime at Christmas. We didn’t go every year, but I do have fond memories of Milky Moos and strawberry bonbons in the front lobby of the Gaiety, of Maureen Potter (the Irish grand dame of panto) making a rhyme with my name, of a big day out with my cousins. In the US people take their kids to a performance of The Nutcracker, but it was a long time before we understood that this was The Thing you do at Christmas, and we still haven’t managed to actually do it. There’s a shortened version (called the Mini-Nut, isn’t that cute?) put on nearby, but once again I missed the tickets for it. Maybe next year, right?

—-

Ah well. I sent a box of pressies to Ireland on Friday, I mailed some cards, I’ve done most of the present-buying necessary, I’ve made my cake, and yesterday I whipped up some of Emily’s mincemeat, which already smells amazing. Spince mies here we come.

We’ll muddle through, as always.

Family in front of National Christmas Tree, DC

All four of us in one photo! Is this a record?

 

 

Small mercies

The best Christmas present was the one I bought us last weekend in the sales: an electric blanket.

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get one here. I had one in Ireland and when I got it I felt the same way – that this was utterly the Greatest Invention of Mankind, ever. It actually came over, mistakenly, in the Shipment of Stuff, and is utterly useless here because of the difference in voltage. Even with an adapter, it wouldn’t work. So maybe I felt guilty about that, or something, but for whatever reason it’s been a long cold ten years of winter bedtimes (except in Texas, I suppose) before I finally decided that I was allowed to be happy again in those exquisite few minutes after I get into bed and stretch my be-socked feet gingerly down into the otherwise Polar no-man’s-land of sheet.

I’m always the first one to go to bed, see. So I do all the dirty work of warming things up, and by the time B gets there I’m into furnace mode and everything’s hunky dory. (Or I’ve already abandoned the bed and gone into Mabel, but let’s assume that’s going to happen less as time goes on.) But the PEB (pre-electric-blanket) era was no so much fun. Every square inch of exposed skin had to be protected, with pyjama bottoms tucked into big fluffy socks and pyjama top tucked into bottoms (very fetching, especially when you’re short-waisted, but then who’s looking at me in bed?), and even then the chill of the sheets would stop my feet warming up for a long time and it was all very tragic, you understand.

Anyway, now, everything is wonderful. Getting into a warm bed on a cold winter’s night is a bliss that simply cannot be overstated.

Or maybe I’m just getting tragically old. It might be that, I suppose.

Grandad’s bedtime stories

My late father-in-law used to tell bedtime stories to his children. And rather than have to think up something new every time, he had some stock characters and some particular scenarios that would be told over and over again. And because he was that sort of person, at some point he typed them up.

Sadly, he died when his first grandchild was only a few months old, and before I had even met my husband. But the stories have persisted. About ten years ago my sisters-in-law put the stories together in several sets of photocopied pages illustrated by that same first grandchild and held them together with comb binding. It was a lovely thing to have and as my children have grown older they’ve loved their grandfather’s special stories.

But the typed pages were getting was so old that some of the words were practically illegible, and the binding was starting to fall apart. I decided it was time for a third iteration, and went looking for some technology to help me.

A little Googling brought me to Blurb.com, which will print hard- or soft-cover books for you, as many or as few as you want, with lots of photos or none at all. It’s a step up from making a photo book in Shutterfly (as I have done several times), and it seemed to be the only option out there for something that was mostly text, which was what I needed.

So I spent a few evenings in November typing out the thirteen stories, and several more frustrating nights trying to typeset it to my satisfaction. You download the Blurb program and work on your own computer rather than saving things online, but even so I had trouble with the application and lost my work many times, which was pretty frustrating. I can’t honestly give it a five-star review for this reason, but on the other hand I didn’t try calling the customer service, so maybe I shouldn’t blame them. There might have been a simple fix I didn’t know about.

Anyway, I wanted them to be done in time for Christmas, so I didn’t spend quite as much time as I should have making sure it was all perfect. I chose a colour for the cover, uploaded some photos, and sent the whole thing to Blurb with my order for one book for each branch of the family. And a couple of weeks later I was the happy recipient of five nicely made hardback books of stories that, in spite of a total lack of any design talent on my part, are immeasurably precious to my husband and his siblings.

I love that we can do this. Flying cars are all very well, but being able to make a book from the comfort of my sofa and send it to my family is really wonderful. I love that my children can read their grandfather’s words and continue to hand down this little piece of family history. Blurb ships to all over the world, so if you want to do something similar, it might be worth a shot.

                                     

This is not a review of Blurb, as such. I just thought it was such a nice thing, and I was so pleased with it (inevitable crazy-making typos notwithstanding), that I wanted to show you what I had made. I paid for my books just like everyone else.

