Having launched the #ChristmasCarolChallenge a couple of weeks ago a rather exciting project appeared out of the blue which didn’t leave me with a lot of free time to actually write my own post. However I am now back at my Mum’s sat by the Christmas tree waiting for my nephews’ presents to be delivered so there’s no better time to reminisce about the Christmases of my past.
From the age of four my Christmases alternated between my Mum’s in Sevenoaks and my Dad’s place in Tonbridge and then, later on, in his cottage in East-Sussex. Both Christmases were similar having been based on the traditions my parents had once shared however each had its own distinct features. A bit like driving a courtesy car that’s the same model as your own: same, same but different. Carols at Kings made an appearance at both and the Queen’s Speech at neither and the routine of the day almost identical at both.
I owe my affection of the Christmas season to my parents and the time, love and effort they put in to making it so special: from standing outside the house ringing bells so I would go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to sooty footprints that appeared on the carpet on Christmas morning. Neither of parents had a lot money when we were growing up so there were presents but being together and sharing good food was the priority and that’s still true today. The Christmases they created were full of love and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that.
Let’s start with Christmas at Dad’s.
My Dad’s taste in decor has always been quite minimalist.White walls, wooden floors, clean, light and clutter free. The same was true at Christmas – there’d be a tree of course (with coloured lights) and the traditional light up Father Christmas riding the moon which I assume everybody has. Some years there were sticks decorated with white lights.) In his cottage in Sussex there was an huge open fire that we’d keep going from the minute we got up until we all passed out in a food coma at the end of the day.
I’m fortunate that both of my parents are excellent cooks. There were no overcooked vegetables, no lump gravy and Aunt Bessies’s and Bisto were basically blasphemy. Our Christmas food wouldn’t look out of place in a George R.R. Martin novel.
The cooking at Dad’s would begin on Christmas Eve with the first “trial” batch of chestnut stuffing balls which we’d wolf down before they’d even cooled all the name of “testing.” It’s worth explaining at this point that my Dad lay down the gauntlet in our family with his stuffing balls. I’m one of five siblings and over the years our Mums, partners and even we ourselves have tried to recreate the Paul Brown stuffing ball. Few have succeeded.
On Christmas morning, after stockings (which were actual tights so “you can see the outline of the presents!”), we’d have bucks fizz and crackers with “pink dip” – another Paul Brown original that is only ever eaten on Christmas Day. Then Dad would announce the time dinner would be served. Except this time was only really because he liked to set himself the challenge of having a deadline .It made the whole thing a bit more Master Chef. He’d spend most of the day in an out of the kitchen listening to the radio or watching the black and white TV. At some point he’d break from cooking and we’d give out the presents under the tree – the last one would always be a Cadbury’s Selection box which would prove handy if the deadline for lunch was ever “extended.”
Dinner itself was always a fairly traditional affair: My Dad is the King of sides and sundries: sliced sprouts fried with pancetta, honey roast parsnips, cider gravy, cauliflower cheese, pigs in blankets and two types of stuffing ball (chestnut and sage and onion.) The leftovers would be served with dauphinoise potatoes on Boxing Day. We don’t really do pudding at Dad’s we’re bigger on the savories: cheese, crackers and cool original doritos. However there’s always a box of Maltesers in the cupboard which were useful for pelting your siblings with during particularly frustrating games of Monopoly.
Like most families after dinner we’d settle down to watch a film. Except my Dad can’t watch films. He’s constantly getting up, sorting things and pottering before returning to the sofa twenty minutes later to ask, “what have I missed?” For this reason we preferred to stick with television and we’d binge on reruns of The Simpsons, Dad’s Army and, if my Dad won the battle of the remote, Benidorm.
Christmas at Dad’s brought with it the excitement of seeing my older siblings. As a young child there was no one cooler than my older brother and sister. We never lived together but would meet up during the holidays. They’d come bearing card games, DVDs and lots o’ cheese. My younger brother and I would normally arrive at Dad’s first and there was no excitement quite like the excitement of waiting for our older brother and sister to arrive. Now we’re all grown up and married and there are children and in-laws to think about it’s unusual for us to spend Christmas Day together but we have our own sibling Christmas which is pretty special in itself.
Christmas at Mum’s
Christmas at Mum’s would start weeks before the day itself with numerous lists (my Mum and I are big fans of a list.) There’d be long walks to pick the ivy to decorate the house, we’d burn M&S oil throughout the whole of December and the highlighting of the Radio Times, and the negotiations that would follow, took up the best part of the month. My Mum has excellent taste and the house always looks beautiful around Christmas – full of decorations and candles – but no tinsel. Never tinsel. We’d pierce satsumas with cloves and put them around the house (to this day I’m still not sure why but it’a a very fond memory.)
Our street is very small and close knit and around Christmas there was a continuous stream of visitors dropping in for mulled wine, baileys or just to enjoy the fire. Our Christmases were open to all and we often shared the day itself with friends as well as family. Some years there were more friends than we had space for so we’d pack up our Christmas and take it to a holiday home in Wales, Cornwall or Rye. I believe 22 is the record for the most around our table. My family aren’t religious – in fact we’re staunch atheists but we’d often wander down to the church at the end of the road to sing carols on Christmas Eve before heading home for hot chocolate and to make the preparations for Father Christmas. One year those preparations included building a barricade in front of my bedroom because I didn’t like the sound of a strange man in a red suit coming into my room at night – regardless of the gifts he may bring.
Christmas Day itself would start with stockings which, once emptied of presents would end on my head. It’s hard to say why. Breakfast was always fizz and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon which in recent years is cooked by my brother as me makes the best scrambled eggs known to man.
Lunch would be the traditional turkey and all the trimmings as well as a ham – which later would be part of a pie (more on that later.) If my Dad is the King of sides and sundries then my Mum is the Queen of desserts. Yes we all love figgy pudding but why stop there? Christmas cake, vanilla custard, homemade banoffee pie, chocolate yule log, baileys ice cream, freshly baked shortbread and creme brulee. Throw in a pot of coffee and the dessert course could last longer than the main. It was like something out of Enid Blyton.
Boxing Day at my Mum’s is unique for one reason: Boxing Day Pie. This is one of my Mum’s most genius creations. It’s a simple enough concept: all the leftovers from Christmas dinner sandwiched in pastry. I will try and find the recipe because it really needs to be shared.
And that was pretty much been Christmas for the last 30 years. Magical, happy and full of love (and food.) There was that one year where, due to adverse weather conditions, my brother and I spent most of the day in my flat in London feeling a little bit like we were in Home Alone. But that’s another post for another time.