Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

This Christmas Week


Thirty-eight years ago today, a baby was born in a humid, provincial African town. It was 4pm on one of the hottest days in living memory. Her mother laboured in an open labour ward, with two other women. Their three husbands were in the room. There was no air conditioning. She was dimly aware of Christmas beetles singing their interminable song, and cars on the town’s main road outside. The labour was long and painful. Eventually, she was taken to the delivery theatre where she endured an episeotomy without pain relief. The baby was born safely, and the young parents were delighted with the arrival of their daughter.

The mother and her baby spent six days in hospital, with the baby being taken away and bottle-fed by the nursing staff whenever the mother needed to sleep. She struggled to breast-feed, but was eventually persuaded that bottle-feeding would be easier and more convenient. She complied. On the sixth day in hospital, she made a special request to be allowed to leave so as to attend the family’s Christmas celebrations. The staff considered – usually women spent ten days in hospital, it would be untoward to let them go early. However, it was Christmas, and apart from the usual post-birth discomfort the mother doing well.

Her eager young husband collected his wife and new baby, and took them home for a quick feed and change of clothing. The mother put on a cotton pants-suit – a flowered top and tapered trousers – and within an hour they were driving to the Christmas party. They drove up to a gracious red-brick house, surrounded by large gardens, and, bursting with pride, took their new daughter in to meet their family. The baby’s grandparents – well-coiffed, elegant, warm – welcomed their third grandchild into their house for the first time. Her aunts and uncles cooed and kissed her, and her two little cousins, only a couple of years older than her – peered at her with interest.

Despite the heat, they sat down to a large, hearty, English-style Christmas lunch: a turkey, a ham, stuffing, roast potatoes, various vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding with coins inside, mince-pies and brandy butter. There was jollity: crackers and silly hats. The new baby slept in her carry-cot, unaware that she was attending her first party. Her mother sat at the table, but her heart was with her baby, whose tiny hands fluttered as she slept.


It’s completely fitting that the first place I went to after leaving hospital was a Christmas feast. Feasts are the way I like to celebrate. I’ve just finished a weekend of birthday celebrations and the focus for me was the food. We had a dinner party for some friends rich with north African and Spanish cuisine. The menu was: hummus, basil and goat’s cheese dip, and baba ghanoush with delicious bread, followed by harissa roast chickens with potatas bravas and three salads: tabbouleh, carrot and cumin salad and pomegranates with cucumber. Dessert was walnut, lemon and cardamom cake with creme fraiche. There were dates and membrillo on the table for picking. The next day, we had a German-style Kaffee und Kuchen nachmittag with an almond cake, gingerbread muffins and a chocolate cake courtesy of friends. After the coffee, we had a restorative sherry, put on some African music and danced with our kids.

This Christmas week is not only about feasts and fests, but also about births. Having just finished the washing up (but not all the cakes), the next celebration on the cards is my daughter’s birthday. Daisy was born at home, and the thrill and excitement of her birth completely matches the joy of parenting her. We celebrate her birthday reminding ourselves of the blinding surprise she gave us by arriving at home before we could leave for hospital.

So it’s a big day for Daisy, with her kindergarten and home parties on the same day. She will require two sets of cakes and yummy things to eat – probably a plain sponge cake baked in the teddy bear cake tin and chocolate muffins for kindergarten, and maybe a chocolate cake and lemon muffins for the home birthday. There will have to be party games, some crafting action, definitely a bit of wild and noisy play, and then some supper – possibly mini pizzas and sausages – before her little friends are collected and we can put one tired, sugar-wired birthday girl to bed.

Almost as soon as we finish with Daisy’s birthday, our Christmas plans step into higher gear. If you came to my house for Christmas, you’d be served goose, not turkey, and red cabbage with apple. I can’t live without roast potatoes and my husband needs brussels sprouts, but we spruce them up with pancetta and chestnuts. There’d be no mince-pies, Christmas pudding or brandy butter, but there might be a lemongrass and raspberry trifle or a chestnut cheesecake.

