Here be Dragons

Torch the dragon

It’s odd how effectively something – or sometimes lots of things – can be hidden in plain sight. Take dragons, for example. You would have thought that it would be pretty easy to spot a fantastical creature like a dragon, especially somewhere as uncompromisingly prosaic as the City of London. But pause for a second to consider that one of the emblems of the City of London is, in fact, a dragon, and then lift your eyes from pavement level, and you quickly realise that there are hundreds – if not thousands – of the beasts scattered all over the City. Apparently dragons have been included in the City’s coat of arms since the 17th century – something to do with St George and his cross, which is an even older emblem of the City – and now two of them appear in each rendition of the coat of arms – which themselves appear on every street name sign – as well as at 10 locations around London to mark the boundaries of the City. Who knew?

Dragon on London BridgeSo it was that last Saturday Mr Darcy and the two Darcy sproglets found themselves gathered with a small group of fellow dragon-hunters outside The George Inn in Southwark, at the start of the Torch Dragon Tour, a 5.73km (according to mapmywalk.com) perambulation through the streets of the City. Accompanying us were one historian and television presenter – Suzannah Lipscomb, taking time out from preparing for a new series about Elizabeth I – a nice PR chap called Matt, whom the sproglets christened, mysteriously, Mackintosh – and a small blue fire-breathing dragon called  Torch , part of Hasbro’s FurReal Friends range of really rather cute toys. (Incidentally, there was another nice chap on the walk who was doing some interviews for radio. Girl sproglet must have thought he was really rather cute too, as he ended up being called FurReal himself. I expect he would have preferred Torch – it sounds a bit like a Gladiator, for those of you old enough to remember that quintessentially 90s show – but actually he didn’t look fierce enough.)

Having stopped briefly at The George to note down the dragons being pinioned by St George on the pub signs (they were kind enough to open the gate so we could nip in andGuildhall dragon tour have a look), we set off on our meandering route. Suzannah paused every few minutes to deliver nuggets of information about the City of London and its denizens, a surprising number of whom seem to have come to a premature, and usually violent, end. Boy sproglet was very excited to discover that dragons popped up on all the City street name signs, and covered his piece of dragon scoring paper with five-bar prison gates in about five minutes flat. “This is brilliant,” he said. “I’ve counted over three hundred dragons already.” He looked a bit crest-fallen when it was explained to him that there wasn’t a prize for the largest number of dragons spotted, but consoled himself by scaling back on a bit on the dragon-twitching and going off to stick Torch dragon stickers on Mackintosh and FurReal instead.

Meanwhile, we were all discovering something else about the City of London, which is that the entire place shuts down at the weekend. In amongst the titbits about the City: “Stand Dragon touron the actual place where Thomas Cromwell was actually beheaded! ” or “Cock Street is so named because it was where prostitutes used to stand up and be, er, counted!” – Suzannah was promising a stop for coffee and a bun. Unfortunately, the only commodity to be had in Leadenhall Market (and Bishopsgate, and Cornhill, and Gresham Street, and Guildhall) was tumbleweed, so it was an increasingly parched gaggle of walkers that eventually stumbled into a grand and exquisitely expensive coffee house in Cheapside. Thus suitably fortified by caffeine, we moved on past St Paul’s and Newgate, and so to Smithfield, where two of the largest and fiercest dragons we’d seen sat atop the main arch (bringing a new dimension to flame-grilled steaks). A final group photo later and we all piled into taxis to take us to the elegant and very non-mediaeval Soho Hotel, where everyone enjoyed an excellent lunch – and left with their own, very sweet, fire-breathing blue dragon.

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Remembrance

Remembrance Notting Hill Remembrance Notting Hill

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Not a Notting Hill Mum abroad

Removing the hair braids from Amelie’s hair … a very visual ending of the carefree seven week Summer holidays. When I say “carefree seven week holidays” obviously I mean carefree for the kids. Not their poor mother (that’s me!) .

