This year, 2017, I have no Christmas offering of my own. Instead, I’m sharing what might well hold the antidote to consumerism.
It’s December 13th. I’m not under my own roof, which is still under construction. The prospect of writing anything for a Christmas gift this year is as remote as the North Pole.
This morning I found my Mac had inexplicably rearranged its desktop, throwing all the icons into a single heap in one corner of the screen. When I tried to move them they bounced back. The only way to realign them was to painstakingly open each file. Annoying, tedious, more cause for frustration. But hidden in all the digital clutter was a single, glowing document that seemed to me a direct message from life itself. It is a translation from Inuktitut and carries the title ‘Little Song‘ in English. I don’t know where I originally found it. The only attribution it bears is “Traditional Inuit”.
It pulled me back out of the chaos and disconnection of 2017 and landed me gently in the wide open, breathable space of meaning and beauty. Here it is.
And I think over again
My small adventures
When with a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.
Those small ones
I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the little light that fills the world. (Traditional Inuit)
I’m offering this song, which is not mine, respectfully, in the spirit of sharing something beautiful and meaningful, honouring the spirit of a culture wiser than my own, hoping its message spreads.
I wish I knew its origins, butI do remember why I saved it some years ago to my computer. It was for sending (in 24pt font) to my friend Clare on her birthday. She was one hundred and three.
Each year I post a Christmas gift here for my friends to read. My gift for the season for 2016 is early because if you want to make the Christmas pudding recipe at the heart of this story you will have to start in November at the very latest.
Or whenever you like–and keep the puddings until 2017.
MY GRANDMOTHER’S SLOW AND EASY CHRISTMAS PUDDING RECIPE
It always began with the currants the night before, hard little, black Corinth currants, sweetest of all the dried fruits. The currants, and then the wrinkled, rusty-brown sultanas–not the thinly yellow ‘golden’, but a variety altogether more robust, roughened by excess sugars; the currants and then the sultanas, and then the mahogany raisins–dented all over and rattling onto the Ecko baking trays; the currants, the sultanas, the regular raisins, and then the exotic Lexias–so big they would need a little chopping; and all of them without a single escapee to be rinsed, drained and then dried (yes, this dried fruit dried, for now we had wet it) in the oven overnight.
But it was a good sign, this ritual, the first intimation that Christmas–my childhood Christmas of turkey and card games and tangerines in stockings–was indeed an immoveable feast: an incontrovertible, non-negotiable, guaranteed occurrence.
The puddings were as fundamental to this lay Christmas as the gifts of the three kings to the Nativity. My mother, her sister and her sister-in-law each contributed one, along with, until she was in her eighties, my grandmother. Their puddings were lined up on Christmas Eve on top of the kitchen cabinet. Cruel whispers always wreathed Gladys’s pudding. I never did find out the cause, but the cracked and crazed basin it came in every year (and once went back in) would be a prime suspect.
A good Christmas pudding is moist, rich and dark — and studded with silver sixpences. Its preparation needs to begin by mid October at the latest, for, like chutney, it only acquires its true intensity after at least two month’s maturing, during which time the flavours meld and deepen. Ideally it’s about six months old.
A really good Christmas pudding is (unlike fruit cake, its close but stodgy relation) black. It’s glossy. It comes to the table inverted, shining in its own aureole of flickering blue brandy flame and stuck with a twin-leafed sprig of holly about to singe, and when the fire and the sighs die down it holds its shape only barely under the knife. The first mouthful always burns the mouth. The conversation for several minutes is on hold.
So for a pudding to be a successful event you have to begin early, and when you do it’s a two-day affair. You appoint the day. You wash the fruit the night before. It gives you time to remember that you need to buy a lemon or that you finished the brandy while you binge watched The Killing.
The next day you assemble your ingredients, though the more business-like will be advised to do that the night before as well. It won’t stop your kitchen disappearing under drifts of foodstuffs that snow from the cupboards but you will know you tried. The other thing you must assemble is the children. On no account make your puddings without the children. You will only end up feeling bored and resentful. If you have no children, borrow some for the occasion.
The children of course will do all the work, the weighing and measuring, the squeezing, grating, grinding beating and mixing. They will be learning a particular kind of cooking where the end result is a creation rather than a product. Later in life, unless they get some remedial training from someone more organized, they will not turn out very good pastry or cakes, but they will be wizards when called upon to create a Bolognese sauce or an Indian curry.
