Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent: Christmas

xmas cakeWell, I had to end with Christmas, didn’t I? Regular readers of this blog and my Advent posts in particular will probably have picked up that I absolutely adore Christmas. I don’t want anything Christmassy to intrude until December because I feel it spoils it, but from 1 December, bring it on. I love the carols, the candles, the cooking, the eating, the choosing gifts and receiving them, the little family rituals, the cheesy Christmas tunes, Anna’s palpable excitement (which is about to shoot off the scale). Everything.

I also love the message of Christmas. I blogged before about my ambivalent relationship with Christianity, but equally how can I not warm to the message of Peace on Earth? One of my absolute favourite carols is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and I can’t hear it without crying. Partly because it was my Nanna’s favourite and so reminds me of her, and partly because of the verse

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Somehow Christmas brings alive the possibility that we might hush our noise and listen to the angel song. There is so much redolent symbolism. Stars and candles giving light, angels giving messages of peace and love, the evergreens with which we decorate our home reminding us even though the days are the shortest and darkest new life will return.

I love spending time with family and friends. Of course that isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to Christmas. But life can get so busy that it’s great when Christmas forces us to pause and take time away from work and day to day responsibilities and worries. In fact, Christmas brings together almost everything that makes me happy which I’ve blogged about this Advent. Family, friends, husband, daughters, food, home, baking are all crucial to making my Christmas special.

Thank you for reading my blog this Advent. I’ve been so touched by all your comments and the positive feedback I’ve had. I’ll be back after Christmas, but in the meantime I and going to turn on the TV for Carols From Kings, and wish you and your families a very happy Christmas however you are celebrating.

Eighth day of Advent: My parents

I came across a re-write of Philip Larkin’s infamous poem, This Be the Verse on Facebook a few weeks ago. Now, I probably have a higher than average tolerance for schmaltz and sentimentality, but for me this poem (below) does manage to be sweet and moving without tipping over into saccharine. It also really spoke to me.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

I had an idyllically happy childhood, thanks mainly to my lovely parents. It was fairly traditional – mum, dad and 2.4 kids. Not sure who the .4 was, but my little brother is pretty nice too. We had family treats and traditions – I remember gazing out of the window with my mum on Hallow’een trying to spot witches on broomsticks in the night sky. Bundling up in every layer of clothes we possessed to go into the garden and wave sparklers around while my dad fought with matches and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Piling into my parents’ bed with our stockings (pillowcases in our house, actually!) on Christmas morning to see what Father Christmas had brought. Unbirthday presents were another tradition – the year my little brother was one, my parents were concerned that four year old me might be jealous at him getting lots of presents and attention on his birthday, so they bought me an ‘unbirthday’ present. When it was my birthday a few months later I wanted to know what little bro was getting for his ‘unbirthday’ present, and thus a tradition was started which lasted until I left home.

When I was very little my mum would save packets and boxes from the kitchen, and then play shop with me for hours on end. Whenever we walked anywhere with him, Dad played a game called Fast Walk, Slow Walk – perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it would always end up with me and my brother sprinting along trying to catch up with my dad before collapsing into helpless giggles. The books of my early childhood – Shirley Hughes, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Helen Nichol and Jan Pienkowski – remain vivid in my memory as they were patiently read to me so often, and I take so much pleasure in re-visiting them now with my children.

When I was ill, however hot and miserable I felt, my mum’s hands were always cool and gentle on my forehead and hot Ribena made by her or my dad undoubtedly had magic cure-all properties. Even as an adult, when I returned home after a minor op a couple of years ago, still woozy from the anaesthetic and sore from the taxi ride, my parents were here looking after Anna, and the relief of my mum tucking me up in bed and my dad making his convalescent special of scrambled eggs on toast for my tea was indescribable.

When I was a teenager, they showed their love in different ways. My dad would pick me up from wherever I’d been out to on a Friday night, but still be up to make me breakfast and take me to the station to get the train into town for my Saturday job’s 8.30am start. My mum made sure we were never out of Dairy Milk when I had exams to revise for. And that is another huge thing I am grateful to my parents for. I didn’t grow up in an area, or go to a school, where going to Oxford was the norm. My teachers felt I had the potential to try, though, and my mum and dad were endlessly encouraging. From spending hours testing me on chemistry formulae or French irregular verbs, to driving me down to Oxford for my interview, to straightforward bribery when they promised me £20 for every A* I got at GCSE, £15 for every A, £10 for every B, and so on they did everything they could to give me ambitions and then help me achieve them.

