Posted by Tania Kindersley.
What a day of contrasts. There was black cloud; there was bright sun. Like the weather, I was sad, I was happy; I was grumpy, I was blithe; I was exhausted, I was exhilarated.
I can’t quite work out if this is to do with the year I have had, or just the extremes of the Christmas season, or the very essence of life itself. Possibly all three.
Despite starting off stumping about quite crossly in my gumboots, I did, in the end, manage to do all my tasks. The Co-op was not the zoo I imagined, but quite calm. I got all the ingredients for the bread sauce, and the carrot and neep pureé. Then I went up to the village shop for Madeira for the gravy. In a last minute panic, I got a bottle of Marsala as well. Then I thought: oh, so now there will be a Madeira Marsala stand-off over which goes in the special Christmas gravy. As a good liberal, I solved the problem by using both. Third Way, Schmird Way. It's like breathing in and out for me.
I made the bread sauce the hard way, steeping onion, cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns for six hours. That sauce will have flavour if it is the last thing I do. I made a chicken stock. I did the gravy. I pureed the hell out of those damn carrots. (All these things are, I insist, better on the second day. Also, it means that tomorrow I may have a quiet morning.)
I cooked the ham. Three hours simmering in stock, and then half an hour in the oven with a ginger conserve and mustard glaze. I should say I am not usually this domestic. But oh, oh, oh the goodness. I sometimes forget how sad shop ham is. When you cook your own, it is an entirely different animal. It is not just the flavour, but the texture. Regular readers will know that I am a bit of a texture queen.
But still, there was the wrapping to do. I started to get a bit grumpy at this stage. For some reason, this year, I have chosen amazingly unwieldy objects for my family. Why, I thought, as I surveyed the present table, could I not have chosen small, neat, square objects? The lovely Stepfather’s present was so impossible that I gave up completely and put it in a nice bag with some tissue paper. I do hope he does not mind.
I did the wrapping, as is my tradition, whilst listening to the carol service from King’s. The moment the high pure voice of the lone chorister started singing Once in Royal David’s City, I burst into tears. I don’t know what it was. I thought of my dad taking me to midnight mass at the church in Lambourn when I was six. I don’t know why I remember that night so well, but I do.
So that was it, for the rest of the hour and a half. I wrapped, and listened, and thought about my father, and cried. I sang along to the carols, at the top of my voice. Then I cried a bit more. Once I got used to the idea that it was going to be a weeping hour, I just went with it, and it turned out very cathartic. Tears, I thought, are not always a bad, sad thing. Sometimes they are quite the correct reaction, and a relief for the good body. (Better out than it, as strict ladies used to say in my childhood.)
Then I marched the Pigeon through the gloaming, where we stopped to gaze at the evening star, hanging in a sky the colour of forget-me-nots. I sang a few more hymns, to the hills. I suddenly thought that if anyone saw me, they would think I looked like one of those tremendous lady evangelists, from the 1920s. I was Mrs Melrose Ape, from Vile Bodies. All I needed were a couple of angels called Humility and Divine Discontent. I never sing hymns. But it was the time for Oh Come all Ye Faithful, and that’s all there is to it.
I was due to go up and take the great-nieces and nephew their Christmas books. It was important they got them on Christmas Eve, because one was called The Night Before Christmas. I was so tired I almost chucked, but in the end I took some iron tonic and got in the car.
That was one of the best decisions I ever took. The Smalls were sitting up in their beds, ecstatic with the thought of Father Christmas coming. They loved their books. It is rather amazing to me that modern children are still excited by books. Oh, the hugs I got. I said, as I had two little girls on either side, their arms about my neck: ‘You two are the very spirit of Christmas.’
Then I went downstairs and drank a strong vodka cocktail with their parents, The Landlord and The World Traveller, which was also the very spirit of Christmas. We talked of politics, friendship, state funerals, and family, and had a lovely time. We parted on a note of perfect fondness. I thought, as I drove the mile back home, how very lucky I am in my extended family.
And now, I am back. I have checked on all the gravies, stocks, sauces, and other animals. Everything looks happy. The Pigeon is dozing at my side. Frank Sinatra is singing Merry Christmas as only he can.
I think: it will all be quite all right.
Pictures of the day.
Present wrapping station. Before:
The Banned List, by the tremendous John Rentoul, which I am giving to everyone this year:
He is not my friend, or anything. It's just that when anyone writes a book against jargon and cliché, I want to plug it with all my might.
And present table after:
Yet another fold of eucalyptus, because this year I cannot get enough eucalyptus:
General Christmassy room:
The Pigeon was looking so majestic today that she gets three whole photographs to herself:
And the dear old hill:
Obviously, I shall wish The Dear Readers an official Happy Christmas tomorrow, very much in the manner of our own Dear Queen, but I still say a very,very Happy Christmas now. That goes especially to the readers in Australia and New Zealand, who shall already be up and tearing open their stockings.
May your Christmas be merry and bright.