TT: Christmas is Coming!

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering,  page back to hear exciting news about my novel Changer.  Then join me and Alan for a cross-cultural examination of Christmas customs.

JANE: Everywhere I go, I hear Christmas carols.  Decorations are appearing

The 12 Guinea Pigs of Christmas

both in neighborhoods and in stores.  Even the weather seems to be trying to get into the holiday spirit.  We’ve had several light dustings of snow.

And for you, Alan,  it’s mid-summer…  Does that have an impact on how you feel about the Christmas season?  I mean, I’ve celebrated Christmas in warm climates.  Both Jim and I have family in Arizona, but even so, it’s still winter there, even if there’s no snow.

ALAN: Sometimes Christmas here is very cooperative and we get cold temperatures, clouds and  drizzle which gives a nice traditional English feel to it. But usually the weather is beautiful –  warm, sunny, and cheerful. For me, the highlight of this time of year is seeing the pohutukawa trees in bloom. New Zealand has very, very few native flowers. The indigenous plants tend more towards fern-like structures. However the pohutukawa tree is one of the rare exceptions. At this time of the year it starts to cover itself with gorgeous bright red flowers and by Christmas Day it is usually at its most magnificent. People who can’t pronounce pohutukawa often refer to it as New Zealand’s Christmas tree, which is  an absolutely perfect name for it.

JANE: The pohutukawa sounds lovely.  I’d like to see one someday.

My personal favorite part of  Christmas is actually Christmas Eve.  I love the tingle of anticipation, but it’s not just that.  When I was a kid, every year my mom would plan a variation on the traditional Italian seafood dinner.  Specific items might vary, but there was a lovely sense of ritual in the simmering of the clam and lobster spaghetti, the sizzling of stuffed squid, and all the rest.

ALAN: I didn’t know about that Italian tradition. Could you elaborate on your squid rituals?

JANE: Seafood for Christmas Eve dates back to when that was “meatless” day for the Catholic Church.  However, the way the Italians approached the challenge, there was no suffering involved.

Not everyone eats squid, of course, but it’s a personal favorite in my family.  One year, when I was in high school and Mom was in law school, Mom decided she couldn’t find the time to clean the squid.  My sister Ann and I couldn’t bear for the squid to be left out, so we begged to learn how to clean it.

I  remember with great fondness standing shoulder to should with Ann over the twin kitchen sinks, twisting squid apart, pulling out the guts, cleaning off the outer membrane until we had a nice heap of white squid bodies ready to be stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs.  The tentacles were simmered with garlic and pimentos, then served as a topping for crackers.

Yum!

ALAN: Christmas food is quite special in our house as well. Since I cook every day during the year, I refuse to do it at Christmas time. I regard Christmas as the chef’s holiday. So our simple Christmas fare consists of easily put together things from the fridge and the fruit bowl. I always make sure to stock up on the staples  (whole grain bread, ham, smoked salmon, fresh strawberries and raspberries, champagne),  and even some luxuries such as cheese. Yes – to me cheese is a luxury. I’m not supposed to eat it (too much fat) but New Zealand makes some of the most beautiful cheeses in the world and I can’t resist a brie and a stilton, a gouda and a cheddar. So at Christmas I indulge myself sinfully. To echo you: Yum!

JANE: My other favorite part of Christmas is the decorations, especially putting up the tree.  It was always such a wonderful ritual.  Carols playing.  Cookies baking.  Dad stretching out the lights and seeing what bulbs were out…  Then putting on the ornaments.  There was that wonderful day when the parents decided you were old enough to handle the fragile ornaments…

That led to a pretty funny tradition of its own.

ALAN: What is that?

JANE: My sister, Susan, is five years younger than the next sibling in line.  So, just as she was toddling about, ready to help, the rest of us were allowed to handle fragile ornaments.  Mom solved the problem by buying a couple boxes of unbreakable  red “velvet” balls for Susan.   Susan would then hang these all with remarkable efficiency on one or two branches and make a beeline for the fragile glass.

We would  quickly hand her other unbreakables, but Susan knew what she wanted – the most fragile pieces available.  It made for a rather fun game – especially since, later, someone would go in and spread the red velvet balls around so we didn’t have one lower limb all red.  Susan always noticed.