Put some music on. If this were later in the year and you were making the cake you could play carols but since it’s only October carols are out of the question. Find something extravagant, like Carmina Burana, or something irrepressible like Manu Chao or exuberance itself, like the Bollywood Brass Band.
And focus. Though it would be easy enough to convert them, I still struggle with the now unfamiliar imperial measures. I like working from the recipe written out by my mother in pen and ink. I like remembering.
You will need about two pounds of unsulphured dried fruit in at least four different kinds, a small amount of mixed peel, about 2 ounces, twice that amount of those ghastly glacé cherries (don’t worry. Chop them up. They disappear. Or use dried cranberries.) Then you will need 4 ounces each of chopped almonds–chop whole ones, you don’t want machine-tailored matchsticks–as well as ground almonds. If you have time, grind whole almonds. They’ll be fresher, more aromatic. Obtain a good additive-free basic white loaf and make fresh white breadcrumbs about equal to one fourth of the fruit.
Now. Here’s the rub. You are also supposed to have the same quantity of shredded suet. This is what you need if you’re hoping to keep the puddings for as long as my Aunty Gladys, whose offerings never went bad but could be hauled out again the following year. Suet is actually the least noisome of animal fats, unless you buy the stomach-turning pink pre-packaged kind. Good suet is pulled from around the kidney. It’s hard dry and pure white with no smell at all. But I’m done with anatomy. I leave it out. Suet-free puddings tend to fall apart when they’re cut and they don’t have quite the keeping properties of those with the fat, but they’re gone by New Year’s Day anyway.
Oh, and brown sugar. Demerara, the same quantity as the breadcrumbs.
That was Part One. Everything goes into the very largest container you have.
Part two is more tasty (and a lot of tasting takes place), more juicy and altogether more zesty. It opens with your brilliant cadenza, your chance to extemporize. You make up some spices. (You don’t do this ahead of time. You want to capture every last aroma before it vanishes.) You’ll need about two teaspoons full or more. The word arrangement is intentional. Cinnamon will make up one. Mixed spices the other. I like nutmeg, freshly grated, the ground seeds of half a dozen cloves, some coriander seeds, freshly crushed, maybe some fennel seeds and quite a lot of cardamom, the contents of at least a dozen pods. There are a couple of ways to make your own spices. One is to use a small coffee grinder, kept just for that purpose, the other is to use a mortar and pestle. The first method is efficient but has an aura of violence about it and an abusive overtone to its screeching that doesn’t belong in the kitchen. The best way, actually, to handle the little mouse-turdy, rock hard seeds of the cardamom is to use a very large, very sharp knife and rock it gently–with love!–over them. A little berceuse. Then throw it all in and mix it up well.
Now you add a couple of carrots, peeled and finely grated, a good flavourful apple, the same, and the grated rinds of a large organic lemon and orange together with all their juice. The order of operations is nothing short of a miracle because it’s right about now that you decide you could all do with an orange for your own consumption, having taste-tested so much of the dried fruit.
Set the children to beating four large eggs while you run to the store for more brandy. Buy some Guinness too. It’s the heart of the whole enterprise. You need about four liberally overflowing tablespoons of brandy and a quarter of a pint of Guinness, a Dickensian measure that translates to about half a coffee mug. If you’re lactating, drink the rest. If you’re not, drink it anyway for its wonderfully restorative power. Guinness Is Good For You was that family’s inspired slogan that ran for decades.
Everything now needs to be mixed up evenly and thoroughly. Each person in the house must come to the kitchen–and this is mandatory–to stir three times with a wooden spoon and make a wish. After that, you can leave small hands to continue and you will have plenty of time to prepare the basins. Many of the glacé cherries will now disappear. Cut two circles of parchment paper for each and grease everything well, paper and basins, with butter.
When everyone has had enough of this prep, you pack each basin tightly with the mixture, leaving about a thumb’s width at the top. Press the paper circles down tight, leaving no air and please don’t ask why you need two per basin. I have no idea.
You will get two regular pudding-sized puddings and almost a third one out of this mixture. It will seem very annoying and inconvenient at the time, but if you put the smallest cooked pudding to the back of the highest cupboard you will suddenly remember it when you have a couple of friends round for an impromptu dinner the following year and it will be perfect.
