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22nd Dec 2007

The Fun of Christmas Decorations

Tamsin: In the hecticness of Christmas I always try to take a couple of minutes to think of some craft activities to keep the kids occupied in the days between the end of school and Christmas. This mainly means decorations for the tree and house. Keeping the kids’ hands busy will help put to good use some of that over-excited energy that’s building up and up. For this reason I keep to the old family tradition of decorating the house on the 23rd December and the tree on the 24th.

Sometimes the simplest ideas work best. One year the children spent a whole day making hundreds of cut-out snowflakes that we hung on string and used as paper chains. Apart from the large amount of hoovering that had to be done afterwards this was a great excitement-consuming activity. Another simple idea was to get them to draw a motif for each door in the house – snowmen, Father Christmas, Rudolfs and so on were cut out and stuck to each door.

Paper chains and holly and ivy are a must for the house and one of my favourites are the crêpe paper ones. There is something wonderful about repetitively folding paper and ending up with a multi-coloured streamer after one simple pull of the finished folds.

Greenery takes pride of place in my house too, with sprigs of holly and ivy on top of every mirror or picture frame. Usually I make a swag to go around the stair rail, but this year I ran out of energy so with a house full of guests about to view Christmas efforts I twisted tinsel and hung cascading branches of ivy from the banister instead – easily worth the 10 minutes work.

Then there is the Christmas tree. For me the tree is about memories of Christmas past. I am not too fussed what it looks like in the end as long as we all join in the decorating and chat about the stories behind the different decorations as they come out of the boxes. Every year my children choose and buy a new decoration each and I love opening their decoration boxes to find a little bit of their past personalities, wrapped in tissue paper, waiting for me to rediscover – which usually means Carla and her pink glitzy numbers and Joe with his animals. This year they carried on in the same ilk –

Joe - some funky fish

Carla – a very pink swan

But I also love homemade decorations. My mother still has ours. The singing angel, the flying pig made from corks and painted pink, even the tiny medicine bottles that were sprayed gold one year as a substitute for baubles. This year I finally got round to making an idea I’d read about in a book on the traditions of Victorian Christmas – Gilded Walnuts, hollowed out, hiding a tiny treat and hung on the tree or placed in a bowl of nuts at the table.

Then there’s Feather Angels, so delicate yet so quick and simple, the hardest part is tying a knot.

And Beaded Icicles, which I’ve had classes of toddlers making and which look beautiful as the tree lights shine through them.

Enjoy any creativity you manage to do over the festive period – I would love to hear any ideas that went really well because there is always another Christmas next year and just as much excitement to contain.

For other Christmas decorations, try Glass Tree Biscuits, Gingerbread Houses and Christmas Bunches of Baubles (see 18th Dec blog).

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20th Dec 2007

Deck Those Halls...

Jane: The 21st December is the shortest day of the year, and it used to be a huge celebration when people lit fires that burned all day and night, carrying over the flame from one log to another – a tradition we still honour today in a weird kind of way by eating chocolate Yule log. It was also the day when the halls finally got decked with holly and other evergreens, picked because they symbolise the eternal cycle of life. In our road, everyone’s already got their trees, decorations and lights up and they look stunning (if very, very white this year). But I always like to crank up the excitement for the kids by leaving the whole decorating thing until the last minute.

So we’re going out for a greenery walk to bring back swags of red-berried holly, ivy, bay, rosemary and laurel – and then we'll head to the market to find mistletoe and hopefully some eucalyptus boughs with berries, which smell marvellously invigorating (rather like upmarket cough sweets) hung all around the house. It's only then I feel the countdown to Christmas really has begun...

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18th Dec 2007

Christmas Bunch of Baubles

Edie: My sister and I decided to make two big bunches of baubles to hang on our walls. My mum went to John Lewis and bought a box of 100 silver baubles (Jane: reduced to half price – hurry!) and some big fancy baubles too. We got some silver beading wire and started to thread the baubles and stars on to it. Once we had put on lots of baubles, and one coloured one, we twirled the end of the wire and twisted white ribbon on to which we hung our finest bauble so it dangled below.

