Saturday, 25 December 2010

25: Feliz

Having seen the light, and a growing pile of actionable responsibilities, I hereby revert to sporadic posting. If you have been following this nonsense throughout December, then have a stretch, some cookies, and a stiff drink. I thank you, from the bottem of my Grinchy heart, for reading. In recognition of your extreme bravery in the virtual line of duty, you will receive a free Molvanian celebration cake and therapy session with a seal of  your choice.
Still proceeding, sort of.
Happy Christmas, bless us everyone. Phew.

Friday, 24 December 2010

24: Luz

It's Christmas Eve, the big Advent enchilada, and all I got left is sand, votive candles, and a bunch of brown paper sacks. Pretty humble ingredients, but believe me they collaborate to create the warmest glow in the known galaxy.
Home, where no storm clouds rise.
Luminarias, or farolitos if you prefer, get plonked out every Christmas Eve on the house, the yard, the fence, the chicken coop, the llama barn, or whatever. As any rural New Mexican (which is to say most New Mexicans) will tell you, it can be quite a job if you live on a big plot and have a bunch of sand you need to get rid of.
Budget beacons.
Luminarias, the story goes, are points of light after dark to guide the holy family home. So a landing strip on a shoestring, circa 1AD. 

Most every Christmas, I find myself standing at the end of a luminaria-lit path in the dark just before midnight. At this moment, no matter where I am (there have been a few places now), I always feel like I have found my way home at the end of a long year out in the big world.   

Thursday, 23 December 2010

23: Waiting for the miracle

Day 23 is born.
With child.
At my first maternity appointment, the GP actually said 'women have been doing this for thousands of years'. Boy do I hate the assertion that bearing children is trivial because it is common. True: every child born is first carried, and true: this usually involves a bulbous belly, a tired back, the better part of a year, and a rather rude exit. Thousands of years of hard labour, agony, loss, and joy.
Palm of wonder. 
Frequency simply cannot remove the peril or the wonder of the experience. So I don't think it's sappy to say that when a child takes her first breath outside the womb it is miraculous. Even if her plastic manger lies in a noisy ward smelling of disinfectant, staffed by toast and tea-wielding midwives instead of angels, beatifically illuminated by fluorescent strip-lights shining through some horrible hour of night.

Wondrous, even if women have always done just this.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

22: Turtle doves

Advent day 22 has landed, after circling around The Gallery (thank you Tara at Sticky Fingers).
Joined at the lip. 
Birds, like fish, tend to be aggressive jerks when it comes to dating. You couldn't, for instance, bring a mallard drake home to meet your mum. But a handfuldoves, robins swans, eaglesform couples.

I identify with swans. Mostly because they are grumpy. They are also territorial, belligerent, structurally incapable of being useful before noon, and mostly useless after that. They are defensive, nest-proud, and they shout at anyone who looks sideways at their kids. They eat all manner of murky pond gunk, and appear to communicate through a series of honking and farting noises. 
Muddling through the pond-scum of life together. 
But swans are also graceful, deliberate, unflappable. They are loyal unto exhaustion and they love unfailingly for life, only opening their wings wider to allow for ugly ducklings. Which is to say, swans also remind me so very much of my other half, Papa. 

A strand of three (or four) is not easily broken.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

21: Santa imposters

Day 21 in Advent is staring down at Who-ville with a sour Grinchy frown.
...and laying a finger aside of his nose-ring...
There is a local tradition in these parts whereby kids are taken to a creepy, skinny, unbearded, fake Santa Claus in the days preceding Christmas. They queue like trembling lemmings, then sit one by one in Creepy Claus's lap and recant their sins. There is much grovelling, gnashing of teeth and plaintive crying to show contrition.

Parents photograph the whole scene to use as evidence, should the kids later recant their confessions and commence misbehaviour. A key part of this cultural practice is that surrounding grown-ups must say things like 'ah how cute' and categorically refuse to acknowledge that Creepy Claus is clearly a big phony.
If the Grinch could do it, then so could Creepy Dog
I hear that our Santa imposters are pretty tame compared to the uber-scary Swiss ones, who travel with evil whip-wielding sidekicks, and pack kidnap bags for the naughty kids (thanks for the info, Sheena). And anyway, according to the eleventy-hundred good parenting manuals I should have read, threats covered in treats-clothing are crucial to the cultivation of good behaviour. You see, after a date with fake Santa, kids will be super-thankful for their Christmas presents and act like angels for months, or until all memory of him has passed (so possibly only a few minutes).

