So it’s the same every year, we start to talk about Christmas and all of the things that need to be done in advance.  We were going to be 19 for Christmas lunch this year, and as a result, I had to rearrange the house. Furniture had to be taken apart and then put back together again.  Chairs had to be procured.  Crockery and cutlery had to be sourced, and some items of furniture had to be relocated.  Everything that had to be relocated ended up in my room, which made moving around in the dark an exciting and sometimes painful experience. 

When people come to your house on Christmas day, they usually arrive full of the spirit of the holiday, laughing and smiling merrily laden with gifts and ready to be fed.  I am not sure if they realise that behind all of the exclaiming about how lovely they look and how generous they are with all of the gifts, there is an exhausted hostess who is ready to get back into bed and sleep for the week.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it.  I love having people over for Christmas dinner, I love the planning, the execution, I even love when something goes wrong and we look back on it later and laugh (although at the time, it always feels like the end of the world).  I remember one year, I went to lift the turkey out of the roasting pan and it dropped and completely fell apart.  There was then a panicked Tetris session as we tried to put it back together with liberal use of toothpicks and anything else we could find.  The turkey resembled a Picasso that year.

There is no way you can cook a whole Christmas meal without doing some things in advance.  I used to make a soup to start.  I try to do as much as humanly possible the days before so as to have some semblance of time for Christmassy things on the actual day.  So the two days before Christmas are spent either in the supermarket or in the kitchen.  Anyway, this one year, I made the soup the day before.  It was a leek and potato soup and I put it in the fridge as soon as it cooled down.  I do have an enormous fridge, but when you count the turkey, the ham, and everything else that needs to be stored in the fridge, there often isn’t room for everything.  I combat this by opening the windows in the least used room of the house and using it as a cold room.  Anyway.  I put the soup in the fridge, and the next day, I added the crème fraiche and we all sat down to lunch.  I can’t actually eat leeks, so I wasn’t having any.  Everyone started exclaiming how delicious the soup was and what a good idea it was to add lemon, or was it cheese?

Lemon or cheese? There isn’t any lemon or cheese in the soup. I thought.

I tasted the soup.  It was off.  Not off as in there was mould in it, but you know.  Not quite right. On the turn as they say.  This was after everyone had eaten a bowl or two of the stuff.  My Christmas was ruined.  All afternoon, I watched for signs of food poisoning or discomfort.  I was terrified that everyone would either get ill at our place, or call me the next day to say that they were sick.  It never happened.  To this day, they still ask me for the recipe for that soup, and then complain that they can’t get it as delicious as it was that day.  Like I said, I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was extremely panicked.  Needless to say, I announced the following Christmas that starters were unnecessary and never made soup for Christmas again.

The thing about Christmas at home, is that for our family, it is: a) traditional, b) relaxed, and c) only family.  I mean my aunt always brings at least one person, (last year, a whole family) but we always manage to have a good time.  What I like about it is that we are among people we love, and who love us.  I always tell all of my friends who panic about cooking the perfect meal, that it doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect.  It isn’t Masterchef  for goodness sake.  It’s not like you are having your partner’s boss over for Christmas lunch and everything has to be just so (although poisoning them is frowned upon I’m told…).  For me, the charm of having a celebration in someone’s home is the fact that it isn’t expected to be perfect.  It is cosy, welcoming and perfectly imperfect.  If your family and friends can’t forgive you if the turkey is dry or if you burn the stuffing, then stop inviting them over for Christmas, or ask them to host next time.  This year, we were 19 people and my aunt only brought one person, a delightful American lady who was fun, spoke English (often not the case with my aunt’s friends) and totally got the spirit of the rambunctious family occasion.  It was a pleasure to have her with us, and she kept up with all of the noise and craziness with great aplomb, unlike last year’s family who probably had a silent Christmas this year, to make up for the pandemonium last year.

