Saturday, 27 August 2011

Don't mention the trifle

Christmas Eve is my favourite day of the year, far better than Christmas Day, which is invariably grey, snowless and crushingly disappointing- spent wondering why I've just spent hundreds of pounds on a day like any other. Every year for as long as I can remember I've gone into a deep misery at about 4pm and vowed that next year it will be different; next year will be spent with a big group of people in the Scottish Highlands, and we'll all sing around a baby grand, getting drunk on mulled wine while our respective children make giant snowmen in a glittery white wonderland. Of course, so far, that "next year" has never come, and the reality of Christmas Day is the same bleak anti climax as every one before it.

"A ray of hope flickers in the sky"? Not so sure about that, Johnny.. 
I think it stems from childhood- by the afternoon, all the presents were opened, the best food was eaten, the boring, overbearing relatives who didn't like loud noises were round and Johnny Mathis was singing "When a Child is Born" in the background. To me, few songs are as melancholy as that one and still to this day its opening bars send waves of moroseness over me so severe that I consider changing my name to Ebeneezer.

Christmas Eve, though- that's a different matter. It's the day before the apathy, the day when everything is still magical, full of hope, anticipation, excitment and sparkles. I have little routines on Christmas Eve that must be adhered to:

  1. The preparation of shapeless, chewy, usually burnt parcels of brown goo that I like to optimistically call mince pies
  2. The creation of paperchains that look considerably more professional at one end of the room than the other, loops  becoming progressively shoddy and misshapen according to how early in the process they were made
  3. Compulsory viewing of A Muppets Christmas Carol
  4. Stocking to be left by the fireplace and a carrot and glass of brandy in the kitchen for Father Christmas and Rudolph (Rosie stopped believing last year, but it's an important tradition- especially the brandy bit)
Invariably the Christmas Eve routine is slightly pressurised given the fact that I still won't have done most of my present shopping, and will have to run around the shops alarmingly close to a nervous breakdown trying to find thoughtful but inexpensive gifts for about 20 people.  Last year I ended up in a Supermarket Sweep style shopping nightmare after meeting friends for a quick christmas drink at 12pm and accidentally still being in the pub at half past three before discovering the shops were shutting at 4pm. Admittedly the gifts I triumphantly handed over my credit card for at 3.58pm were not the most personal I could find, but I convinced myself that most people liked wine (apart from my teetotal cousin, who did look slightly angry).

In addition, most of the cards that I will have written sometime in November, thinking how wonderfully prepared and organised I was going to be, will still be on the table in the front room and I will have to run round sticking those that are for people who live nearby through their letterboxes and putting the others in a "safe place" for next year (ie losing them forever).  Still, despite all the setbacks, I still manage to remain smiling and jolly throughout the whole of the Night Before Christmas, when the sky always seems full of diamonds and the air smells of warm cinammon, oranges and cloves.

Then morning comes. Hopefully and naively, I always pull the curtains open sure that overnight a soft glittering carpet will have fallen from the sky, muffling everything with cotton wool comfort and turning the front garden into Narnia. Every year without fail the reality that this is not to be slaps me in the face like a wet flannel. There is never any snow, not even a token robin to make it look slightly festive, and the sun even manages to make its first appearance in weeks, just to be annoying. Ordinarily I love the sun, seek it whenever I can, but on Christmas Day I resent its very existence- it doesn't even have the decency to hide quietly behind  a snow cloud.

We always do the presents first thing, and I still love watching Rosie open hers, which will have been waiting expectantly under the tree. After half an hour or so of sitting around in pyjamas and listening to carols it's always time to start on the dinner. Most years, my mum and Stepdad come round for Christmas dinner and I do a pretty amazing roast, so that bit's usually relatively stress free. Bizarrely, and uncharacteristically, I time my roasts with military precision and am even more particular about it on Christmas Day- have even been known to write lists and schedules for what bit should go in when.

Now, I am aware that I have made several references to alcohol in this and some of my other posts, and would like to point out that I do not have a drink problem. I do, however, like a drink, and probably more so than often during the festive season. It's the only time of the year that I start early, and it's sort of allowed when there's so much of it about, and when you need red wine to make gravy, mulled wine for visitors, sherry for trifle...
A couple of years ago, dinner was coming along nicely but I was a bit behind schedule with the pudding, which was going to be a traditional trifle. I'd got all the ingredients to make this the most spectacular trifle the world had ever seen- fresh fruits, proper home made jelly and custard, flaked almonds, posh amaretti biscuits, the best Devonshire cream, and sherry. I whisked, whipped and chopped til my right arm could have belonged to Madonna, and made decorations from strawberries and redcurrants that were to sit like jewels on the top. By this point, I was ever so slightly tipsy, and as such unable to properly judge the correct amount of sherry that is acceptable for a family pudding.  After several "just a bit more" conversations with myself I realised that the amaretti biscuits were at this point looking distinctly soggy, so bunged the rest of it the layers  on. It looked great, despite my slightly lopsided application of the fruity embellishments, but I couldn't help noticing that it did smell slightly like the man who sits outside the bus stop every evening. As usual, I went into ostrich mode and ignored it.

Christmas Dinner was a triumph. Juicy turkey, perfect roast potatoes, sunset coloured pigs in blankets, home made gravy, crispy stuffing, all the veg. Everyone seemed impressed, and I was feeling really quite pleased with myself. Then I brought the trifle out. After an initial chorus of "wow, that looks lovely" type comments, my mum gave me a bit of a funny look- one of her "I'm worried about you" looks that usually preceded a lecture or a grounding when I was a teenager. Nevertheless I put my big silver serving spoon into the trifle, ready to serve up the first helping. Aside from the fumes that wafted up at me and caused Rosie to recoil, shouting "Mum, that stinks of wine!" ,  the most disturbing thing was the noise that emanated from it- not a delicate, appetising sound, but a loud, vulgar squelch that could have been either caused by severe flatulence or an embarrassing gynacaelogical condition. Rosie cackled and I shot her a look, then Dan asked how much alcohol I'd put in it- the look he got was even worse.  Having noticed that I was at this point unable to see the funny side- it was gone 4pm on Christmas Day and I was therefore in evil mode- Dan, my mum and Stepdad (Rosie didn't even take a bite, and even I couldn't insist on it, knowing that even a sniff would probably make her pass out) sat quietly pretending to enjoy a pudding that not only must have been 60% proof but sounded completely disgusting. As if by magic, they all became full amazingly quickly and were unable to finish their portions, while I, annoyed, sweaty from hours of cooking and quite inebriated,  was insistent that I would not only eat all of my own but theirs too, while mumbling something about ungrateful- hic- people who've just sat down and watched me - hic- slave away all day. It's been said on more than one occasion that I become slightly like Basil Fawlty when I'm cross, and there was a fair amount of slamming things and shouting at inanimate objects that went on when I cleared away the bowls.

This year I will not be making trifle.

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