It was great fun and quite quick and easy to make, though to warn you we got very glittery as the glitter on the balls went all over us. We took down two pictures and hung the decorations up in their place. They look very special in your house at Christmas. And if you put them in your dining room or kitchen, you can stare at them while having your Christmas dinner.

For other homemade Christmas decorations, see our Glass Tree Biscuits, Feather Angels and Secret Gilded Walnuts.


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17th Dec 2007

Real Meat Mince Pies

Jane: I’d always vaguely known that mincemeat used to contain meat – hence the name – but I’d never thought of making real meat mincemeat for Christmas until this year, when I was reading Paul Levy’s foodie history, The Feast of Christmas. He has a bit on mince pies and at the back quotes the 1604 mincemeat recipe of Lady Elinor Fettiplace, which sounds almost like a samosa or spicy pasty, containing the same amount of meat and suet as dried fruit, plus spices like nutmeg and mace, a bit of salt and almost no sugar at all – very different from today’s sweet mince pies.
Still, they must have been pretty fruity because just a few years later the Christmas-hating Puritans took to calling mince pies ‘idolatrie in crust’. Which 400 years on, sounds like a very tempting reason to give them a go.

All you need is a bit of lean mince, some dried fruit, suet and spices. The only unusual ingredient is rosewater, which you can buy in supermarkets. I used puff pastry (even though Lady Fettiplace would never have heard of it), because I love its buttery taste and tumble-down look.
As for the taste – the squeamish among you will be glad to know the meat was almost undetectable and although Paul Levy pegged these pies as being savoury and spicy, I found they had a sweet aftertaste that was much less cloying than the modern version. I thought they were fab – and a good talking point for your Christmas party. The kids didn’t even realise there was meat in them until I told them, and the shock means they’ll always remember what the word ‘mincemeat’ actually means.

Ye Olde Mince Meat Pies
This recipe uses Lady Fettiplace’s mincemeat, taken from a 1604 recipe, updated by Hilary Spurling and reproduced in Paul Levy’s The Feast of Christmas. I’ve cut the quantities but kept it spicy – this now makes 24 jolly decent mince pies.

For the mincemeat
125g lean mince
125g shredded suet
125g currants
125g raisins
1 pinch ground ginger
1 pinch ground mace
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Rind of one small orange
3 tbsp rosewater
1 pkt frozen puff pastry (use organic Dorset Pastry if you can find it – it is easily the best), defrosted

Heat the oven to 220 degrees C, Gas Mark 7. Brush two patty tins lightly with vegetable oil.
Mix all the mincemeat ingredients together in a bowl with your hands, making sure the mince and suet are evenly mixed with the dried fruit.
Roll out the pastry to about 3mm thick, then cut 24 rounds with a 7.5cm cutter and 24 tops with a 5.5cm cutter. Place the bases in the two patty tins, and put a heaped teaspoonful of mincemeat on each, pressing down lightly. Dampen the edges of the pastry with water, and place a top on each one, pressing the join lightly to seal. Cut a slit in the top of each pie with a knife. Place the mince pies in the oven and cook for about 18 to 20 mins, until golden brown.
Cool on a wire rack and dust with icing sugar before serving.

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15th Dec 2007

The Christmas Guide Dog Sale

Maudie: Every so often, my friend Alice and I have a sale to raise money for a charity called Guide Dogs for the Blind. Two have been Christmas ones, and one in the summer. Each time we make new things. This year we made a selection of things – brownies, flapjacks, fudge and mince pies, Christmas and birthday cards, Christmas crackers, candles and Christmas labels. The crackers went down really well, as did the candles and all the food. The labels were rather popular too. We made them out of old Xmas cards we didn’t need any more, then punched holes in them and strung some pretty string through them. The cards we did the same – apart from sticking them on some card with some pretty background paper. It’s a great way to recycle cards you don’t want.

