Tuesday 15 October 2019

Bairbre Power: There I was Christmas week, cycling from Galway to Sligo, dressed like Santa and loving every mile of Operation Rudolph

Bairbre Power. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Bairbre Power. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

To voucher, or not to voucher, that will be a common question this weekend. Choosing gifts for people you don't know very well is tricky but when you find yourself featuring in their Christmas celebrations, well that calls for extra care and attention.

As I'm thrashing out this conundrum for myself, I'm also thinking of a certain Meghan Markle and what she might be bringing to Sandringham as she spends Christmas as a 'nearly royal'.

Like many young women this Christmas, Meghan finds herself spending time with the 'nearly in-laws'. Sometimes buying gifts for new relatives in the Kris Kindle is tough but if she's drawn the Queen, that's an easy one. I'd recommend treats for the Queen's beloved corgis. If you can't think what to buy for humans, think of their beloved pets and that's a problem solved!

Knowing how much Meghan loves to cook, she might even bake treats for the dogs. Apparently Meghan and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, plan to bake Christmas cookies together and I'm sure that bonding over cut-outs of Christmas trees and holly while George and Charlotte get stuck into the flour shaker is just what they need to relax into the holidays, which are full of rituals and rules; but in their case, the rituals are far more formal.

The Christmas 'holidays' are jammed with so many choreographed set-pieces, there's massive potential for disaster and for disappointing people. People get so het up in the fuss. I remember planting hints all over the year about wanting a bay tree for outside the front door but in the end, the Bs got mixed up, and I got a miniature bonsai tree.

I blame all the careful choreography required in the kitchen - like steaming puddings, boiling hams and basting the turkey - for feeding a lot of the Yuletide tensions, and now is a perfectly good time, don't you think, to pulp the rulebook and try to eradicate the festive landmines before they go off.

Like, who gets control of the TV remote over the holidays - can the mistress of the house drive it or do you politely ask the guests what they would like to see? And how relaxed can you get in terms of kicking off shoes and showing off the new Crimbo socks? And if guests are coming, can they bring their own dog/cat too, knowing full well that the resident pet of the house won't be too impressed?

It's hard to say no over Christmas but perhaps now is the time to decide the ground rules before the guests arrive. Being a gracious host can be difficult but usually after a Saturday dinner, guests go home, whereas over Christmas, they tend to stay overnight, which means you have to clear up before going to bed. That means putting the posh cutlery back into its canteen in the correct order and hand-washing all your crystal glasses before bedtime.

This year we are very lucky. We have a guest coming and not only do they love Roses chocolates, they actually eat the coffee-flavoured ones first. How handy is that? I'm not a domestic goddess and the tiresome side to a traditional Christmas is the pot-walloping.

One year my son offered to cook for us on Christmas Eve and with due diligence, he dispatched an extensive menu with suggested options and we were invited to tick the boxes. Courgetti was all the rage back then so it got two ticks along with a special pesto sauce, a spicy starter and a salted caramel dessert that turned out to be quite memorable!

Maybe he misread the measurement for salt, or sneezed putting it in. We were far too polite to gag after the first spoonful or even mention the unfortunate addition, which sent us reaching for our water glasses. We laughed about it later and far from ruining the night, it only added to the experience. Christmas set-pieces would be boring if they always worked perfectly, which is shorthand for don't lambaste the chef if things don't work out.

Just to warn my house guests this year, after decades of overboiling sprouts and hating this member of the brassica family, they are now my favourite veg and I will be serving them al dente.

Culinary disasters so often go hand in hand with Christmas. There was one year my New Year's Eve duck absolutely refused to defrost in time, despite lavish efforts that involved two families and three microwaves; but my favourite Yuletide memory of all time was not culinary but cycle related. One year I was part of Operation Rudolph and cycled 85 miles from Galway to Sligo over two days to raise much-needed money for charity. Organised by the late Ian McKeever, I will readily admit that of all the daft Christmas exploits I've got up to over the years, that was the most rewarding.

Dressed like Santas, on every corner we surprised oncoming motorists and, for two days, we pedalled to non-stop car beeps. I will never forget the Mayo landscape in slanting December sunlight and we then freewheeled into Sligo like a victorious Tour de France peloton.

That night, I had the longest, most satisfying bath of my life and the next morning, my weary legs climbed up into the front passenger seat of the 'broom wagon' rescue truck, now packed to the gills with bikes.

Chris Rea's Driving Home for Christmas was playing on the radio on every channel, or so it seemed as we motored across the midlands towards Dublin. The wide open road ahead of us was empty while against us, a nonstop queue of cars packed with people, presents and the odd Christmas trees, made the pilgrimage home.

To this day, every time I hear the song, I am instantly transported back to that day. The kids are sick hearing the story but I've no doubt that Chris Rea's anthem is extra special to me because it marked the year I stepped off the Christmas carousel and did something worthwhile with my festive energy.

Forget the box of Roses and the box sets. Get off the couch, step away from the stuffing sambos and I recommend you push your Christmas boundaries this year, especially if it means you get to help others.

Irish Independent

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