I know everyone has their own Christmas stories about everything they have to do to get things ready.  I am always interested to hear what other people do at Christmas.  I know some families who divide the meal up between them and individual family members are responsible for different parts of the meal or the occasion.  I know some people who gather round the television and watch Eastenders, or the Queen’s speech all together.  Whatever people are doing, we often fall into habits of doing things the same way every year – it is after all how traditions are born.

In our family, I tell everyone to be here at 1:30 and when the final relative arrives just after 3, we sit down to lunch.  By this time, the kids have stuffed their faces with the nibblies I put out before lunch, so the turkey isn’t usually well-received by the children (and who can blame them?  Turkey is a boring, often quite dry and bland option, I wish we could have something else, but my Dad is a traditionalist and wants turkey on Christmas day).  What is well-received by the children is the crackers.  As soon as they sit down, they start pulling crackers, reading out jokes, and generally making a huge amount of noise.  I love it.  My brother and I have this ongoing (for about 40 years now) and friendly competition about who can work out the cracker joke quicker.  For me, the cracker is all about the joke.  I mean, I never wear the crown, I don’t particularly need a large paper clip, or a mini stapler or grater, certainly, a plastic golf tee is not going to rock my world.  But the joke, well that’s the treasure.  Each one a cheesy horrible pun based around Christmas.  How many times will we get a play on Elf and Safety regulations or a joke about polar bears before we stop groaning and laughing.  None of the jokes are particularly funny, and that’s the point.  It isn’t supposed to be hilarious, it’s supposed to be naff.  Another tradition born this time because the guys who write (and now recycle) these jokes lost the will to live and be funny about 100 years ago.

My family and I have a (usually hurried) breakfast all together before the chaos starts.  We set the table on Christmas Eve, and sit down all together mid-morning in between turkey rotations and pavlova decoration and exchange cards and pull crackers (and most importantly, eat croissants).  This year our crackers didn’t contain jokes only.  They also contained a conversation starter.  This made me pause.  I mean, surely if you are sitting around a table with your family, you don’t need a conversation starter?  And especially ones like – if you were an animal what animal would you be?  Or if you were an ice cream flavour?  Seriously who needs to talk about stuff like that with their family?  If you’re really at a loss for what to say, just start an argument or bring up an offence that occurred 25 years ago, but you never really got over for heaven’s sake!  There’s always something to do.  Of course, at my place there are also 4000 old family albums you can go through which are currently destroying the ‘look’ of the piano, so entertainment is always available. Anyway, I strayed off topic, sorry.

Over the course of lunch, we tell cracker jokes and riddles, and overeat because I can’t ever cook the appropriate amount of food for the amount of people.  This year, our turkey weighed 9kg.  That is quite a big bird and let me tell you that it takes one to know one.  Of course no one has to wrap me in a blanket of bacon and stagger over to the oven with me, but once you count the cast iron pan, the foil, seasonings and bacon, the bird in its foil parcel is pretty damn heavy.  But it isn’t just about the turkey.  This year, I made a ham for the first time, and then there are the 5kg of roasties, and the assorted veg, the pigs in blankets, the stuffing, the gravy etc.etc.  Four years ago, we had Christmas in Greece and my cousin who is a vegetarian joined us.  She kept telling me not worry, she would eat the stuffing and the veg.  What she hadn’t realised is that Greek stuffing is basically Bolognese sauce with pine nuts and roasted chestnuts in it so not really vegetarian fare.  It got complicated that year, because I had to basically cook a vegetarian meal as well as the rest of it.  Without the vegetarian element, it is basically a giant roast which isn’t too stressful.  The only difficult part is getting it all on the table at the same time and hot.  I watched Jamie Oliver carve a turkey in about 5 minutes on telly and thought, perfect, I’ll do that, and we can all eat turkey at the same time rather than one person carving it as we all wait for it.  My brother usually carves the turkey, but he carved the ham instead while I butchered the turkey.  Seriously, Jamie made it look so easy.  What is really annoying is that the first half of the turkey ended up looking like a road accident, but when I went to do the second half, it looked almost as professional as when Jamie did it.  That was the half that no one really noticed.  They just saw the first plate which looked like I had just hacked at the turkey with an assortment of blunt knives.  Murphy’s law, thank you for accepting my invitation to Christmas lunch, it just wouldn’t be the same without you.

