Quirky Family Holiday Traditions

By Susan Roberts

For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the 25th of December – more than any other date in the year – causes us to think back on past Christmases. Apart from the obvious religious significance, I think that each person who celebrates Christmas grows up with traditions that they believe are universal, only to discover that classmates and next-door neighbours do things slightly differently.

When I was a child, every December my father would move one of the lounge chairs into the spare room and bring in the big potted tree from outside. My mother would wrap Christmas paper around the rusty tub it stood in, and we knew that the magical time of Christmas was on its way.

The school year always ended on a Friday and from the first Monday of the holidays we began to decorate the tree in earnest. We must have had a ghastly collection of child-made decorations that we churned out during the last few weeks of school, along with a few glitter-strewn paint-daubed or crayoned… er… things that we felt were Christmassy. My parents indulged us, but were probably relieved once the more badly-made ones fell apart and had to be replaced with much better ones bought from a shop.

One year, the tree itself had to be replaced because my sister developed an allergy from the leaves and wasn’t allowed to touch it. Not a problem – it was the 1960s so there was a great new tradition of bright green, symmetrical plastic and wire trees that could be bought instead of the real thing, so we quickly jumped on that bandwagon.

Every December after that we decorated the plastic one and packed it back into its box every January, along with the tiny bright plastic berries that could be pushed onto the ends of every wire branch. I still have that tree. The berries? Not as many as we started with…

A few nights before Christmas the dining room door was closed and we could hear much wrapping of presents inside, but the gifts weren’t put out under the tree until just before we went to bed on Christmas Eve. My mother had an annoying habit of putting sticky-tape over the little gift tags that opened like small cards, so that our fingers couldn’t pry them open for us to see who was getting what. We were absolutely not allowed to prod, shake or poke any presents that had our names on. Or anyone else’s presents, for that matter.

We were packed off to bed after the usual reading of The Night Before Christmas and despite high expectations of Santa’s visit, with the best will in the world we never managed to stay awake to see him come down the chimney. He must have done because in the early hours of the next morning there was always a parcel on the foot of each of our beds. How did he do that?!

Once our parents woke up, we had a quick breakfast and left for church with our mother while our father did the necessary preparation of the Cornish hen, then fetched our grandfather (along with Grandpa’s current girlfriend) and any other stray relatives, in time for the big lunch.

After church, we had the ceremonial handing out of the presents, the wild frenzied unwrapping, and then the relocation to the dining room for the biggest meal of the year. This always ended with a traditional hot Christmas pudding (out of a traditional tin from the supermarket), steamed and decorated with plastic holly, and eaten with home-made brandy butter, syrup and lots of ice-cream. (A reminder here to all northern hemisphere readers – in South Africa it is extremely hot in December so ice cream is just the best thing in the world!)

All this eating activity (or maybe it was the heat) seemed to wear out the adults because after Christmas lunch they all became drowsy and had to stretch out on sofas and (more annoyingly) on our beds because our childhood bedroom had the glorious afternoon sun. Children were banished to the garden where we met neighbours and played with new dolls, train sets, tricycles or bicycles and – of course – books!

Later in the afternoon once the adults had revived, we did the annual stuffing of our cake-holes with Christmas cake, mince pies and a vast array of sweets and nuts that my mother had managed to stash away from us for who knew how many weeks, and then the relatives were taken home.

As the day turned to evening, we prepared for a cold chicken supper with another family of friends. I don’t know when that tradition started, but each year we alternated – one year at their house and the next at ours. It was always the perfect winding down, relaxing time and my overriding memory is that there was lots of laughter.

Within a few days after Christmas we usually packed up for two weeks down the coast at a big family hotel that we returned to year after year until it got too expensive. Or perhaps it was because we got too big to share a family room?
By the time we returned home in January, the tree looked drab and out of place so it was taken apart and packed away. A few days later, the preparations began for another gruelling year of school before we could all have fun again at the next Christmas.

My family’s traditions have changed a bit over the years, but the memories are as vivid as ever at this time of year. Unlike Scrooge, I enjoy the visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past.

What are your favourite memories of family and holiday traditions? And do you still follow the same ones that you grew up with?

