Advent Weekend

After a moaning blog about hideous November, this is a much more cheerful post about our lovely weekend when, even though it’s only just December, we really got our Christmas on!

On Friday afternoon my husband finished work early, and we collected Anna from school and headed straight into Central London. We went  firstly to the Liberty Christmas shop to choose a couple of new Christmas tree decorations. LibertyMany of our tree decorations are now 15 years old, bought by husband and myself in a pound shop in the West Midlands our first Christmas as independent householders. The ‘house’ was a scruffy little rented flat in Birmingham, but we were so excited to have our own place that we went all out with a real Christmas tree, lugged back on the bus from our local Homebase. Cash was tight on our graduate scheme salaries, and all those pesky electric bills and Council Tax demands which were suddenly our responsibility, hence the decorations all coming from Poundland! They’ve done pretty well, and we have added to them over the years, but this year I was inspired by my lovely blogger pal Chiswick Mum’s family tradition of each choosing a new tree decoration each year. And where better to do that than one of the most beautiful and Christmassy shops in London?

We chose a new star for the top of the tree, and two beautiful baubles. Then we went and wondered around and admired the beautiful Christmas lights around Carnaby Street and Regent Street, and the incredible window displays in Hamleys. hamleysWe then refuelled with some delicious pizza, and bought cookies to eat on the tube home. It was the perfect way to start the weekend, and a much needed reminder for me that going into town is enormous fun and totally do-able, despite what time constraints and anxiety sometimes have me believe.

Saturday was Decoration Day. First of all though we had gingerbread muffins for breakfast. These are a Nigella recipe, and a fairly recent Christmas tradition we instigated a couple of years ago, which are now a must for festive breakfasts.

gingerbread muffins

We were very proud of keeping last year’s Christmas tree alive in a pot in our garden all year long. In fact that was part of our justification for splashing out a little on some new decorations – after all, we wouldn’t need a new tree! However, pride always comes before a fall, and it turns out that we hadn’t been nearly as rigorous as we should have been at turning our little Christmas tree regularly, and whereas the side facing out onto the patio was beautifully green and bushy, the other side was brown and rather denuded. So husband set off with Anna to purchase a new Christmas tree after all. I felt rather sorry for last year’s loyal little tree, so that is going to be our outdoor Christmas tree with its own set of lights. Our new tree takes up around 50% of our living room space, but it is truly beautiful, and is the most delicious smelling tree I’ve ever encountered. It is also adorned with a gorgeous Liberty star, and the homemade vanilla and clementine biscuits which Anna and I always make together.

our tree

It all looks beautiful, and on Saturday night we put the children to bed and then snuggled on the sofa, fire on,  eating a takeaway, and admiring the twinkling lights. Perfect hygge.

Yesterday we went off to our local National Trust property, Sutton House, in Hackney so that the children could meet Father Christmas. It was beautifully done, with an incredibly authentic Santa in a really magical setting. Both children were utterly enchanted. This is a particularly special year as, at nearly 3, Sophia has really developed an understanding of what Christmas is all about (trying to explain the Christmas story did, however, lead to me grappling with the weighty theological issue of ‘but who is God, Mummy?” at 6.45am today), but at 8 Anna is still young enough to really believe in all the magic. Watching their little faces as they listened to Father Christmas’ story of his and Rudolph’s adventures one foggy Christmas Eve was so magical for us too.

Santa

All in all a really fabulous weekend to kick off the Christmas celebrations!

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Let there be peace on earth…

Like most people, I’m not going to be sad to say goodbye to 2016. The political news has gone from bad, to worse, to oh-my-god-what-is-this-living-nightmare, and we’re ending the year in a landscape of such unremitting bleakness that it is hard to see a way back.

christmas-card

Personally I had the challenge of admitting that I was struggling with mental health problems and getting help. I also faced my darkest fear one sunny Saturday afternoon when Sophia had such a severe episode of RAS that I thought she was dead. I can’t write about it without crying. It was the most terrifying episode of my life, and I just pray that it remains so. I’ve also been physically ill a fair amount – tonsillitis, arthritis flare-up, episcleritis, sinusitis, bronchitis. Maybe not unconnected to my mental health and all the external stresses.

It is hard to stay positive, but actually, that is all we can do. On Friday it was my eldest daughter’s school Christmas carol service, held in the local parish church. Anna is in the choir, and had been practising hard, and was also very nervous. Her school do these things incredibly well, and the over-arching message, told through the Nativity story and an array of modern and traditional carols, was one of peace, love and tolerance.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” they sang. I cried and cried – not the socially acceptable welling up that most mums experience on these occasions, but proper gulping sobs. Luckily we were at the back, skulking in case Sophia decided to provide some unscheduled entertainment of her own. It seemed unbearably poignant to hear all these childish voices, see their innocent little faces, and reflect firstly on the children in Aleppo who know no peace, and secondly on the desperately uncertain future that Brexit, Trump and the rise of neo-fascism seem to be creating in the West.

