The festive season is a time for getting on chairs and taking down familiar items from top cupboards and attics – my mum is the sort of woman who has ‘winter curtains’ – and the same can be said for Christmas rituals. Church might be visited for the first time in 364 days, neighbourly feuds set aside for a glass of mid-range wine and two weeks of intensively reintroducing yourself to long abandoned soap operas will pay off with the dramatic Christmas specials.
For my family, Christmas is also the only time of year we ever give a feeble nod to our ancestry and incorporate some European Christmas traditions into our celebrations. Mum’s Polish Catholic background was quietly dropped from the celebration agenda some years ago, presumably because their Christmas Eve meals are traditionally meat-free and my brother has a tendency to pointedly drape ham over any vegetarian meals he’s given. Instead, we annually turn to my dad’s side of the family and the traditions passed down by my late Danish great-grandmother, a woman who lived to be 102 years old and whom my mother always likened to Gary Oldman in Dracula.
We incorporate several aspects of the traditional Danish Christmas dinner into our meal: it’s held on the 24th, for one thing, Dad will valiantly attempt a pork dish under my mum’s supervision and whatever the main course turns out to be, it will usually be served alongside some red cabbage flavoured with winter spices. The best part of the meal has always been dessert, though, when my mum brings out bowls of cold, creamy Danish rice pudding – risalamande – and my dad places a shoddily wrapped gift in the centre of the table. One of these four bowls contains a whole almond, whoever receives it gets the prize and the fate of Christmas hangs in the balance: if my mum wins it’s no big deal, if my dad gets it then it’s essentially a Christmas rollover for next year, but if my older brother wins? Christmas is ruined.