Original retro tree from the 1960s – skinny and spindly, missing a few berries and baubles, but still holding its own

Original retro tree from the 1960s – skinny and spindly, missing a few berries and baubles, but still holding its own

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A Ballast Of Bolognaise

by Jacqueline Dowling

Travelling Europe on a less than meagre budget is not much fun. Or is it?

We hit Venice after a horrendous night under leaky canvas, during which most of Italy’s annual rainfall chose to descend on our mainland campsite, swooshing away some tents, leaving their occupants open to the elements and seriously discomfited. I spent the night shivering on an army issue camp stretcher from WW1, gingerly dipping my finger into the rapidly rising flood below, and wondering when it would be my turn to float off.

Our soggy mob don’t bother with breakfast because the gas bottles are under water, so we miff off on a vaporetto to St Mark’s square and distribute ourselves beneath various columns, in the sun, to dry off. Everyone is thoroughly grumpy, the breakfasts around the square require a double mortgage to pay for a pizza and espresso. I decide to go walkabout on my own and take pot luck

Away from the tourist areas, Venice has a quietness and ancient beauty of its own; the narrow streets, lined with crumbling renaissance buildings are peaceful, washing flaps overhead and sunny squares suddenly appear; a cat washes its paws outside a small but perfect church, a plane tree hovers above a stone bench; there’s a sundial, dry fountain and cobblestones; old men play a clacketty game on a wooden table; women carry baskets of fresh fish and greens from the market. Is this the spot where Visconti shot the mesmerising scene between von Aschenbach and Tadzio in Death In Venice? It looks strangely familiar…

On a back canal I find a workshop where father and son are handcarving the prow for a recently completed gondola which stands, glossy black, on a workhorse nearby. I watch them, fascinated, for some time, and move il_340x270.678760822_2cdron. The street is still, very quiet.

My next discovery is a small family owned glass-blowing works, also on a canal, a pea-green one. They’re busy creating an amber coloured wine decanter, smallish with an ornate stopper, and six tiny glasses. The whole set is then gilded in the traditional Venetian manner, and hand painted with chunky little white flowers. It stands on our mantlepiece today, full of memories.

Walking equals appetite in my book. A workmen’s trattoria is at hand; a huge bowl of pasta, loaded with tomatoes and cheese and other goodies appears and I bend to it with fork and spoon, just as everyone else is doing and never mind good manners, it is superb! Strolling back to the group, _DSC1691I take the same route past the glass blowers to collect my purchase and they insist on taking me home for ‘lunch’ – 16.00hrs. A steep and musty stairway leads to their apartment overlooking… another canal. The space is full of sunlight and fragrant with the rich scents of traditional Italian cooking. We sit around an old, much scrubbed table – Signor opens a bottle of chianti and welcomes me, in voluble Italian, to his extended and noisy family. I manage a wobbly Grazie Signor, molto molto grazie , and drink deeply. A massive bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, with every imaginable ingredient bursting forth is passed round, followed by a green leaf and tomato salad, thoroughly drenched in olive oil and garlic. Followed by more chianti and chatter. What a wonderful family, what an experience. What a full tummy.florence069

Back to St Mark’s and the grumpy group. They’ve mooched around the obvious tourist traps, unable to afford to pay the rip-off prices, and haven’t enjoyed the day at all.

‘And what about you?’ they ask. ‘Where have you been all day?’

With a perfect Mona Lisa smile I reply ‘Oh, nowhere much: I just went for a little wander.’

Dashing through the snow

By Sue Trollip

Yes, that’s what I did yesterday – well to be honest it was more of a shuffle than a dash. Who has snow boots before the first snow? From the squeals about frozen toes from all the ‘out of towners’ at the office, I’d guess no one. Last night the websites, with speedy delivery, that sell boots online made a fair killing in our little town.

But that’s not my story.

It’s Christmas. It’s snowing. It’s a real live wonderland out there.

People have gone insane. No longer is suburbia a dark inky well after sundown. It’s now an oasis which, I swear, could be seen from the moon. In our neighbourhood there are even Christmas lights on real pine trees. How … how … it’s beyond me, but it’s beautiful. Entire houses are swathed in lights, and downtown each tree is wrapped, and I mean entirely wrapped, in tiny sparkling white lights.

It’s majestic.

The world glitters between the falling snowflakes and I can’t be anything but idiotically happy every time I step outside.

I know it’s still a few days away, but MERRY CHRISTMAS!