On family, Christmas traditions and pomegranates

A few weeks ago, I almost broke into tears at the Cluny Court Cold Storage fruit and veg aisle holding a pomegranate. I was in the middle of a big shop for the first of many Christmas gatherings I’ve planned at my own home this year. Armed with a long supermarket list and a big ambition to attempt my mama’s classic recipes (all of them my favourites) since she won’t get to make any of them for me this Christmas, me being stuck in 30+ degrees December for the first time in my life and her being locked down with no airport arrivals to look forward to.

Pomegranates go in her festive cabbage and carrot salad, together with pine nuts, raisins and a celery, olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. It’s a staple on our Christmas table and the preparation includes my dad, the world’s most patient man, carefully peeling pomegranate seeds from the core of the fruit for hours, while mum potters around running 6 to 7 recipes at the same time, her stress levels going from mild to severe sometimes in a matter of minutes.

So there I was, picking up a pomegranate, thinking to myself, how will I ever get to peel this with so much patience, accuracy and care but not with my father in the same kitchen?

It’s been a slow but sure realisation that holidays are not going to be spent home with my parents and my sister but somehow it didn’t feel real until I traced my steps to something so familiar and yet so unattainable this year; our Christmas routines, the things I’ve come to expect and unknowingly cherish about holidays together as a family.

Mum plucking the last hairs off the bird, looking for the massive needle to tie up its belly with string. The house being decorated to its last inch with Santas and angels and Christmas trees of various sizes and persuasions. There are the three tree-shaped red candles of ascending height that somehow always end up on the fireplace, next to the fake branches of mistletoe. A wooden tree with candle holders, of the German wooden toy variety, is usually nestled among the silver frames of our family pictures on a side table. And of course the main affair, a massive fake fir that requires painstaking assembly every year.

I vaguely remember the day we bought it when I was a young teenager, my mum commenting on how pricey it was and how she’d hope it would last us a while. Close to 20 years later, I’d say it was a good purchase. The days that we set it up all merge together in a single memory of sorts, taking out the bare trunk where the branches need to connect following the coloured stickers in the right order, fanning the smaller individual branches to make sure it’s bushy enough. My dad usually responsible for putting on the lights, his patience coming in handy again, lifting the string up to untangle in the same way he’d clear his “paragadi” on our summer holidays. If you edited out the string, he’d look like he was in a dizzy zeibekiko of sorts.

You probably need to know that I was obsessed with Christmas growing up. My mum somehow instilled an Americanised love of the holidays in us, she went all out with the decorations and the presents and the ‘Christmas spirit’, as she’d call it. In later years, this combination of words and the name of the singer Britney Spears would confuse my younger sister, who would call it Christmas Spears instead. It was too early to tell that Christmas had been claimed by Mariah, I guess.

I have a faint memory from the time we were living in one of our earlier houses, being very little and getting the very important task of using a shoe brush to straighten the fringe of our carpets so the house would look in tip top shape. Yes, my mother’s house has always been spotless, even though if you told her this, she’d probably find some trinket in the back of the shelf to point out that’s still a little dusty. How this almost Dickensian scenario has stuck as a happy core Christmas memory, is probably something I should be discussing with my therapist.

In any case, I relished everything about Christmas, I lived and breathed in it for the whole month and wanted the time to extend for as long as possible. I remember a Disney Christmas vinyl that I would take out of its paper case carefully to listen to songs I couldn’t even understand at that time, just to max out on the cozy vibes. It was my little Christmas ritual — admiring the illustration on the cover, some Mickey Santa scene, and putting the needle on the record over and over again, truly puzzled by how music was coming out of it.

My mum was a traditionalist at Christmas. I would say she still is but her hoarding tendencies over the years have somehow piled on her originally eclectic taste. The palette could only be classic reds and greens or maybe goldens and off-whites. No white Christmas branches, no pop colours, no black baubles and loud ornaments. Our aesthetic has always been very middle-Europe Christmas market with a sprinkle of American enthusiasm for decorating even the guest bathroom. I’ve gone on to start my own Christmas decoration collection since my early twenties and I have never been able to look at pink and blue and black and purple ornaments with nothing but mild contempt; I guess this is who I will be forever now.