My holiday of choice was driving hundreds ( thousands?) of miles over a month: to central France, to Cornwall, to Suffolk. When I say “we” I actually mean “I”. The children learned to map read – by necessity. Thank the Lord for sat nav, but you know if I’m at the roundabout I need to know NOW,  not when the signal comes back into play. And there is more than one way from Calais to Orleans –  ( e.g you don’t have to go via Paris you can you via Rouen). You have to admire the thing’s persistence, but really telling me to “turn around where possible” for 50 km was not helpful. I pulled the plug after a bit but when reconnected it still wanted me back on the motorway! Being a luddite I still buy Map books and they came into their own… apart from helping us catch the ferry on time,   the children now have some sense of where they actually were during the Summer.

Looking back of course we had a great time in between the long drives. A stopover in Paris and a trip on the batobus taking in Musee Dorsee, the Eiffel Tower ( and the armed police and military),  Notre Dame and the  Seine. Two days later, in the very untouristy Auvergne we were swimming in lakes; walking; picking fruits and digging up vegetables for lunch in our friends’ garden;  (spending £50 on mosquito repellents and creams) buying scented candles and soaps and all the time practising our very rusty French.  On the journey home we saw the lovely Orleans,  visiting a chateau, cathedrals and discovering a lovely brasserie. Now a huge fan of Airbnb, where I found a great place to stay right in the centre with a fabulous hostess, Elizabeth, on hand for advice and recommendations of the best places in town.

In Cornwall, we kayaked and body boarded (when I say we I mean they); ate fish and chips; visited the totally fascinating East Levant tin mine ..and I restored some wrought iron furniture and did some grouting (in return for friends cottage)

In all our weeks  in many locations we never had the best of the weather, but neither did we have the worst. The hottest days always seemed to be those earmarked for long journeys. And boy did we travel.

The long holiday ended with the inevitable hell of buying shoes, stationary and new uniform. I laughed aloud as I heard other mothers voice the frustration I was feeling. To one snivelling boy:  “No. You cannot have a treat while we are here. Why on earth do you think you deserve a treat. It’s me that needs the treat.”    Or ” Where has you sister disappeared to now?”. Quite. Thanks Peter Jones for putting the toy department right next to shoes and uniform and still expecting kids to be ready to take their turn whe n their number finally comes up !  Everyone leaves it to the last minute,  cos the kids grow like Topsy with all that water and sunlight over the summer .   The downside is most of the sizes and styles have sold out. The opposite of that old Yellow Pages advert boasting “all of the colours in all of the sizes.”

Anyway on the very last day I found I would be deprived of my son’s company, as he went back a day earlier than his sister. So I said to my Teenager-at-twelve – “So darling, we can spend a lovely relaxing day together. Some reading,  some music practice and perhaps a trip to an exhibition. Shall I see what’s on at the V and A or we could do one of those one hour museum tours?”

Alexander (Teenager-at-ten) replied swiftly

” No offence mum. But I’m so glad I’m going to be at school.”

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Knickers and other underwear

Victoria and Albert Museum underwear exhibition

The V&A’s exhibition of underwear, Undressed, a Brief history is a fascinating look at how and why these garments came about,  from crinolines and corsets to modern day bras and butt separators ( not sure that is the correct technical term, but try visualising it and you will know what I mean!)

The show has had mixed reviews including one that complained that the mannequins were all facing coyly away from the spectator – patently untrue and anyway since when were showroom dummies coy!  I for one enjoyed the insight given into the imagination of the 18th and 19th century designers as they attempted to contort the human form into the latest fashionable shape. And I learned plenty of fascinating facts: that lycra was invented in back in 1958 – way earlier than I thought; that the design team at Agent Provocateur are all women; and that men’s shirts were considered underwear back in the 18th century and the only parts designed to be seen were collar, cuffs and the front. Some ornately pleated sleeves were not made to look interesting but so they fitted under tight jackets more easily.

I loved the silk cami-knickers embroidered with hunting scenes ( this is a fashion statement not a political statement), I was intrigued by the crinoline with the collapsing derriere allowing one to sit down and the evolution of the dressing gown as a way of allowing a woman to have breakfast comfortably before having to be squeezed half to death in a corset  and I loved some of the underwear as outerwear, seen above, fashioned in more recent years.

