The other day I took Sophie and Molly to a Nativity at a local farm. Fed-up with being angels every year they both opted for the male roles (- it's not just Shakespeare then where all the good roles go to men) Sophie chose to be one of the three kings and Molly decided she wanted to be Joseph.
'I'm a special person,' she beamed from ear to ear. And I remembered the importance of such things, having been the Inn keeper's wife twice and the back end of a camel on one occasion when I was small.
The best thing about Joseph's job, of course, is that he gets to lead the donkey into Bethlehem. Making their way between the hay bales, with the ever-dependable Tilly the donkey, Molly's beam was bright as any star twinkling through the backcloth. Squeezing their way towards the manger beside a very rotund Sophie the sheep, who chose only to give us her back view, they managed to find somewhere to park the donkey in a pen near the baby goats.
As with all good Nativities it is the ad libbing that makes it. Last year it was the stunningly different Mary who had gone in for a face painting session at the last minute and Sophie the sheep who was dangerously close to chomping off one of the baby Jesus's limbs as she'd found something more tasty to eat in the manger than whatever it was the shepherds were offering her. This year, a tiny shepherd - quite possibly with a new baby brother or sister at home - was using the three kings' presents to batter the baby Jesus with (luckily only a doll), until his mother came and removed him, complaining loudly. (I never did understand why we expect the apple of our eye - an only child- to swallow the lie that we love them so much we've gone and got another one - in much the same way that polygamy never really caught on over here.)
This evening we made our Christmas cake, the girls weighing out all the many ingredients between them, following Granny Burn's old recipe that we make every year, just the same. And as it cooks for what seems an incredibly long time, the gentle aroma that permeates the room reminds me of every Christmas I've ever known. Past and present linked as one, and it feels homely and safe. I notice what a dab hand Molly's become at cracking eggs and wonder when that happened.
Highlight of the village calendar was the Butterton Christmas Fair at the weekend. The usual round of guess the weight of the cake, tombola and soon-fleeced cake stall. And over in the corner, lurking behind the Christmas tree was a ruddy faced Santa Claus with his little helper. Dragged over in that direction, I wasn't quite prepared for the politics involved in such a transaction. To the question, 'what would you like for Christmas little girl?', Molly had an extravagantly complex answer which seemed to involve something very big and expensive, probably from the endless advertising-bombardment with which children's TV seems to be full of at the moment. And then...if I hadn't been standing closely I might have missed it....I categorically heard the man in the red coat and white beard say to Molly,'I think I have one of those in my sack for you.' My jaw dropped at this point. No!!! I wanted to wail. I already have said presents and they certainly don't include anything like as expensive as the afore mentioned article. I can see I'm going to have to have "Words" with Santa next time I see him heading down in the direction of The Black Lion.
Christmas has got into your soul too, I notice. 'The first of December always makes my heart beat a little faster. The day it all starts.' It is now that you start planning the recipes for your newspaper column, which 'bird will be sizzling and spitting in the oven' and who will, or will not, be sitting at your table with you this year. Profoundly, I think, you remark that 'these decisions are momentous only because you tend to remember every Christmas....The problem is that every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' So, no pressure then. But you're right. It's partly why I pre-cook and freeze so much at this time of year. Other people may chuck a bird in the oven and say glibly that it's the easiest dinner of all to cook, but I quake at the thought of getting so many different vegetables and things all on to the table at the same time with a modicum of heat left in them.
For you, vegetable of the season is the parsnip. I have a slightly love-hate relationship with this vegetable, feeling that they need 'something' to spike their parsnipey taste away, if that's allowed. Here may lie one answer: Today's reincarnation of the parsnip involves one of my favourite spices - hot smoked paprika - and a shot of sherry vinegar in the accompanying sauce. The parsnips and potatoes are mashed with cumin and paprika before being made into coquettes and rolled in breadcrumbs, and served with a tomato sauce. 'Parsnip and potato croquettes' (page 473).
You are also feeling the heat in the kitchen.There are always heightened expectations of Christmas from your nearest and dearest, however loudly they insist they'd be happy with bread and cheese. 'Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential. December is when I try out new recipes I am thinking of serving at Christmas. Daring is the cook who makes something for the first time on Christmas Eve (daft, more like it).' You start with playing with a recipe for lemon posset, substituting clementines for a seasonal touch; and finally you are pleased with the result (page 479). It makes four tiny puddings for a 'sharply refreshing dessert' to round off a full and plenty meal. I always make a Summer Pudding for me for Christmas Day (plenty of other choices for others), which seems a bit incongruous I suppose, but I like to be reminded of the Summer in this deepest depth of winter. And, for me at any rate, it has become something of a tradition and stuck.