Now you take a largish piece of foil for each basin and make bath caps for them– the puddings, not the friends–rolling and crimping the edges tightly under at the rim but leaving enough slack on top for expansion. Now, these puddings are going to be lifted in and out pans of boiling water and so unless you want to scald yourself as part of the Christmas Day spectacle (when the puddings have to be re-boiled–lamentable but true–for three to four hours), you will need to make natty little handles from parcel string. If you really don’t know how, ask a sailor or a girl guide. However, the children by this time will have eaten their fill and gone to play with their devices so you will have plenty of time to be inventive.
Your kitchen is now a wreck and you must get these things on the stove to boil–with water half-way up and a close fitting lid–otherwise you will have to stay up until midnight to switch them off again, for they need to steam for six to eight hours. You can see now why the Guinness is so important. If it’s all gone, console yourself with a small glass of brandy. You will be up and down all evening adjusting the heat and adding water to the pans.
You don’t need to think about the accompaniment now, but about a week before Christmas whip up some brandy butter to be served with your pudding. Contrive a confection of butter and sugar–use the warm tasting of soft brown sugar for this–beaten together with a tablespoonful of brandy. It will keep happily in the fridge until the day. I actually prefer the tart contrast of a spoonful of plain yoghurt on my serving but have never yet persuaded any family member to such sacrilege.
The pudding I make is from my grandmother’s recipe, written out for me by mother, as I shall write it out for my sons and daughters. I don’t suppose my grandmother made it up. She had a grandmother too. And she had. The brandy flames morph into the proverbial mists of time. Some version of this pudding was probably set on the trestles at Camelot to be eaten right after the wild boar. I love serving it to non-believers who imagine they are going to be force-fed the dreaded fruit cake. I love watching the change from sceptic to zealot.
Oh, and the sixpences. They have not been forgotten. If you find one in your pudding, hopefully before you swallow it, it represents good luck. But you need not think about them until Christmas Eve, when it’s a good idea to start thinking where you hid them. The coins you use for this purpose will ideally have come from the grubby pockets of some old ancestor and will have been stored in a secret place all year. They will be quietly resurrected on Christmas Day while the children are gorging on turkey and trying to pass their Brussels sprouts on to the youngest unfortunate. During this time, you will stealthily slip the coins in a pan to boil to twenty-first century standards of sterility. It will then fall to you as architect of the pudding to see to it¾by whatever legerdemain and downright deception you can muster–that each child at the table is overjoyed to find that her or his slice of pudding does indeed contain a lucky sixpence. Phew! They won’t all buy it of course, this luck business, but they will all, to the last child, indulge you and play their parts to perfection. Next year, though, it has to be dimes.
© Pauline Holdstock The Immoveable Feast may be downloaded from the site for personal use only.
This essay first appeared under the title From the Trestles of the Green Knight in the anthology Apples Under the Bed, a collection of recipes from BC writers (Hedgerow Press).
2015 approaches the 20th anniversary of the big snow that fell on the famously snowless Wet Coast of Canada. Big Snow is my midwinter reading gift for 2015. Stay warm.
In 1996 a snow fell on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island, the like of which had no match in living memory. It is still talked about. Displays of meteorological force in this benign corner of Canada are rare. High winds will sometimes barrel in from the Pacific. Once, they joined with a freak tide, leaving the coastline strewn with wreckage. But in this community where the gentle climate encourages market gardens and nurseries, the wet, west coast snow of ’96 let loose its own brand of destruction bringing down trees and power lines, crushing roofs and demolishing acres of greenhouses and farm buildings. All roads were impassable and twentieth century life as we knew it was suspended, holding us all in a cocoon of elemental, antique stillness.
Snow of this kind is an extravagant wonder, an unexpected gift. To wake to this new/old world was to have one’s sense of astonishment renewed. It was the stuff of fairy tale.
Unless you must go out to reach your animals, or visit a sick relative, make a journey, or risk losing a week’s business or wages, big snow, to those unused to it, is a kind of transubstantiation. It’s the materialization of grace. It fills the house with light, raises the surface of the planet by three feet and plants picture book clouds where your shrubs and apple trees used to grow. It bestows the blessing of delight. You look in amazement on a world where definition has been erased, borders obliterated. Is that the fence post over there, that vague, box-shaped bump on top of the snow? Because you never did put the chairs away after the Indian summer, the space where the lawn used to be is now the upper surface of the planet’s cloud cover seen from a plane. Whiteness, thick whiteness, thick, blankety, warm, inviting whiteness everywhere. Dumb, numb, insensate whiteness that yet wakes the senses. Ungraspable, larger than life whiteness. It is both absence and abundance. Not a single colour to be seen but its own magnificent purity, filling space, filling vision, filling the mind.