As well as enjoying the exhibits it was a good opportunity for people watching. There were a few fashionistas… and lots of men at the exhibition –  presumably it’s less embarrassing for a man to be seen looking at women’s underwear in a museum than it it in M&S or indeed Ann Summers. But before you getting any ideas,  there was nothing kinky about this collection of under garments.  There was one outfit in rubber and a few things in sheer silk, satin and chiffon but absolutely no whips or handcuffs. This is 50 shades of pink and beige – not 50 shades of grey. More why y-fronts? than why KY?

The focus is on the  relationship between underwear and fashion and the development of materials to help support and contort the human form over the last 350 years.

Unusually the underwear is arranged over two floors – which makes the exhibition seem more compact and user friendly somehow – and it’s not as claustrophobic as some of the V&A’s exhibition rooms.

After 18 years in Notting Hill I never tire of the Victoria and Albert museum, weaving your way between extraordinary sculptures and artefacts from all around the world – just to get to your exhibition of choice and of course if you don’t find the latest showing to your taste, it does have one of the most amazing tea-rooms in London.

 

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Chinese Lanterns at Chiswick House

magical lanterns

Triffid size flowers,  flamingos at the water’s edge,  giant squirrels, giraffes, pandas in a bamboo forest and a vast Chinese dragon –  the display of illuminated lanterns at Chiswick House in West London is seemingly never-ending. This is the first Magical Lantern festival to be held in the UK and coincides with the celebration of Chinese New Year.

It takes around one and a half to two hours to wind your way through the grounds gazing at the rows of kangaroos, antelope, zebra and giraffes – a reminder that Chiswick house was once home to exotic wild animals –  or admiring the outsized native woodland creatures such as squirrels and swans

The link to China is never far away with huge Ming vases, a life size pagoda  and a small terracotta army glowing in the dark.  In the Year of the Monkey, the story of the Monkey King is told and there are statues representing all the animals from the Chinese Zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

There are also some rather outlandish cartoon characters – multi coloured toadstools, huge crickets on see-saws and a Cinderella coach and horses. But in some ways the whole event is slightly surreal set in the grounds of  of an 18th Century stately home.

As well as the free-standing lanterns, hedges and trees are adorned with coloured lights,  many changing hue as you walk past. And there is an arch of lights as you walk away from the dragon and the main house. A little garish for me, but the number of lights allow the selfie takers some self illumination!

Half way round there are a few stalls selling hot drinks and an inspired marshmallow stand where you can toast your own massive marshmallow over charcoal burners after choosing from flavours such as raspberry and champagne or mango and orange.  OK so they are £1.50 each but it was an unusual treat and let’s face it cheaper than a Costa coffee that we all buy without even thinking!

For the children the highlights were undoubtedly the pandas , the huge squirrels and the 60 metre dragon. I loved  the host of flamingos reflected in the water, the terracotta army and the pagoda. But the whole event is full of wonder – and a really great evening out for everyone – the younger children clearly excited by being outside in the dark and enough characters and animals for everyone to find something they love.

Tips on how to enjoy the festival even more than we did

Entry is form 5pm until 8.30pm. The grounds close at 10pm.

It’s a photographer’s paradise and if it’s a serious passion it’s worth bringing a small SLR if you have one. At the very least make sure you have full battery on your phone. It is also a selfie’s paradise!!

Wrap up warm – hats and gloves – you are outside and it is night time!

If you book online it’s cheaper during the week than at weekends

There’s no parking on site and quite a walk from the tube at Gunnersbury – check out nearby roads for parking but bear in mind the Festival Entrance is next to Rustic House Gate, situated just off the westbound A4. The other gates are shut!

There is food and drink available at the start and finish of the tour – as well as half way round. If you don’t have gloves having a warm coffee in your hands at the start could help!

