Sunday, 23 December 2012


In Germany, on the feast of St Nicholas, little children place shoes outside their bedroom doors. In a sort of reversal of hotel etiquette they must be left polished and shiny before being filled with sweets in return. If left dirty, then the children are given the rod, which seems bit harsh. That’s what Husband says anyway and I know someone told him, so it must be true.

Sounds like a strange festive tradition to me but then perhaps what we do in our household sounds strange to the uninitiated: singing a special song as we place the fairy on top of the tree. Never judge another man's ritual, I say, till you've walked a mile in his sweet-filled shoes.

In Spain little children have other ways of filling their boots. They bring in a log from outside - a log from a tree that is, not a special little offering, although it is also an offering of sorts, I suppose - then they decorate it, put a face on it, cover it with a blanket and hit it with sticks until it 'shits' out an offering of its own. Their word. If they're lucky there will be things to eat underneath at the end of the thrashing.

I know this, not from Husband this time, but from watching one particular episode of the Teletubbies over and over again when Youngest was tiny. It's worth noting that hitting is part of both traditions and sadly still is in some families, even at Christmas. I know this from a friend of a friend.

In Poland they keep a live fish in the bath to fatten up before killing it and eating it on Christmas Eve. I know this from my cleaner and I'm not sure I have the stomach for that. In fact, I think I fancy a Swedish Christmas this year, and not because of this Johnny-come-lately fad for all things Scandinavian no doubt inspired by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Killing (I've neither read the former, nor watched the latter, which is so embarrassing I'm now presenting it as a virtue). No, my interest in Scandinavia goes way back to a precocious childhood obsession with the Moomins, the illustrator and artist Carl Larsson and Marimekko fabrics. So much so, that we've already had Easter in Gothenburg this year.

However, I gather from a Swedish friend that a Swedish Christmas will involve refraining from putting the tree up until Christmas Eve, processing to church with candles stuck in citrus fruit and eating pickled pigs' feet and herring - so I guess it's more the look I'm after. I could just buy some candles and a striped rug from IKEA. 

Come to think of it, I already have some candles and a striped rug from IKEA so I'm halfway there. And instead of pigs' feet and herring I think we’ll have beef. 

I’ve steered away from the traditional turkey ever since I accidentally gave everyone raging salmonella a few years back, basting the germ-ridden beast with a pastry brush that I then used on brochetta after only a cursory dunk under a warm tap. 

You see, Christmas tradition doesn't just vary from country to country but from family to family and when you find yourself suddenly in charge of it for the first time, when your children are tiny, it can be daunting - dangerous even. Especially if you leave a stressed-out mother with three sons under the age of six, and the whole family coming for Christmas lunch, in charge of a pastry brush.

Sometimes two families' routines become harmoniously entwined, like good marriages. 
Sometimes one family's formula completely dominates the other, like a bad one, where there might also be salmonella - or even hitting. But from what I've observed it's usually the traditions the mother carries forward that prevail. 

Take my own family; we have Father Christmas presents (we never call him Santa) that can be opened when you wake on Christmas morning and under the tree presents, which are opened much later. Quite separate. This is my mother’s rule, handed down from my grandmother because deferred gratification is a virtue, while having everything all at once would be what my grandmother unashamedly called ‘common’.

This caused problems one particular year when I was a child and we were living in Canada and another family came to stay from back home. I distinctly remember the youngest child sobbing her heart out - Veruca Salt-style - because she wanted all her presents at once, the very minute she woke up on Christmas morning, “like she always did!” as her harassed mother tried to placate her, pointedly repeating within ear shot of my mother, “But that's not how they do it in this house, darling.”

Other routines, aside from strict rules regarding presents, include the aforementioned singing ‘Every Little Girl Would Like to Be' (the fairy on the Christmas tree) as we place said fairy atop and record the whole thing, every year, for posterity. 

Although there was one near-disastrous year, and I only turned my back for a nanosecond to retrieve something from the kitchen, when I returned to find Husband PLACING THE FAIRY ON TOP WITHOUT THE SONG AND BEFORE THE WHOLE TREE HAD BEEN DECORATED, but rest assured he’ll never make that mistake again.

And we always have a trifle, just like Husband’s grandmother used to make, and a row. One year we even combined the two and had the row about the trifle, which I like to think was an efficient merging of two traditions, like a good marriage, except with rowing. So maybe not. 

I was hoping to avoid the row this year but thinking about it now, just like with placing shoes outside bedroom doors in Germany, or hitting logs with sticks in Spain, or keeping fish in the bath in Poland, or eating pigs' feet in Scandinavia, I just don't think it would feel like Christmas without it.


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