A jolly Covid Christmas upcoming…

I dashed into our local big outdoor shopping mall whilst passing on another errand earlier, looking for a few last-minute gifts. What a grim experience… I went into one shop, which was rammed, and the little assistant by the door said to the guy immediately behind me (far too close!) “Please may I remind you, sir, to wear a face covering in the store?” to which he snorted, “It’s not a law, you can’t make me; do you want my money or not?” The poor little lass just looked down; she was evidently used to this & knew not to antagonise. The place was full of aimless plastic & polyester tat and people barging around with no regard for personal space, never mind social distancing, so I left & tried another place, a well-known kitchenware shop, which wasn’t so crowded & didn’t seem to be attracting so many idiots. There were some good things, but at very silly prices. They’ll be half that price next week, and so they should be! So I just bought a couple of everyday necessities and left empty-handed; I don’t go down there very often. It seemed to me that people are behaving every bit as daftly as they normally do at this time of year, totally ignoring the enhanced risk of the mutated virus. I think I’d rather risk disappointing my family & friends than shop with the herd again…

It was also noticeable how slowly everyone was driving. Conditions weren’t that bad; grey & drizzly, admittedly, but no worse than that. But we were trundling slowly along at a very steady & careful 27mph in a 40 zone before the driver in front of me nearly wavered into the kerb & I suddenly realised that it was lunchtime & they’d quite possibly had a bracing snifter or two; I think there’s a lot of that about, with people stressed by what seems like an endless onslaught of bad & worrying news, health, job & money worries and the pressure of trying to keep up appearances over the “festive season”. Or more worryingly, perhaps they weren’t feeling very well…

We are very much amongst the lucky ones this year. We have 3 of our 5 offspring here at home, with a 4th not very far away. Eldest and his delightful partner unfortunately still live in Tier 4 so won’t be joining us, except digitally, but we’re all healthy (so far!) & have plenty of food in the house & at the allotment. I’m sad for all those who will be alone, and those who don’t have enough to eat, never mind presents for the kids. And as for those with no roof over their heads, in this endlessly grim drizzle that will only end as the temperature falls… my heart sinks. What are we thinking, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace with an orgy of buying plastic & polyester tat? Stuffing ourselves with expensive, unhealthily-processed foods when many don’t have enough to eat? And doing what I did today, actually risking our lives by rushing into crowded spaces where some people have no intention of following the guidelines, in pursuit of the “perfect” present?

Count me out of that next year, please… in the meantime, I’m wishing you all a happy & peaceful Christmas and a healthy & merry-hearted New Year.

Tree from our local RSPB reserve, decorated with baubles rescued from the Tip, hand-painted be-glittered fir cones and walnut shells – oh, and the non-recycled odd candy cane!

Putting ideas into practice…

Summer has gone away now… always a bittersweet moment, as the landscape settles down to doze gently through the winter down here in the soft southern English hills. And the rains have come; not just the odd grey day of gentle drizzle, but hammering squalls and vicious gusts tearing the beautiful autumn leaves from the trees. Not quite the weather I was hoping for, to tidy my allotment up for the winter.

So it’s time to put some of those crafty ideas into practice! Something I’ve been gathering resources for for a couple of years: a twined-weave rug made from moth-eaten (literally) & felted old blankets, on a warp of discarded polycotton duvet cover. It’s taken forever to get round to actually starting it; once I started, it just took the odd hour here & there over 3 days. The pile of holey old blankets has shrunk considerably (sorry, Remi, my miniature dachshund “grand-puppy”, who loves to sleep in them) but there are plenty more where they came from!

Rug made from moth-eaten wool blankets and old bedding

The loops of warp visible at the ends will disappear in a day or two, as the tension “relaxes” & evens out. I could use them to anchor a fringe, but I decided this rug should be “crisp”, with the stripes just speaking for themselves, if that makes sense. Although there seem to be about 5 different colours going on, there were actually only 3 blankets; the effect of any given “thread” depends on how I cut the blanket up; all 3 were plaid/check patterned, with different colours criss-crossing. Luckily I have a hand-cranked American strip-cutting machine, which makes light work of demolishing them, as it would have been a nightmare to cut them up with scissors. The bedding for the warp can just be torn into 2″ strips.

I finished it in between making our Christmas cake & pudding (slightly experimental, as I added home-grown quinces into both of these) baking some hob-nobs and cheesy flapjacks, making some “pink” soup (i.e. with home-grown beetroot) from leftover vegetables & gravy, and concocting dinner from what was left of Sunday’s roast. Tomorrow, I may do nothing at all… or I may escape to the allotment, weather permitting!