The crackers were easy to make too. Alice had a big bag of toilet rolls we used as the base of the cracker, then she rummaged in a box of old stuff and picked out the things she didn’t want any more to put inside the crackers as prizes. Next we looked up Christmas jokes on the internet and printed them off to go inside. The last thing to do was to find a sweet to put in and then WRAP THEM.
The first guide dog we sponsored was called Rufus, a black Labrador who’s now grown into an adult and has gone to live with a blind owner. So now we are sponsoring Crumble, who is sweet little Labrador puppy.
We had great fun doing our sale, and getting monthly pupdates about the dog we are sponsoring. We raised £52.55.

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12th Dec 2007

Crackers and Pullers

Tamsin: Crackers are a wonderful respite in the middle of the Christmas meal – a bit of fun as paper hats are forced on to heads and corny jokes read out. In recent years, I’ve filled my own crackers as there are only so many plastic trinkets one family can take... A few years ago, I put in false ears, eyelashes and noses making for hilarious results round the table and embarrassing photos to place in the album.

Our favourite cracker-filler has been wind-up toys – so far I’ve done snails, sprouts and ladybirds. Once the crackers are pulled, everyone gets down on the floor with their toy and has a race. Along the same lines, I once filled them with small wooden tops which we spun to see whose could keep going longest. It was a knock-out competition with different leagues to take account of the different ages.

Apart from crackers we have another family tradition from Mike’s side of the family – The Puller. This resembles a cracker in so far as you have to pull to get the contents out. After Christmas lunch, each person is given a string to pull. 

The other end of the string is attached to a wrapped present that’s been hidden in a paper and cardboard construction. The gifts inside the Puller are only small: last year I got chocolate bars, the year before some cheap CDs, and the year before that bath products.

The shape the Puller is made into depends on the shapes of the gifts, but Christmas puds, candles, snowmen and houses are favourites. Mike puts it all together on Christmas Eve.

I always wondered where the tradition of the Puller came from and Mike never knew, except that his great-aunt always bought theirs to Christmas lunch from Harrods! I’ve never seen them in the shops but this year I was doing some research on Victorian Christmas traditions and came across a ‘Snowball Dinner Table for Children’ – a table laid with a glass vase centrepiece filled with cotton wadding, with holly spilling over the top. Hidden in the wadding were gifts for the children attached to ribbons which were pulled at the end of the meal when the candles were lit. It’s a similar idea and obviously a tradition we’ve gradually lost as crackers have become more popular.

I was reminiscing with some friends my age about Christmas when we were growing up in the 70s, and several of them mentioned that their families had a homemade box, often decorated as a house with cotton wool snow, that came down each year from the attic. It was placed at the Christmas table and contained a small gift for each person which was handed out at the end of the meal.
Does anyone else have memories or traditions of small gifts being given at Christmas meals and how they are presented?

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8th Dec 2007

All Presents and Correct

Jane: Christmas isn’t Christmas for me without a panic about presents. In our family, almost everyone has birthdays in November and December (including 21st Dec and Christmas Day itself) – so the idea of just going ‘Christmas shopping’ sounds an incredible luxury. We’re still bogged down in birthdays as the turkey hits the table. As a result, all questions about what the children are going to give relatives/friends/teachers are easy – it’s got to be homemade, otherwise we’d go mad and no doubt bankrupt too.

There are many pluses: most homemade gifts are green or edible or both, they’re funky and fun to make, and have the added bonus of being low-cost – and like the pop group the Swinging Buildings, I’m forever ‘Praying for a Cheaper Christmas’. They’re also personal and endearing, a sure sign that thought, care and attention have been lavished around.
We have a couple of rules: all homemade presents have to be quick, simple, and easy to make in bulk. So this year the children are making dinky little Chocolate Pud Truffles for their teachers, decorated with green and red holly icing on top. They’re a doddle to make and taste really good – they’re basically melted chocolate and cream, so the better quality the chocolate, the more luxe the flavour. In pretty boxes, they look fab. A friend who’s a Year 1 teacher recently said she worries about hand hygiene with her class’s homemade goodies, so this year we’re making a joke of it by putting a label on saying ‘All hands washed thoroughly before these puds were made’.

