I already celebrated Christmas once this year. At the end of January. A creative act of re-scheduling that wasn’t so much down to the fact that there was still snow on the ground a month after Christmas 2012, as there is still snow on the ground today, officially the first day of spring, and that the thought of covering the dreariness with a festive atmosphere made winter much more bearable. Although it did. No, it had more to do with me never getting into that festive mood in December, when I was too occupied with covering myself with a duvet and hiding from the world. As was the fact that I spent December 24 in Spain, not in Denmark, where my family had always celebrated Christmas. There was something missing from last year.
My grandparents moved to Spain 20 years ago and for the first time they weren’t able to travel north for Christmas. So we flew to them. And it was good to be there with them. Better than I had anticipated given the unfamiliar circumstances. Maybe it was because Christmas didn’t follow the same script as it does every year. And because I realized, with a shocking suddenness, that my grandparents are getting older. Which is perhaps an odd thing to say, but to me they had always been the same age. Grandparent age. A constant, even as I was growing up and becoming a grown-up. When I sat in the kitchen on December 23 as my grandmother, my Mormor Inge, was preparing for the big dinner the following night, I also realized that for 33 years I had counted on Christmas dinner being served – having not a clue of how Mormor and my mom actually made it. I decided then to ask my grandmother to teach me how to prepare a Danish Christmas dinner, with turkey, red cabbage and risalamande for dessert, and to cook it again myself for my loved ones in Berlin. My other family.
I’m not sure how successfully I hid my nervousness when Mormor looked over my shoulder as I tried to copy what she had perfected over decades. If she wondered about my amateur questions – Again, why does the turkey have to be turned over in the oven? – she certainly didn’t let on. Mostly, I just stood next to her and tried to learn by watching her, as I had tried to do with so many other things she had shown me by simply being herself. Her affectionate nature. Her curiosity. Her resolve to always see the good and her staggering optimism in facing the bad stuff. Her talent for telling a story and her timing for delivering a punch line. Her great good humor. Her great good sense of style. All of which make her a terrific woman. And a pretty perfect hostess.
Quite the example when you invite ten people around for dinner and all ten of them say yes. I tried not to panic and to concentrate instead on another of Mormor’s qualities: keeping calm. And then I gutted, washed and sewed up a twelve pound turkey. If that’s something you’d do without breaking a sweat, I applaud you. Personally, I felt like I was about to go into surgery – as the patient, not the doctor. Afterwards, my friend Steffi, who helped me that day and who cut enough red cabbage to fill three pots like she was on an episode of “Master Chef”, told me I had looked fearless when handling the bird. Fearless – that’s how Mormor looked in the kitchen, too. So perhaps I had learnt something. Over the course of the evening, I learnt a few other things, too. For instance why she always started with her first glass of red wine while cooking. I poured myself a second glass when the turkey was finally in the oven. I learnt that, as a cook, you will feel like you’re spending not enough time with your guests, but that hearing them tell stories and laughing in the other room will make more than up for it. I know now that I don’t have to be nervous about hosting a dinner, which I was. Will everything be perfect? Will they all get along? What the hell are those lumps in the gravy? There’s nothing to be afraid of. It doesn’t matter that the plates don’t match, that the red wine is served from milk glasses or that it’s getting a little crowded around a table that’s only supposed to seat six, when you get to get up the next day to a view of a wonderfully messy table that ten people who are dear to you sat around the night before. That lesson is perhaps the greatest gift my Mormor could have given me. For Christmas. And for every single other day of the year.
P.S. That’s my grandparents on their wedding day in the top picture. If you can believe it, they have been married for almost 60 years. So there’s a thing or two to learn from them about love as well.