Miniature version of Experimental Christmas Cake. It worked! Now demolished…

I’m going crackers…

Having just finished dealing with the less-than-perfect apples, and making a batch of delicious medlar jam, I’ve found myself plunging headlong into Christmas again, about 6 weeks before I’m likely to be ready for it…

I’ll add more later, but for those of you, like me, bewildered by how time suddenly seems to speed up as the year turns towards its end and new beginnings, here’s the home-made cracker tutorial I promised you – about a year ago!

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Finally gone crackers…

I’ve been intending to make my own crackers since about September. As I have done for many years, without ever actually getting around to it; somehow I’ve always ended up buying them instead, then getting cross with myself on a number of different levels. In no way are crackers actually necessary, so why I should I find myself stressing about them? They really are spectacularly wasteful items, in terms of money spent and resources used to very little effect. Because I like them, that’s why! And the festive photos just wouldn’t be the same without the silly hats…

If you don’t want crackers that look cheap & flimsy, you’ll end up spending a lot of money on something that’s just going to be torn apart & thrown away. The gifts inside are usually simply left on or under the table, no matter how genuinely useful or sturdy. Some of the hats always tear whilst being unfolded and never make it onto heads. The jokes are usually spectacularly unfunny, with the odd exception, and half the snaps – just don’t.

Anyway, for one reason or another, as we raced up towards the Big Day, crackers had totally failed to appear in our household. On Christmas Eve I braved a last-minute dash to our local, rather upmarket, supermarket, to acquire the last-minute necessities like cream & salad, and swung past the “seasonal” aisle, thinking I might just invest in a box of crackers after all. But somehow all the more-reasonably-priced lines had just vanished and all that was left was an entire wall of top-of-the-range £20 boxes of crackers. Beautifully presented in lavish gold-wrapped boxes with huge glittery bows, but – £20 for a box of crackers? Just – no! However, other shoppers were sighing and muttering, “I suppose I’ll have to…” The cynic in me couldn’t help wondering whether any remaining cheaper boxes had been whipped off the shelves, an impression that was strengthened by the smug little grin on the manager’s face as he stood by the stock-room door watching the boxes being hurled into trolleys. That may be completely unjust, though!

Luckily, for once I was well ahead (by my standards!) with present-buying & wrapping and had the evening earmarked for doing something relaxing. Yes, you’ve guessed it – cracker-making! And whilst they were far from the delightfully-artistic hand-made dainties I’d had visions of making back in September, they did the job and looked OK, and used mostly resources that had no other particular reason for existing – little bits of left-over stuff from many years of present-wrapping. Everyone was mightily relieved not to have to find room for yet another tape measure or bottle-opener, as I’d filled them with “posh” chocs instead, and the wrapping-paper hats were still being worn in the evening. Quick-&-dirty cracker tutorial here, should anyone else find themselves overcome with horror at the thought of paying ridiculous sums of money for such instantly-disposable items.

And in other news, I’ve decided to appropriate another Scandinavian tradition; Christmas breakfast will henceforth be cinnamon buns, now and for ever after! I hope you have all had a lovely Christmas, or whatever festival you are celebrating at this time of the turning of the year. And I wish you all a happy, peaceful, creative and above all healthy 2019…

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Harmless fun…

I’m still running a little below my full operating speed, though pretty well all things considered. I’m very happy to have been told that all of the problem has been safely removed, but not quite so happy to find out that a little “mopping-up” treatment is advisable, just to be on the safe side. However, the safe side is where I’d infinitely prefer to be, in this instance! So I shall be mostly at-home for the next few months; oooh, this is my chance to use up some of my enormous and wonderfully-varied crafting stash…

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Origami stars…

It seems that handmade is enjoying something of a resurgence; those of my friends who sell their lovely wares have been astonished & utterly delighted to have been mobbed at the various craft fairs & shows this year. People have finally realised that something unique and special is worth paying proper money for. I’m not disparaging the efforts of those who slave away in third-world sweatshops, many of whom are highly skilled and deserve much, much more than the pittance they’re getting under our “globalised” economy, but please do support your local craftspeople too, who can’t afford to match the prices of giant corporations but are usually offering something vastly superior, as they’re driven by the need to create something wonderful, rather than the need to produce identikit items at the lowest possible cost in order to cream off vast sums of money.

I’m happy enough reclaiming, recycling, & selling on resources for other crafters & artists to use; I can & have sold things I’ve created, sometimes even on commission, but I find that that seems to place a demand on me that suppresses my creativity. So now I tend to make for myself, my family and my friends only.