Christmas tree decorating, while one of my favourite times of the year and one I look back to fondly, is also probably when my most obsessive self comes out. If my sister was writing this instead, she could tell you about all the times I waited for her to step away so I could rearrange the baubles she had put up because I didn’t think they were spaced out correctly — or more accurately, in an aesthetically pleasing way. I was and have always been a Christmas tree nazi and this is the only time of year I’m truly unapologetic about wanting things my way. It is what it is and what it is is it needs to be beautiful.

Still the tree would eventually be ready (with some late touch ups after going around it many a times) and the Christmas table clothes would be out too. My mum has an impressive selection of small to XL festive tablecloths with Santas and elves and wreathes and golden weaving. They’re usually covered by her equally impressive collection of Christmas platters, featuring similar motifs, and packed with all kinds of Christmas desserts. In our earlier years, it was mainly melonakarona and kourabiedes. Recently she branched out to gingerbread cookies and chocolate covered nuts and star-shaped butter cookies with jam.

I tried in vain to find platters like these in November when I attempted my first ever batch of melomakarona. That was the first hint that Christmas was going to be very different this year — no Christmas tree shaped plates for my desserts. Later came the lack of blanched almonds in the supermarket aisle. It would be unthinkable not to find blanched almonds in a Greek supermarket during kourabie season.

So I did the next best thing and ordered them on Amazon Prime and while I was at the supermarket I stocked up on foreign Christmas cakes instead. My mum always buys a pannetone for reasons I have yet to decipher since none of us really adore this cake, I think it just adds to the Christmasiness of it all. My Britishness kicked in and I bought mince pies and Cadbury’s Roses, to bring back some memories of my London days. I’m intending to set up all the desserts like she does, even though I own no Santa-stitched tableclothes and no glass platters in the shape of a Christmas tree.

My biggest undertaking this year is going to be making the turkey. As some friends pointed out, turkey is seen as the most tasteless of the meats, yet in our house, it’s always been the year’s most anticipated dish. Free-range and corn-fed, a big bird to feed more than usually attend our dinners and packed with my most favourite of all the sides — THE stuffing. Not the crouton kind — mum doesn’t swing American when it comes to stuffing. Hers has mince meat and chestnuts and pine nuts and raisins and dried apricots and if I could choose my final dish, it would definitely be that. Christmas turkey and Christmas stuffing with the gravy soaking it all up, on my mum’s white scalloped plates and the fancy silverware she always jokes only one of her daughters can inherit.

It’s these oft-repeated jokes I will miss the most this year, my dad pretending to take the stuffing away from me because ‘I don’t really like it’, mum saying that the pie or whatever new thing she has tried has not come out as well, while we proceed to polish it off because it is indeed tasty. Memories of Christmases past being passed around, my grandma in her later years showing us an extra pair of underwear she had brought to lunch, in case she peed the ones she was already wearing. How I told my parents that Santa had brought a present for our car when I was a kid because they forgot one of the presents in the back seat.

It’s funny how I can’t remember most of the gifts I received as a kid, even though my parents were super generous and thoughtful and always had the Christmas tree packed with bags and boxes — always things my mum knew I wanted, for sure, but what they were, I couldn’t tell you right now. It’s the silly little things that I remember most, setting the table on Christmas Day with folded red napkins while mum puts the finishing touches on her dishes, dad bringing a box of firewood for the fireplace, her asking him if he’s gonna shed the fleece jumpers and dress up for lunch, my sister causing a ruckus teasing him non-stop.

Even though we won’t be in the same room to celebrate this Christmas, their presence will be felt for sure: it’ll be in the usual panic that I can’t finish everything on time, inherited from my mother. And my fatherly advice to guests to not snack on desserts before the main meal. It’s bloody hard to be away from family during this time and it’s not even Christmas Day yet. And still, what I’m learning this year is that family can be a thing you carry with you wherever you go, even though it’s too hot for jumpers and there are no Christmas platters where you live. It’s thinking of your dad while holding a pomegranate in the middle of a supermarket, checking against the recipe your mum took of out her recipe book and pressed against an ancient scanner to send to your email, the attachment called ‘For Eleni’.

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