Christmas with our surrogate family

It has been more than 6 years since we last spent Christmas with family because of my husband’s penchant for snowboarding holidays with friends and our move to Switzerland. This year is no different. Friends, especially the ones who are living overseas, have inevitably become our ‘surrogate-family’.

We flew to London for the Christmas weekend and spent a cosy festive holiday with close friends. On Christmas eve, the seven of us went to Wimbledon theatre to catch a pantonmime, Dick Whittington, with special guest appearance from Dame Edna, a famous drag queen from Australia. I was mesmerised by her candy-floss pink hair, shimmery costumes and multi-colored stockings. She made quite the entrance flying down from a furry cage ( i read somewhere it was meant to be a wombat, a tribute to her aussie roots) from the side of the theatre onto the stage. She was meant to be a fairy. Even though we were sitting right on top in the circle seats, we were still blinded by her top-to-toe bling bling.

The story has nothing to do with Christmas of course. It is a simple sketch about a man called Dick Whittington, whose cat managed to rid London of its rat infestation, Dick then marry the daughter of a rich merchant he was working for. It is filled with cheesy pop songs, dance, buffoonery, slapstick cross-dressing, a dwarf, toilet humor and mild sexual innuendo. I heard the special guest star for last year’s Christmas pantonmime was David Hasselhof from ‘Baywatch’, and the year before, ermmm, Pamela Anderson, from ‘Baywatch’ too. Don’t ask me why they were involved in British family-friendly theatre. Times are hard I guess, even for washed-out hollywood stars.

I have never tried roasting a Turkey or preparing a Christmas meal. I really admire the people who have the guts to attempt such a lofty endeavour. The thing with turkey, it’s not something you’ll cook on the other 364 days, so it’s usually a first try for most people, and there is no room for failure. If you screw up, no Tesco/Sainsbury/Marks&Spencer/nearby poultry farm or food delivery service will be able to send you a brand new one, on Christmas Day! And the stress in cooking for 20 guests!!! But our friend made such a succulent, crispy-skinned turkey and lovely roast vegetables, you almost think he’s been doing this in the last 364 days too!

We are back in Switzerland now. The whole of Zurich city has been shrouded in thick fog the past 3 days and it has only started to clear this morning. I am just weaning off my Christmas hangover and post-holiday blues. Well, just in time for another round of merry-making as we wait for 12 of our surrogate family members to fly in from London and New Zealand to count down to the new year with us!

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Nutty ideas

Our neighbour just returned from his holiday home in Burgundy, France, and gave us a bagload of walnuts from his garden. I swear there must be at least 300 whole nuts in the shopping bag!

I was trying to get some ideas online for kiddy crafts to make with walnuts and there aren’t many innovative suggestions. I love using walnuts for baking and salads, but the prospect of cracking 300 nuts open prove too daunting a feat for me. Besides, there are only so many walnut-shelled turtles, mice and googly-eyed faces one can make.

The next best thing to do with walnuts is… to give them away as Christmas gifts! That way, I don’t have to stress out about getting turned-out fingers from cracking nuts, hordes of squirrels breaking into my house, or the potential weight gain from yummy walnut cakes! I am now seen as the thoughtful friend who bothered to make THE effort to give them the gift of luurrve…..

I’ve given some walnuts away to a few friends today. I suspect they will be having a restless night thinking what to do with those damn nuts!

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This is just a third of the walnuts we got

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Home-made gift tags using gold paint and scrunging the paper into a ball to get this effect20111207-171200.jpgChild labor…

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Timmy is pretty nifty with the scissors20111207-171408.jpgThe end product

20111207-171438.jpgMy happy helper (with a mouthful of apple slices)

Christmas in a different light

Growing up in Singapore where it is sunny and humid 365 days a year (with the occasional torrential rain), there is something special about having a wintry cold and somewhat subdued Christmas celebration in Europe.

I love walking through the crowded Christmas markets, drinking hot schoggis and gluhwein (hot, spiced mulled wine), the dimly lit and humbly decorated trees, wearing thick layers of warm clothes and eating roasted chestnuts from a brown paper bag on the streets.

I wanted to find out how the Swiss celebrate Christmas and discovered a few interesting traditions they follow leading up to Christmas Day. Advent is the period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, historically seen as the preparation of the arrival of Christ. During the 19th century in particular, this waiting period before Christmas was viewed as a way of teaching children patience before a reward – hence the development of the Advent Calendar, a calendar with 24 little flaps opening onto windows with images within a Christmas scene. Nowadays, Advent calendars have ‘windows’ or ‘pockets’ that parents would fill with a little toy or sweet for the children. The Swiss also prepares an Advent wreath which has four candles, one for each of the Sundays in Advent. On the first Sunday, one candle is burnt, on the second, two are lit, and so on.

On 6 December, Swiss children receive a visit from Samichlaus — that’s Swiss German for St. Nicklaus, patron saint of children, and his black-clad henchman, Schmutzli. Samichlaus consults his big book of sins — co-authored by village parents, and does some light-hearted moralizing. Then he asks the kids to earn a little forgiveness by reciting a poem. After this and some assurances that they will be good, Samichlaus allows the children to reach deep into his bag for tangerines, nuts, gingerbread, and other treats.

Last thursday at my son’s weekly forest walk, Samiclaus and his cute grey donkey paid the children a surprise visit in the woods and gave each of them a big loaf of gingerbread shaped like a boy (more like a pale looking voodoo doll to me), some chocolates and a walnut.

I am pretty fascinated by the dark, scary character – Schmutzli, Samiclaus’ sidekick, tasked to frighten kids who have not been good throughout the year. No one really knows the source of his origin but it makes me think about the many fairytales that we grew up with – The Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, and Alice in Wonderland. Despite having ‘happily ever after’ endings, these stories all have a little sinister element in them.

I took pictures of a few familiar things we associate Christmas with and saw a tinge of ‘Schmutzli’ in them.

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monster shadows creeping up to santa's washing line
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friend or foe?
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giant pine cone or alien xmas tree bauble?
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hanging ice streamers
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the walnut man pretends to sleep...