Last year, Edie made Christmas Star Biscuits in chocolate and vanilla – and a few days later, her teacher raced across to us in M&S to say how much she liked them, which I count a BIG success.

Edie’s friend Amber has perfected a chocolate chip cookie recipe that is simply one of the best I’ve tasted – if I was a teacher, I’d be looking forward to a big plate of these this Christmas (hint, hint...).

Last year Joe made Cherry Shortbread Mice, dipped cherries in chocolate with almond slices for ears and icing noses and eyes – cute, easy and speedy if you have loads of people to make gifts for. It makes you realise that homemade gift-giving is all in the presentation – wrap anything up in a sheet of cellophane and tie with Christmas ribbon and you have a good-looking present.

I remember once reading that books made the best Christmas presents because ‘they’re never fattening, seldom sinful and permanently personal’. The same is true of bookmarks – and they’re easier to make. Brightly coloured personalised bookmarks always go down a treat with the literary of our rellies.

For Jo Malone fans, this year we’re also making Honeycomb Rolled Candles. They take a bit of finicky cutting at first but once you’ve got the hang of it you can churn out lots of them quickly – they look great bunched together, tied with ribbon.

Very young children can have a go decorating plain white candles with bits of coloured wax – if you use miniature cutters they’ll look surprisingly professional even as a centrepiece on the table at Christmas lunch.

For the kids who come round, we’re making Candy Striped Pencils and hanging them on the Christmas tree so they can pick and take one home. And as a thank-you gift for Christmas parties, I’ve stashed away some pots of Herb Jelly, Quince and Ginger Jam and Cranberry Conserve that I cheated and made earlier.
That’s it. We’re knackered and it’s only the 8th December. But give us a couple of days and we’re looking forward to getting going on the Christmas (and birthday) shopping proper.

Tamsin: This year my family is going to be dipping crystallised oranges and peel in chocolate and making boxes. Carla, dipping, Joe, making boxes. Joe has yet to design the container but when he does I'll put it up as you always need a box or two at Christmas.

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6th Dec 2007

And Here It Is… Merry Christmas!

Mal: Now that it’s December the Christmas records (yes, that’s the vinyl) and CDs can be dusted off and come out to play. We have a ban on Christmas music the rest of the year – if anyone so much as starts humming ‘Jingle Bells’ from January to November we jump on them – but come early December, the Christmas-themed tunes are played full blast until the end of the year.

The kids have their favourites: Edie demands The Ronettes’ version of ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ on constant replay, unless Maudie can get to the CD player to load Darlene Love’s ‘Marshmallow World’ first.

I’m kind of proud that they’re both fans of Phil Spector’s unique treatment of the Xmas song. For most of the 1970s and 1980s his album ‘A Christmas Gift To You’ was the only holiday-themed record deemed listenable by hip music fans (and that of course included me). It’s packed with his crazy wall-of-sound backing for traditional songs such as ‘Parade of Wooden Soldiers’ and ‘Silent Night’, as well as classic pop songs like ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘White Christmas’, making them sound as epic and contemporary today as when he recorded them in 1963.
A great Christmas song needs to be full of either emotion or mad humour. Spike Jones and his City Slickers’ version of ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is the epitome of the wacky fun-filled Xmas song. Likewise Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s version of ‘Twas The Night Before Xmas’: with its rolling New Orleans piano and deep bass voice, it sounds like the musical accompaniment to a classic Tom & Jerry cartoon.
‘Twas the night before Christmas…’ is the first line of the most famous Christmas poem ever written (in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore), and the inspiration for the first Christmas pop song (1963) to give Santa his route down the chimney. Since then, ‘Up On The House Top’ has been covered by scores of singers, most recently and successfully by Kimberley Locke in 2005, though I prefer the Jackson 5 version from 1970.

In fact, because of my age perhaps, there are a lot of Christmas song recordings from the 1970s that I love. Not the usual Slade and Wizard megahits of the day, but Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ which is a slight reworking of the Elvis version of ‘Blue Christmas’, and the Partridge Family’s ‘My Christmas Card To You’ being particular favourites. The latter was the only original number on the David Cassidy and Shirley Jones-led TV family’s Christmas album of the same name, a vinyl copy of which – now 36 years old – is still played in our house during December.