I do my best to respect local custom, so last week my girls went for their annual review with fake Santa. And there we met the jolliest, fattest, beardiest Santa imposter imaginable. I can only assume the agency hired him over the phone, or made an administrative mistake. I waited for him to speak in a scary voice, or pull out some other Scroogey trick, but he remained a kind, grandfatherly type throughout the interrogation.

Wise one that she is, Ali howled like a banshee anyway to indicate that she knew her place in the ritual, and felt genuine remorse for her sins. Ana looked bored, irreverent, borderline half-asleep. But in fairness, not even the Grinch would make Ana nervous. In fact she rather identifies with that guy.

Santa imposter ritual complete, I'm off to stock up on Who-hash and roast beast for the big day.

Monday, 20 December 2010

20: Off the air

Day 20, or C minus five.
Dash away, dash away, dash it all. 
Depending on the whims of ye merry Gatwick gentlemen, Santa may have to travel overland instead of by air. If you listen very carefully like David Attenborough, you may hear a grumbled 'typical, innit' carried on the winds from Lapland.

Britain's children may not receive their presents until March, as Santa will be stuck in the M25 roadworks until at least Valentine's Day. Chin up, the Royal Mail has prepared us for this day.
Current conditions at Heathrow. 

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Friday, 17 December 2010

17: Cookies revisited

Day seventeen and by now you may have noticed that I come from a long, proud line of cookie enthusiasts: buttered sugar runs deep in our veins.
We cooked the cookies in the cookie jar.
If cookie baking was an Olympic event (and it should be), Grandma would be a serial gold medallist. As a girl, I remember how exhausted she was by the sixty-fifth batch, running on endorphins and will-power alone, flanked either side by an international clutch of talented and fiercely competitive cookie-mums. My siblings and I could merely watch in awe, throw energy drinks and towels from the sidelines, and cheer wildly (though this will give you one heckava sore throat because most cookies require at least ten minutes at 175c). Inevitably, Grandma always produced a beautiful deep freezer full of cookies in record time, and we kids applied them to our hoarse throats all winter.

Peppernuts, or pfeffernusse, are compulsory in my family. Happily, they are also delicious. Both Grandma and Great-grandma K excel at peppernutting. Credit for the following wisdom belongs entirely to them, and of course to the long, proud line of peppernutters before them.

Peppernuts are pretty easy. In a mixer, cream 1 cup of softened butter with 1.5 cups of sugar, then beat in three eggs. Then add the zest of one lemon, half a teaspoon white pepper, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 1 teaspoon cardamom (optionally you can also add dashes of the following if you like: lemon juice, cloves, or ginger). Add about 4.5 cups of flour, a bit at a time, just enough until you get a stiff dough. Roll into balls: big and chewy or small and crunchy according to your preference. Bake on greased cookie sheets at about 350f or 180c for about 8 minutes, or until lightly brown. Consume immoderately.
Half baked. 
Sadly I don't think I'm ready for Olympic peppernutting yet: a wise neighbour tells me that my batch tastes like Farley's Rusks.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

16: Schwesterhood of the travelling nappies

Day 16 in Advent and I am pleased to report that Santa Claus, glass in hand, has just granted me my one Christmas wish: my sister. Apparently the cookie-based siren call was too strong to resist, so Tanta has booked a last-minute trip here for the holidays.
Two in a pair.
Tanta and I live an ocean away from the rest of our relatives. We have a history of spending Christmas together on our side of the world. Children have made this annual winter gathering logistically difficult in recent years. But Tanta, Onkle, Neffe (and Santa), brave people that they are, have pulled it off for another year running.

So a toast to sisters is in order, via Christina Rossetti:
For there is no friend like a sister in calm or stormy weather; to cheer one on the tedious way, to fetch one if one goes astray, to lift one if one totters down, to strengthen whilst one stands.  
'Mwaaaaaaw!'

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

15: Moonshine

Day 15 is hung by the chimney with care.
Bless their little cotton socks. 
Come Christmas Eve and children nestled snugly in their beds, I suggest a little sugar plum vision for the grown-ups. What better way to gather courage for morning's barbaric assault on the Christmas tree? Indeed, what better way to put the sparkle back in Santa's eyes and return the rosy to his cheeks, than to leave him a little of the home-made winter warmer with his plate of cookies?