So… it’s going to be a handmade Christmas, chez nous. Again! And although we’re wading through a small tide of handmade origami stars already (instructions here) this is the effort that’s made me smile the most so far:

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… a doorway decoration made from the crocheted edging of an old, stained tablecloth, two broken necklaces, two pairs of earrings and some random reclaimed beads & bead-lacing from my stash. The “junk jewellery” came mostly from a jumble sale yesterday; 20p per item (or pair of) items. The tablecloth came in a £10 job-lot of old linen, some of which was saleable as is, and some even usable (6 high-quality, pristine linen & Egyptian cotton pillowcases) but much of which has seen better days. I like to think that the ladies (well, probably) who sat & painstakingly crocheted these lovely edgings so many years ago would much rather see them loved and used, even in pieces, than sat in drawers or worse still, landfill. Full credit to my darling elder daughter for this lovely idea!

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Off now to assess my considerable resources and come up with some other off-the-wall ideas!

Baffled again…

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Sweet old Christmas card

…not for the first time! I was intrigued to see all the posts on social media over the festive season about how a real Christmas tree is so much better for the environment than a fake tree. Well, of course it’s better that people should be encouraging the growing of trees rather than spinning copies up out of aldulterated oil & extruded metal that could certainly be put to better use. But most of the posts I read seemed to imply that a fake tree would only have been used once; i.e. you should have been buying a new fake tree every year… oh dear, I’m on the wrong planet again!

I’ve been getting quite cross with myself; surely it would be horribly patronising of me to think that real people actually do do just that? That they’ll spend serious amounts of money buying a fake tree & decorations in this year’s colourways that are just going to end up at the Tip as soon as it re-opens after the festive break? Of course, there will be those with good reasons for getting rid of a tree; they don’t last forever, they do get scruffy & fall apart eventually. People move or change their homes around and need a tree of a different size or shape. Some won’t have anywhere to keep stuff until next year, or their old decorations hold sad or bitter memories for them. But equally, there will be people out there next autumn who are wondering how they can afford to decorate; perhaps they could be given away rather than dumped? Which might restore the environmental balance a little?

And – things can be re-used in different ways, putting a new slant on old memories. I was amused & intrigued to find a number of our old floral candle-rings, once used as table decorations, now looking glorious in a starring role on this year’s tree. (We have two cats, one relatively young and very playful; the few surviving old glass decorations stayed safely in their boxes this Christmas!) Decorations do somehow hold memories; I often “rescue” vintage ones and you can almost feel the weight of stories accumulated over the years. Sometimes bittersweet, but mostly gentle and goodhearted. Somewhere I have some festive printed crepe paper that my grandfather treasured from his childhood, which was always wrapped around the bucket we had our tree in; he was born in 1883, and grew up, as did my father, then I myself in a close & happy, if sometimes far-flung, family. That piece of paper holds memories of well over a hundred festive Christmasses, though hardly any of them would have involved much money!

And in the meantime, I’ve come up with a different interpretation of the word “Epiphany” – the realisation that I will still be picking Christmas tree needles out of myself and our soft furnishings in July… Happy New Year to you all, and may the recycling/remaking/reusing/making-new-from-old Force be with you!

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A rescued vintage Santa…

Something somewhere isn’t right…

I had to run up to the supermarket on Saturday afternoon, having muddled up what should go into the freezer and what should go into the fridge after doing my market shop on Friday. (Excuse: I’d had a streaming cold since the start of the week.) I could hear carols floating over the allotments from one of the churches as I went up our road, and more carols floating over the green from the direction of the Square. The Christmas lights were flashing frantically, cars were circling the car park like hungry sharks, waiting to pounce on a space, and the supermarket was thronged with customers pushing overloaded trolleys stuffed with cheese dartboards and gallons of wine. Snatches of irritated conversations drifted past my ears…

“No, that was for Christmas Eve, dear. The cream is for Boxing Day!”

“Not that one, you know Jessica’s allergic to red colourants!”

“No, no, the Heston, not the Jamie!”

“Sorry, sir, we’ve sold right out of those now.”

I felt as if I’d landed on the wrong planet, not for the first time in the last few weeks. There was still more than a week to go until Christmas, but the good citizens of East Dorset are stocking up in good time, and by the looks of their trolleys they are all entertaining at least 20 people they desperately need to impress. Me, I’m just feeding 9, with mostly cooked-from-scratch-by-us food, some of it even grown-by-us. It’ll be a joint enterprise, and we’ll have a laugh as we prepare it together and try to cram 9 seats into our kitchen; the conservatory, which is much bigger, would be too cold for my 91 y.o. mother.