 

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Silent Sunday

Silent Sunday

 

No words. From an original idea by Cosmic Girlie

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Nutcracker on Ice

Nutcracker on Ice at Royal Albert Hall

We are still catching our breath after this afternoon’s show – The Nutcracker on Ice – at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s an incredible mix of ice dancing, acrobatics, trapeze artists, magic tricks and even dancing with fire – and all to Tchaikovsky’s score performed by the London Concert Orchestra.

The children described the show as “beyond surprising” and “bedazzling” and I can’t disagree. I admit to having always rather preferred ice dance to ballet, so I was a ready convert.  Serious ballet fans will no doubt disagree- but to me being able to dance, pirouette, twirl your partner round – lift them above your head with one hand – and do it on skates – has the edge. And the Imperial Ice Stars are a formidable team. Mostly from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland, the performers have won 250 competition medals between them. Many of them have been skating since they were three or four – and you can tell – they approach the ice as we would solid ground.  The creative team behind them are all former members of the Russian national skating team and say some of the moves in the show have never been attempted before – not even in the last Winter Olympics – and some are so complex they don’t yet have a name!

During the Christmas Eve party scene in the first act so much was happening,  it was hard to know which dancers to watch – although generally the show was stolen by Marie – played by 16 year old Mariia Vygalova and her nutcracker prince, Vladislav Lysol. The nutcracker doll, gymnast Alena Zmeu was equally talented – so rigid and wooden at the beginning I was not sure whether she was actually a doll – but she soon showed how incredibly supple she actually is.

The mouse king and queen went down a storm with the audience – as did all the dancers in Act Two with dances from China, Spain and Arabia – complete with spinning balls of fire – and trapezes.

If you are looking for a show that will entertain you and amaze you, and your parents, and your children – with a Wintery theme – this one would be hard to beat. Again I will let the children have the final say – nine year old Alexander’s words as we left the show : “I want to go skating!”

Nutcracker on Ice runs until January 2nd.

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How (not) to ice your first Christmas cake

So.. the cake was there waiting to be iced with an almost perfectly smooth covering of marzipan. I knew from memory that what I needed was Royal Icing. Again mum’s icing was famed from one corner of the globe to another.. but I still didn’t have her recipe book. I silently thanked the powers above for the internet and checked out Delia/Good Housekeeping once more.

Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that for Royal Icing you need icing sugar and three egg whites and glycerine. Unfortunately glycerine is not something stocked by 24/7 corner shops or small convenient supermarkets and on Christmas Eve there was no time for a superstore trip. Fortunately my sister in law had three bottles from several different years so I decided that the cake would be iced on arrival.

She reminded me that the reason she like mum’s icing was its lemoniness – so I decided to just add lemon juice to the recipe – clever I know!

And so it was that after supper ( and putting kids to bed, and writing notes to Father Christmas, and leaving out the mince pie and glass of wine and hoping someone else would feed Santa’s reindeer as I couldn’t find the carrots) at about midnight – I began to ice the cake.

I separated the eggs – no sweat – not a grain of egg shell in sight; combined them with the sugar and glycerine and lemon; and got stirring . All looking good. Then I remembered another trick of mum’s.  To stop the icing looking yellowy she would take  a block of solid blue food colouring and grate a tiny amount into the icing. I searched my in laws baking cupboard. Not surprisingly no solid block of food colouring – but there was a bottle of blue liquid food colouring. I seized it in delight. That would do the trick – this was going to be the perfect icing mix:  the consistency was right – mum would be proud of me. I put a tiny drop of dye into the mix.

It was much darker than I had expected – still once I stirred it in it would go back to white.

I started stirring – it was now a lighter blue, but still blue – sky blue in fact.

So I added more icing sugar and then more… and a bit more water and lemon and more sugar. And the blue got paler and paler.. but it was still distinctly blue.

I went up to the children in bed – “How would you feel if the Christmas cake was blue?”

My children pulled a horrified ” how is mummy going to let us down next” face.

I pulled a ” do not use the words: mummy fail” kind of face.

And then my niece said ” Cool – I love blue it’s my favourite colour!”

“Yes but not usually the colour of snow??”

“It will be cool,” she assured me.

I showed my husband.

