One Christmas Eve, when my sister and I were knee-high to a reindeer, we stayed up most of the night, noses pressed against the window, waiting to spot Santa Claus. We never did see Mr. Claus (or Rudolph) but around midnight, the first snowflakes of the season started to fall from the cold, black sky, as if by magic. The next morning we woke up to a winter wonderland, a picture postcard snow scene just outside London.
Here in Mallorca or the south coast of Spain we’re more likely to wake up to another feel-good day full of sunshine and spend the morning hitting golf balls instead of making snow balls. After lunch on the terrace, a walk on the beach, then it’s time to hit the sofa as the evening draws in with a couple of Christmas movies and a nice glass of Shiraz while the chef in the family works wonders in the kitchen.
Traditional Christmas decorations can look a bit “heavy” in a sunny Mediterranean climate, so this season why not create an “all white on the night” crisp, California beach-style look? White is a brilliant base colour in summer, but it’s surprisingly striking in winter accessorised with plenty of night lights and candles, for a minimalist, “moderniste” look that’s almost effortless.
Think chunky white pillar candles, glittering fairy lights, a simply decorated tree and throw a soft chenille cover over your bold summer print sofa, hang an evergreen wreath on your door and you’re halfway there…
If you’ve ever been invited to one of those Christmas parties where the host’s home is so over-decorated that you’re afraid to squeeze your way through the crowded room for fear of knocking an ornament off a shelf or catching your handbag on an expensive-looking Christmas tree decoration, you’ll appreciate the “less is more” school of interior design.
Some tips on how to spend less time preparing and more time celebrating this special time of year with your loved ones…
Winter is the one season when you can fully indulge your five senses, with scented candles, the warmth and smell of a crackling fire… soft, velvety cushions, comfort foods and the sounds of the season, church bells, carol singers and the joyful giggles of hysterically happy children.
Apart from your tree, your fireplace will probably be the central focus of the living room. If it’s a non-working fireplace arrange a group of candles of varying heights together in the hearth – a cluster of same scent candles creates a wonderful aroma in the home – cinnamon, cedar, chocolate, coffee, pine, fig, blackberry and even orange and vanilla are all lovely winter scents.
If there are no little ones in the house and you don’t fancy lugging home a huge Christmas tree, head for your local garden centre and pick up a fragrant rosemary tree. Rosemary was used to flavour ale and wine and is a traditional Christmas and New Year herb – it symbolises love and loyalty (and freshly-brewed rosemary tea helps ward off colds and headaches). Plant your mini rosemary tree in a pretty terracotta pot and you’ve not only got fresh rosemary on hand in the kitchen for the rest of the year, it won’t shed its needles and you’ll have a perfect addition to your herb garden!
If you want a traditional tree, keep it simple…stick to just white, glass or silver balls, perhaps some small white silk bows and a garland of tiny lights. Scatter tiny glass votive candle holders filled with white tea light candles around the living room, and find a large silver or wooden tray and fill it completely with little tea light candles, but it’s best to keep this candle arrangement on a high sideboard away from dogs or children. Next to the candles you could place a simple glass vase filled with long thin pussy willow stems, twigs or branches of dried berries for a long-lasting, elegant and very “zen” winter arrangement.
Keep a few small bowls of chocolate covered cherries, sugar-roasted almonds, raisins, or olives on hand, on coffee tables, for guests to nibble.
Christmas fare, Swedish-style
If you’re vegetarian or not a big turkey fan, grilled salmon with an assortment of roasted winter vegetables is a great alternative – delicious with cranberry sauce and glazed chestnuts on the side. Christmas fare is notoriously non-veggie, but it’s also when we have plenty of delicious winter fruits and vegetables on hand – herb roasted potatoes, butternut squash, roast chestnuts, damson plums and tangerines.
If the weather’s warm, a Swedish-style smorgasbord is the perfect Christmas feast – such as prawns, dill and mayonnaise, smoked salmon dressed with lemon and black pepper, a green salad with an assortment of herb and seed breads and of course a huge bowl of Swedish potato salad (with thinly sliced red onion and vinaigrette). Easy to prepare and you won’t have that heavy “overdone it” feeling afterwards!
You can’t round off a your Christmas meal without a sinful pudding. But if traditional “Xmas pud” isn’t your thing, there are plenty of decadent desserts that go beautifully with a chilled glass of champagne or coffee….(yes, all of them!)
Whether you possess the finesse of Jamie Oliver (in which case may we suggest a rum chocolate marrons glace tart, perhaps?) or you’re a disaster in the “sweet section” (make a beeline for the nearest bakery, bring home something impressive looking and tell everyone you made it yourself) this is the one day of the year apart from your birthday that you can forget about a diet.
Puddings go perfectly with chilly winter evenings, so don’t hold back. Indulge yourself with pecan pie, treacle tart, a chocolate covered Yule log, blackberry and apple pie, tarte tatin, plum and almost tart, or gingerbread cake. Or do what the Swedish do and serve a creamy vanilla rice pudding with lingonberry jam, or individual “mandelmusslor”, delectable almond tarts filled with whipped cream and topped with dark fruit jam. Swedish folklore says that the person who finds the “lucky” almond in their portion of rice pudding (risgrynsgrˆt) will be wed during the coming year.
While you’re curled up in your favourite armchair watching Christmas movies, with the dog snoozing at your feet, you need…a drink. Chai Tea is a sort of Christmas spice tea, popular in Canada and the States and originally from India. It’s easy to brew and is a deliciously warming alternative to tea or coffee in winter, full of aromatic spices. Brew some traditional tea in a saucepan and add ginger, cardammon, cloves, cinnamon (or you can use ground mixed spice which blends all of these spices in one mix). Let the tea simmer gently for a few minutes then add milk, honey or sugar and vanilla to taste. (Whatever you do, don’t let the milk and tea boil as the flavour will be ruined.) Another comforting non-alcoholic nightcap is Spanish chocolate (hot chocolate with cinnamon and spices) topped with cream.
Mulled wine is the Christmas classic and you can make it ahead of time and reheat. Use a decent medium to full bodied red wine, heat gently, then add sliced lemons, oranges, an ounce of brandy or cognac, a cup of granulated sugar and cinnamon and cloves to taste. Two things to remember here: never let the wine boil and don’t drink too much, the combination of sugar, brandy and wine can be very “heady”!
…and be Merry
Christmas presents aside, this is a great time for reflection and giving thanks for what this year has brought you and what the next year will bring your way. As the wise always say, difficulties make us stronger (the secret is how to handle them). On the other hand, when we celebrate the good things in life – however small – we inject a dose of happiness in to an otherwise “ordinary” day: and a small act of kindness can light up someone’s life.
What to watch… Best Christmas Movies ever!
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- A Christmas Carol (1951)
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
- The Santa Clause (1994)
- Miracle on 3rd Street (2001)
What to listen to… Best Christmas Music ever!
- Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album
- Ultimate Christmas – various artists, old and new
- A Very Special Christmas – rock and R&B compilation
- Ella Fitzgerald’s Swinging Christmas Album
- Christmas Carols from St. John’s
- A Jolly Christmas by Frank Sinatra