Christmas is coming together bit by bit. The long 'to do' list is shortening, even if it is only because half of it is being discarded due to lack of time. Out come last year's decorations, one by one; echoes of Christmas past in every box amongst the coloured tissue paper. Sophie and Molly help me decorate the tree, carefully carrying fragile pieces of glass on ribbon and hanging them tenderly on the branches. I suspect there might have to be a certain amount of rearranging as some of the branches have four or five on the same one and there are large bare expanses elsewhere. And the unbreakable ones need to be at the height of the dog's tail if it is to stand much chance at all.
I have bought a scented pine tree this year from the National Trust Longshaw Estate over near Hathersage. I feel it is a useful way to put coppers into the hand of the Trust, and the trees are beautifully fresh and fragrant. The old man minding the trees tells me to strip a couple of inches from the bark on the outside so that the tree can drink. Trees take up their water through xylem cells which are just beneath the bark. We have a cast iron stand with a cup for water to place it in. He tells me the old varieties of scented tree are making a come back now that they have been improved to drop less needles than in the past. And, if I give it regular drinking water and don't turn up the central heating too high, then it should be fine.
He hands the tree up to me, wrapped in its cotton net, and I bungee it onto the roof rack of Archie and climb down the ladder once more. We always get a full size tree, squeezing it into the cottage by removing a bookcase and a heavy pine chest to make room, so everyone can still get to the table to eat. These kind of things are necessary in a small space. My older ones say 'get a smaller tree'. I like a proper tree. It is my indulgence; they each have their own.
I am searching amongst the coloured tissue paper until I find the thing I am looking for. It is an old very dark green coloured bauble in the shape of a tree with wrinkles of snow around the edges. I take it out of its careful wrapping and hang it near the top of the tree where it will be safe. It is a relic from my past. It is one of my earliest memories - pressing my little face up in awe and gazing wide-eyed at the jewelled beauty that was our tree. I would have been perhaps three. To a small child the baubles seem huge and shine far brighter against the dark thick branches. I remember the tiny tree lights, like coloured seed heads with their ragged leaf haloes, and lots of deep blue lemon drop baubles, all long since broken. So I treasure this little bottle green tree, and place it high out of reach of little fingers.
This week I have gathered the ingredients for puddings for the freezer. Last year it snowed heavily at Christmas. I don't know whether it will again this year, but even if it doesn't (- perhaps more so if it doesn't and it is wet and dank outside -) I'm planning to make the sort of puddings you can warm up against a fire to eat: Sticky Toffee Puddings and warmed Chocolate Brownie with ice cream, and an Apple and Blackcurrant crumble to eat with a large jug of custard. I expect there will be the fancy things to eat as well, but if you spread Christmas out over many days, with a passing trade route of family and friends visiting, then it's good to be able to spend time with people and still eat well without endless cooking. I never regret the amount of time spent in preparation now because I know how much I savour the time with my family later.
Much as I love a traditional Christmas dinner, it still remains one of my least favourite meals to cook. The turkey is wonderful and straight forward but I don't much relish sorting out all the different vegetables and sauces and attempting to get everything to the table at the same time and all piping hot. That slightly sinking feeling, followed by almost relief when it is done, never changes, year in year out.
So why is it that we put ourselves through the same thing year after year? Why is it that we find ourselves wanting to do exactly the same things, eat the same things and vary from our routine very little? I think it is living in a world of growing uncertainty that makes us want to stamp out Christmas in all its unchanging tackiness and comfort. One time in the whole year when we know exactly where we are and where everyone else is and can somehow breathe and make sense of things before balls of wool start unravelling all over the place and there is change assailing us from all directions.
Back in the kitchen I am preparing Mary for her staring role and looking for antlers for Sophie's choir concert. The baby Jesus is safely in a plastic bag on a peg somewhere at school, having been kicked under a bench and sat on by the Inn keeper during the dress rehearsal. Over at the sink I am scrubbing sweet potatoes for tonight's supper. I am making 'Lamb stuffed sweet potato' (page 527). It was harder to find minced lamb than I expected in the supermarket. I half-thought to get some specially minced for me but I was in a hurry to get to the post office with a load of parcels and cards wanting 2nd class Christmas stamps. Sweet potatoes have almost taken over for me from ordinary potatoes in the baked-potato-comfort-food stake, and make a fine supper when half the housekeeping seems to have disappeared on boxes of chocolate biscuits and boxing day chutney. These are lean times we live in.
I am cooking for Will tonight, my third son, home to get his washing done and hoover up any food that may be lurking in tins on top of the cupboard. He is tall and gangly with vivid red hair (very in vogue at present since Ed Sheeran and that model who brought back beards). But he is also kind and sensitive and I have a soft spot for my dear gentle Will. Sometimes he is a fussy eater - hopefully not tonight.
While the potatoes are baking I fry the lamb mince over a high heat. I haven't fried mince for a long while, I realise. At one time it was a weekly staple. The addition of chilli is just gently warming, but it is the chopped mint that lifts this dish. A fine combination with lamb always, but here it brings out the reason why you choose to use lamb mince instead of beef; and causes my son to say, 'Thank you for the gorgeous dinner' (...he of little words...).
So, thank you for for the gorgeous dinner, Nigel. From Will and me.