'Twas the night before the night before the night before Christmas ... well, you get the idea.
Time has not run out and you can still call up six or seven friends and invite them to join you in a last- minute caroling tour of the neighborhood. This is one of those activities where pleasure is equally divided between the singers and the sung to, since even if your group performs like a buzz saw you only stay at any one door for a few minutes, long enough to sing a verse or two of Good King Wenceslas, and the quaintness of the custom makes the listener forgive any failure of melody.
Afterward reward your fellow carolers with a platter of Christmas cookies and cups of Cafe Brulot, using the traditional recipe which Decatur House, one of Washington's lovelier landmarks, includes in its recipe book, Desserts, (National Trust for Historic Preservation).
To make 10 small cups, the day before you plan your party combine one cup cognac with 2 sticks of cinnamon, broken into pieces, 40 whole cloves, the shredded peels of half an orange and half a lemon and 10 to 20 sugar lumps. Double the number if you use those small sugar dots.
Just before you go a-caroling, get your coffee maker ready to produce a quart of strong, dark-roasted black coffee. When you and your fellow singers come in from the cold, make the coffee, and set aside. Strain the spiced cognac into a large bowl or chafing dish, pour two additional tablespoons of cognac into a heat-resistant ladle (don't use the family silver) and set the ladle aflame. The cognac will catch more easily if you have first warmed it a bit in a sauce pan; though not to the boil.
Pour the contents of the flaming ladle into the bowl and when the rest of the cognac is alight, gradually pour in the hot coffee. Slowly, slowly, the point being to keep the lovely show going for an extra minute or two. Do all this in a room which is lit only by the Christmas tree, and it will be a fitting end to a traditional evening -- every bit as good as the entrance of the Christmas pudding.
If you are one of those rare people who are organized and have everything under control, you could win the love of all your friends by taking the party to them. Make up packages containing Christmas cookies, a half bottle of white wine, gift tag labels and scotch tape, the things that people always run out of the week before the big day.
Then tonight or tomorrow night, make the rounds of your friends' houses, dropping off your party for shut-ins. Even if pressed, do not go inside. The point is to provide the comforts of a party while letting those less-well organized get on with their holiday chores.
If the Christmas spirit has truly taken hold, you might add a Mason jar of eggnog to each package, not an elegant container but still the safest way to get liquids from one place to another without spilling them.
Here is a simple recipe from The Junior League's Charleston Receipts, for a one-serving eggnog that doesn't need to be made hours in advance. Separate an egg. Set aside the white, beat the yolk and add sugar to taste, a pinch of salt, one tablespoon of whiskey or brandy, one teaspoon of vanilla and a cup of "rich" milk. (Or, since rarely is the supermarket milk "rich," you might make it half milk and half cream.)
Beat the white till frothy and fold it into the yolk mixture. Put the servings into Mason jars and just before you head off to play Santa's advance man, grate a sprinkle of nutmeg on top of the eggnog in each jar.
If you are either not that noble or not that organized, invite a few close friends to come for a pre-Christmas reading, asking each to bring a favorite Christmas tale, The Christmas Carol, A Child's Christmas in Wales, even a remembered and loved children's book. Over a very simple meal -- remember all the richness that looms ahead -- have each guest read for a few minutes, while Christmas carols play in the background and the lights of the tree cast a holiday glow.
So much of holiday entertaining is glittery and packed with people -- an attempt to cram all social obligations into one single event -- that it is easy to forget that Christmas is not about social things but the simple things of the heart.
And if this year, because of work or inability to travel, you must spend the holidays alone, don't just sit and give in to the blues. Instead, entertain yourself -- and since it will be a party of one you can afford a far grander style than if you were feeding a crowd. If your imagination fails you, get a copy of a new book by Lora Brody (Indulgences, Little, Brown & Company, $17.95), wherein she writes of life's culinary extravagances, how to enjoy them and how to fix them. You could entertain yourself with a chocolate souffle', oysters with buerre blanc and caviar, meringue nests with raspberries or lobster stew. Buy a novel you've always wanted to read and, instead of feeling lonely, you'll look forward to a satisfying if solo holiday.