But how to get into it? How to get out of the house? There is a small space under the eaves where you can stand in the open doorway and survey the solidity of the hip-high snow — a small space where you can stand and begin shovelling. But this is the west coast; and the shovels are somewhere out there in the shed …
The snow’s dual quality, the sense of nothing and at the same time a great deal of something, can be detected, too, by the ear. Silence is not an absence but a presence in this new environment; it confers isolation. An abundance of isolation. The power lines are down, the telephone line too. In the house there is not even the hum of the fridge. Outside, the silence is even thicker.
Isolation is part of the snow’s gift. It’s free entry to the refuge of hermits and mystics who know that in solitude lies deep connection with the essence of things. …… And snow is absolution. It creates a new, untouched, uncontaminated world, an invitation to start over.
Fairy Tale was my gift for the season in 2014. A reimagining of Snow White with all the familiar elements: a child, a queen, a bird, a huntsman, snow . . . and of course blood. I hope you’ll find the unexpected here too. Read the story below on this page or download the pdf to read at your leisure.
There was once a queen who sat sewing by her window. And that is enough to begin, for if you know there is a queen at her window, sewing, then you know that the window frame is ebony, that outside there is snow on the ground and that small birds are shivering on the bare twigs of the trees. And there has to be blood. You know that or there is no tale. And now that we have a queen and we have blood you know too that it will be her blood and if not hers then the blood of her child.
Black and white and drops of bright, bright red. There is no other way to compose this picture.
But we are still at the window, the drops of red are berries still and the queen has not yet looked towards the wood.
There was once a queen who sat sewing by her window and as she sewed she sighed fondly for she was dreaming of a child.
Now the queen was very beautiful but she lived alone in her castle, there being a certain nameless dread about her, within her, not to mention a persistent rumour that had to do with a raven, a cradle and the day of her birth. The elements of the rumour were variable. The dread was constant.
Such was the icy nature of this dread, that princes, if they gazed on her, had been known — seen indeed — to have their eyeballs frozen in their sockets. And so none dared approach her. And who can blame them? Besides, their absence is expedient, for if a prince should enter here the blood would flow in streams or not at all, and the child when it came would be a poor thing cobbled together in haste and incomplete. But our child will be magic. This too you know or this is not a fairy tale.
So the queen was sad, counting her long years of splendid loneliness amid her tapestries, remembering the glitter of her girlhood and thinking how it had settled now into a still pool of beauty and deep, deep longing.
And as she sewed, the queen of course pricked her finger and three drops of bright, bright blood spotted the linen and she smiled, for she knew as well as you or I that it takes only blood and a small piece of one’s heart to make a child.
And so the queen closed her eyes and let her heart crack just a little while the drops of blood bloomed like roses on the linen.
When she looked up again, there was the child hurrying in a flurry of snow towards the castle in the darkness of the dusk-filling wood.
At once she knew more joy than in her whole life before and she ran outside laughing, holding her arms angel-wide. And as she bent to gather the child to her she saw that it was a dark haired boy and her tears fell on his face.
Now the child, it hardly needs saying, was as perfect as it was inevitable. From his hair that gleamed like midnight, to his skin that shone like snow, he was beautiful. And as he grew so did his goodness. Never did he lay his hand to a wicked act and never in his heart did he hold for the queen anything but love.
And yet the queen could not be happy (and didn’t you suspect this all, along?) for, while her love for the child was as strong as the wind, the dread that was within her began to send out shoots, tendrilled and fast-rooted: what if?
It was as if a very crow upon the castle wall had spoken the words. They were clear to the queen, were near, as a footfall in the forest is near to a traveller walking alone.
Which is exactly the trouble with wishes. From “I wish” to “what if” is no distance at all. They are two sides of the same mirror. Tasting the fruit of her own power, the queen found it — much like knowledge — very bitter.
She reasoned thus: had she been able, merely with a wish, a spider’s thread of longing, to draw the child hurrying in a flurry of snow from the dark heart of the wood, then might she be able equally, on the merest filament of fear, to lose him.
The queen ceased to be happy. She resumed her sewing.
Always she would watch the child as it played and always she would guard her thoughts with care, leaving her fears unformed lest a spoken dread should, like a spoken wish, prove true.
Still the child grew more blessed and every day the queen’s love, mingled with her dread, became a greater burden. Stark awake she lay at night for fear of dreaming harm. That she should one day be the cause of the boy’s destruction was too much for her to bear.