“It’s a good job we have plenty of icing sugar”, he said “I would make some more. How do you make it?”

I explained about the egg whites and glycerine which he took to be more complicated than it was. So then he said:

“I’d leave it blue.”

And so I did.

Oh, and the 100 year old Christmas decorations ? They were also at my mum’s house – so I’m afraid we improvised with some figures from the Lego advent calendar! As a friend said – it’s good to follow family traditions- but it’s also good to create your own !!

How to ice a Christmas Cake

Disclaimer: the cake is actually much bluer than it looks in this photo!

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How (not) to marzipan your first ever Christmas cake

Making and decorating the Christmas cake has always been an important ritual in our family. The recipe was handed down from my Grandmother and handwritten in my mother’s college recipe book. In modern times my mother has always made the cake – to be shared with my in-laws and cousins as well as our own family. The cake was universally acknowledged as the best anyone had ever tasted. The cake itself darker and moister than any other. The marzipan softer and less sweet. The icing whiter and more lemony. The decorations – a pine tree,  a tiny house and church,  and a larger Santa, placed in the foreground to get the perspective right – were also handed down from my grandmother. My only task as a child ( and young adult!) would be to stir the cake mixture and make a wish; to scrape out leftover icing and make peppermint creams and to place the figures on the finished cake. A few years ago my children took on these roles and mum would wait til they came to stay to make and decorate the cake.

But this year was different. This year for the first time my mum was not here to make the cake. She died very suddenly in August. So the cake and pudding making would be left to her only daughter – Oh God- that meant me.

I had still done nothing about it – other than telling my sister-in-law that I would take on the tasks – when in early December one of my oldest friends arrived with a birthday present and accompanying note. She had made the cake to my mother’s recipe ( it had been handed sideways as well as down the generations!) and was giving it to me –  the loveliest most unusual present which of course made me cry and not only because she had had no time for the icing or marzipan. I would need to do that myself.

So this week as the day approached I dug out some apricot jam from the back of the fridge for the glaze ( to glue the marzipan on) and  bought the ground almonds and icing sugar and eggs. I had no-one to ask whether organic eggs were important as they would not be cooked – or how on earth to get the marzipan onto the cake. I watched a video on youtube, read Delia and the BBC and Good Housekeeping online, saw that involved gymnastics with a rolling pin and wished I’d picked up mum’s handwritten recipe book last time I was there.

In fact I made the marzipan fairly easily –  but had no rolling pin – so left it in the fridge for another day. I had read it could be left for two days like this – in the event it was three – was that the cause of my later problems?

So… the rolling pin borrowed from my in-laws and minus one handle arrived and the marzipan was duly rolled. The cake was measured with string and checked against the width of marzipan ( Yes, you three other people out there who have never made a Christmas cake like I hadn’t  – it is much more complicated and time consuming than you might imagine!)

So we rolled and rolled, and it got thinner and thinner – so it would cover not only the top but also the sides – all in one piece. I lifted the edge with a palette knife little by little – it had somehow stuck to the marble top – and the children pushed the huge rolling pin under as I lifted. Allegedly other people do this bit on their own! We got the rolling pin under… but the marzipan seemed too dry and too thin.

” I need to lift it! Quickly!  Move!  Help! lift!  Put the video camera down NOW!” I said really calmly and not at all like someone shouting hysterically.

And we lifted and Alexander shoved the cake under sideways and Amelie tried to support the edges .. and we had it half way across the top when… Splat! One side broke off and fell clinging to the side of the cake and draping over the cakeboard and worktop.

” Mummy FAIL”, the children laughed in delight.

” Turn the camera off now… before I say something naughty,” I said sweetly – or maybe I didn’t – I haven’t watched the video back to check!

After I’d sobbed for 10 minutes, I gathered the pieces together that had not made it to their destination. I ripped and I patted and I used the apricot jam as glue and I patchworked it back together and somehow I covered the cake. And in the half light,( it was daylight when we started), if you stood a long way back and squinted,   the cake looked fairly like one my mother might have made.

See the finished – rather unusual looking – cake in the next installment !!