Christmas by the mouthful

Some people think Christmas is all about the giving. Personally, I think it’s all about the free licence with food and drink. Not to overdo things, of course, but just to push the boat out a little and indulge in some foodstuffs you wouldn’t usually have in the house.

On Christmas Eve I made a cheesecake for the following day’s dessert, and cinnamon buns for the next morning’s breakfast.

I’ve never made a baked cheesecake before (the only kind, in the eyes of Americans, but an Irish cheesecake is an unbaked, chilled affair that’s like a firm mousse on top of a crumb base, often lemon flavoured. It can be delicious in its place, but I wanted the richer, slightly crumbly texture of the item we first discovered in Milano of Dawson Street, where it was billed as New York Cheesecake. (In the UK, the Milano chain has the much less enticing name of Pizza Express. It’s much nicer than that.)

I used this recipe from my friend Jennifer, because I trust her for matters great and small, from watching my kids to helping people birth their babies (she’s a doula) to creating and recommending recipes for most excellent baked goods. It was simplicity itself to whip up (especially since I own both a food processor for the base and a stand mixer for the filling) and turned out every bit as toothsome as I had hoped. I prefer the taste of a digestive-biscuit base to the graham-cracker one, but that’s probably just what I’m more accustomed to. (And also because Digestives are nicer.)

The only part that made me swear unbecomingly was lining my springform pan with parchment paper, which I only felt the need to do because the non-stick coating is peeling away in places and I don’t want to ingest any teflon with my cheesecake.

Cheesecake

Jennifer doesn’t mention that when you remove it from the oven it will have puffed up amazingly, but it sinks back down again as it cools, because most people probably know that already. This is totally normal, as are any cracks that might develop in the centre (but I think that if I’d run my knife around the edges immediately, as she suggests, it wouldn’t have cracked so much). That went into the fridge overnight, and dessert for the next day was all taken care of.

For the cinnamon buns, I used the dough in this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, with the variation for apple cinnamon buns that you’ll find in the notes at the end, though I didn’t include the apple. I used plain yogurt instead of buttermilk, and they came out every bit as delicious as Deb promises. I made the dough, let it rise for two hours (I was afraid at this stage that it wasn’t working, because it didn’t rise enormously; but all was well), and then made up the buns and left them in the fridge overnight for their second rise, as instructed. In the morning when we came down blearily at 7am (thank you, Mabel, for not waking at 5:30), all I had to do was turn on the oven and put them into it. We didn’t even bother with icing on top. They made an excellent start to the day, though so did presents.

Cinnamon buns

Lunch was catch-as-catch-can, because I don’t see why people who are getting fancy breakfast and fancy dinner, earlier than usual, even, should have the temerity to get hungry in the middle of the day as well. If we’d had guests I might have made some sort of effort to have soup on hand to warm up at this point. As it was, leftovers from two nights previous were just fine.

And then for dinner.

I’d been thinking about beef wellington, which sounds – and looks – wonderfully impressive; but with only two of us eating (the children scorn real food) that seemed like overkill. Then the lovely Deborah of Debalicious told me that there was such a thing as an individual wellington made with a sirloin (or filet mignon) steak. And that some recipe used pate or fois gras instead of the mushroom duxelles. I was sold.

I read through several recipes and ended up using this one from Emeril, but not for much more than guidance about method and timing, really. I had read that the mushroom duxelles is all about adding flavor to a cut of meat so lean that it can be flavorless by itself. B doesn’t like mushrooms, but I decided to use a layer of caramelized onion, deglazed with vermouth, instead. I found some duck liver pate in the local supermarket, so that was my top layer, and I used frozen ready-made puff pastry to wrap up the barely seared steaks. (Next time I will remember to defrost the pastry before I need it.)

Dinner plate with individual beef wellington, green beans, and roast potatoes

The thing I was most afraid of was overcooking them, because when you have an expensive cut of beef the worst thing you can do is waste it by turning it tough and grey. I cooked it for barely the required 20 minutes and rested it for ten, and the inside was quite pink. Maybe a tiny bit too pink, if I’m honest. The pastry was also not quite as crisp all over as I’d have liked; I put it down to not having been thoroughly defrosted. But in all, for a first attempt, it was quite a success. B certainly cleared his plate in no time flat. He’s a good audience that way.

Inside the wellington

I served it with lemony green beans (Nigella, Feast) and amazing roast potatoes, if I do say so myself, which may not have been a strictly necessary carb, but are the one part of real Christmas that we can’t do without.

And then cheesecake, perfectly unadorned.

Cheesecake, sliced, and glass of wine

Later, to fill in any tiny gaps around the edges that might have developed, there was Christmas cake. I don’t like Christmas cake myself, but reports from the front line are favourable.

New pyjamas

Did you get new pyjamas for Christmas?

