Grounding with traditions

Growing up with a thirst for travel, to be honest I was never overly into celebrating Canada – all the exciting stuff seemed to happen somewhere else.

But over the many years of our travels, we learned as much about our own country as we did about others. While we’ve enjoyed and admired the pace of life in other places, we can come home to a lot of things we love: changes of season (there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day surrounded by gorgeous leaf colours); a cosmopolitan food scene that allows us to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our travels; the opportunity to own a home with a yard where we can enjoy summer barbecues.

Our history hasn’t been spotless and we’re still working out the fallout/reparation, but during this time in particular we are grateful to have great medical care available to everyone. The son of a friend of mine contracted a very serious case of Covid and our local hospital saved his life without anyone having to worry about the cost.

So for several years now my hubby and I have been celebrating Canada Day in various ways, and this year I noticed that a lot of people in our neighbourhood have done the same. Our government has done a good job of steering us through the pandemic and I think most of us feel as safe as we can be under the circumstances.

While I’m more of a free-form person than someone who likes routine, this year our national holiday made me think of how traditions can help provide a sense of stability and continuity. in times of uncertainty especially, celebrating things we care about helps ground us to normality, whether it’s a daily ritual of afternoon tea, a weekly trip to a bistro for good coffee and pastries as my brother does, or reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every December as another friend does each year for her family – whatever brings a smile your face.

So this July 1st, we braved the heat and humidity to fire up our barbecue for some good steaks, corn bread with cheese, and a layered salad, followed by a highly-tweaked banana split that took advantage of the wonderful fruit we have available: fresh in-season strawberries macerated in sugar and Drambuie over vanilla-bean ice cream, peaches sautéed in a butter/brown sugar/cardamom sauce over salted caramel ice cream, and chocolate sauce over coffee ice cream.  

I hope that, wherever you are, there are traditions that can help keep you grounded while we wait for whatever normality comes out of this eventually.

Armchair travel: Celebrating England

Here in Canada we’re coming up on the Victoria Day weekend, which is a big deal for several reasons: another long weekend (always a good thing), the lead-up to summer (although you wouldn’t know it from the unexpected snow we just had the other day, making my waiting pots of tulips look rather frosty), and the weekend when most people in Southern Ontario at least start planting their gardens. The weather this weekend looks like it will actually live up to my area’s nickname of the Banana Belt, so the tulips can be planted after all.

Victoria Day also makes me think of England, so inextricably linked with Canadian history, but also one of our favourite places to visit. While some people may be firing up their backyard grills on the annual Monday holiday, I’ll be roasting a juicy prime rib as well as plump Yorkshire Puddings to puddle with gravy, and finishing with a very British Pineapple and Cherry Upside Down Sandwich Cake.

The imposing Houses of Parliament on the Thames

My hubby and I first visited London together after our planned getaway to Mexico with some friends got literally washed into the Gulf of Mexico by a fall hurricane. We all got refunds (thank you, travel insurance!), and our friends decided to postpone their travel until their honeymoon a few months away, but my hubby suggested that we go to London for a week. It would be in early November, and at first I thought he was joking, but he was indeed serious. He’d passed through London very briefly at the tail end of a high school trip and had always wanted to go back to see more. At that point I’d never been abroad and quickly realized that this opportunity was not to be wasted.

We had a blast! We did the full-on British detective thing, layering up with tweedy pants and warm sweaters under trench coats. I still remember how excited I was just to fly into Heathrow, and then to see Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and pubs, and the little crowns on top of sign posts in the parks. We saw Cats and Chess at the theatre, went to a medieval banquet at Hatfield House, posed next to the wax figures at Mme. Tussaud’s, and explored all the layers and layers of history in one of the truly great cities of the world.

We also bravely rented a car and did a couple of day trips to Stonehenge and Bath, and to Oxford, where we toured parts of the university, discovered my favourite bookshop in the world, Blackwell’s. We bought little Oxford rugby shirts as Christmas gifts for all of our nieces and nephews, and wandered down dark alleys in order to eat outside by a coal brazier with gloves on in the yard of 600-year old Turf Tavern.

We had our first proper English tea in the town of Windsor, and I instantly fell in love. It had been a damp, chilly day — we chatted with some of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle and even they remarked on the weather, after which they steered us toward a small place on one of the streets out front of the castle. Having never had anything better than Red Rose back home at the time, we thought we’d try the Afternoon Tea — seemed perfect on such a day.

The waiter brought out this wonderfully rich amber liquid, along with scones and clotted cream and fruit preserves. It was all a revelation, and I was so fascinated by the experience that I bought a book about tea in one of the shops.

