This November I have been beset by the lurgy. I have no idea what lurgy actually is but if it means being floored by a combination of coughs, colds, spluttering and addiction to throat lozenges and eventually two sets of antibiotics, then that sums up my condition since Halloween. I have had a missing month.
However for me November is usually critical. It is when preparations are laid down for December’s festivities. I am a month behind and I am feeling serious anxiety. I’m hardly worth talking to.
Normally the pudding, cake and mincemeat would be laid down by now in one cupboard of another. Along with relishes of one kind or another. But this year the cupboards are bare. I sent out a text to the family Wattsapp – do we really need them? The answers were immediate “well…yeah….” So, I will not be available on my foreseeable weekends.
It could be worse. When I was growing up the ingredients required, while available, came in less ready form.
I would spend hours with my mother skinning almonds. That is a serious operation of soaking almonds in boiling water, then sliding them out of their skins. I say sliding, when I mean wrestling.
The raisins always needed to be stalked and stoned. Each individual bubble of gorgeousness. But at least a few could be eaten while the job in hand was being completed.
Thankfully suet was in boxes. I hate to think what needed to be done by the wondrous cooks who dealt with the fat of cattle in the days before we had little boxes of the dried stuff.
But sure it will all be worth it when it is all being soaked the night before in the brandy.
I spend a ridiculous amount of money on brandy that is never drank in glasses in our house, only ever eaten in fruit filled delights.
And I have added other macerating tendencies of preparation to those traditions handed to me. A number of years ago I had a lovely dinner in Belfast that involved cranberries that burst with flavour of star anise and cinnamon. I of course demanded to know how it was done and I was of course refused the information. Since then I have been engaged, with considerable success, in the months long soaking of cranberries in red wine, star anise, cinnamon sticks and orange peel. These little ruby gems are turned into our home made cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve. Of course such a thing would have been impossible for my mother as cranberries were unavailable in 1970s and 80s Dublin. In fact I don’t even know if the jars of cranberry sauce were available except in dark corners of expensive shops. They certainly never graced our table.
I have no presents bought either, but somehow that means less than the efforts to get the food ready. Even the family are of the same mind.
In our house, despite the generosity of Santa and his successors the parents of teenagers, it turns out that it is the traditions that are valued most.
The smell of caramelising onions for the relish that accompanies the chicken liver pate marks the days before our friends bring our ginormous turkey from Toome, when we catch up over toast and pate in our gentle tradition now a decade old.
So December might be a little more frenetic than usual this year, but it will be squeezed with the best stuff, memories and traditions of Christmases past and present that insist on us valuing family and friends. The anxiety is less already.