At last, as the year drew full circle, she called her huntsman to her.
— Huntsman, she said, there is a soul that longs to be free. Slay the creature that holds this soul captive. Do it this kindness for you are a good man and strong. There is no need to fear. Rather would it be a wicked thing to deny a soul in need.
But the poor huntsman protested and said his will would surely fail were he to look upon the life he had to take.
So with a glance the queen took from him his sight, saying she would bring the creature in and it would lead him to a place of its own choosing where he could do the deed.
The queen left him blinded there and went to her child.
— Child, said she, when next you see the huntsman take what he has to offer you and think not ill of me that I love you too well. And the child, being but a child, thought nothing of these words but went again to his play.
The queen then took a small box of juniper wood, and returned to the waiting huntsman. In silence she took his hand.
When they reached the deep of the forest she stopped and placed the box of juniper wood at his feet then drew his knife and placed it in his hand.
And so the huntsman took the life of the queen there in the deep of the wood with his soul frozen by her chill power and his eyes blinded by her own. But as soon as she fell dead his eyes were opened and he saw what he had done. He was stricken with fear. She lay pale on the cold ground, a band of scarlet across her throat. Beside her was the juniper box spilled open with its twenty golden guineas burning in the snow and a letter close by with his name upon it.
The huntsman began to wish he were blind again.
Trembling he read: Cut out my heart and take it to the child. Do thou this thing lest the child die and my soul curse you forever.
So he cut out the queen’s heart and placed it in the box. Then he laid her body in a drift of snow and covered it from the sight of heaven.
Now this huntsman, who was merely male and frail and quite unable to cope with fairy tale, was most afraid, and on his way back he buried the heart deep in a hollow tree. Then, finding a linnet frozen on a bare dead bough, he put it in the box and carried it away to the castle.
The child danced with joy when he saw the huntsman entering the castle gate. He remembered the queen’s words and called out gaily.
— Huntsman! Huntsman! What have you for me?
— A message from the queen, replied the huntsman. She is gone on a long journey but bids you know that her heart is always yours.
And what does she send me? Cried the child.
A gift said the huntsman and his eyes filled with tears, not for what he had done but for all that he had to give the hapless child was a poor dead bird.
Yet when the child opened the box out flew the linnet, singing into the clear winter air.
For a few days the child was content to play within the castle walls, amused by the lovely song of the bird at his side. But he soon grew pale and sad and looked always outside the walls to the snowy wood. And now the huntsman — who was, as you have seen, unfortified by faerie — felt his heart fail within in him and coming to the boy he knelt before him and offered him his sword.
— Kill me, he said, for I have done a wicked thing and deserve to die.
The child of course would not touch the sword.
At last in tears the huntsman got up from his knees and led the boy to the deep of the wood.
The snow was falling gently through the bare branches and there was silence on every side. Nothing stirred save the huntsman and the boy and above them the linnet, flying for all the world as if the snow were nothing more than petals tumbling from a tree in spring.
In a little while they came upon the drift of snow and the boy looked upon the queen and saw the heart shaped wound in her side. He cried with pity to see her so alone and cold and empty and would not come away and leave her so. He reached up and took the linnet from the branch where it was sitting and he placed it gently where his mother’s heart should be. Then he covered the place with snow and rose to leave.
And as he did so — but it hardly needs telling. There is no death in faerie, or if there is, it is a small thing, a missed beat of wings in the breast. You know the rest.
The queen opened her eyes.
But the deception! The chicanery! Not only has she played false with death but the ugly dread, that too, is gone, melted magically and no clue left us, nothing to help us shift our own chill blocks, huntsman’s knives and linnets being not at our disposal.
Still we must be happy for her. She laughed with joy to see her child with the huntsman and knew not how they came to be there all three within the dusk-filling wood. She knew only that the world had never been more beautiful or full of love. And so she let them lead her home, and wondered what she must have dreamed to bring about such joy.
Thus all her years, which were the number of a linnet’s feathers, the queen lived in her castle and loved all heaven’s creatures as now she loved the boy, with the same unfearing love.
The child was happy and grew up to conjure all that he desired from the darkness of the wood. And the huntsman, the poor mortal huntsman, learned to forget, almost, all that had happened. He continued to serve the queen, though was never quite at ease, wondering always when next he might find his eyeballs frozen in his head — at the very least.
And the heart? Yes, you have to ask about the heart but it can stay buried, bloodied in a hollow tree, or this is not a fairy tale.
© Pauline Holdstock.