First Saturday in December. The town is full of smiling happy people. The tree in the market place was lit yesterday, Henley’s annual festive shopping night. There is something in the air that the month of December brings with its Christmas celebrations. Joy, hope, peace. That’s how I feel anyway.
Sometime in December, when I was a child in my native Ankara, three rings on our doorbell would mean our aunt coming with the Christmas tree. My brother and I loved that moment when she entered the house with a huge tree. We would position it in its usual place and decorate it immediately. The house would smell of fresh pine for a few weeks. I loved sitting in the armchair next to it. I’d switch off all the lights and daydream about, amongst other things, all the presents that I was hopefully going to get.
However being a Muslim and living in a Muslim country meant that we would open our presents on the 31 December for New Year’s Eve. But every Christmas Eve our parents would go to Tante (aunty) Ilse and Onkel (uncle) Edu, the German couple who lived in the same building. Children were not part of this formal dinner but, wearing our pyjamas and robes, my brother and I were allowed to go upstairs to see the tree. Here we would get our presents as well as some of the German Christmas biscuits that Ilse would bake the whole month of December. I will always remember her opening the double doors leading to the living room and this huge tree lit by real candles. It was truly magical. The house would smell of all sorts of spices. This is really one of my favourite childhood memories.
Later on in life, after the divorce of my parents, my father would always say ‘Shall we go to Midnight Mass?’ But we never made it. With school the next day and work for my father, we ended up in bed. The 25th December went unnoticed. On December 31st we would all dress up, have a turkey, a special rice ‘ic pilav’ and many other delicious foods. We would always finish with a ‘bouche de Noel’ (Yule log). I loved those parties. We were allowed to mingle with the grown ups, eat with them and go to bed after midnight. Bliss!
My first real Noel however was experienced in the heat of Mauritania at the age of 17. I could not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was everybody planning and talking for such a long time about Noel? An ex-French colony, Mauritania was quite liberal those days despite being a Muslim country. With its various nationality ex-pats, Noel was celebrated both on the 24th and the 25th. Not being aware of all this, I babysat my brother on my first real Christmas. Never again however. I soon caught up with the celebrations and after the Christmas meal always went to Midnight Mass with my best friend and her family. I kissed and hugged the congregation and wished a ‘Joyeux Noel’ to everyone. I still enjoy the magical atmosphere of Midnight Mass.
While I was married to my Swedish husband, I experienced going to the very early, 6am, Christmas Mass on the 25th. Since Swedes celebrate Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, we would go to bed too full and too inebriated at about 2am. Waking up in pitch darkness, after 4 hours sleep and throwing ourselves into the cold air was…..painful. The churches I remember were lit by real candles which I love but still, I prefer the warmth of my bed at 6am.
I remember going literally nuts with Christmas decorations on my first visit to Sweden. Until then our trees were adorned with red and often silver baubles and a few other things, but what I saw in Sweden opened a whole world of magic that had been lost since my childhood. Little red ‘tomte’ (a mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore associated with the Christmas season), straw goats of all sizes, little bells, beautiful decorations made of wood and textiles… I really thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I had a hard time not buying everything I came across. My husband to be was quite alarmed. Lately I have developed a liking for glass baubles. So these days my Christmas trees are now a mix of cultures with my hand made-by-me-little angel on the top. It is funny how we become attached to our decorations. This little angel is my most cherished and I used a loo roll to make it!
I love Christmas carols too. They often bring me to tears, especially Little Donkey because I often used to sing it to my youngest son when he went to bed.
Nowadays I still celebrate Christmas on the 24th. We have a great Swedish ham cooked by my eldest son and wonderful Danish delicacies made by my partner who is from Denmark. He has introduced me to glögg – a bit like gluhwein, but better in my opinion – which we drink throughout December. A bit decadent I know, but I love it so any excuse is a good one. If you would like to make some of this delicious sweet spicy mulled wine, see the recipe below. The Danes have ‘risalamande’ for dessert. It is basically a rice pudding with lots of crushed almonds and whipped cream. They serve it with a warm cherry sauce. Among all these crushed almonds there is a whole one. The one who finds it while chewing, of course, gets a present.
Since my sons were very young we have invited a couple of friends who have daughters of more or less the same age. They still come and it is such a joy to be together, to eat the lovely food, to talk about the year, to laugh about silly things, to share and be merry.
Happy Christmas to you all.
Almonds and raisins are always placed in the bottom of the glass before the glögg is added. It is usually served in quite small glasses in Sweden, partly because many Swedes are often staggering from one glögg party to another! Best made a week in advance to give the flavours time to develop. Great served with gingersnap biscuits.This recipe comes from the Swedish Food website.
75 ml (5 tbsp)vodka
2 cinnamon sticks
2-3 pieces of dried ginger (see photo above)
1 tsp cardamom pods
3-4 pieces of dried Seville orange (bitter orange) peel
½ tbsp raisins (optional)
1 bottle of red wine, any will do
110 g (½ cup) caster (superfine) sugar
1 tsp vanilla sugar
2 tbsp raisins
10-20 almonds, blanched and peeled
How to prepare
Pour the vodka into a small jar. Add the cinnamon, cloves, ginger, orange peel, cardamom and raisins (optional). Cover and leave to infuse for at least a day, preferably a week.
Pour the vodka and spices into a saucepan and add the wine and sugars. Stir and heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot but not boiling, about 80ºC (175ºF).
Leave to cool and then sieve, to remove the spices, and pour into sterilised bottles* and keep until required.
Heat gently before serving, but don’t let it boil.
Place 2 or 3 raisins and 2 or 3 almonds in the bottom of each glass and top up with glögg.