Since I have grown up and had my own children, I appreciate them even more. I also, perhaps, now appreciate them more as people in their own rights, and not just ‘mumndad’. My mum struggles sometimes with health issues, which makes the time and effort she puts into co-ordinating and volunteering frequently at her local Food Bank all the more admirable. She is also one of the wisest people I know, and my first port of call for advice on any subject from my children’s health (she had an evening phone call just last week as I was worrying about Sophia after her accident), to what colour boots I should buy, to the best approach to pursuing my writing career. My dad is the most selfless person I know and is constantly putting himself last through doing things for other people. His family are often the beneficiaries, but since retirement he has become a volunteer for the Samaritans, also works hard for the local food bank, served as a school governor at a local primary school and does pastoral work at church.

From my mum I have inherited my love of books and reading, and an interest in history. From my dad I get my sense of humour and chronic impatience with any kind of instruction manual.

They are also generous, thoughtful and incredibly loving grandparents, and it makes me very happy to watch them playing with, helping, reading to, teaching and caring for their granddaughters, and seeing the pleasure my girls get out of being with them.

My mum and dad set the benchmark for me. I want to give my children as happy a childhood as my they gave me, and I would love it if, when they reach adulthood themselves, my daughters regard me with as much love, affection, respect, pride and admiration as I feel for my parents.

They Tuck You Up

Adrian Mitchell
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

The Seventh Day of Advent: Trafalgar Square crib blessing

This time seven years ago I was pregnant with Anna, and husband (or boyfriend, as he then was) and I were mooching about in central London. I can’t really remember what we’d been doing – probably Christmas shopping, almost certainly tea and cake. We headed towards Trafalgar Square to admire the Christmas tree, and as we passed St Martin-in-the-Fields church we noticed there was a band outside playing Christmas music. We stopped to listen, and a few moments later the band turned and began to march towards the square, followed by a procession of choristers and clergy from St Martin’s. It looked so picturesque and festive that we followed them, and so ended up participating in the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square.

It was a short but perfect service – a few traditional carols, with music provided by the Chalk Farm Salvation Army band, some beautiful singing from the choir and a few perfectly pitched words and prayers from the priest. Standing there, a few feet from the famous Christmas tree, Big Ben illuminated away in one direction, the lovely National Gallery building behind us, joining in with the soaring notes of Hark the Herald was truly memorable and magical. I could feel the baby who would turn out to be Anna kicking away approvingly inside me, and I commented that this was her first carol service. We decided then that this would be our first Christmas tradition as a family, and that every year we would bring our baby to this service. And we have done so.
carols1

For the last few years we’ve also been joined by some friends with their respective small children, and that has been great, but last night for one reason and another it was just our little family. It was Sophia’s first time there in person, although last year I was so heavily pregnant and having such strong Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout that I did wonder if there would be a real life nativity scene. This year, marking the passing of time, was the first year Anna could read the words on the carol sheet herself, and joined in enthusiastically with more than just Away in a Manger.

The crib blessing is one of a number of events which raises funds for the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas appeal, money which goes to help homeless people across London. One of the things I find particularly moving about this service is the emphasis from the priest leading it on the Holy Family as homeless, persecuted refugees, on the shepherds to whom Christ was first revealed as being the outcasts in their society, on the wise men as being ‘foreign’ and ‘different’, yet still at the centre of Christmas. Standing in the heart of London, which has such sharply delineated contrasts between those who have everything and those who have nothing, just a few hundred yards away from the Palace of Westminster where the crucial decisions as to how we treat the most vulnerable at home and abroad are made, there couldn’t be a more appropriate message to take from the Christmas story.

cribI was raised a Christian, but no longer describe myself easily as one. I do not doubt, never have doubted, that Christ’s teachings as recorded in the Gospels on how we behave and how we treat others are the blueprint for a fair, just, (and incidentally socialist!), society, and the world would be a much better place if everyone who identified as Christian endeavoured to live up to them. I say endeavoured – they’re really not that easy! I struggle with other aspects of faith, though. There are many passages in the Bible I find downright offensive, but it is not always easy to come up with a logically coherent position as to why I should regard some bits and not others. It is a cliche, but, like many others, I also struggle with the concept of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who allows children to die of cancer. And I struggle with the institution of the Church of England, and other churches too. So much energy spent debating the rights and wrongs of women bishops or gay priests when the rest of the world moved on from such bigotry and discrimination a generation ago, and when there are very many real and pressing problems to address.

