Country Life

Christmase­s to remember

- Jonathan Self December 27 Patrick Galbraith

CHRISTMAS Past. The year 1969: the last time my mother and grandmothe­r slaved in the basement kitchen to put a banquet on the diningroom table two floors up, as the men of the family, refreshed after a walk back from church, sipped sherry and discussed their Boxing Day golf. 1974: my mother, semidetach­ed from my father, possibly bored by her children, possibly keen to finish her book, introduced the concept of silent ‘reading suppers’. We partook of a peaceful ‘reading Christmas lunch’.

1988: food poisoning in Canberra after my stepmother tried, in 90˚F heat, to integrate Australian and British culture by barbecuing an 11lb turkey. Midmorning 1997: the weather off the Atlantic suddenly improved, a weak sun appeared and the wind dropped, so we dug out the picnic rugs, packed the lunch into baskets and headed to the beach, where we dined in solitary (if chilly) splendour, watched by a family of rambunctio­us seals and a pair of diffident snipes. 2017: we woke to a white Christmas and no power in our (much-missed) upstate New York farm and spent a glorious day eating, drinking and talking in front of a roaring log fire.

Christmas Present. The 4thcentury saint, Gregory of Nazianzus, who complained that Christmas was filled with ‘feasting to excess, dancing and crowning the doors’, would not have approved of our holiday plans, which involve all three and more besides. We have two Christmas trees, a teddy-bear Nativity scene for the little ones, so many garlands that there is nowhere to put down a glass of wine (a reason to drink up!) and an embarrassm­ent of brightly wrapped gifts.

Rose and I enjoy preparing for Christmas—getting the house ready, choosing presents, organising entertainm­ents, filling the larder and cellar (we have enough food to satiate, and drink to intoxicate, an army of gourmands)— every bit as much as the holiday itself. In short, what Jane Austen called ‘the sanguine expectatio­n of happiness which is happiness itself’. Thankfully, the house in west Cork has rubbish mobile reception and chilly bedrooms, encouragin­g/forcing everyone to foregather downstairs where I can rope them into board games, cards, charades and other activities. I only hope we can avoid last year’s Monopoly-related incident.

Christmas Yet to Come. We must do something about our landscapin­g: we have it in mind to create a winter garden. Not the sort of garden that is dependent on frost or snow to highlight its beauty—the gulf stream means it barely freezes here—but one that is filled with colour. We have been keeping a list of possible inclusions on the fridge door.

Rose’s choices are romantic: ‘Crab apples… in Brehon law, one of the seven airig fedo, or nobles of the wood’, ‘Winterswee­t—pale-yellow flowers with reddish-purple insides and spicy perfume’ or ‘Christmas Box, ivory-white flowers and vanilla fragrance’. My suggestion­s are more prosaic: ‘Holly, ivy, pyracantha, whitethorn, wild roses, blackthorn and mistletoe for the berries and to attract birds.’ We’ve room for a variety of fir trees, so we could be cutting our own Christmas trees from 2030–45.

The way the world is right now makes it difficult to think even this far ahead. I comfort myself with Maya Angelou: ‘Into this climate of fear and apprehensi­on,/ Christmas enters,/streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope…’

1988: food poisoning in Canberra after barbecuing an 11lb turkey in 90˚F heat

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