Lunch is served (note the messy turkey)

Lunch is served (note the messy turkey)

What always astounds me is how patient the children are.  I mean, we had 5 kids at Christmas aged between 10 and 2.  They sat at the table with us, ate, played and generally were good as gold until way past 5pm when we finally finally started to hand out and unwrap presents.  This part of the day I usually find quite overwhelming.    The kids are unwrapping stuff quicker than their parents can write down what it is and who it’s from, and exclaiming over everything.  After a while they are finished, and want to open your presents.  This year I had bought a drum set with other noisy musical instruments inside it for my youngest niece, C.  All the kids thought this was the best present ever and so the latter part of Christmas day was carried out with a background of cacophonous music.  The ultimate moment came when they figured out how to play the kazoo.  This led to all of the favourite Christmas carols being played at top volume complete with drum, maraca, tambourine and recorder accompaniment and the three kids whose mouths were not busy blowing or humming things singing at the top of their lungs.   There must be a song called I’m dreaming of a quiet Christmas, if not, I call dibs, the extra cash will come in handy.

On Christmas day, the dishwasher works real hard.  I have discovered the extremely useful quick wash setting and I can get a dishwasher run in 30 mins.  That’s all well and good, but in order to get three or four dishwasher runs, this means you have to load and unload the dishwasher three or four times.  I feel like perhaps I am stating the obvious here, but when you talk about dishes etc., some bright spark always says:

“But you have a dishwasher don’t you?”

I always want to reply.  “Yes, I have a dishwasher, and it also rinses off the plates before loading itself, and then unloads itself and puts everything away before loading itself again.  It’s particularly useful at Christmas because it is clearing up as I sit opening presents and being fed grapes one at a time.”

Let me make one thing clear.  When I say my prayers at night, and I am listing things I am grateful for, the dishwasher comes up most nights, but the fact that I have a dishwasher does not mean that I don’t have to ‘do dishes’.

Also, because we are a Greek household which involves having cutlery and crockery which you only use for special occasions, we discovered this year that the lovely cutlery which I was using for the first time, does not actually clean in the dishwasher.  So after having put it through the dishwasher, we then had to wash and dry it all by hand anyway.  If it were just me and a partner, that would not be a problem.  Two – maybe four plates, 8 pieces of cutlery and 4 glasses and Robert is your father’s brother, washing up done.  However, we were 20 people and that is 6 dishwashers worth in case you were wondering.

Anyway.  Everyone leaves at about  7 or 8pm after which we clear up for another 3 hours or so before deciding that we can leave the rest til the next day.   This year, after moving the coat rack with all the coats on out of the corridor, I managed to hurt my neck, so by the time I went to bed that night, my movement was restricted.  I woke up on Boxing day (traditionally the day we go to my brother’s) unable to move my neck in any direction.  Even my head felt heavy sitting on my shoulders.  Usually I prepare food to take to their place, but this year, they cancelled because my sister-in-law was ill.  We used the day at home constructively.  I cleared up sloooowly.  D slept until 3 o’clock.  Yes, 3 o’clock.  I mean, even when I was a student I don’t think I ever slept that long.  And then when I went in to make sure she was still breathing and to ask her if she wanted something to eat, she didn’t believe me.  Anyway.  About 2 hours later, she was on the couch with her duvet around her napping.  Honestly, youth today…

I opened the rest of my presents on Boxing day, and I was delighted with all of them.  I am really a very lucky girl.  I am looking forward to using all of the kitchen equipment I received (which I’ll probably post about  at some point, and I also got a Digital photography course, so maybe I will be able to get more out of my camera.

And speaking of my camera,  I will leave you with some of my favourite images from Christmas thisyear.

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