Lots of people require Slade. There are those who tell me it must be Mariah Carey. I'm sure there are a classy few who insist on the Unthanks with In The Bleak Midwinter, and I would happily agree but for me* Christmas starts with John Denver singing Silver Bells, Tom Petty singing It's Christmas All Over Again, then I Believe In Father Christmas for Mark. That one makes him a bit weepy.
So, Christmas playlist blasting out, we tackled The Tree today. I've talked before about my deep and abiding love of Christmas trees. The tree and the present wrapping are my favourite parts of the whole holiday season. We opt for the less attractively shaped Norway Spruce rather than the beautifully regular Nordman Fir because the Spruce smells so wonderful.
We schlepped out to East Keswick Nursery twice this year because they had very few Spruce trees the first visit and promised they were cutting more the next morning. When we returned the following afternoon they'd not got them yet and were very apologetic that we'd made a wasted trip. They sent a young lad off to the fields to cut one down for us, which was very sweet of them and made me feel quite the Special Snowflake.
The one he chose was a bit shorter than we'd wanted but was ridiculously thick and bushy. He struggled to get it through the netting gadget - and we had to shove it through the doorway at home. Raised up a few inches on railway sleeper offcuts, it fit perfectly in the space. Well, perfectly after I pruned a few places where it sort of overwhelmed the couches.
The tree is decorated in a particular order. It's getting it straight in the base unit in the middle of the room, then moving it in situ between the two couches and screwing the base down. Next is pruning extra twigs off so those sitting on a couch over the next two weeks won't find themselves with pine needles in their ears. Then lights, then tinsel, then all the red baubles so they are evenly distributed, then all the silver ones, and finally all the decorations that aren't baubles. There are zillions of those, so the least favourite ones get ignored if we run out of twigs to drape them on.
I do the lights and tinsel myself, faffing about until I'm happy it looks relatively even, and the kids move in to decorate. When they were little they tended to select a branch and pile decorations on it until that branch touched the ground or caused the tree to list rather alarmingly. These days it's all beautifully done. If I were a better mother I'd probably miss the inexpert early years but actually I'm just relieved. I like my tree to be Just So. And I keep forgetting it's 'our' tree and not 'my' tree**.
I was 17 when we moved from Canada to the UK. Back in Ontario we'd walk around the tree plantations in the snow, choose our tree and Dad would saw it down. My parents sold most of our decorations in the yard sale we had to slim down our possessions when we emigrated. Our first Christmas here they were nearly starting from scratch. Rejecting the colourful choices of the past they went for the plain white lights and a theme of white, silver or glass decorations.
Like the stroppy ungrateful teen I was, I had a fit. Yes, it was absolutely beautiful, but I didn't care - it looked like it belonged in a department store window, not in my family home. I wanted the multicoloured lights, the homemade decorations, the red baubles I grew up with. I was further outraged a couple of years later when they bought an artificial tree. Now it didn't even smell of Christmas! Like many kids, I hated change, wanted my Christmas to be like it always had been, down to the same Christmas films and soundtrack. You can add to a Christmas, but you can't change it.
(NB - 30 years on Mum and Dad still have the beautiful white and silver tree, and I still think of it as the New Tree. But I like it now because I know the 'proper' tree is in our house!)
Miss B seems to be following in the same path. She commented today how nice white lights look around the house but that Christmas trees need several hundred multicoloured lights to look like A Proper Tree. She insists the boys hand the decorations with their names on and she hangs the ones that are special to her. She made a slightly pitying comment about people with false trees - "Their houses don't smell Christmassy at all." The smell is a massive thing for all 5 of us.
Tree up, Mark and Zach gave 'gentle' hints about the urgent need for mince pies.
I use my former tutor Judith's recipe for German Paste when making pastry, which is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat (Trex, butter or a combination depending on your preference), 1 part sugar and an egg to bind it. It's the crispest, lightest melt-in-your-mouth pastry of all the recipes I've tried. Personally I find all pastry a bit of a faff and would rather bake cakes or cookies, but needs must.
The variation on Rachel Allen's mincemeat recipe (see here) is still my favourite. This year I forgot we'd run out of dried apricots and prunes so there are loads more cranberries to make up for it.
I made 3 dozen mince pies, have pastry for another couple dozen in the fridge and a tupperware containing about enough mincemeat for 5 dozen more. The kitchen smells of warm spices and brandy, while the living room smells of pine tree. All was going swimmingly until I burnt my finger through a hole in my oven gloves, which caused me to drop the tray of mince pies. A hefty dollop of ice cream should fix that. Mince Pie Jumble is definitely a bona fide dessert, right?
So now I'm sitting in the dark with just the tree lights on, reflecting on our day's work. Z's at a friend's house, Miss B is wrapping presents, L's taking a break from revising for mock A-levels with a bit of gaming and Mark's cooking dinner. This has been a hard year for many reasons but these quiet moments make everything better.
My very best wishes to you and yours,
*I'm taking Bing Crosby as a given for everyone. He's non-negotiable.
**It totally is my tree. I'm just pretending I share. Everyone knows this.