This year my husband, our Chou and I hosted Christmas chez us for the very first time. It was an Anglo-Irish affair (by which I really mean that my Mum and I cooked our family’s traditional Christmas roast, complete with treasured accompaniments passed down from Yorkshire by my paternal grandmother, whilst Père Noël was given an offering of whiskey and I occasionally referred to the gammon as ‘ham’ in a gesture of goodwill towards my Irish husband), without so much as a glimpse of such typical French customs as foie gras or huitres. Despite concerns that my oven might not be able to cope with the enormous amount of food about to be forced into it, it rose to the occasion splendidly, and performed sluggishly yet with admirable determination. We ate only an hour later than planned.
Next Christmas will see us once again in the comfort of my mum’s kitchen in Bristol, where years of practise have transformed the morning’s schedule into the shining performance of a well-rehearsed play – Act One: watch Mum stuffing turkey in dressing gown; summon groaning siblings from their lairs; open stockings and eat contents for breakfast. Act Two: shrink from participating in a present ‘show and tell’ at church. Act Three: open tree presents; start cooking in earnest (enter me, stage left, in my starring role as 1st Sous on the Right); devour delicious feast. Still, I was very pleased to have had the chance, as the family understudy, of stepping into the breach and directing the proceedings myself. It was also heavenly to forgo the chaos of travelling with a toddler at this time of year. Last year our flight was cancelled at the last minute, and instead of gambling that the rescheduled one would actually get as far as taking off we made the hasty decision to drive half the length of France and across the UK with a poorly toddler who may or may not have been sickening for chicken pox (he wasn’t; we are still awaiting that particular pleasure).
This, then, is what I learned from spending Christmas at home:
- Always inspect the meat before it is time to start cooking. At quarter past seven on Christmas morning I unwrapped our dinde to find it looking back at me somewhat mournfully, its head tucked between one wing. Frantic googling resulted only in unhelpful tips for preparing pre-beheaded beasts. Only one logical solution presented itself: I summoned my husband from upstairs and persuaded him to deal with it for me, a task he performed with becoming enthusiasm, wielding the cleaver with surprising dexterity for the time of day. I aided him by staying out of the way, turning around and covering my ears with my hands…
- My oven has the capacity to roast a turkey weighing 5kg at the very, very most – anything even minutely larger would have resulted in no parsnips or potatoes (the horror!). I did not check this beforehand;
- Goose fat isn’t vegetarian – who would have guessed? Thank goodness for olive oil, the last-minute saviour of the potatoes (which I clearly had no excuse to leave out, our turkey complying with the 5kg weight restriction);
- According to my Chou, baby Jesus was awoken by the boiling of a kettle in his nativity stable, rather than by the “lowing of cattle”, as is commonly supposed. I cannot blame Mary for needing a hit of caffeine after her long journey and less than ideal delivery suite;
- Do not rely on the integrity and goodwill of wooden Christmas tree stands, such as are supplied by garden centres. Ours did not “honour Christmas in [its] heart and try to keep it all the year” as Charles Dickens would have us do, but instead (having indulged heavily on fluid) lost its balance, gave up the ghost and brought our beautiful tree crashing to the ground, possibly uttering “Bah!” and “Humbug!” as it did so. Miraculously we only lost three decorations in the process. It will no doubt face the same grisly fate as the turkey once it has thoroughly dried out, and meet my husband on the chopping block…vengeance is sweet;
- Cognac can be substituted for brandy whenever brandy is required (and at Christmas it seems to be required in everything – cake, leftover turkey pie, homemade truffles for teachers, butter…). I wonder, perhaps, if someone accidentally gave some to the tree instead of water – an easy mistake to make under the circumstances;
- When in doubt buy two gammons. The fact that we may be eating leftovers until Easter is inconsequential;
- Macramé is an art form I never knew was missing from my life, but which my little sister has kindly rectified for me. After some initial dubiousness as to why she would give me a noose as a Christmas present (I opened the box to reveal two coiled up pieces of rope) I have quickly become a convert, and spent a few happy hours remembering knot-tying evenings with the Scouts. I am now building up a mental list of projects to leave, festering and unfinished, next year;
- Five adults, one toddler and a continuous mountain of washing up results in an uncomfortable lack of hot water (my Chou is on his fourth day of “topsy-turvy” washes, much to his own satisfaction);
- DIY Advent calendar Christmas trees (unwrapping homemade decorations instead of chocolate and more toys – Chou’s birthday was in mid-November) are much easier to realise mentally, through the medium of Pinterest, than they are in real life. On the First of December I was still missing four parcels, half of which contained only air (happily for me my son can only count semi-reliably to ten). I finally finished crafting and filling on the 21st;
- My new favourite thing in life is my glue gun, bought immediately after deciding to make the afore-mentioned calendar. Since the end of November I have been chanting in my head: “Now I have a glue gun, Ho! Ho! Ho!” after the manner of that great Christmas film, Die Hard;
- Pressure cookers can be tamed, terrifying as they appear to the uninitiated. YouTube tutorials, on the other hand, serve only to inflict further dismay and confusion;
- Substituting the word “Playdoh” for any task involving a soft dough-like substance results in instant participation and a lot less whinging. We made “Playdoh” salt dough decorations and “Playdoh” icing figures for the Christmas cake in this manner;
- Père Noël will send a reply through La Poste to all children who write his name on the envelope and their own on the back, along with a return address (no stamp required). Having been the recipient of several such letters during my childhood in the UK I was delighted to find that the French post office has a similar arrangement with the great man;
- Mistletoe, pilfered from a nearby field, should probably be identified but left unpicked until a few days before Christmas – ours had withered well before everyone had broken up for the holiday, perhaps not providing the most convincing symbol of enduring love;
- Holly, needed for my couronne de houx, is so much easier to forage for at the local marché than in the neighbouring hedgerow. It is ideally gathered during nursery school hours, since now my Chou insists on taking two pairs of secateurs with us each time we go for a walk.
All in all Christmas was a triumph: my little Chou was thoroughly spoiled and lasted all of Christmas Day without a crise, my husband and I are still on speaking terms and nobody had to be rushed to hospital with suspected food poisoning. The next time should be a breeze…
To all my lovely WordPress friends:
I am so pleased finally to be joining you all again, after far too long an absence. Thank you very much for the kind enquiries sent to my mum’s blog; they were very much appreciated. It is so nice to be back and I look forward to catching up on all your news. Here’s to a very happy 2019!
Mots du jour:
Noël en France – Christmas in France chez – at the house of Père Noël – Father Christmas huitres – oysters dinde – turkey La Poste – The Post Office couronne – wreath houx – holly marché – market crise – tantrum