I’ve spent all the years since learning about tea — its history and culture, how to make it properly, and all the intriguing variations as we’ve travelled around the world. In the meantime tea has made a home in North American culture and I’m often asked to do tea talks and tastings for our local organizations.

Should you be in the mood to settle in for a round of one of the many great British mystery series on television, and a little armchair travel while you’re at it, you can easily put together a quick afternoon tea for yourself.

Here’s what I made — all of it gluten-free by the way, for those of you who might need to eat the same way:

  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches — a classic. I used soft spreadable cream cheese mixed with fresh chives and topped with thinly-sliced English cucumber
  • Egg salad with curly endive — well-minced hardboiled eggs, finely sliced celery, minced shallot, freshly ground black pepper and Sir Kensington mayonnaise, and topped with a sprig of curly endive (also called chicory)
  • Salmon spread — I saw this on an Agatha Christie mystery, I think. The murder had been committed by adding poison to a pot of salmon spread bought in a village shop and served for tea. You can omit the poison and just take a can of skinless, boneless wild-caught salmon, mince it into fine flakes with a fork, mix in finely minced shallot and fresh dill, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it together (the idea is to let the flavour of the salmon shine through)
  • Ham and cheddar with chutney — a couple of thin slices of roast ham, with a sturdy cheddar and a dollop of mango chutney
  • Freshly-made scones topped with creme fraiche and a jam of your choice — I used a gluten-free scone mix by Namaste, which was fairly easy to make. The scones spread out a fair bit in my oven and ended up looking like large fat cookies, but the taste and texture were perfect, so I cut them into wedges, sliced off the top and served them open-faced
  • A nice cake — here’s the recipe I used for a delicious Southern Pecan Pound Cake. I made it with gluten-free flour, and it turned out very well, if not quite as high as it would with regular flour.

I’ve also put together a great itinerary for 4 days in London, with some insider tips gleaned from many visits. Here’s the introduction and the schedule for the first day.

More will become available in the online Adventure Travel 101 course that I’m putting together and hope to make available in the next couple of months. For I believe that travel will always be a part of our lives. The world has seen many plagues and disasters for as far back as history records, and even before that in legends passed down through generations, and we continue to explore it in each new iteration.

How is a visit to London part of adventure travel? Well, my first trip was certainly a grand adventure for me, and we often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting started with international journeys as an easy and charming first step.

In the meantime, enjoy some armchair travel there while we’re waiting out our home stays!

Twilight Zone Day – Are we living it?

Who ever thought we’d be living out a multi-episode Twilight Zone-like drama?

I’ve been a fan of the early 1960s series in reruns since I was old enough to watch it and understand what was going on. This coming Monday, May 11 is Twilight Zone Day, and given the bizarre times we’re living out in reality right now, it seems a perfect time to celebrate the ground-breaking series.

The show’s creator, Rod Serling, was a fan of pulp fiction, imaginative stories found in inexpensive printed magazines in the early days of mass-published science fiction. While these stories were often lurid and sensational, with equally lurid covers featuring scantily-clad women to catch readers’ attentions, some really well-known heroes emerged, including The Shadow and Flash Gordon.

The first pulp magazine was published in 1896, printed on cheap wood pulp paper produced from wood chips  and bits of other plant fibres. Over the years very famous writers had stories published in the pulps – H. Rider Haggard (this movie version of his most famous story, She, is still one of my favourite old adventure movies!) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who brought Tarzan to life.

During the Great Depression the ‘pulps’ were a popular form of cheap entertainment for people with little money. Characters like The Shadow went on to become famous in various forms of media, including the old radio shows and later in movie depictions. My hubby and I often listen to the old radio dramas on long road trips – they have great atmosphere, especially at night when the darkness frees up your mind’s eye, and you can stream them here.

All of the pulp writers let their imagination run freely, and it was this spirit that Serling homed in on when he started to work on a weekly anthology series with a science-fiction theme for television. The weekly stories were thought-provoking in their speculation about how ordinary people might handle unexpected situations.

A cult classic, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, features a very young William Shatner on an airplane who spots a hairy gremlin-like creature outside of the aircraft destroying one of the wings, and his attempts to get someone to believe him.

One of my other personal favourites is Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? The story follows two state troopers face who, after investigating a tip about an unidentified flying object, find footprints at a mysterious crash site that lead to a nearby café. When they enter, all the people inside look human, but one of them may be something else.

