Happy New Year. I hope that 2016 brings you peace, health and happiness. I was fortunate to spend both Christmas and New Year on the west coast of Scotland with my nearest and dearest this festive season. The weather was mixed, as is to be expected at this time of year. The days seem to take turns; a day of solid rain and howling winds would be followed by mild, balmy air breezing in from the south. We know from long years of experience to head out as soon as it is fair. Fair mainly means not raining. So, we had some good walks on the glorious beaches; Big Sand, Gairloch Beach and Red Point on Boxing Day. The latter was a very windy day and we were sand-blasted as soon as we reached the beach. I love to stand and watch the waves crashing on the shore. The way they roll and break, the foamy whiteness moving along the crest as they approach. It was too cold to stand for long, however. Only long enough to take a few photographs.
We retreated to the south end of the bay and found shelter below the turf line where the sheep had formed hollows to lie in. We perched on the rounded sandstone rocks and drank tea, ate goose sandwiches (we had the good fortune to eat goose on Christmas day) and slabs of Christmas cake with marzipan and sweet, sweet icing. It was a good day. I hope to have more like it in the coming year.
Last week I enjoyed an evening out for a festive meal with the lovely folk who make up Deeside Writers Group. Of course we set ourselves a little writing task for the evening and that was to write a short piece (no more than 50 words) using the prompt "restaurant" (kindly provided by Val of Buchanan's Bistro, where we were dining). I didn't think too hard about the task, and found that a piece came to me in the form of a song. Written to fit the tune of "Oh my darling Clementine", these are the words that appeared. It seemed apt for this time of year, with the lovely orange fruits in abundance, that this tune came into my head. It was a song that my dad used to sing, mainly if not only, on long car journeys. I meandered off for a reminder of the words - "In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, lived a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine". It is of course a tragic story, which I had forgotten in the intervening years. So, I enjoyed my wander down memory lane; funny the paths some things lead us down. Here is my offering - I had the foresight to print out several copies, and the group was generous in their joining in. Happily the tune was familiar to everyone. Oh I do like a good singalong!
(to be sung to the tune of “Clementine”)
In a bistro
In the country
Near the Deeside
was a pair of
very fine chefs
and their cooking
Served they dishes
Of local produce
and some platters
And the diners
were not whiners
in that bistro
The festive season, by which I mean Christmas and New Year, is a season of mixed emotions for me. This year, I have been trying to pin down exactly why I feel the way I do. Mostly, I dread Christmas. The cynical part of me finds it hard work; extra work in cooking and in buying present; writing cards and sending them, choosing a tree and decorating it, making polite conversation with relatives you see only rarely. The less cynical part of me may sometimes enjoy choosing thoughtful gifts, thinking about friends I hardly ever see when writing a card to them, and likes to see the house decorated for the season. I think that part of the general grumpiness may have to do with the fact that my own parents were rather good at Christmas. I mean good at organising it. And there is a lot of organising to be done, as I know any of you who have survived the past few days will agree. They actually seemed to enjoy it. My dad would acquire a ham (a whole leg) from somewhere in Perthshire - Kinross, I think - and boil it in the old clothes boiler we had in the wash-house at the back of our house. It was the only vessel large enough to hold it. I believe he boiled it empty beforehand to clean it. There was a tap at the bottom to empty out the water - except in this case it was wonderful ham stock for soup! And then he would glaze it and bake it and we would have it cold on Christmas morning, thin delicious slices of it, with melon. I now realise I have no idea where this tradition came from. I like to think it was from the one Christmas we spent in Sweden, as a family, when I was two years old, but I suspect that may not be correct.
I still use the recipes mum had from "Lady Edith in the Belfast Newsletter, about year 1!" for plum pudding, and her mother's recipe for Christmas cake, from about 1930. I keep meaning to write them out, or copy them into my recipe book, or type them up, but I never do. They are both written on yellowing paper, in my mum's handwriting and somehow become more precious every year. I never quite manage all the old traditions - we used to be summoned to the kitchen to stir the plum pudding mixture with a large wooden spoon, and to make a wish. The smell of Guinness mixed in with suet and dried fruit brings back those memories every year. And there would be sixpences, wrapped in greaseproof paper and inserted with a knife into the heart of the pudding, before it was set alight on Christmas day, with brandy heated on the stove and a sprig of holly, which we all hoped would catch light, stuck on top. There would be table fireworks, smokey and messy and all the more fun for that very reason. This year we were lucky enough to be given a pack of them by an old friend - fab!
There are a lot of expectations at this time of year; perhaps it is that I feel that our Christmas won't quite be up to scratch. Does it matter if the turkey isn't cooked just quite right, if we forget to chill the bubbly or take the cheese out of the fridge so that it isn't freezing cold and tasteless? No. We are lucky to have food on our table and wine in our glasses. And everyone will be too full to want cheese, anyway. Does it matter if we don't stick to the old traditions, but make up some new ones of our own? I think not. Family is a transient concept; it's who is around at the time - the gathering on Christmas Day may be all older people, or a group of twenty-somethings, or three or more generations all gathered together, with little ones who are entranced by the magic of it all. It might be siblings and their offspring. Perhaps it is the transition which makes me unsettled, or even a bit sad - the fact that I am slowly but surely (actually, there's no "slowly" about it) becoming part of the older generation - there are not many of my parents' peers still around. Every year at this time this process becomes clearer, as I receive another letter which tells me of another passing.
I think I understand these mixed emotions a bit better now. No matter how much we would like it to do so, Christmas cannot stay the same; nor should it. It evolves and changes as we and our families and friends change. We can make it whatever we want it to be.