From paella to puddings

It could be the annual trip to the Myer windows or afternoon tea at your aunties. As Claire Halliday discovers, everyone has a Christmas tradition.

SOME things are meant to stick. In my childhood, it was my mother’s tuna mornay contribution to the cold meat and salad-style Christmas Eve gathering of my father’s side of the family. The party rotated between the aunties and eventually found its way to our house.

Those aunts no longer hold the parties, but there is still my mother’s mornay, transposed to another branch of the family as the tradition is maintained.

For former ballet dancer Athol Willoughby, 76, adhering to Christmas tradition means an annual booking for Christmas Day lunch at the Windsor Hotel.

The routine started almost 20 years ago, after a disastrous dalliance with a goose that just didn’t cook properly.

“It was like stone,” Willoughby says of the lunch that made him vow “never again”.

“Not even the cats would eat it. On top of that, a couple of people just didn’t turn up to lunch — they were the lucky ones.”

Usually, Willoughby and his partner, James O’Donnell, catch the tram from North Carlton — just the two of them — to join a table of other hotel patrons.

This year, the couple will be joined by Willoughby’s niece and family. “We’re very excited,” he says.

With the set menu, the ambience of the Grand Dining Room and the festive touches of Father Christmas with presents for the children, Willoughby can’t imagine giving up his Christmas Day tradition.

“Once you start at the top, why would you ever go down?” he says.

The explanation behind Kate Hagar’s Christmas tradition is lost to time. The digital effects producer, 34, can’t remember how “hide the eggcup” started — only that it stretches back to her childhood when her grandparents were still alive.

“It is really just a game where one person hides the eggcup in the room and then everyone comes in and searches for it,” Hagar says of the hunt that can become quite competitive. “One year my father actually broke his sister’s toe.”

Despite the occasional injury, Hagar says it has been carried on by four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. With her own baby on the way, it will no doubt be a part of more family Christmases — along with their post-dinner singalong of carols, complete with carol books and a baton for the conductor.

For Sylvia Kelly, 58, tradition comes in the form of a lunch with good friends and some BYO entertainment.

“We’ve been doing this for about seven years,” says Kelly. “My father is dead now but he always had this idea that when people got together you should entertain them. On my 21st birthday he stood on his head and drank a glass a beer. So when we started having this lunch, we started telling people they had to come along and bring an entertainment.”

This might mean poetry recitals, play performances or solo singing.

This year, her husband, Gerald, is working on a “Christmas Australiana quiz”.

“We spread it out over the whole afternoon,” says Kelly. “It’s more fun than just sitting around eating and drinking.”

For Arie Moses, 50, Christmas tradition is all about the paella.

Moses, from Chile, started an “orphans” party on Christmas Eve, while living in a share house with other single men.

The venue was Fairfield Park, a place Moses associated with the best qualities of Christmas.

“The year before that, I celebrated Christmas Eve with a girlfriend there. It was really nice, quite serene, by the river. It just symbolised peacefulness,” he says. “It starts at 6pm so most of the shops are closed, there’s no last-minute shopping to do. People are relaxed and there’s a joyous mood.”

Eighteen years later, Moses expects about 30 people to turn up. “All the Latin American guys that were there at the beginning are still there — now we all have kids and partners. I laugh that it’s easier to keep having it than not have it. There’s no phone calls saying ‘See you on Christmas Eve’. Everyone just turns up and just assumes it’s on. People still refer to it as my barbecue but everyone owns it, really.”

Moses provides the salad and encourages the younger generation to help and to learn about cooking paella, an important connection to his heritage.

“If anybody wants to bring their own special steak to cook, they do,” he says. “People just come and go.”

In Betty Burgess’s family, it wouldn’t be Christmas without the traditional pudding she prepares in late November.

She started the habit in 1950, the year she was married and was expected to run her own household. The recipe was from her mother and perhaps her grandmother before that, says the keen cook and Country Women’s Association member.

“From when I was a little girl I always watched her make it,” says Burgess, 83.

The recipe — flour, salt, mixed spice, ground ginger, raisins, sultanas, mixed peel, brown sugar, brandy, eggs and soft, fresh breadcrumbs — hasn’t changed, and neither has her technique.

“I have always made it in a basin,” she says. “Just one big one. As the family extends, it has to feed about 16.”

Burgess still adds the coins and makes sure all the children find one. Some have it with custard, others with cream. There’s brandy sauce too and her son-in-law likes his with ice-cream.

She has taught her daughter how to make the pudding, and hopes the tradition will continue.

“I think we’re losing too many traditions and getting too lazy. I think tradition is a big part of life.”

Role: By Claire Halliday
Client: The Age