Christmas on an even keel

Image of Susie Boyt

I was making a yule log, listening to Howard Keel singing “My Defences are Down”, in an apron, hectic with holly (me, not Howard, who is awfully manly).

There were telltale chocolatey smears on my cheeks and chin. I had just potted 100 paper white narcissi bulbs in various wicker baskets for Christmas presents, to add a note of simplicity and freshness to dilute the gaudier side of the season, its fattier aspects (Quality Street, tantrums, pigs on horseback). The paper whites would be relied on to introduce a bit of what Bertolt Brecht might have meant when he wrote: “And I always thought: the very simplest words/ Must be enough. When I say what things are like/ Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.” For, somewhere, this sort of thing – a kind of superb visceral humility – is part of Christmas also.

Much of life involves a balancing of one thing against another to keep everyone happy, cutting a glut of X with a bolt of Y; making sure fresh air always follows fruit machines, cucumber comes after doughnuts, and so on, even within one’s own self, within one’s own personality. A friend who has difficult teenagers (that is to say, teenagers) announced recently that she has decided to treat herself like a queen or even a goddess when she is not with them, so that the little dents and chips and chunks they take out of her when they are on the warpath go so deep and no further.

She tries to start each month, each week, each morning, with a firm system of compensation very much in place, having consoled herself to the max before anything has even gone awry. Is this a super-sensible approach? Is it nuts and crackers? Don’t ask me.

Making the yule log, listening to Keel’s wonderful ballad about the reforming of a wild roué, I couldn’t help noticing I was certainly getting strong currents of what during this time of year can only be termed The Feeling. I felt Christmassy, and the feeling of feeling Christmassy – the success of having felt it in mid-December at home, rather than, say, in early August, during a routine dental examination, made me feel like a success. And the glow of success made me feel even more Christmassy.

By the time Keel hit me with the line “Being miserable’s gonna be fun”, surely a Christmassy sentiment if ever I heard one, I was almost wildly festive, fizzing and crackling with the joys of the season like a Christmas tree in a house with dodgy wiring. At least I think I was. Ever since I was given a new powerful catering quality hand-held electric wand whisk, I am pretty sure I experience small electrical jolts coursing up and down my limbs when I beat eggs or whip cream. Not quite in a Sylvia Plath type way, you understand; I somehow always sense the tingles it sends out doing me good. It has certainly helped the patisserie arm of things round here, which seems to go from strength to strength.

I favour a light and springy yule log, one made only from eggs, cocoa and sugar, then filled with cream and chocolate sauce and raspberries, avoiding at all costs the dreaded buttercream, which always makes me feel embarrassed.

The rolling up of the log is often mildly exciting, involving manual dexterity and damp teacloths – quite a big thrill, if you don’t get out much. It is true that if your aim is to create a log that is naturalistic, a log that might almost be mistaken for a stray bit of fallen forest timber by someone not wearing his glasses, this isn’t the log for you, but it does, as they say, eat well. A six-year-old close to my heart has even called it “refreshing”.

Howard Keel was still singing and it seemed to me that a song about a tremendous rake who has been tamed by a wonderful woman, to the extent of comparing himself to a toothless tiger, or a knight without his armour, or even Samson without his hair, was quite Christmassy also.

The gas flame, blue and pinkish, under some rice that was bubbling in a pan on the stove for the children also seemed Christmassy, in its way. So, suddenly, did the rice itself, not to mention the red enamel saucepan. A great smile broke out on my face and tears rolled down my cheeks.

It’s going to be a bumper year. Merry Christmas.

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