I’ve spent the last two weekends getting on with my usual pre Christmas baking. So far I’ve made a Christmas cake, two Christmas puddings, three batches of mincemeat, and over sixty mince pies. It’s part of the Advent preparations that I love.
I first made a traditional Christmas cake in the early years of marriage, having discovered how much my beloved liked fruit cake. Making them for him led me to delicious recipes full of moist fruits barely held together by cake mixture rather than the dry crumbly ones of my youth with the occasional dried sultana that horrified your mouth like a dead fly. And I became a fruit cake convert.
Gaining confidence, I decided to try making mincemeat for another of his favourites – mince pies – and again found something to enjoy with him. These tasted so much better than the over sweet claggy concoctions from the shops. I felt especially proud baking a batch for him to take in for his work team each year.
The Christmas puddings, however, are a much longer tradition. I can’t remember how old I was when I first joined my mum in making them. The same recipe every year from the 1937 GEC cookbook that my great great grandmother used, passed down through the female generations of our family. Now I make them with my niece.
They are never made alone and we never make just one. The original recipe is for 14lb of puddings! And my early memories are of making one for the family and giving the others to be sold at the church bazaar. Over the years, I’ve given the extras away to extended family and friends. The last one I made with my mum was in her nursing home when my husband and I took all the pre weighed ingredients in one evening, watched by fascinated staff who’d only ever had shop bought, and then the mixture taken round every resident in the lounge so all could have a stir and a wish. We gave the extras that year to those same staff to take home.
My mum taught me a lot about the value of traditions. But what I learned best from her about them is, like a good recipe, that they should be a guide not a fixed set of instructions to follow slavishly. Mum never put alcohol in the Christmas puddings when I was a child whereas I reverted to the original with its Guinness (in honour of joint family roots in Dublin) and a spirit that varies from year to year. (Once, after everyone had gone to bed, I secretly added to my mum’s mixture the only alcohol we had in the house – Malibu!) My mum always replaced the candied peel, which she disliked, with chopped dried apricots. I have both but swap almonds and glace cherries with dried cranberries.
Traditions should be made to fit the people and not the other way round. I learned this lesson most clearly from her the year I got engaged. I had assumed that I would travel back to London for my last Christmas Day with my parents and brother and, similarly, that my fiance would be with his family. But he had concluded that, with his flatmates in Devon and Wales, as we were now engaged, this would be our very first Christmas together, just the two of us. I didn’t know how my parents would react to the change. However, my mum in all her generosity and wisdom, merely said, “It’s time to make your own traditions now.”
And that’s the thing about traditions – they are made and adapted and personalised. They might look like a fixed point in the landscape but they are meant to be molded and weathered by the changing seasons and the river of life.
This Christmas is another transition as we face it for the first time without my dad. Routine changes once again – no more presents or cards to buy for or from him; no more extra mince pies to make because he didn’t eat Christmas pudding; no more opportunities to spend with him over the holiday period, or any other time.
So I’m holding on to those flexible family traditions, reminding myself that one Christmas is never exactly the same as the last – and that it’s not meant to be because life is not meant to be static. And I will hold onto my mum’s wise words, adapting them slightly (knowing adapting things is a family tradition in itself) to say once again, “It’s time to make new traditions now.”