Christmas away from home

At home, Christmas is my favourite time of year. Though perhaps not very traditional at other times, I eagerly look forward to our December rituals, the ones that bring back the sights, smells, textures, sounds that are undeniably Christmassy, and that set the scene for our family celebrations.

The fact that so many of us can share in its joy while all having our own quirky traditions and celebrations to look forward to is what makes Christmas magical. This year, I’ll be celebrating in Portugal, and slotting into other people’s traditions. Some of these are familiar, but there’s nothing quite like the familiarity of one’s own customs.

In our family home, we weaved together several cultural conventions, passed down through generations, to create a colourful patchwork of Christmas traditions all our own. My grandmother, with her Scottish heritage, would prepare a batch of mince pies at the start of the season. In the hot and humid summer on South Africa’s south coast, we’d heat up the little pockets of sweet fruit mince. Biting in, they would burst in one’s mouth and mix with the cool cream we’d have poured on top, for added luxury. I don’t know when she’d make the fruit cake, but I know we couldn’t do Christmas without it. Occasionally, too, my mom would buy a Bolo Rei, the Portuguese ring cake crowned with crystallised fruit. That’s the beauty of mixed traditions: you often get more out of your Christmas.

Apart from the decorating and general mood-setting that kicks off at the beginning of the month, we have three full days over which to spread our celebrations: Christmas Eve/Consoada; Christmas day/Natal and Boxing Day. As per Portuguese tradition, we’d start opening presents on Christmas Eve, after dinner. But only one: the rest would appear overnight for us to find under the tree in the morning. Giddy with festive joy, we’d carefully open the wrapping paper (no tearing! We could reuse that) and delight at our presents. Important to note that this ritual can only be performed in pyjamas and dressing gowns, and the morning is spent in sleepwear until it’s maybe a touch indecent and you’re required to get changed for the massive Christmas feast at lunchtime. A full stomach on a hot summer’s day dictates an afternoon nap, another timeless tradition.

And then there’s Boxing Day, a dénouement to the festivities where the debris of the previous days is cleaned up and the fridge is dangerously overstocked with leftovers of ham, turkey and roast vegetables, and sometimes, bacalhau and cabbage and boiled potatoes. We’ll all protest how absolutely stuffed we are as we eat our lunch of Christmas pudding and tea, recovering from the indulgences of the day before, but not above the temptation of sweet treats.

And so, while looking forward to the experience of an undeniably Portuguese Christmas, I’ve also had some Woolworths Christmas cake snuck in to me, as well as a jar of mincemeat for the mince pies we’ll be making this week, according to Granny’s recipe. I think it will go well with the Bolo Rei.