TGIF: On Plastic Trees, Fruitcake and Mothers Who Made Us Wear Poofy Dresses


Christmas isn’t a Hallmark card with smiling gingerbread men and festive peppermint sticks.

Growing up in the Middle East in the mid-eighties, Christmas was different.

We ate rice and curry -not turkey and mashed potatoes. We slurped payasam – not eggnog. We warmed up on chai – not apple cider or hot chocolate. We made Kulkuls not sugar cookies, fudge or brownies.

We didn’t have real Christmas trees, or advent calenders, or fireplaces lined with red stockings. Come to think of it, we didn’t have fireplaces. Period. We didn’t build gingerbread houses or snowmen with carrot-noses. We didn’t write letters to Santa, or put out milk and cookies.

We put up plastic trees, listened to Jim Reeves and ran away from aunties who tried to force-feed us fruitcake (<= cruel + unusual punishment). We stood in assembly lines in the kitchen executing Grandma’s Christmas recipes, amidst animated conversation and rowdy laughter. We played hide-and-seek with our sweaty cousins and attended midnight mass in a poofy dress that our mothers made us wear. Maybe that last one, wasn’t all that different from the rest of the world.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that Christmas isn’t a Hallmark card with smiling gingerbread men and festive peppermint sticks. It’s a time where broken and lonely hearts are lost in the cacophony of mall traffic and parking lot wars. People who have the day off and have nowhere to be, no one to see and no one to call. People who has lost their loved ones, their homes, their jobs or their health.  People who are eating TV dinners in empty apartments with no twinkly lights.

I know this, because I’ve been that person. I’ve keeled over the bathroom sink sobbing. I’ve gone to bed with a pillow soaked in tears. I’ve emptied out an entire box of Kleenex in one sitting.

I remember.

I’m awake, aware and alert this Christmas.

On that necessary but slightly depressing note, here are  5 things that made me smile this week. Yay!

Sarah Kay + Maple Hot Cocoa + 5 Best Toys of All Time + Fish Twins + Zooey Deschanel = TGIF

1. Don’t let Sarah Kay’s beautiful doe eyes fool you. And while you’re at it, don’t let her petite frame or winsome smile fool you either. Sarah’s spoken word packs a punch. I’ve listened to “If I should have a daughter” on repeat in the last couple of weeks. If you don’t have time to hear the full eighteen minute of her TED talk, listen from 0:14 to 3:37. You won’t regret it. I promise.

2. One of my favourite food bloggers, Ashley of Not Without Salt, has the perfect holiday gift idea that can be made in minutes. Layer a glass jar with the ingredients for Maple Hot Cocoa, including real vanilla bean and a side of marshmallows for a gift with a personal touch. A gift card can’t give you the warm fuzzy feeling a festive jar of Cocoa Mix can. Instructions here.

3. While parents everywhere are scrambling to get their hands on 2011’s “it” toy, W.I.R.E.D. magazine took a different approach on this piece, “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” I’ve featured 3 of the best toys here, any guesses on what the other two are? Look here for answers.

The Stick

The Box

The Cardboard Tube – This one has to be my favourite. I have so many vivid memories of make-believe fencing battles with my sister in sari shops.

4. Fish Twins – Ever wondered what your amphibian body double would look like? For what it’s worth, I think I’d look like  a cross between Nemo and Flounder from The Little Mermaid.

5. Last but not least, adorable Zooey Deschanel singing a Christmas tune in plaid. You’re welcome.


So dear friends…

1. What did Christmas look like in your house? What did you eat, bake and listen to? Any quirky family traditions?

2. Have you ever been heartbroken or lonely during Christmas?

Love you more than Buttered Baguette Bread Pudding, (<- Recipe)



To read more TGIFs from Tina: Click here.

Tina Francis
My name is Tina. Loved ones call me: Teen. Words are my chocolate. Music, my caramel. Photography, my bread. Girlfriends, my butter. Confession: Some girls dream about Manolo Blahniks or their next Hermes bag. Not me. I dream of freshly baked bread, perfectly barbecued meat & steaming bowls of Pho. My dream lover *cue Mariah Carey song* is someone who would read out a menu to me in Barry White’s baritone voice. I celebrate food, ask for help, interrupt conversations, laugh and cry hard, acknowledge the elephant in most rooms, fight for the underdog and believe in the power of storytelling. I was born and raised in Dubai and currently live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, known for some of the best sushi in the world.
Tina Francis
Tina Francis


  1. I am a lover of Christmas, a Christmas-fairy…….for all the right and all the wrong reasons. Something happens to me when I see the first Christmas tree and bits of tinsel in the shops…….I am filled with excitement beyond my own understanding……..I am expectant, goofy, hopeful……I just love Christmas. My tree went up in November, it’s plastic…..but I don’t care……it’s up and it’s draped with years of collections from all over…..baubles of plastic and glass, home baked cookies, wooden angels, small birds and teeny-weeny butterflies……if it can dangle it’s on the tree!

