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Career

Jo Seagar on the importance of generosity and her excitement at the prospect of a white Christmas

There’s always room for one more at Jo Seagar’s Christmas table.

By Emma Clifton
When it comes to having an attitude of celebration, Jo Seagar is really walking the talk.
Midway through our interview at an Auckland club, a waiter pops a bottle of champagne for other guests, even though it's only 11am, and Jo interrupts her train of thought to let out a cheerful "Woohoo!" at the very distinctive sound.
Sitting with our far more sedate coffees (for now), we are talking about Christmas but, more importantly, the reason for the season.
Faith, family and any opportunity to "get out the good cups", as Jo puts it.
"I'm a big celebrator – it's been part of my family DNA forever," she says.
"The idea of 'join me' or 'I've made this for you' – those are lovely words in our language, aren't they? That idea of hospitality. It's a very Kiwi thing, as well. We're always looking around to make sure no one is missing out."
So she's not one to keep those good cups in the cupboard, waiting for a rainy day?
"No, no, no, God, it's rained enough," she laughs.
"In Canterbury, a lot of them got smashed waiting for that rainy day. And I think there's a great sense of joy in the little things."
This year Jo and her husband of 33 years Ross will be in Taupo for Christmas at her brother's holiday house with a "bit of a collection" of family members.
Some, including their son Guy, are arriving from overseas.
They like the idea of a festive week, taking the pressure off the 25th being the make or break day of the year.
"You see all these families with young kids rushing to one grandmother and then onto the next one… why not do that over the week instead? It's one of the best tips for coping with the stress."
There will be the traditional Seagar family breakfast of raspberries with icing sugar and cream – truly decadent at a time, Jo says, when raspberries are "about $1 each".
And there will be carols and a nativity scene and a church service, where Jo will often do a reading.
The Christian principles are important to them, she says, and they also include something she's very keen on: giving thanks.
"We don't do a 'wave your hands to the Lord' sort of grace, but we will do a little one about how thankful we are that we're all together and we're all okay," she says.
"Whatever your religion, it doesn't hurt anybody just to be a bit thankful that you're all there and that you've got food on the table."
"Christmas is about family and yes, counting our blessings that we're all together and, so far, so good. I'm 64, my brother is 66. We're hitting that age… and when you've got friends who are losing loved ones, it's important to celebrate when you can."
Every family has its personalised collection of slightly bizarre festive traditions and it's no different in the Seagar house.
Firstly, there is the train ornament.
Forty years ago, when Jo and her mum Fay were in London's Harrods, they came across it – a wee knick-knack you'd pop on the mantelpiece that had "Noël" written on it.
"Mum said, 'well, we have to get it so we can say we've bought something from Harrods,' and then this American lady came up behind us and said," – Jo adopts a Southern twang – "'Oh, that's so cute but I don't know any Noels, I wonder if they have any other names?'"
As a result, the joke "Who's Noel?" means the tiny train must be in attendance at every Christmas.
"It was one of the contested items when Mum died," Jo laughs. "Not the paintings, not the grand piano, the 'Noel train'."
And then there is the rice salad.
"We had an Aunty Marie and she made this rice salad," Jo says. "Nobody particularly likes it, but if it's not there, we get a bit teary-eyed. Normally it gets turned into a stir-fry the next day – and it normally gets passed around the sister-in-laws, but if it wasn't there, we'd probably think there would be a thunderclap or something."
As well as Aunty Marie's salad, there will also be the usual old favourites.
"Some sort of beef-y thing, some sort of lovely prawn-y thing. We're bringing some whitebait, our son from Canada says 'maple syrup on me', so I imagine a waffle might have to appear at some stage."
Christmas cake, mince pies, the usual – with a hint of adaptation, if necessary.
"You never know who's gone feminist, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or whatever," Jo says with a wink.
And while the crowd will be mostly family, including her beloved grandchildren Leroy and Lucas, there's always, always room for more, she says.
"There's always a waif and a stray, some Canadian hitchhiker or something. The cast of characters changes – it's an inclusive thing," Jo says.
"We can't have someone sitting on their own – it's part of the Christmas spirit, welcoming people to join you." She shrugs. "And honestly, if you're cooking for 28, what's 29? Just throw another spud in."
It makes sense that Jo isn't the kind of woman who would be intimidated by cooking for 28 (or 29), partly because she has hospitality running through her veins and partly because she's not intimidated by much.
She credits both to her training in nursing, when she was in her early 20s.
"It taught me a lot about dealing with people from all walks of life," she says.
"People in pain or giving birth or having their appendix out – it's a great leveller. It doesn't matter if you're Lord Loola or Lady La Dee Da – if you're sick, you're sick."
