A chilly afternoon, we’d be coming home from school raw-cheeked with the cold. Pushing the back door open, into our tiny kitchen… and the smell of Christmas cooking! My mother, in a flitter, would hoosh us out of the way. She’d look flushed, exhausted from vigorous stirring – you must ‘get plenty of air in, keeps it from sinking’. Better again if the mixture hadn’t already gone into the oven. We could lick the wooden spoon before the wash-up. Or scrape leftovers from the bowl. My mother would write a note on a tab torn off a cornflakes box: a list of times from start to expected finish, with reminders of regular checks in between. She’d tape this across the cooker switch, lest my father turn it off in a fit of safety consciousness. If it was windy, she’d worry a power-cut might sabotage her baking. She needn’t have fretted, her cakes were always perfect. They still are.
I’m not a fan of tradition. It’s often laden with nostalgia, heavy as lardy pudding. A whiff of conservatism hangs around it, coated in an oversweet ideal of the past. Much as I love my mother’s Christmas cake, I couldn’t imagine myself as an heiress to her recipe. Apart from the fact that the culinary arts aren’t my strongest suit, the concept of perpetuating a ‘typical Irish Christmas’ has never appealed to me. Especially since I entered into an intercultural relationship, not long after leaving the nest. My husband and I would’ve felt awkward, foisting ourselves annually on my parents for the big event. Plus my mother had enough hassle, trying to put up with my younger siblings. So, although the drift towards the homestead (in the hope of decent food and freebie lodgings) has become quite a phenomenon in Ireland, I couldn’t act the ‘kidult’. Instead, I knew I’d have to create my own version of Christmas. And that meant learning how to cook.
Fortunately, I discovered that while it sounds – and tastes – impressive, the making of a Christmas cake is well within the capability of domestic dummies. The skills it involves are fairly basic. All you do is weigh out copious quantities of dried fruit, throw in chopped almonds and glacé cherries, then steep these ingredients overnight in brandy. The next day add butter, sugar, flour etc., whisk a couple of eggs and apply brute force in the mixing. Be generous with the booze and you can’t go wrong. The tipsier the cake, the happier the guests – though it mightn’t be advisable to drive immediately after a slice of mine! Top with marzipan, white icing and some cute decorations, et voilà…
Novelty can also whet the appetite. My seasonal cuisine has gone down a treat as far away as Bosnia and Japan. Changes of location can lead to improvisation. Dates, now a trendy addition recommended by TV chefs, served as a substitute for sultanas in Sarajevo. My notion of nutmeg was confined to the ground contents of a spice jar until I had to buy a ‘real’ one in Baščaršija. Milling it myself, using a contraption borrowed from my mother-in-law, its piquancy was memorable.
As were many other aspects of Christmas in Bosnia. Going to midnight mass with my Muslim brother-in-law in the hush of feathery snowfall was soul-searing. Less mainstream than in Ireland, Sarajevo’s Yuletide was stripped of commercial glitz. Perhaps that allowed its pure magic to seep through. Trees draped in fairy lights can transcend divisions based on ethnicity and creed. Whether for Christmas or New Year, or both, a jelka brightens the bleakness of winter. And Deda Mraz / Santa Claus is a cross-cultural kind of bloke. Our kids are among the luckiest in the world because he calls twice to our house! Not only does the sleigh stop here on Christmas Eve but, following a garbled rendition of Auld Lang Syne, ‘Grandfather Frost’ drops back from Bosnia with more gifts.
Celebrations bring out the best in cultures. They capture the joy that unites human beings. But such harmony isn’t easy to sustain. Differences don’t vanish, nor does the need for negotiation. Thoughts of the holiday season are soon obscured by clouds of everyday problems. Yet I wish the spirit of our Irish-Bosnian Christmas could somehow last. After the turkey-and-no-ham dinner (with vegetarian options) has been devoured. When the chocolates at the bottom of the tin have disappeared and there’s not a crumb of cake left…
In a few short weeks our jelka will lie discarded, shedding needles, on the porch. How to hold on to its zest? Maybe that’s a personal challenge for 2014. Until then, as my daughters are writing in cards to their friends:
Sretan Božić / Merry Christmas!
And, as this is probably my final blog of 2013:
Sretna Nova Godina / Happy New Year!