    You’ve taken me way back with this post – I just called my mom to thank her for allowing me to be such a Christmas-fairy and for teaching me the true meaning of Christmas right from the start. The fact that I didn’t embrace the true meaning of Christmas back then…..didn’t hinder the truth she planted in my heart!

    Christmas on this side of the globe was not Christmas if we didn’t eat ourselves into unconsciousness! Leg of lamb, piccalilli salad and trifle topped the list. I was never sure what was worse for me – the trifle or Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”!! I still cannot get that eruption of colour, called trifle, into my mouth. As for old Bing……let’s just say I’m glad that these days I get to choose the music! LOL

    Boney M’s Christmas songs fills my heart with joy, to this day – “Come they told me; pa rum pum pum pum; A new born King to see; pa rum pum pum pum; Our finest gifts we bring; pa rum pum pum pum; To lay before the King; pa rum pum pum pum; rum pum pum pum.”

    Christmas was all beaches, sun, friends, play & cream soda floats. My brother and I were way younger than the other cousins, but we had “Christmas-friends” and each year we’d meet with them and it would be an explosion of play for three whole weeks. Father Christmas use to deliver gifts in a donkey cart and each kid in the holiday town would get one gift that their parents “gave” to the Father Christmas in advance. Those were gorgeous, happy, carefree days! We use to go serenading at all the houses on Christmas Eve and the only English songs I knew was “Away in a Manger” and “Jingle Bells”! A melancholic Silent Night (in Afrikaans) would be our concluding song and I still see all the older people wiping tears from their eyes when we sang that song. I could never understand why all the “old people” cried when they heard or sang Silent Night. Now I’m sure our singing drove them to tears…!

    I’ve been fortunate to not have memories of loneliness or heartbreak over Christmas. I think I have a real fear of it though.

    The giving that happens at Christmas is something I wish I could get people to do once a month…..imagine a world that would open their hearts and wallets the way we do at Christmas. It’s easy to get people to give in December, sometimes I think that the giving is engulfed in guilt – it’s a time of the year when most of us reflect and are reminded of what we HAVE and we realise how different it all COULD HAVE been. So yes Tina, I too am “awake, aware and alert this Christmas”.

    BTW: poofy dresses at the midnight service happened here too – and we still run at the smell of fruitcake!

    Thanks for a year of marvellous TGIF’s! I’ve read them all, due to the time zone they’re the intro to my weekends….I was panicked when you wrote about your “new deadline” and Mama Bear telling you that not meeting the deadline would mean reposting old pieces…..o my, I was cheering you on…..and you did it! So well done for making your deadlines……it kept my weekends on track!

    Have a wonderful blessed Christmas and may it be better than

  2. Is that you and your Dad with the fake plastic tree?

  3. Ha! I loved guessing the other two toys. Instead of string we used blankets! It can be a tent, it can be a cape! And dirt – of course. That one was easy. My cousin Gracie and I would make cakes, tamales, soup. Dirt = endless possibilities. Oh, so fun.

    Today you have transported me back to my childhood. I’ve been feeling so homesick this season – being away from my family on Christmas, adapting to new traditions – *sigh* it can be a bit overwhelming.

    My memories of Christmas include – decorating the plastic tree with my grandmother. She would call me the day before, which meant I prepared myself for a sleepover! I would arrive at her house in the morning and we would set it up and decorate it, then we’d wait until it was dark enough to appreciate the lights . Most of the decorations were made by her grandchildren.

    Christmas eve – my whole family – aunts, uncles and 12 cousins would gather at my maternal grandmother’s house and we’d wait until midnight to feast and open presents. It was the one time of the year we were allowed to stay up late. We’d chase each other around the house, play hide and seek, swing on my grandmothers hammock until we could almost touch the ceiling of her room with the tips of our toes – it’s not a high ceiling and yes, she has a hammock in her room! and we’d light firecrackers outside. So, so fun.

    My years in Montreal were the hardest. I couldn’t afford to fly back home for a week during Christmas break, but all my friends were international students. They all went back to their families for Christmas – so I’ve also done the TV dinner with no twinkling lights.

    So, even though I’m homesick – I’m very thankful for the family I have and learning to embrace new traditions.

    I listened to Sarah Kay’s Ted speech twice last week. She blew my mind. I loved her poem B so much. She is so talented.

    Ooohhh and thanks for the link to one of your fav food bloggers. Loved her images!

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