Cooking, of course, is another way of taking care of people.
Going to cooking schools, including the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London when Jo was in her 20s, started off as just a passionate interest, but it become very clear it was something Jo would excel at.
"I thought, 'Yes, I'll do this now,'" she says of her career switch.
"That sort of bravado has been with me all my life, you know? Some might call it bullshit, of course," she laughs with a wink.
"But nobody had to tell me girls could do anything – I had that in my DNA."
Her beloved mother, Fay, was one of New Zealand's first-ever female lawyers, so Jo and her siblings grew up with two parents who were very good role models, she says.
"She went to work and Dad kind of raised us – he was the one who could plait the hair and make the outfits for the school play."
This past October, Fay would have been 95, and her matriarchal legacy lives on.
Her ashes were placed in the family plot, but Jo says she still feels her presence very strongly, all the time.
Fay's death came unexpectedly – one night, Jo had a phone call from her mum's carer to say she had had a wee fall and could Jo come round.
"I lived six houses away so I roared around in my nightie and Mum said, 'Just tuck up beside me.' She wasn't in any pain or anything, but as I lay snuggled up with her, she said to me, 'I feel like I'm dancing in really soft rain.' And I could feel her leaving. It occurred to me in those few minutes: I'm the matriarch of the family now.
I hear her talking out of my mouth, all the time. When someone says, 'Oh, you're so like your mother,' I take that as the hugest compliment."
Jo's parents won't be far from the Christmas table conversation this year – as they are every year.
"My father had an expression: 'It's Christmas, and I love everybody.' Someone will say that, just to remember him," Jo smiles fondly.
Her father's death prompted Jo to become a champion of Hospice in 1999.
It's an association that still brings Jo great satisfaction and – something you might not expect – great jokes.
"People always say 'oh it must be so sad,' but I've met my best jokes at Hospice – it's a place of wonderful humour. For people, it's so relaxed and it's a place where you can finally talk about D E A T H," she spells out.
"It lets people focus on what really matters – not what is the matter with them, but what matters to them. And it lets the family be family, while the Hospice handles the business side."
She finds that, because of her nursing experience, it's a perfect fit.
"We're all born, we all die – there are tons of books and information about the first transition, not so much on the second," she says.
"People know me in a 'she's everybody's aunt or godmother' way and I can use that to knock on doors and talk to MPs, just to raise awareness."
There's also been an unexpected connection between her contribution to Hospice and her other line of work: running gourmet food tours around the world.
Yes, it's a gig that is absolutely as good as it sounds, and the odd person she's met through Hospice has joined her tours for company when they're coming out the other side of their grief.
Jo has just returned from Italy and is about to head to Morocco. She's been doing this for 12 years, running boutique trips with small groups of passionate travellers and foodies.
She pulls out her phone and flicks through photos from a recent trip and it's a slideshow of la dolce vita: gelato, wine, long lunches under the grapevines, sunsets… total heaven.
On the trips there are a lot of couples and groups of friends, but also some solo travellers in need of escapism.
A widower Jo met through Hospice joined the Italy trip. He'd travelled with his wife over the years, and was coming up to nine months without her.
"I personally have a theory about the nine-month mark," Jo says.
"Nine months from conception to birth, nine months to farewell someone. And he was nearing that mark. Hospice is really good at keeping an eye on people, and they suggested he join me on a tour. You need someone to have a drink with, someone to have a laugh with."
It fits perfectly into Jo's attitude towards the Christmas dinner table as well: leave no man or woman behind.
Next year, Jo will be running four trips; including one next December that will indulge her love of Christmas – there'll be a trip to the German Christmas markets before heading up to Lapland, the magical corner of Finland that is home to reindeer, Santa and, most importantly, the aurora borealis.
There's a plan to stay in the famous glass igloos, which sit in among the snow and stare straight up at the dancing night sky, before heading to have Christmas Day at a "lovely country pub in the Cotswolds".
So, yes – in the life of Jo Seagar, there is a lot to celebrate.
But you get the impression that even on the most benign of days, she's still ready to pull out all the stops.
In fact, I know this to be true, because after our interview is complete, she turns to me with yet another cheeky wink and says, "Do we have a bubbles?"
And so, on a normal blustery Tuesday, at midday (just) I take a leaf out of Jo Seagar's book and say yes to champagne, because if you get the chance to celebrate, you should absolutely take it.
Don't ever leave the good cups in the cupboard if you can help it.

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