He works a devil of a long shift after all, out in the cold with no elfin safety legislation to protect him across international airspace, dodging Airbuses, circling Heathrow, spelunking down centuries-old chimneys and smack-dab into coal fires. All this with only a poxy red coat to protect him against the elements. So give a jolly old elf a break. And some plonk.
Welcome Santa, bring your cheer. 
There is of course the classic option: sloe gin. This is ideal if you happen to live by a blackthorn-infested wood and own some heavy gloves. Sloes, very tart on their own, create a delightful, fuchsia drink when drowned in gin and lashings of sugar and left in a dark closet for several months.

Morello cherries, also readily available out in the boonies, create a beautiful deep red tipple, with a nose full of nutmeg and overtones of happiness. Damson plums (above) are nearly as divine for booze as they are for jam. Strawberries, blackberries, rhubarb (kudos to Dawn for this suggestion) and raspberries all drown well. But the best of the lot by far is greengage rum, a golden drink reminiscent of mead. We call it ambrosia in this house, and it is the official Christmas Eve drink.
Ambrosia begins.
Fruity Christmas moonshine couldn't be easier to make. Begin in late summer, as your low-hanging fruit of choice grows ripe. Fill a preserving jar or empty bottle with fruit. Pour sugar over to about a third of the way up. Fill to the top with medium-quality rum, vodka or gin and secure the lid tightly to ward off any space invaders.

The fruit absorbs much of the alcohol, so the resulting drink is more liqueur than liquor. Give it a shake every so often, but mostly leave it alone in the dark until Christmas. Or until a reasonably bad day at least six weeks down the line. Share and enjoy. Remember to leave some for poor Santa, because the guy is subject to the maniacal whims of short people and he doesn't even get a full state pension.

A special toast to Sticky Fingers for suggesting a handful of sparkle to combat the cold, dark days of Christmas anticipation. Cheers.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

14: A tale of two Advent calendars

Day 14 in Advent, and the worst of times. I want to pause all this silliness to discuss a serious issue:  pediatric sugar intolerance. I used to think that kids and candy bars were in some way compatible. Boy, was I ever wrong.
The hard stuff. 
My dangerous naivety left me on the edge last Christmashounded by a very short, very angry sugar-addict who would stop at nothing to get her next fix.

The nightmare began with a cute little advent Christmas truck that I found in the kitsch shop last year. I was drawn to the truck because my early childhood Christmas trees came home in an ancient Ford pick-up known affectionately as 'Sweat Pea'.

Christmas Truck took up residence on the kitchen windowsill. Newborn Ali had no interest in it, but Ana was transfixed. I allowed her one chocolate button every morning after breakfast. This worked for aproximately one day. Then she stopped eating breakfast, and instead stared mournfully at Christmas Truck with glazed eyes, whimpering.
Vehicle of minor delinquency. 
The whimpering didn't help her cause, but she whimpered on and on in denial anyway. Then one morning she growled angrily when I gave her a plate of eggs instead of 'CHRISTMAS TRUCK NOW'. After that bargaining kicked in. 'Pleeeeease? Candy in exchange for two bites of breakfast? Candy for burgled toys?' One morning she merely sat there in a deep state of depression, staring listlessly at the red beacon of unattainable sugar. Patiently, I waited for acceptance. It never came; she just reverted back to anger.

By Christmas, Ana had to have apple juice three times a day to ward off the sugar withdrawal tantrums. Those were tough days, but we managed to wean her off slowly. I hid Christmas Truck safely away in a dark corner of the garage, right next to Creepy Dog.

Now whenever I hear trusted medical professionals say that chocolate buttons are the gateway sweet to the harder stuff (candy canes, lollies and suchlike) I agree wholeheartedly, whereas before I used to think that sort of thing was pretty miserly. In addition to the hard stuff, chocolate button users often migrate to jaffa cakes...and aside from tasting silly, what is a jaffa cake anyway?

I'm pleased to report that the colour has returned to Ana's cheeks and she's got the cheeky twinkle back in her eyes. I am confident that this year, she won't try to sell her Christmas toys at pre-school to get pocket money for chocolate. Best of all, Ana has learned to cope with the occasional slice of birthday cake or odd party chocolate without plunging back into sugar-madness.

Christmas Truck, now demoted in rank to decoration, has been dusted off and put back on the kitchen windowsill this year with no sugar in his drawers. We are all so very happy with his replacement: Grandma's advent tree. This Christmas is our spring of hope after our long winter of despair.