My own early attempts at writing stories were heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone. I think I still have my copy of a story I wrote when I would have been 9 or 10 years old, handwritten on lined, 3-holed binder paper, about a girl playing with a toy sailboat on a small pond in her back yard. She’s upset with her parents and wishes that she could just shrink and live on her nice little boat – which, of course, is exactly what happens. The story ends with her mother coming out the back door to call the girl in for dinner.

Science fiction writers get to indulge in imagining the what-ifs. Often over the decades their creative results have turned from fiction into fact – many of the future technologies imagined in the original Star Trek television series ended up being developed in subsequent decades – the flip-open communicators became flip-open cell phones, insertable computer disks on the show presaged floppy disks and all the portable storage plugins we have today.

But it’s the fun of the writers’ vision that entertains us, especially if there’s a great story that we can relate to in some way, that resonates even while it’s beyond our realm of experience. Serling himself said that “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing.” Too far-fetched and the writer loses the audience, but extrapolated from real life in some way and the writer has us hooked, wondering how we might react in the same situation.

Serling was a master of the genre, encouraging us to place ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I often smile when my hubby and I fly somewhere, imagining that hairy gremlin out on the plane’s wing tearing up the wiring. On the last leg of our honeymoon flight, from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, on our tiny island-hopper plane the door to the cockpit was shaped like a coffin, and when I looked out the window I could see loose bolts on the wing housing rattling in the wind. Gremlin on the wingtip? Hah! Try surviving a flight on old Prinair!

Old Twilight Zone episodes still air on television. Find some for May 11 and lose yourself in the eerie imaginings of Rod Serling and his writers. You may get some inspiration for dealing with the topsy-turvy reality we’re in right now, or at least be able to wryly laugh at it a little bit.

And if you’re so minded, please let me know which episodes have become your favourite.

A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica

A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

Make the holidays your own

Do you look forward to or dread the holidays? I’ve been in both frames of mind — depends on what you have to look ‘forward’ to, doesn’t it?

This time of year, with longer darkness and — at least in my part of the world — an ever-present chill in the air, bears considerable emotional impact.

With all of the season’s challenges, it’s really important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Have some quiet times, soften the lighting, play a board game or watch a gentle movie.

One of the nicest Christmas breaks my hubby & I ever had was the year he got a bad cold. He wasn’t dreadfully ill, but tired and bedraggled enough that we had to bow out of all invitations.

We spent our days snuggled up inside by our Christmas tree, with a fire crackling, mugs of hot tea and our favourite movies on the television. I made chicken soup and other comfort foods that didn’t tax my hubby’s tummy. When my hubby snoozed in his favourite chair, I read or indulged in some retro paint-by-number artistry (which is not as low-demand as you might think, and remarkably engrossing).

It was probably the most relaxing Christmas we’ve ever had.

One Christmas a few years ago, we, with our nieces and nephews, decided to take over Christmas dinner at my hubby’s sister’s place and have soup and grilled cheese. She was slightly appalled at not putting on a big meal, but she was outnumbered. Several of us brought tabletop grill pans, and everyone contributed something interesting — my hubby and I brought the perfect grilling bread (golden and crispy on the surface, but soft and chewy underneath), our niece made two pots of soup, people brought their favourite kinds of cheese and some delicious add-ins. We banished my sister-in-law from the kitchen and created easy, delicious melted masterpieces in very short order. Then we all sat casually around the dining table and shared the goodies.

My family’s holiday celebrations centred on Christmas Eve. One year, after several busy weeks at work, I decided to keep things simple. I made a huge pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo a couple of days ahead. All I had to do to serve it was reheat, put out a basket of fresh crusty bread and a big salad. My parents were no longer alive, but my brother came with his kids, partner and her kids, and my mother-in-law wasn’t going anywhere else so we invited her as well. The recipe turned out to be delicious, granted, but I think the cozy and simple meal struck a chord, because that enormous cast-iron pot of soup got cleaned out, even with a big bowl of delicious English trifle waiting on the sideboard.

There was a Christmas when we had both families over and expanded our meal to invite our neighbours from across the street, who had lost both their son and daughter-in-law that year and were now raising their grandsons. We weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable enough to join us, but they did, and our families welcomed them, and it made for a really special Christmas.

The point of holidays, whichever you celebrate, isn’t to drive yourself crazy tracking down gifts, or make everything look like a Hallmark moment, or grit your teeth while relatives behave badly.

Warmth and fellowship are the point. Spend quality time with people who matter to you, and include people who or hurting or would otherwise be alone. Have easy, good food and easy laughter. Put aside differences, because lost time can never be recaptured. Be kind to each other.

I wish for you whatever brings you peace and contentment this holiday season.