….who does not know the warm feeling of happiness and excitement suddenly filling your heart – a flashback to all the childhood memories when streets fill with Christmas lights, there is the smell of mulled wine and cinnamon in the air, crazed people rush through the streets hunting for presents and suddenly the radio is full of old favorite songs (like “Last Christmas” by WHAM – how many times in my life did I swear to NEVER listen to this damn song again after hearing it about 200times every December – and yet, every year it is the first song I play as soon as I smell Christmas around me and it instantly brings back all the past years. I remember that epic snowball fight on the last day of high school before the holidays, that guy in a record store I had a crush on around Christmas ’99 or my housemate in college annoying the hell out of me one year by putting this song on repeat for a week and me chasing him with a broom…)
To be honest, though, I don’t quite understand the “Christmas phenomenon” – why is there this air of expectation and yearning everywhere? I don’t actually know many people who’ve experienced a perfect Christmas celebration you see in movies – you know, a Christmas out of a Coca-Cola commercial, this kind of big family celebration in a huge snow covered house surrounded by shiny reindeers, where everybody is super happy, singing songs and kids spy on Santa falling out of the chimney at night after having just crash-landed on the roof. In reality, people usually fight, or get bored, or have to deal with annoying family members, or just watch TV, eat and get drunk due to the lack of more interesting alternatives. In best cases Christmas is just a nice quiet night under a tree on the couch – there is nothing super magical about it unless you are 5 years old and still don’t get who’s buying your presents.
So what are we all so excited about? Is it the human longing for something supernatural and the hope that at some point some Christmas miracle might happen after all? Are we just fascinated by all the different lights and decorations like flies are attracted to a lantern? Do all the uber-happy Christmas movies raise expectations? Is it just a religious tradition, combined with familiar smells&sounds, good food and presents? It’s probably a combination of all that, but above all, I think it’s the general desire for love. And although (I assume) people want to be loved every day, somehow Christmas makes them feel more “entitled” to it and somehow makes this need more acute. That’s why spending Christmas alone is everybody’s dread. That’s why we all cry when we watch Sleepless in Seattle when the little boy calls the radio station to look for a new wife for his dad. And the extraordinary thing is that people want this love for everyone, not just for themselves – and this is exactly what creates the unanimous high spirit and the “magic” – so many people wanting to be happy at the same time, this doesn’t happen every day.
So although the actual Christmas day is, in my opinion, slightly overrated, I do really enjoy the weeks and days leading up to it. It’s the best time to see all the people you love and try to make them – and yourself – as happy as you want to be. The easiest means for achieving this (as our grandmothers have discovered long ago) is through food and drink during a little pre-Christmas party at home – exactly what I did two weeks ago :-)
The “party” was actually an afternoon of eating and drinking – we had a really great time and the “magic” was definitely there :-) So instead of continuing to theorize about the nature of Christmas, I better share with you some tips about how to make a pre-Christmas party a success and the preparation time a lot of fun (for me, preparing is almost as good as the party itself).
- Invite early as diaries fill up quite quickly before Christmas (perhaps not as early as 8 weeks in advance as I did, but if make sure you send a reminder closer to the date ;-))
If you want to invite a lot of people and just have a small flat (or just don’t want the party to escalate), plan a Christmas afternoon instead of an evening party. Invite for 3-4pm with open-end: some people will come early and leave early, some will come later. Like this, you will always have guests coming and going in waves, without having to accommodate a huge crowd. Also, this way the afternoon can go two ways (a) it will either be a loooong afternoon extending to a laaaaate night (depending on the level of mulled wine and Lumumba); or (b) it will be a cozy short afternoon after which the survivors can go for dinner elsewhere. I can tell you we all had such craving for salty food after tons of sugar and sweets all afternoon that we relocated the party to our local Italian spot which was the perfect end to the day
Do not panic 2h before the start of the party that you might have bought too little alcohol or food – people do NOT tend to eat 2kg of cinnamon cookies each (as I had to learn ;-)) – I believe I still have enough to survive until next year
- Focus on two, maximum three, different drinks – everything else will give everybody an awful headache the next morning and will make a big, sticky mess in your kitchen – trust me!
Even if you are not a master chef in baking Christmas cookies – at least try to bake a few, as it will immediately add a “home made” touch (even if you fill the rest with supermarket stuff). And I can promise you – even if your cookies look like those of a 5-year old you will still get a lot of praise for them ;-)
Make sure you have a good mix of Christmas music on your iPhone (as I said above, it would not be a proper Christmas afternoon without them – see Spotify playlist in the next blog entry). A change of music to something normal is allowed at a later stage :-))
And it goes without saying: put up some candles and Christmas decoration. No need to overdo it though, as the smell of mulled wine, vanilla and cinnamon will do their part
Food and drinks
CHRISTMAS COOKIES – Chocolate Orange Stars
Time to prepare: c. 1h, plus 1h cooling and 30min baking time
Level of difficulty: easy! (Exactly the reason why I chose the recipe)
For the dough
250g white flour, 50g cocoa powder, 100g confectioner’s sugar, 3 tea spoons of finely grated orange zest, sea salt, 200g butter (cold and cut in small pieces), 1 egg (medium size)
For the filling
150g orange marmalade
For the decoration
2-3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
Mix together the flour, cocoa, sugar, grated orange zest and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Add the butter and the egg and mix through with an electric mixer (use the dough hook). Afterwards knead through with your hands until the dough becomes soft and smooth in substance. Form two balls from the dough, press them flat on a plate and put in plastic foil. Leave in the fridge for at least 1h.
Roll out the dough balls (one after the other) on the kitchen countertop (cover it as well as the dough rolling pin well with flour in order to prevent the dough sticking them). With a star shaped cookie cutter prepare the stars and put them on a baking tray (covered with baking paper). Take half of the stars and make little holes in the middle (e.g. with a round tip).
Pre-head the oven with 180C and bake the cookies for 8-9 minutes; leave on the baking tray to cool down. For the filling press the orange marmalade through a strainer and fill into a pastry bag. Place little amounts of the marmalade on the stars (those without holes) and afterwards carefully cover them with the stars with a hole.
To give the cookies the perfect finish, dust them with cocoa and sugar powder.
MULLED WINE (serves 10+ people)
4 bottles of red wine, 300ml orange juice, 1 juicy orange (cut in ca. 3cm thick slides), 4 cinnamon sticks, 1/2 tea spoon grained cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of cloves, 6 star anise, 1 vanilla bean (cut open)
For an exotic flavor add some cardamom (whole; not grained)
Put all ingredients in a large pot and slowly warm up while stirring through once in a while; do not let it boil. Best to pour through a strainer to filter-out the spices before serving. Serve hot.
APPLE PUNSH (serves 10+ people)
3l unfiltered apple juice, 40ml brandy (can be more or less depending on the level of sweetness/alcohol you prefer), 4 apples (cut length in quarters, remove stones and then half each quarter; leave the skin on), 1 lemon (to counteract the sweetness), 2 vanilla beans (cut open), 4 cinnamon sticks, 1/2 tea spoon grained cinnamon powder
Fill everything (but only half the portion of brandy) in a big pot and bring to boil; once the apple slices are softly cooked add the remaining half of the brandy. Serve warm together with some apple slices – the punch looks best if served in a transparent cup or glass.
Tip: keep some cooked apples on the side for later/next day – they are delicious as desert if added to chocolate mousse!! Mmmmhhh……
ENJOY YOUR LITTLE CHRISTMAS PARTY….!!!