As time goes on, I’m starting to think that traditions I thought were merely American are much more global than that; it just happened that my family didn’t subscribe to them.

New pyjamas for Christmas, for instance, is something I had never heard of before a friend of mine here mentioned that her girls all get them – so they look nice in the photos the next morning. How American! I thought. But a quick straw poll of my Irish friends indicates that some (but not all) families at home have always done the same.

The same goes for photos with Santa. I was taken “to see Santa” once that I remember; let’s say twice in all, during my childhood. There are no photos to prove it, just my very vague memory of standing in a long line at the top of Dun Laoghaire Shopping Centre.

I always got a new pencil case in my stocking, and a bar of chocolate, and a tangerine (which I would put straight back in the fruit bowl the next morning). Santa used to leave my presents, unwrapped, on the end of my bed, and they always included an annual, so I had something to read before bounding downstairs and waking the house. Santa did not bring me socks, or underwear; but I did always get a new outfit before Christmas to have something nice to wear for the day.

And so I’ll give the kids chocolate and an orange in their stockings tonight, but no pencil case since they don’t need them yet. Santa is also bringing them new snow mittens and maybe some socks, as well as lots of fun things, some of which they might actually have asked for.

And maybe I did have new pyjamas and I just don’t remember, and maybe the pencil case on several consecutive years was just a coincidence; and maybe the traditions you think they’ll remember are not what they’ll remember, and the traditions you try to make are not the ones that will stick and maybe if what you eat for Christmas is different every year, that will become a tradition of its own; and maybe none of it really matters so long as tomorrow has some moments of pure delight.

And I’m pretty sure that it will.

Happy Christmas to you and yours.

Dash and Mabel with their stockings hung
Someone was a little hyper before bedtime.

Dichotomy

There are two kinds of tree lights: multicoloured or white.
There are two kinds of apples: eaters and cookers.
There are two kinds of sins: a mortaler and sure it’s only a venial sin.
There are two kinds of things to eat: a meal and a collation.
There are two kinds of embarrassed: morto and scarleh.
There are two kinds of pudding: black and white.
There are two kinds of children: a dote and a holy terror.
There are two kinds of cake: birthday and Christmas.
There are two shops on Grafton Street: Switzers and Brown Thomas. (Dating myself here.)
There are two kinds of tea: Barry’s or Lyon’s.
There are two sorts of Guinness: a pint or a glass.
There are two kinds of weather in Ireland: drizzle or lashing.

There are two kinds of Christmas: the ones when you go home, and the ones when you don’t.

And let the record show that I did not go back the next morning and buy the cheetah

I took Mabel with me on Thursday after school to pick out a present for her to give to Dash. (Dash has a “school present shop” where he bought presents for us, so it seemed only fair.) Beforehand, I double-checked with her that she knew we were shopping only for her brother, and that she wouldn’t get anything for herself. She agreed, but I was still a little doubtful that she could pull it off.

We nearly turned around and left as soon as we got through the front doors, because she desperately wanted a cheetah from the dollar section. But then she said “Just let me play with them for a while” and I stood around for three minutes while she took all the animals out of their corral and arranged them into couples, families, and families with adopted children. When I said it was time to put them back, she helped put them back and we moved on.

And so to the main toy section, where we soon found – guess what? – a new lightsaber for Dash. Because the fact that he has two blue ones and a red double-blade apparently didn’t stop him from putting another on his list, and since I couldn’t find a green Qui-Gon Jinn lightsaber anywhere, I hadn’t actually got one and was feeling bad about it. So when Mabel decided he should have a red Darth Vader one, I didn’t demur. (Also since these are the cheap ones that don’t light up and come in at under ten bucks.)

Item acquired and gallon of milk in our cart, I tried to whisk her back to the checkouts without passing the rest of the toys, but she insisted on looking at the other aisles. “Not to get anything, you know that don’t you?” I repeated. “I know,” she said.

And here’s the amazing part: she looked at the baby dolls and the princess dolls and the ponies and the Lalaloopsies and the Barbies and the play kitchens and she admired them all and we said how lovely they were … and then we left. We bought what we had come for and not a thing more.

Well, there was a vanilla milk in Starbucks after all that, but it hardly counts.

C minus five

This is, after all, only our third ever Christmas in America; our second in this house. The first was the year Mabel was born, the second was two years ago. So I suppose I should give myself a break if I haven’t really managed to effect the traditions I wanted to put in place, or do the things we’re meant to do.

I was highly motivated about Christmas two weeks ago, but now I’m just sort of accepting about it all. Picture me lying back and letting it all wash over me.

We don’t have much planned, we haven’t made it to a performance of the Nutcracker or even a local carol service, I haven’t yet decided what we’re eating for dinner next Wednesday. It doesn’t hugely matter; I’ll buy some meat next Monday and figure out a good way to cook it.