Nevertheless, a beautiful church service, wonderful music, taking time and space out of the busyness of life to pause and reflect, fills me with a deep inward calm and happiness like nothing else, and I come close at such times to believing in a Divine force at work, however imperfectly us mortals might interpret it. I also feel that the work done by St Martins, and countless other churches of all denominations up and down the country, looking after those who have been let down by family, friends, state, and have nowhere else to go truly follows Christ’s teachings on how we should  treat the hungry and the needy, and I am happy to be able to play a tiny part in this. The crib blessing in Trafalgar Square combines both of these, as well as being a lovely tradition to share with my family, and as such gives me a very deep sense of happiness.

I have worried a bit about this post, as I have no wish to cause offence to people of any faith or none, or to court controversial religious debate! Equally, however, an Advent series in which I didn’t talk in any way about the religious meaning of Christmas to me felt wrong and inauthentic. So here we go!

Fourth Day of Advent: The little things

My first few posts in this series have been about really big things. My husband and daughters are obviously the foundation of all my happiness, and, I would argue, the NHS is a foundation stone of the nation’s. Generally speaking I think that experiences and people make me happier than things and possessions, and I suspect that these Advent posts will reflect that. On a day to day basis, though, there are lots of little things, which are only things, but which make me smile, or give me a happy glow each time I see them.

A few years ago my friend bought me a set of Cath Kidston tea-cups for my birthday. I love them. They sit on the dresser in my dining room looking beautiful, and they’re the perfect size for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate. So it would be rude not to indulge really.cup

I have a necklace, just a simple silver heart on a chain, which my husband bought me for my 25th birthday. I wear it a lot because it seems to go with everything and because it makes me feel loved and special.

The free beauty magazine Boots produce every couple of months, makes me happy. As does the free Waitrose food magazine and those nice little recipe cards you often get in supermarkets. They make me especially happy once I’ve filed them away in my special recipe folder. I know, I’m a geek.

For me the very first stage of preparing for Christmas is getting my Nigella Christmas cookery book down off the shelf, and starting to plan menus for all our various festive get togethers. This year was even better as my Christmas organiser, a present last Christmas, also got it’s first outing. I know, I’m a geek.

candleI had a mini shopping trip around Walthamstow this morning, buying Christmas cards and a few other little stocking filler bits and pieces, and, a real treat for me – my Christmas scented candle. In life before children I lit candles a lot. I find them beautiful and romantic and fascinating just to gaze at. We ate dinner by candlelight most evenings and I loved nothing more than soaking in a candlelit bath for hours on end. Somehow there hasn’t seemed to be as much time for that over the last few years, to say nothing of the obvious risks of having candles anywhere near little fingers. I still have candles in my bathroom, but generally the closest I get to using them is giving them an ineffectual swipe with a damp cloth every few weeks (months) to remove the dust which has built up. I’m also fussy. Cheap scented candles never smell anything but artificial to me, and always remind me of toilet cleaner. I do know I’m weird about smells – I’m almost phobic about those warm wet wipes you get in Chinese restaurants or on aeroplanes because I find the fake citrus scent so upsetting. Which my husband thinks is hilarious. Rather than have a cheap candle I’d much rather put a simple tea-light in my oil burner with a few drops of lavender or bergamot essential oil. But luxury, high-end, organic, frankly pricey, scented candles are another matter. I only let myself buy one a year, at the beginning of December, and then I light it every evening, and often during the day if we have guests. I always choose something that feels seasonal – this year I’ve gone for orange and clove. It’s in pride of place on the mantlepiece, and I’m really looking forward to lighting it for the first time this evening.

