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“We also discovered the sting of a new tradition turning out to be a damp squib or a downright disaster”

Great Aunt Betty’s Bread Sauce

Words by Richard Aslan Photographs by Mark Weinberg

Sometimes the holidays aren’t what we expect them to be. 

Okay, I’ll be honest. When I was a kid, Christmas wasn’t great. When a family is doing its best not to fly apart at the seams, taking the dogs for a rain-sodden drag around the block is as good as it gets. Christmas is all about family traditions, but when the dust settled and the jaggedy edges were smoothed over, we had to face the truth. We didn’t have a Great Aunt Betty whose bread sauce had graced our table since time immemorial. All we had, alongside a certain lopsided charm, was my mother’s conviction that this year was going to be special. So in the absence of genuine traditions, we set about inventing new ones.

We discovered the anticipation of lifting the lid from the proverbial pot and peering inside. Is this it? Is this the wonderful thing we’ll do it every year? We also discovered the sting of a new tradition turning out to be a damp squib, or indeed, a downright disaster. There was the year mum bought Christmas in a Box, ordered from a frozen food store catalogue. The minuscule cardboard carton landed on our doorstep the moment the shops shut for three days and would have struggled to hold a fair-size turkey breast, let alone Christmas dinner for mum, my two sisters and me with all the treats and trimmings. Then there was the year that the younger of my two sisters decided to boost our Christmas cheer with Irish Cream Liqueur, Asti Spumante and sherry. Breakfast joy was followed by lunchtime queasiness. We pressed grimly on to a late, burnt dinner through fits of tired giggles. Another year mum decided to make everyone their favorite food for dinner. There were six of us with my sisters’ boyfriends in tow. She emerged after four hours, bedraggled by the formidable logistics only to discover that my mushroom soup and prawn curry had gone missing in action and my older sister’s warmed up cheeseburgers went against the laws of nature.

Some innovations did stick, however. Taking over cooking duty from my very relieved mother, not only boosted our dietary fiber and vitamin intake by shielding us from her prodigious proclivity for frozen food, it also kicked off my life-long love affair with food. I swooned with delight amid ten types of vegetables wondering why no one had alerted me thus far to the pleasures of the honey-roast parsnip. There was the tradition of Christmas in the country in a rented cottage. Early mobilization was a requisite as the best ones get snapped up by Easter, but no one had to sofa-surf if our ranks were swollen by husbands and best friends, no one was left with all the washing up and no one had to drive halfway across the country to get to their bed come nightfall. Instead, we revelled in post-breakfast walks through the snowy Welsh mountains and the gentle art of the jigsaw.

Now both my sisters are mothers, and where there were originally just the four of us, the family has grown to a very lucky thirteen. These days, we’re cool with presents on the 27th if it’s the in-laws’ turn, and we understand that nothing is more important than making sure the kids don’t spend all day in the car when they’d rather be home with their new toys. We’ve worked out that the best traditions are the ones you do year in year out because you really want to, not because you always have.

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