Monday, 13 December 2010

13: The Polar Exprest

Day 13 and on to the Southern Hemisphere's cutest inhabitant: the Christmas tree button penguin, or 'pebuin' as per Babish.
Black, white, cold all over.
By process of polar opposition, a little-known style of logical leap, I am reminded of this household's favourite mode of Arctic transport: 'The Polar Exprest' (local pronunciation).
 Northbound on the Polar Exprestway
Ali, thoughtful newborn that she was, had the foresight to come home from the hospital with a wooden train set for her big sister. The faithful engine (above) quickly assumed its respected name from Ana's favourite Christmas book. A year on, Ali has outgrown chewing on her toes and now shares her big sister's devotion to the train cause.
The Snowman Express. 
Two train-lovers under one roof means that we now collectively own eleventy-hundred trains and administer a complex network. I can proudly say that our trains never encounter signal failure or are besieged by the wrong kind of snow/leaves/snowy leaves on the line. Additionally, our trains are very well-decorated (see Nana's Christmas train above) and devoid of graffiti. But there are limits to what toys can pull off. Our network is occasionally delayed by AAA-battery outages, and we can't get you to Victoria Station, or indeed past the sitting room.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

12: Angels

Hark, day 12 in Advent photos.
Angels with stars upon thars. 
Flying too close to the ground. 

Saturday, 11 December 2010

11: Baby, where Christmas comes from

Day 11 in Advent photos, and continuing on that most sentimental of road trips to the magical German town where Christmas comes from.
First Santa I see tonight.  
Seiffen is a little town in the Ore Mountains of Saxony near the Czech border. The residents of Seiffen produce the most incredible wooden Christmas ornaments imaginable. I don't know what kind of juicy blackmail dirt Santa Claus has on these guys, but my research indicates that his toy sweatshop isn't in the North Pole as previously claimed, but actually here in Seiffen.

A star is made. 
Little wooden wonders from Seiffen and the surrounding region are exported worldwide. In fact, one of my favourite childhood Christmas ornaments was from here: a beautiful wooden angel, who perched joyfully atop the tree every year, blowing a trumpet towards the sky. Of course it's only with hindsight that I recognise the distinctive style. Back in my youthful Decembers, I'd never been to Germany or heard of Seiffen. I didn't know that my little wooden angel was actually born in the epicentre of Christmas.

I wish I might have the toys I wish for tonight. 
Light in darkest December has curative powers, thus the seasonal emphasis on candles, stars, fairy lights, luminarias (more to follow shortly) and suchlike. Sieffen at night (above) is an abundance of lightmuch like a lit Christmas tree in pure dark, and almost as beautiful as the Milky Way.

Friday, 10 December 2010

10: Gingerbread 2, the over-budget sequel

Day 10 in Advent photos, day two in gingerbread terms. As you can see, the infinitely wise Grandma included not one, but a handful of cookie buttons on the calendar.
 Sugar squared. 
The aforementioned baking mission is complete. This house is fully stocked with gingerbread individuals, every one of them a person of (toddler) interest.

Ample opportunity.
Ampelmann, by the way, is someone I met back in the carefree BC days, while hanging out with my lovely sister, Tanta, in Berlin. He is the old East German pedestrian crossing guy, who narrowly survived takeover by the very boring West German walk/don't walk dude, and is still hard at work on the streets of Berlin today. Ampelmann is not only an Ostalgie superhero, but the quintessential Berliner (and no relation to jelly doughnuts). Tanta gifted me a pair of Ampelmann cookie cutters last Christmas. Now with a house full of sugary Ampelmenn, I suspect I will doze off this Christmas Eve with visions of Mitte dancing in my head. 

Thursday, 9 December 2010

9: Political gingerbread gone mad

Day 9 in Advent picture terms, and I find myself up against a gingerbread ceiling.

Gingerbread formerly known as man.
There are a gazillion ways to serve up Christmas sugar. Most of them are included in the American cookery bible, 'The Joy of Cooking'. Papa and I received a copy as a wedding present, and it has lived, much-loved and very food-spattered, in our home ever since. The cookbook's status as the yankee kitchen manual of choice obscures what is, to my mind, the greatest joy of the book: its thorough eccentricity. For instance, in my 1997 edition, there is a reduced fat (a joyless 90's fad) recipe not for gingerbread, or gingerbread men, but for 'gingerbread people'. There is a handy illustration of a 'gingerbread person' to drive the baking appropriateness point home in case you were too busy making/consuming cookies to ponder their inherent gender-neutrallity. 

Walk gingerly and carry a big stick. 
There are a hundred other delightful oddities contained in the book. More on this later, since I don't currently have time to dissect it recipe by recipe in the manner of Julie Powell and Julia Child (or The Joy of the Joy of Cooking, a blog on a similarly ambitious and thorough foodie mission as the Julie/a's). Instead I offer you Berlin's answer to the gingerbread person: the Ampelmann cookie cutter (see above). I plan to make a full-fat batch of Ampelvolk today and I expect the whole family, girls and boy alike, will be much more joyfully ample after eating them. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

8: White

This is the 8th day of Advent photos and my first submission to The Gallery (a lovely idea, thank you Sticky Fingers).

