‘Add a bit more Phillip, a bit extra will make the cake taste better,” quickly followed by “PHILLIP! Get your hands out of the bowl! There will be no mixture left at the rate you’re going.”
Gran’s sage advice dished out decades ago during my first appointment as Christmas cake baking assistant. As I continue the tradition of sherry-soaked fruit with my own three eager young bakers a month out from Christmas, it seems very natural for the Eating the Elephant article for this month to be a nod to the festive season.
December is busy on the farm. It is the time we see another season tick over, spring to summer, sheep farmers flat-out with wool and weaning. Throw in community, family and artificial Christmas deadlines and it can all get a bit crazy.
Taking a hunk of the Christmas cake to one of these family pre-Christmas dos, I am again taken back to being a kid. Like when Uncle Terry would arrive at Uncle Ray’s in Whanga(mata), leather-clad on a racy motorbike. For the kid cousins, converging from Waikato and Wairoa and more familiar with a Honda three-wheeler, this was mega cool.
Uncle Dennis would arrive a bit later with flagons of Lion Red. The flagons were the prompt for us kids to race around and find the 7 Up, because it offered the hope of a shandy to wash down the Ripples salt and vinegars.
Shoot, we were happy. Looking ahead to quite a different, but equally chaotic summer ritual as a parent, I can appreciate the stress for my own folks. Times were hard then, with high interest rates, low farm profitability and limited Yuletide sleep as every square inch of space was occupied by family. But we kids did not sense the pressure – we loved it.
We ate Nana’s pipi fritters, which had as much sand in them as the liners of our togs that cruelly introduced us to chafing. We played at the beach until the UV rays found holes in the SPF15 and required aloe vera rubbed over a burnt bum. When I look back on these holiday memories, the madness is not remembered.
With a year so dominated by wet wild weather, I hope we can focus on the good that has come from the testing, challenging or downright soul-destroying moments. I also hope that the festive season sunshine can provide a bit of respite and space for some other, more positive memories to be added.
In addition to providing loose advice about not eating too much cake, Gran was one for providing guidance around polite conversation. No talk of sex, religion, politics or money. Christmas allowed one exception to Gran’s rules: religion was allowed, because the view was that if you are to celebrate Christmas, you need to understand the origin story and the universal values connected to it, rather than the commercialism of Santa.
However, Gran would not relent on the others and if she was still with us, this would have been strictly enforced. Given the political temperature after a tough election at home and divisive wars abroad, tough financial times on farm and, well, who wants to talk about sex with their Gran anyway. Perhaps that’s a tradition worth keeping this year.
While Santa won’t have time to stop in, I do look forward to others dropping by to talk through the year that has been and share some optimism for the year ahead.
Thank you to those who have read the Eating the Elephant series in 2023. Our group of mates have enjoyed telling a few stories, some of them with deeper connected messages, some of them just stories. I look forward to 2024 and filing the memories – both good and bad – of the year that has been.