My Best Christmas:

It is a few days before Christmas in London and I am decking the halls of my daughter’s house with holly and tinsel. The year is 2006 and I have walked down her street – Bernard Gardens – with a pair of clippers helping myself to branches from holly hedges, all laden with beautiful red berries. They overhang the low fences bordering the triple-level 19th century Victorian houses.  I am humming the holly Christmas tune “Tis the season to be jolly’’ for the benefit of my two grandsons, Samuel and Angus, who trail along with me.

They are enthralled at how I snip here and snap off a twig there and stuff  a variety of foliage and flowers into my shopping bag. We are gathering greenery to make our own table centrepiece for Christmas Day and they have come along to buy the baubles at the village card shop.

Point-settias are a must and I buy them at the local florist  shop and eventually we traipse back home ready to put together our floral creation,

a table setting for our Christmas Day lunch, the first I have ever made.

It is bitterly cold here and London is shrouded in fog – a pea soup so thick that all flights, both local and from European airports are grounded. There is a melee of about 5000 people camped out at Heathrow, mothers with toddlers in prams, students with backpacks and business-suited blokes, elbow to elbow in the terminals, flowing over into makeshift tents.  Nightly we watch the growing mayhem caused by cancelled flights at  Christmas time.

Perhaps my joy at this simple act of arranging variagated foliage into a flower fashioner and carefully placing pine cones and fixing in bright baubles is misplaced.

After all, French partner, Olivier, flew to France earlier this week to visit his aged mother in St Remy de Provence and he is planning to bring back a bagful of French food goodies, particularly ice-packed fresh mussels and oysters from the Mediterranean Sea.

But right now,  unless the fog lifts, he won’t be able to fly back from Marseilles to London on Christmas Eve – tomorrow. Our Yuletide family celebrations could be thrown into dismay, but Christmas preparations must proceed. My daughter is pregnant  and there is much shopping, gift-wrapping, cooking, cleaning, cake baking and festive decorations to be done before December 25.

Son-in-law, Jon, wants stuffed goose, a traditional British dinner, which should be a synch. – After all, I stuff a turkey each year and have two favourite recipes.

But here in London, nothing is the same. Christmas goose must be stuffed with a chicken, I am told, and I stare in disbelief when he explains in a matter-of-fact tone, that the chicken needs to be stuffed with forcemeat first!

The peace and calm of making the floral centrepiece evaporates and anxiety sweeps into my mind.  Forget the flowers! We cannot eat flowers, the centrepiece of the feast will be the goose!

I need a diversion.  I have a special grandmotherly task this Christmas – to make a gingerbread house.  When I was a mother of three children, each year I planned to make a gingerbread house every year the same honey biscuit recipe that my mother always used.

Yet, it never happened down.  Life was too hectic with all that busyness of full-time work and each year slipped by without a gingerbread house.  This is despite the fact that the recipe was as close as my bookshelf because the front cover of the Time Life  cookbook series book for Germany featured a beautiful gingerbread house.

Now that I am a grandmother, daughter Serena has bought a packaged gingerbread house from the Wimbledon village. It has gingerbread walls with window cutouts, two steep roof pieces, a  chimney and door – all neatly packed in layers.  There is an icing pack and lollies galore to decorate. The grandchildren have been primed to expect this delightful Christmas task with grandma.  As daughter slips out the doors to enjoy her free afternoon shopping in peace for Christmas, she calls back:

“Enjoy, mother!’’.

Happiness is indeed piecing together this little house with Samuel and Angus, who has plonked himself on the table.  We work as a team, sticking together each piece with icing and whipping up more icing into peaks before plastering it on the roof. Samuel decorates the windows with “eyebrows’’ and we take turns to place countless lollies on the roof.  The boys wear party hats and lick their fingers and their eyes sparkle with delight when eventually our little house is finished.  It is such a joy to watch them as they chatter ceaselessly about the house we have made to eat on Christmas Day.

December 24:  The morning news brings good tidings.  The fog has lifted enough for flights to be allowed to land in London and  at around 3.30pm, Olivier walks through the door laden with boxes of oysters and mussels. I am overjoyed to see him and the grandsons hug him in delight.   Christmas is so much about the joy of family reunion.

And now it is Christmas. We gather around the Christmas tree, which has twinkled each night in the bay window, and here we exchange our gifts. My  son-in-law puts on a Christmas CD and daughter tells her sons why gift-giving is a true joy of Christmas. “The Bible tells us that the wise men from the East followed the bright Bethlehem Star until it led them to the infant Jesus where they presented him with precious gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh,’’ she says.

Church follows, but before we leave, I take the goose, stuffed, seasoned, trussed from the fridge and baste it with melted butter before carefully placing it into the hot oven.

Then the magic: The aroma of  the cooked goose wafts down the hallway as we rush in the door. Many hands make light work of setting the table.  Our floral centrepiece is placed on the lace table cloth between two tall candlesticks,  and then the best china is laid out with crystal glasses, silver cutlery and napkins.  The children’s eyes sparkle in anticipation.

The greatest thrill, though, isn’t the French oysters, freshly shucked and doused in vinigraite, but the rich, golden roasted goose.  Olivier sharpens the knife, wields it for effect and we watch in anticipation as he slices right through the two birds and the stuffing.  It is a magnificent feast and absolutely the best Christmas I can remember.

Filled with family fun, sharing joy and gift-giving – and nibbling like mice on that beautiful gingerbread house.

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