The traditions that I grew up with are English, but my own little family is making its new traditions – a serving from our German environment, a slice from our English heritage, a large proportion from the land of our hearts, South Africa. I like to think we’re becoming citizens of the world.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

15 thoughts on “This Christmas Week

  1. Happy Birthday Charlotte! And also to Daisy 🙂

    Your dinner party menu sounds mouth-wateringly wonderful and so does your Christmas feast. I’m particularly fixed on the lemongrass and raspberry trifle — that combination of flavours sounds delicious.

  2. Happy Birthday Charlotte! And little Daisy. What an insane but fun time of year this must be for your family.

    And yay for being a citizen of the world. I like to think of myself as that too.

  3. Happy Birthday, Charlotte! Happy Birthday, Daisy! I hope you both have great days. How lovely to have birthdays at this time of year. I know sometimes people say that it must be disappointing because you’re bound to get joint Christmas and birthday presents, but it sounds great to me. You get to kick off Christmas with lots of fun parties! And the food sounds delicious. Please send me a cyber-slice of the walnut, lemon and cardamon cake, yum yum!

  4. Thanks for the birthday wishes! Kerryn, I’ve sent you the raspberry and lemongrass trifle recipe. It’s good for any time of year, not just Christmas, and looks stunning with its layers of red, yellow and white. Ms Make Tea, it’s certainly madness here, but in a good way! Helen, I’m sending you the cardamom cake recipe because it’s really good. A bit on the dry side (so it needs cream or something with it) but amazing flavours.

  5. Please say that the midwife arrived on time? Did the experience help you make the decision to stay at home for your third child’s birth?

    It’s lovely to hear of someone holding up such tasty culinary traditions. Surely you children will have a wealth of memories when it comes to tastes and smells.

    They will also have a hellofa hard time meeting partners who can keep up your standards. Make sure you teach them to cook as well as you do, thus relinquishing their future partners from the torture of always being compared to mom.

    I know you don’t have a cooking blog, but couldn’t you share a few of those recipies here? And photos please!

  6. Dearest Charl, So yes… by the time I realised that I needed to phone it was too late…. Happy Happy Birthday my dearest friend. I hope there will be many more blessed years ahead! Glad to see you did the pomegranate salad. Yes… pics would be nice here too!

  7. Happy Birthday to both you and your daughter!
    Charlotte, whenever you write about food you make my mouth water. i want to come and eat with you for a week, but then I’d probably never leave.
    Seriously though, you write about food in such a lovely way!

  8. Happy happy birthdays!


  9. Happy Birthday and Happy Feasting. Reading that, with my mouth watering, I wanted all those recipes. Feasting is the focus for our family too. We’ve just been having a midsummer celebration, feast and all, which I must write about, my blog has been abandoned for food and Christmas present making, this last week.

  10. Happy, happy birthday to both you and Daisy! And Merry Christmas, too!

  11. Happy Birthday to you and Daisy and Merry Christmas too! The food sounds divine. Can I come over?

  12. What a lovely story. I liked what your mother wore and your elegant grandparents. And my goodness what a lot of nice food you’ve been having. I want to know more about red cabbage and how you make edible brussells sprouts.

    A most happy birthday to you and to sweet Daisy.

  13. Thank you everyone for your kind birthday wishes. Daisy’s extravaganza is now over and she had a heavenly day. I am allowing myself to breathe quietly today and then will be gearing up for Christmas, albeit a modest, booky one a la Bloglily.

    BL – about those sprouts – we panfry bacon bits or pancetta, add chopped, precooked chestnuts and add these (and all their juices) to lightly steamed brussels sprouts. In the end, you get bacon-flavoured sprouts, which is an improvement on sprout-flavoured sprouts!

  14. I have already wished you Happy Birthday but here is is again and now for the gorgeous Daisy too!
    I cried when I read your two blogs today. I love your birth story. I miss you – all your South Africanish, mixed with German and English! Just so wonderful!
    Have a superb Christmas. It seems that it is only Thomas’s who like brussel sprouts! I suppose the delight of A tradition makes up for the flavour. X X to you all.

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