All little things, but ones which I appreciate every time I use them or wear them or see them, and add their little bit to my daily happiness.

 

The Third Day of Advent: My daughters

The day Anna was born, nearly seven years ago now, took happiness to a new level. A transcendent, luminous ecstasy I could never have imagined, even though I had always known I wanted children. With that joy, however, came a darker side. Lying in the hospital that night with my darling little bundle tucked up next to me in her perspex cot, I realised that there was now the also the potential to be more bitterly unhappy than I could previously have envisaged. Anna cotThe gates of Hell seemed to gape open as I glimpsed all the things from cot death to leukaemia, traffic accidents to falls, autism to asthma which now seemed to be lying in wait for this tiny fragile person in whom my happiness was ineluctably bound up. One day I will die and leave her. That is intolerable. But the only alternative is literally unthinkable.

The unbearable intensity of both these emotions is a product of a potent cocktail of hormones, sleep deprivation and strong painkillers, and thankfully they subside somewhat, because it just isn’t possible to live ordinary life like that. What remained was the deepest and most powerful love I could ever have conceived of. Pardon the pun. Before Sophia was born I fretted that I could never feel so strongly for someone else. I was wrong. My second perfect girl stole my heart just as completely as my first.

These two girls deprive me of sleep, cash and freedom. The DINKY lifestyle I alluded to a couple of days ago, of spontaneous nights out, weekends in boutique hotels, reckless consumption of alcohol hasn’t quite disappeared, but it is certainly considerably more elusive. In place of tailored pencil skirts, high heels and a large department to run I have grubby jeans, bags under my eyes and a pile of lovingly cooked food to sweep up off the floor. Again. But I also have Anna and Sophia.somerset house

Anna is more and more developing her own personality, and is such fun to be with and so interesting to talk to. Like me, she loves reading more than anything, and it makes me very happy to share with her the books I loved as a child. Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit are particular favourites at the moment, and I am very much looking forward to introducing her to the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Noel Streatfield in due course. She is thoughtful, gentle, imaginative, creative and fascinated by the world around her. This leads to a lot of ‘whys’, many of which challenge my memories of science GCSE, my limited knowledge of philosophy or my spiritual, ethical and theological convictions. I really don’t know what parents did before Google.
She also feels things very intensely – be that happiness, excitement, frustration or sadness. Her happiness and excitement at Christmas approaching is very infectious, and although it can be upsetting to see her sad, it also makes me happy that, normally, at the moment, her problems are still such that a cuddle and a chat with mummy or daddy can sort everything out.

Sophia may only be eleven months, but she also has her own distinct little personality. She is the sunniest, sweetest-natured baby it is possible to imagine. When she sees me or my husband or Anna after a short absence her whole face lights up, and she waves her arms and legs around, unable to contain the joy which overwhelms her at our presence.
sophia chair
Which is nice. She smiles at strangers in the street, and loves to try and engage with other children from babies at playgroups through to Anna’s schoolfriends. She’s just developed the loveliest habit of crawling up to me as I’m on the floor playing with her and climbing onto my lap, laying her face against my chest momentarily, and then climbing down to carry on with her important baby business. It is so touching and melts my heart every time. She is always on the move, and the cuddles and stories which her sister loved (and loves) are, for Sophia, a waste of time which could be spent crawling, climbing, exploring.

Seeing them together as sisters, developing their own relationship and love for each other also makes me particularly happy.

In her novel, Larger Than Life, Adele Parks has one of her characters, Libby, a young single mum, describe how she feels about parenthood and her daughter: “It’s an amalgamation of a zillion squabbling emotions: joy, rapture, satisfaction, fear, guilt, wonder, relief, worry. Especially worry…But mostly she’s about joy. An indescribable, unrepeatable splash of colourful, wonderful joy.”. Which describes perfectly how I feel about my girls. I look at them and can’t believe I am lucky enough to have them. But I also panic that I don’t deserve them, that no-one can possibly deserve as much happiness as they bring me, and it is all too easy to let the crippling fear of that first night in the hospital creep back in. anna and sophia

That is more of a problem when they are not with me, as now when Anna is at school and Sophia is napping upstairs. When I am with them, their gift of living absolutely in the moment draws me in too and I can be happy just being. With my precious daughters.