My husband had a different, less bleak, take on it. He pointed out that these children are the future, and here in London at least, they are standing side by side – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu – all religions and none, singing a message of peace and tolerance. If they can grow up with those values and take them out into the world, then the future will not be as grim as it sometimes seems.

Building on this, I took my girls to a Christingle service yesterday. I am a lapsed and questioning Christian, my husband is agnostic; our children are not being brought up with any particular religion. But I do want them to understand a meaning of Christmas that is deeper than lots of chocolate and new toys, and for me at least the meaning of Christmas is that love is the most important gift, that anyone in a position of power should understand and experience vulnerability and that everyone, rich or poor, shepherd or king, is equal. The vicar at this service conveyed these messages beautifully, and Anna was so proud of creating her own Christingle, and enthralled by the beauty of a group of people holding lit candles processing up the church aisle. Had I not been fairly unsettled at the combination of my whirlwind toddler and a lot of naked flames I would have been similarly entranced. She had already eaten her own Christingle.

christingle

There seems to be very little that we, ordinary people, can do to influence events at the moment. All we can do is hope that tiny acts of kindness, making the effort to be positive and optimistic, and raising our children to absorb the values of peace, hope and love, as well as tolerance and inclusivity is enough.

And, if I don’t get the chance to blog again before the weekend – thank you for reading during 2016, and I hope you and your families have a happy, hopeful, peaceful and loving Christmas and New Year.

 

Happy January!

No, the title of this blog isn’t a contradiction in terms. I admit that January isn’t always the easiest month to love, but, if you persevere then you will discover its good points.

I am still basking in a warm glow created by the happiest Christmas I have had for years. Possibly since I was a child myself. It was perfect. No-one was ill, no-one argued, no-one cried. The presents I had chosen for others were well-received, and the presents chosen for me were delightful. We saw family and friends, sang carols round the Christmas tree, went to the circus, snuggled up with new books or DVDs, ate a ridiculously huge amount of delicious food, drank fizz at lunchtime (not every day) and I even got a couple of lie-ins.

I was worried that such a lovely Christmas would make the return to normal this week particularly painful, but it really hasn’t. I think the secret of a contented January is to be nice to yourself. It is a mystery to me why people choose this month to start an extreme diet or a gruelling exercise regime or to dip a toe into teetotalism. I mean, seriously. This is already a month where finances and waistlines are likely to be tight, which involves getting up in the dark every single day, and which is a long, long way from the next holiday. Please don’t make things more unpleasant for yourself.

I admit that I am trying to cut back on eating chocolate with every single meal and several times in between as well. Twice a day is probably sufficient. And we’re all going vegetarian for the week this week, but that is mainly because that is the food I fancy right now, after eating goodness knows how many pigs’ worth of bacon, sausage and ham over the last few weeks. My Christmas dinner contained processed pork in no less than four different forms – sausage meat stuffing, crispy bacon over the top of the turkey, sausages to accompany the turkey and pancetta with the sprouts. But the veggie food this week is about comfort rather than self-denial. On Monday I made a potato, mushroom and parmesan gratin which we had with tomato and avocado salad. Last night was big bowls of warming lentil and spinach daal. Tonight is Turkish style baked eggs, and tomorrow veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. When I’ve run out of energy and inspiration on Friday we’ll probably have pasta with some kind of tomatoey sauce containing any veg still left in the fridge. And cheese. And garlic bread.

The house looked a little bit bare after the decorations came down, so I treated myself to some fresh flowers, and decided to try a little de-cluttering.flowers Anna was off school for an inset day on Monday, so we spent the day clearing and sorting. After a successful cake sale in the autumn to raise money to help refugees, Anna’s next project (decided on by her) is to hold a jumble sale in our front garden in the spring. We’ve already filled four nappy boxes with outgrown toys and clothes and unloved books and knickknacks, and it has never been easier to persuade Anna to part with things she never plays with but develops a sudden violent affection for when I tentatively suggest they should go. Much to my delight, Anna then decided she wanted to play at being a cleaner, so I gave her a duster and off she went.

Yesterday I spent two hours doing an extremely tedious but necessary financial spring clean, which was soul-destroying at the time, but gives me a great feeling of self-satisfaction now it’s done.

I’ve also given my blog a little New Year makeover. I needed to take the Christmas theme down, and much as I love the cupcakes I had previously, it suddenly didn’t feel quite right to go back to, and I tried to find something slightly fresher and crisper – what do you think?

ancient houseFinally, although I know I won’t be saying this by March, I am rather enjoying the colder weather for now. It’s still not really cold for January, but at least I can now justify one of the snuggly cashmere cardis I smugly purchased in the spring sales and which have been sitting, loved but unneeded, in my drawer ever since. Walking through Walthamstow Village this morning also reminded me just how beautiful January can be. Just as long as you don’t try to give up chocolate!

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.

Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.