I think she has those balls for her own tree these days.

ALAN: Do you have real trees? Or do you  use artificial ones?

When I was a child, our tree was one that my father had made himself out of crepe paper and wire coathangers. He was actually a very talented craftsman and he could make wonderful things from the most unlikely materials. I suppose it came from his experiences during the war when pretty much everything was unobtainable and people learned to make do. Anyway, every year the tree came down from the loft and was carefully draped with baubles and a plastic Santa Claus perched proudly at the top. We would also fasten loops of string across the room and hang our Christmas cards on  it.

JANE: Your father must have been very talented, especially for crepe paper to survive year to year.   When I was a kid, we always had real trees.  Taking care of the tree was my job, so every day I’d squiggle underneath and carefully pour water into the stand.  I never missed, because I knew if the tree started shedding needles, that was it and I wanted the tree to stay up as long as possible.

When the tree was finally taken down, it was tossed into the street for trash collection.  I’d feel horrible, almost as if I’d lost a pet.  Consequently, although I love the smell of “real” trees, my tree now is artificial. Sometimes I’ll buy pine boughs for the scent, but never a tree itself, because I know a tree died to be a disposable ornament.

ALAN: I must confess that these days I’m a bit of a curmudgeon as far as Christmas rituals go. (Bah! Humbug!). Our tree is a small plastic model about two inches tall which sits on top of the television. Also I never send Christmas cards to anybody (and therefore I never receive any either) because I regard the habit as a bit of a commercial ripoff which benefits only the card manufacturers. One year I seriously considered putting an advert in the personal column of “The Times” saying that this year I would not be sending Christmas cards. Then I planned on sending everybody that copy of  the newspaper in lieu of a card. I never got round to it, but I still think it’s a good idea.

JANE: Oh…  I do Christmas cards.  I love getting them, too.  Jim and I have two lengths of brocade chord on which we hang the horizontally-oriented cards.  The vertically-oriented cards fit into a special wreath.  We have a basket for extras and Christmas letters.  We read all of those, delighting in catching up with people.  I used to do handwritten notes in each card, but stopped the year we lost my father, my grandfather, and a couple of beloved pets.  I knew I’d commit suicide if I had to write that news over and over again.  So now I do a general newsletter and still often write something by hand as well.

However, I seriously dislike e-Christmas cards.  In fact, I’ve been known not even to open those when they arrive in my in-box.

I’m behind this year, so I’m going to go and address a few more envelopes.  (Yes.  I do these by hand.)     I’ll take out fresh cookies (yep, I make my own) and a cup of coffee.  Wish you were close enough to join me!

ALAN: Me too!

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6 Responses to “TT: Christmas is Coming!”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Yep. It’s Christmas cards this Saturday for me too. One of our traditions is that we make some old-style german cookies (lebkuchen and springerli) that need to age for a few weeks before Christmas, in a tin with a slice of apple (the slice gets changed every week or so. It’s there for scent and humidity). It’s fun having something that needs to be made weeks ahead, especially in a society that wants everything quickly.

  2. janelindskold Says:

    I haven’t started my cookies, yet, but I plan to today or tomorrow.

    I do a few types from my childhood, but there are types Jim and I have adopted together. He loves frosted sugar cookies, so we make those (the ones from my childhood didn’t have frosting). We have a huge collection of cutters, so in addition to the usual Christmas shapes, we make everything from dinosaurs and guinea pigs to coyotes and wolves (of course!). And cats…

    Keeps the process from ever getting predictable!

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Well, dang, Alan, the way to get past the card manufacturer’s profits is to make your own cards. I’ve been doing it for over 30 years.

  4. Paul Says:

    I try to limit cards to people I don’t see regularly but with whom I want to stay in touch, so often it’s more about the accompanying note than the card itself. I can well remember those Christmas Eve anticipations, whether it was expectation of a cowboy suit or cap pistol (once a standard kid’s toy, before the real shooters went crazy), or, later, a Winston SF book for teen readers which I would laze around reading all morning after the presents were all opened. Unlike Ralphie, I never got my wish for a Red Ryder BB gun, though.

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