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COLUMN: Festive reflections and recipes

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis reflects on Christmases past and present
As Ursula Maxwell-Lewis gets set to welcome family home for the holidays, she reflects on Christmases past. (Photo: Brett Sayles/Pexels)

‘Tis the nostalgia season. Or, as defined by my school Std. 6 (Grade 6) Benoni Dominican Convent, South Africa, Collins English Gem Dictionary (1954): homesickness.

Call it what you will, Christmas (aka The Holiday Season) generates a plethora of emotions. Let’s opt for the heartwarming - and stomach-warming - ones.

At Greengates, my maternal Scottish grandmother’s double-storey Saltcoats stone home high above the Firth of Clyde, Christmas was really a religious observance. Sweets (and much more) were still rationed in postwar Britain, but a festive family dinner always magically materialized.

With two pianos, an organ, and a wealth of talented family vocalists there was no lack of music. The only lull was at 3 pm for the King’s Christmas Message (George VI) on the “wireless”. As the intro, God Save the King, sounded, Gran, despite painful rheumatic knees, would struggle to stand proudly at attention.

Christmases in other climates and countries come to mind as I grew up, but one in particular still warms my heart.

We were living in Vernon, BC. The local Mormon Church was presenting the Christmas story outdoors on a very snowy Christmas Eve. Together with our two preschoolers we watched Mary and Joseph arrive on a donkey with a well swaddled “baby”. Loudspeakers piped impressively sung carols by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Snow gently dusted the stable, participants and audience. A fifteen minute tableaux and then the children could pat the animals brought in for the event. Apart from my son doubting the authenticity of Wise Men arriving minus camels — “Camels are tough to come by in BC”, I explained — it was a magical Christmas Eve.

The following year Christmas Eve was more stressful. With a new baby, plus Aunts Phyl and Ninga newly arrived from England, my mom and the California in-laws all scheduled to attend Christmas dinner, our breadwinner arrived home to announce that his employer had gone bankrupt. No paycheques. Apologies and frozen turkeys to the shell-shocked staff. To complicate matters a previous business disaster had left us — to put it mildly — broke. Thankfully Hilary required only baby basics. A lone Christmas Eve half-price Fisher Price garage on the empty local department store shelf became Santa’s shared gift to Derek (4) and Hélène (2). Numbly roaming around the store, I bumped into my friend Ros.

“Well, nobody would believe you’re broke!” she blurted out. Resplendent in a pre-marriage Montreal-style outfit: Italian leather knee-high boots, a kilt, a cashmere sweater, and a fur coat often mistaken for a China Mink, I got her message. We both laughed — and hugged. Christmas thy name is also irony.

Today my three children have children of their own. Karma!

Hilary, vanely scouring the country (online and off) for the new Paw Patrol dog “Liberty” for their 4-year-old daughter, called yesterday to say she was reminded of my Cabbage Patch Doll pursuit of yesteryear. In my case, at the 11th hour, an Air Canada pal tracked down an elusive black Cabbage Patch babe and lugged it back from Montreal for my eldest daughter.

This week, preparing for the (surprise) arrival of Hilary, John, and McKinley on Christmas Day, food is suddenly a priority. With decades of recipe make and bake visions dancing in my head, I whipped out (and immediately refiled) my Larousse Gastronomique, Hawksworth, Gourmet Menu books plus a plethora of exotic global fare.

Panic ensues when seniors (who once cooked for the forty thousand without batting an eye) have to actually plan a meal — any meal — let alone special events.

McKinley (4) lives on fresh vegetables. Anything red or green, instructs her mother. For the rest of us, I’m hiding behind my trusty old Beta Sigma Phi, Best of Bridge and a dogeared Cloverdale Seniors Centennial Cookbook 1879-1979. It’s too late for “cured” days of yore Christmas cakes. Roll on yonder turkeys … plus Gran’s Shortbread … and an excuse to bake Welsh Bara Brith. Irish Barmbrack (similar) features whiskey, so (sob) I guess that’s out with an in-house pre-school nibbler.

Welsh Bara Brith has a tang to it and stores well. Here’s a recipe for it should you be so inspired.

Welsh Bara Brith


400g mixed fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas) I just use currents because I like the tanginess. Mixed candied fruit also works.

300 ml strong hot black tea

250g self-raising flour

1 tsp mixed spice (cinnamon/ginger)

100g dark brown sugar

1 egg (beaten)

2 tbsp warm marmalade.


1) Put dried fruit into a bowl. Mix tea and sugar. Pour over fruit. Leave to soak overnight (or about 6 hours)

2) The following day: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a loaf pan.

Sift flour and spices into the fruit soaking in the tea. Add egg, then marmalade and blend the lot.

3) Turn into the loaf pan and bake for 1 1/2 hours.

Cool on wire rack.

Alternatively, here’s an Old Fashioned Cranberry Orange Bread recipe.

Old Fashioned Cranberry Orange Bread


2 c flour

3/4c sugar

1/12 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp soda

1 cup coarsely chopped cranberries

1/2 c chopped walnuts

1 egg (beaten)

3/4 c orange juice

2 tbsp olive oil


Sift dry ingredients together. Stir in cranberries and nuts. Combine egg, orange juice and oil. Add to dry ingredients. Stir until just moist. Bake in greased loaf pan at 350 for 50 minutes cool on a wire rack.

Whatever your festive dining choices, may happy memories, much laughter, and warm relationships attend you all. As Ebenezer Scrooge said at the end of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Merry Christmas!

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the founding publisher and managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at

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