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Happy Christmas from Not a Notting Hill Mum

Christmas in London

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Christmas on Portobello

Christmas on Portobello

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Christmas Carols at the Royal Albert hall

Royal Albert Hall Christmas Concert John Rutter

It’s not something I’ve done before – gone to a Carol concert that is not in a church. In the run up to Christmas there are always the candlelit Advent and Christmas carol services at St John’s in Notting Hill, as well as the Christmas services at the children’s schools. There is the parents’ choir at our daughter’s new school  ( Cue: “Oh mum, no -you are not going to sing in the parents’ choir. That. Is. SOO. EMBARRASSING!!!”) And if that’s not enough carol singing for any woman ( even a former “choirgirl” ) , of course there’s midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For me, as I’m sure for many people, it brings back memories of childhood and schooldays – and there is a slight sadness and poignancy as well as the unstoppable  and infectious children’s excitement of the impending day itself.

I have seen Carol in concert halls advertised of course, but not taken much interest until last night when I attended one for the first time.  I think I started pretty much at the top of the tree  – with an amazing evening with the  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the choristers from St Albans Cathedral at the Royal Albert Hall. I have to say I was blown away. Admittedly we did  have incredible seats in the stalls: right in the middle, with the stage dead ahead, but the acoustics are so perfect it is as if you are sitting in the middle of the sound itself. I will stop now before I’m quoted in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner but suffice to say – as my friend did – ” It really was something rather special” – an understatement as their two children were singing in the choir –  I can only imagine the parental pride of your children being part of such an occasion.

The evening was hosted and conducted by the composer, John Rutter, against a backdrop  of choristers and a very fine Christmas tree.  The programme was a mix of traditional carols;  more modern Christmas songs popularised by films of the day, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite from the Royal Philharmonic

John Rutter's Christmas Celebration. December 2015

John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration. December 2015

and unusual carols like La Berceuse by Barbara Bell.  La Berceuse won a carol competition which John Rutter judged back in 1975 when Barbara Bell was a student – and the composer tracked her down to attend last night’s concert and come on stage at the end of the performance. It’s a lovely piece and I hope now might become more widely heard.

The evening started with  the entire concert hall standing to sing Good King Wenceslas – and a very impressive impromptu choir was formed – I’m guessing there were many experienced singers and musicians in the audience as well as on the stage. The audience got the chance to join in with quite a few carols during the evening.

In the remainder of the carols the pure voices of the young Cathedral choristers were set against the adult St Albans Bach choirs. And  VOCES8 an octet – introduced strangely as eight soloists – performed a cappella versions of more well known Christmas songs. Even the best known carols though, were given a twist with arrangements by John Rutter which made the carols seem new,  as well as being in other ways a very traditional Christmas concert.  It struck me as being a mix between Last Night at the Proms and a carol service – with a pub quiz thrown in – yes there really was a quiz as part of the event- and a bit of comedy with the octet dressed as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The only part of the concert I thought out of place was Lord of the Dance – despite the jolly tune the lyrics are fairly brutal and most obviously about the Crucifixion. John Rutter had put together a very interesting and evocative arrangement of this well known school hymn – but somehow this emphasised the nasty side of the song.  If he could see his way to replacing Lord of the Dance with say In the Bleak Midwinter next year then I would be very happy!

We took our children ( 9 and 11) – but as the evening performance ended at about 10.15 there were not many other families there.  There was a matinee as well , but that begins at 3pm. It might be an idea  to make the matinee at 4.30, enabling local school children at least to attend with their parents – as it is in all other ways a perfect family event.

As I looked around the audience it also occurred to me that going to the Albert Hall may be a particularly good way to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season, with music people have been singing since  childhood, for those who no longer feel spiritually comfortable in church – with the added benefit of course of the physically comfortable seats –  which sadly few churches can boast. There’s clearly room for both types of celebration and I certainly won’t be missing the candlelit church services, because I have been to the Albert Hall. But it’s obvious I have been missing out, until now, on a very spectacular way to begin the Christmas festivities.

 

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