The big parcel arrived in Dublin two days ago (with a week in hand, even though we posted it a day late), and the Christmas cake has been made since November. I want to make cinnamon buns for breakfast and get some prosecco to have mimosas (or bellinis) with present-opening.

I know there are many people out there who would kill for a holiday season as free from commitments and family drama as ours. And just to make sure we do tidy up at some point, we decided to throw a bit of a party on the 28th, so that there will be some amount of frenzied baking and buying extra alcohol.

And this came home for me from school. I was allowed to open it early.

How’s it looking in your house?

Conversations with Mabel

Me: What’s going on with the soap, Mabel? Why is it all over the sink? Is there a problem with it?
Her: The problem is that you had me at the exact wrong time.
Me: Oh. Really.
Her: Yes. If you’d had me when you had Dash, I’d be 18 by now.
Me: No, you’d be seven.
Her: Well if you had me when you were born, I’d be 18 by now. 

**********

Mabel: I hope Santa knows that I want infinity toys and things I like for Christmas.
Me, prosaically: Hope so. 


**********

Monologue while playing: 


“Sweetie, how could you have done that? You’re just a horse.
Oh, there’s the phone.
You’re a sapling, just a sprout.” [This is a line from a song in Tangled, I belatedly realised.]
“The next morning, she said …”
“Neigh neigh neigh neigh neigh
Neigh neigh neigh neigh neigh neigh neigh
Neigh neigh neigh”
“Sweetie, you’re going in time out, but I love you. It’s dangerous. Think about it. If you did that, you would drown. And you’d never come back to life.”
Sings: “I would never/ Do that ag-ainnn”
[This must be a musical.]

**********

– You have to do what I want.
– Why?
– Because I’m the smallest and I complain more.

**********

“On the contrary” (repeated, out of context, all afternoon)

**********

– Why is Christmas so important, anyway?
– Well, because it’s remembering when baby Jesus was born. He was pretty important to a lot of people.
– Why don’t we remember when Heracles was born?
– …
He was half god.

I knew that Greek mythology would come back to haunt me.

Mabel painting on the deck

Ramalamadingdong

This week is not going as planned, so far. But not all in a bad way.

Yesterday began not going to plan on Sunday night, when I realised that I was scheduled to co-op at nursery school the next morning. I had vaguely planned on going back to Target and finalizing some of the gift shopping – the gift shopping that I’d done a week earlier and that had been helpfully sitting on my bedroom floor for the next six days, waiting for me to do something else useful with it.

This problem was compounded on Monday afternoon when I discovered that that very day, not some vague date in the misty future, was the last day for posting by regular mail to Europe. Oops. Because of course 90% of the stuff in the bag on my bedroom floor was to be mailed to Europe, but I’d been waiting for this and that, for the perfect final present to present itself to me at the weekend’s craft fair or some other opportune place, before wrapping it. I also subconsciously felt that B. should partake in the wrapping so that he had some input in all this shopping I’d done for members of his family, but since I didn’t tell him that, and last week was busy with various meetings and whatnot, it hadn’t happened.

Finally, last night, we sat down and had our gift-wrapping extravaganza, and happily we did have enough wrapping paper and tape and I had even bought a box at the post office that was the right size, all of which are no trivial matters.

So that was ready to be mailed first thing this morning, which would only be one day late and therefore practically in time, and would probably make it to Ireland before the big day anyway. Which would have been simple if this was a normal Tuesday, but then we got a snow day.
                                           Ice on tree
Monday had already been a delayed-start for the schools thanks to Sunday night’s snow and ice storm, but then it snowed all morning here and they cancelled school entirely. It’s only about an inch, and melting already, but I suppose the schools didn’t want to deal with the potential mess of getting all the buses in during a snowstorm. We’re not in Colorado, you know. Maryland is technically the South, and thus Not Great With Winter.

However, it was the good sort of snow day. The sort when B. has one too. Yes, yes, he was “working from home,” but that also meant I could send him to the post office once the snow eased off, which it did at midday or so, and the roads had all been nicely treated so they were fine. So, BOOM, the parcel has been mailed and with a bit of luck everyone in Ireland will get their presents in time after all, and even if they don’t, it’s out of my hands now.

While he was doing that, I got off my arse and went through the recipes I’ve been meaning to try out and we made pretzels! BAM! Where’s my snow-day baking award?

And Dash made a snowman all by himself for the first time. It’s a little leafy, perhaps, but he’s proud of it.

Boy and snowman

In the afternoon, B went out with Dash and got a Christmas tree, which we hadn’t got around to doing yet, so that’s something else we don’t have to wait till next weekend for. DING!

Dash decorating the tree.

Mabel and the tree

Finished tree

It’s beginning to look a lot like…