Moominmamma worked all afternoon. A little before dark she had the food cooked for Christmas, and served in small bowls around the fir tree. There was juice and yoghurt and blueberry pie and eggnog and other things the Moomin family liked.
The Fir Tree, Tove Jansson
I have been something of a nomad in the past couple of months. Since my book was released in October, I have been touring around, barely settling down for more than a couple of days before heading off somewhere new. I have become an expert at packing - cramming my suitcase to bursting point with books, woollen cardigans, and a couple of jars of homemade marmalade.
Usually, by three days before Christmas, my kitchen is filled with the chutneys, jams, cordials, and preserves I've made in the preceding months. I would normally have baked row upon row of gingerbread or pepparkakor, stacking them up in jars to give as gifts. There would be piles of crystallised ginger, and boxes of fat, squashy Turkish Delight. It has always been, without question, my favourite time of year. But this year, without my normally consistent base, and unable to take months worth of edible presents with me whenever I moved, my kitchen storecupboard has remained empty.
My Christmas decorations, sent in a box by my mum in my first year here, are in storage. For the first time, I haven't had a tree in London, filling my house its unmistakable scent all December. And so, inevitably, the lead up to Christmas has made me feel more homesick than ever. More than any other year that I have spent in the UK, it is my favourite seasonal books that are sustaining me, in the absence of all the rituals that usually do.
We see in The Fir Tree the strangeness of ritual and of tradition, observed through the eyes of the Moomins. The family, who normally spend winter in hibernation, are woken by the hemulen and told that Christmas is coming. Unaware of what Christmas may be, and flummoxed by a world deep in snow, they prepare as if readying themselves to appease a vengeful God. Their preparations are frantic and anxious, but eventually there is calm, candles are lit, and the decorated tree stands proudly in the wood.
And I'm reminded that my favourite Christmas rituals are still to come. Tomorrow, I travel back to my adopted home, to spend a week with my beloved family. We'll dress the tree with generations of decorations, and I'll find time to bake some biscuits. We'll celebrate with a smörgåsbord on Christmas Eve, and with stockings and Christmas pudding on Christmas Day. As I write, there are dressed trees and lights appearing in windows across the street, and A Charlie Brown Christmas is playing. And beside me sits a glass of eggnog; a festive ritual that is new to me. It has always seemed odd and unappealing, poured out of cartons by characters in American sitcoms. But the homemade version is a different beast entirely: rich, boozy, spiced cream, lightened by the addition of beaten egg whites. Best enjoyed in small portions, it sits between a dessert and a cocktail, which certainly seems entirely seasonally appropriate. I'll be making it yearly from now on.
Makes 4 small glasses
225ml whole milk
1/4tsp ground mace
1/2tsp ground nutmeg
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1tbsp caster sugar
Grating fresh nutmeg
1. Bring the milk, cream, mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon to a slow simmer over a low heat. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar for a couple of minutes in a bowl, until very pale, and forming thick ribbons when dropped from the whisk into the bowl.
2. Pour the simmering milk over the yolks, whisking constantly to prevent them scrambling, and then add the bourbon. Cover and transfer to the fridge for 24 hours (or up to three days) to allow the flavours to develop. Don't forget to hold onto the egg whites - you'll need them too.
3. When you're ready to serve, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Carefully fold into the eggnog mixture, then pour into glasses. Top with freshly grated nutmeg, and serve immediately.