Two years BC (before children), Papa and I took a road trip in Germany with Onkle and Tanta. We drove from an unusually snowy Berlin (my favourite city) to an icy Dresden, then onwards into Saxony-Switzerland and the whitest Christmas I can remember.
Pre-snowflakes. 
At one point we happened upon the most perfect, untouched field of snow this side of heaven. We couldn't leave it that way, so we jumped from the car and tore through it like a pack of rabble-rousing kids. I made so many snow angels that the back of my head grew numb. We played until we were cold and tired to the bone, then piled back in the car and reverted to adulthood.

Footprints in the snow.  
The snow that day was the lightest, freshest powder imaginable: the consistency of icing sugar and twice as delicious. When my kids make me feel old, just thinking about that snow makes me feel like a kid again.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

7: Light

Day 7 of December in pictures.
Star of wonder. 
Wonderful things are born in the darkness of power outagesnew children are dreamed up and the children already with us discover candlelight.
Beauty bright. 

Saturday, 4 December 2010

4: NHS bear hug

Day 4 in Advent.

Can't bear paracetamol. 
I can unreservedly recommend my local hospital for minor kid emergencies. For instance, if your child slips into stealth-mode and commandeers a full bottle of Calpol, then triumphantly returns it to you emptied, the nice A&E people will let you in out of the cold with a smile. They won't even criticise your shoddy baby surveillance skills and rubbish cap-securing ability. Your snowflake might then flail about wrathfully, shouting Babish obscenities like something out of 'The Exorcist' while the nurse tries to draw blood to ascertain paracetamol levels. Said nurse will remain calm, simultaneously offering a cute teddy to your teeth-gnashing minion, and comforting words to a blubbering you. The blood test might confirm that, while your devil in disguise created a Calpol Jackson Pollock on the carpet, she actually ingested nil. The nurse will convey this news tactfully, and will probably not even point and laugh at you for all the flapping about.
Angel in disguise
People don't always have nice things to say about the NHS. And I know some hospitals are better than others. But all I have to say to my local is: thank you; you are awesome.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Christmas patchwork

When I was a girl my family began December with an Advent calendar, as many do. But ours was special: a beautiful Christmas tree wall hanging made by my mum. Each year my sister, brother and I pulled treasures from the red felt pocket and snapped them into place on the tree: teddy bears, stockings, stars, snowflakes, angelsthe flora and fauna of Christmas.

The given tree.  
Last week the postman brought us a special package from Grandma: a handmade Advent calendar, crafted in the style of the beloved one from my childhood. The girls tore through the wrapping, then spent the afternoon inspecting all the advent treasures in hushed, studious awe. Grandma has always been a talented quilter with an eye for detail. When I rang to thank her, she told me that it took her years to collect all the right buttons.

Adele of Mila's Daydreams has inspired me with her Advent photo calendar idea. So, although I am a little late starting this, I will post one of Grandma's charms each day for the rest of Advent, plus an accompanying wintertime picture.

The snowman is first up on the tree, followed by my favourite snow dude from last winter.

Buttons made of coal. 
Frosty the grillman. 

Thursday, 2 December 2010

White pre-Christmas

Ana likes to sing 'Frosty the snowman was a jolly holiday'. In her mind Frosty and Mary Poppins, both heroes around these parts, are fused. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's the hat.

Every morning for weeks now Ana has gone running to the window to watch expectantly and whisper 'it's snowiiiiiiiiing!' But it hasn't been. Until now. 

When frosty holds your hand, you feel so grand. 
Ana is in heaven. On our pre-school walks she takes huge bites from snowy hedges, shrieking 'just like chickeeeeen!' and 'tastes like puuuuuding!' Which makes me wonder if my cooking is really that gobsmackingly bland. But it also makes me warmly remember the spine-shiveringly delicious snow ice cream of my girlhood winters gone. Just a simple bowl of snow, splash of whole or condensed milk, dash of powdered sugar, cap of vanilla or sprinkle of nutmeg and voila: frosty magic. 

Snowgirl
I admit that when nobody's looking, I'm out there eating snow off the hedges too. Foolishly, both Ana and her childish mama are desperately hoping for a desperately snowy winter, just like the last one. 

Photographing snow: a fool's wonderland.