As a twentysomething, I used to bug the hell out of the left-leaning, self-styled rebels I shared a house with by loudly playing the CBS Frank Sinatra album, recorded in his 20s and full of carols. ‘The Sinatra Christmas Album’ (the later Capitol recordings) still sounds pretty good too.
These days there are so many fantastic Christmas song compilations covering every musical genre that you can make a different compilation every year (which I do) and not repeat anything. Only Edie and Maudie demand ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and ‘Marshmallow World’ on every single one. It’s ruining my street cred, but what’s a dad to do?

Here are some other songs that rock our Christmas socks. Please send us your Xmas favourites, we’d love to hear them…

Mal: Barbra Streisand's 'A Christmas Album' and my friend Pete Silverton’s 2004 Christmas compilation CD, full of fantastic and unusual songs (we can send you a tracklist, just ask…).
Jane: The Chieftains’ ‘The Bells of Dublin’ with Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones and Jackson Browne is sublime. Plus I also have a very soft spot for Alma Cogan’s ‘Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo’ (‘No, No, No…’).
Tamsin: I like traditional old carols and two of my favourites are ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ and ‘Gloucestershire Wassail’. A nice set of such carols can be found on Paul Hillier's 'Carols from the Old and New Worlds'. And ‘Raffi’s Christmas Album’ gets 10-out-of-10 for younger children.
Carla: ‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael.
Maudie: her second favourite is ‘Winter Wonderland’ also by Darlene Love.
Edie: her third favourite is… oops, she doesn’t have one.

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1st Dec 2007

Shoes, sweeties and St Nicholas

Nienke: Every year on 5 December, Dutch children (even those living in Britain) are lucky enough to receive presents from St Nicholas, a bishop dressed traditionally in sumptuous red robes and a beribboned mitre with crucifix. St Nicholas arrives several weeks before the big day, having come all the way from Spain on a steamboat, accompanied by a troop of ‘Black Peters’, his colourfully dressed and antic-loving helpers.
During those weeks, he travels through the country on horseback over the rooftops, stopping off at chimneys to eavesdrop on children’s good and bad behaviour and to send his helpers down with small presents and sweets, to be put in the shoes carefully left out by the fireplaces below. Any children who have not behaved well might run the risk of finding their shoe filled with a bundle of twigs instead: in days gone by, this was the tool with which the Black Peters chastised naughty children.

The small gifts in the shoes are a build-up to the baskets full of presents that arrive on the doorstep on the 5th, accompanied by showers of sweetie-sized ginger nuts thrown into the room by an unknown hand in a long black glove. Often, there is also a proper visit from St Nicholas himself, who calls the children to him one by one to discuss their behaviour and praise their achievements of the past year, reading from notes in his big, red book. He will always ask the children to sing a couple of the old St Nicholas songs they have been taught by their parents and at school.

In families with older children, the celebration takes on a different form. Having prepared traditional foods such as thick pea soup and ‘speculaas’ biscuits, family members sit around the table to exchange ‘surprise-wrapped’ presents each with a funny poem of rhyming couplets. Both packaging and poem are inspired by a theme that lightly mocks a character quirk or funny incident that happened to the person receiving the gift. So for the mother who locked herself out of the house in her pyjamas, you could do the present up as a pair of pyjama trousers, or a big key, and begin to think about a good word that rhymes with ‘embarrassed’.

The historical St Nicholas, bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD, saved many people, especially children, from fates such as starvation, execution after false prosecution, etc – doing his good deeds in secret and expecting nothing in return. He became the patron saint of children, among others, and his kindness and generosity live on today in the way his name day is celebrated in Holland. Having lived in Britain for a long time, Christmas has become our most important festival, but St Nicholas’s Day is very close to our hearts.

Looking for advent calendar ideas? What about advent stars, advent packets or a traditional nativity scene...

If you're thinking of making your own Christmas cards this year, click here for some ideas for grown-ups and children...

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