I’ve also had occasion to enter that great temple of Mammon, the Giant Shopping Centre in the big city 30 miles east. More flashing lights, lots of must-haves, more eye-watering prices for things that no-one needs, which might just raise a slight smile before ending up in a charity shop or possibly even the bin. Somehow it just all felt utterly surreal, absolutely divorced from any vestige of reality. No hint of midwinter magic, no connection to the Reason for the Season, not a glimmer of anything in any way genuine or personal. All that pressure to spend, spend, spend; all that glitter, no real gold.

We visited a new Scandinavian shop. There were some nice things, some of them definitely referencing genuine Scandinavian Christmas/Yule/midwinter traditions. But mostly, alas, just more plastic tat. I did buy a couple of items, one of them edible, one that will replace something that broke last year. But I can’t shake off a feeling that something underneath all this glitter and fake bonhomie and enforced generosity is terribly, horribly wrong… That this celebration really shouldn’t be all about greed, or even misplaced generosity. In all Northern Hemisphere traditions, it’s a celebration of the return of Light to the world, a promise that the darkness will be vanquished and growth will return. In the Christian tradition, a feast and a gift-giving to celebrate God’s gift to us.

I’ve been reading up about Christmas traditions all around the world. It seems that most people in most countries don’t put up their trees or decorate their houses until about the 23rd or 24th of December, which is how it was in the home I grew up in, in the dim & distant past. In many countries, the main meal & present-giving is actually on the evening of Christmas Eve, with Christmas Day being reserved for church and family visits. Boxing Day is livelier, with sport & dancing back on the menu, but still very sociable & family-based, rather than a rush to spend yet more money at the “sales”. In some countries, gift-giving doesn’t happen until Epiphany, or 6th January, tying in with the visit of the Kings to the baby Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense & myrrh.

I particularly love the Icelandic idea of the jólabókaflóð, or Yule Book Flood, where everyone receives at least one book on Christmas Eve, then retires to bed with chocolate to read it. Of course, by then they’ve done the big meal and the gift-giving, but how much more relaxed & sane than my usual frantic last-minute Christmas Eve scrambles does that sound?!

I suspect we could learn a lot from countries that take a more laid-back & sociable approach to Christmas. Somehow we’ve been railroaded into the spend, spend, spend mentality & the one with the lowest credit card bill is a loser. Not a game I want to play any longer… judging by people’s anxious faces in the mall, I’m not alone.

So I think I’m going to re-think Christmas-yet-to-come (again!) and take a leaf out of other books from all over the world. We’ll start low, just with an Advent wreath at the start of the month, and build up slowly; the tree certainly can, and should, wait until 23rd at the earliest. I shall insist on at least one book all round for Christmas, too, although retiring to bed with it and a box of chocs probably isn’t practical until Boxing Day evening. It’s important to me that we don’t feel “all Christmassed out” by the 26th, as we so often have done; that there’s time for calm reflection, and there are genuine moments of holiness and sheer magic.  Time to listen to the rhythms of the earth and sky, hear the birds sing and the bells ring out.

And of course, time to wish all my friends “out there” a genuinely happy and peaceful Christmas – or whatever midwinter festival speaks best to you.

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An early tree…

Re-used, renewed…

My lovely mother is over 90 years old. She’s had a rough time of it for the last couple of years, since my dear stepfather drifted gently away. The first Christmas after he died, we had to “spring” her from hospital into a nursing home, possibly before she was really ready to come home but considerably after the hospital started trying to discharge her. The second, last year, she’d not long been out of hospital again, and had no heart for celebration; we did her a jolly little Christmas tree for her flat, but she didn’t want us to use the old family decorations, some of which are probably older than I am. “Too many memories,” she said wistfully. So I made some small-scale decorations from various odds & sods I had hanging around, and it did raise a little smile.

So this year, I took her our old fake tree, complete with the decorations we used last year.  Once again, she’s not that long out of hospital (the main reason I’ve been so quiet) & currently has a live-in carer helping her rehabilitation. But this year, once I’d festooned it with last year’s decorations, she said, “It’s hardly got anything on it! Be a darling & fetch the box from the top of the wardrobe…”

So the old decorations came out again. I had to be careful not to overload it, but I think she’d quite have liked to use every decoration & length of tinsel in the box. I caught her beaming at the tree when she thought I wasn’t looking, and she was rather chuffed when we spotted a helper at window of the nursing home opposite pointing the tree out to a resident. She may not be as well as she’d like to be, and still has a long hard road ahead  to regain her relative independence, but something somewhere inside is healing all the same.

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Knit your own Christmas tree…

Not really! But surely I’m not the only person dismayed by the price of “real” trees and the profligacy of a society that just throws out perfectly good imitation trees just because they’re not this year’s colour or shape, or don’t fit the space available any more?

This week it became apparent that a small, pre-decorated Christmas tree might make a nice surprise for someone. So off I went to my favourite emporium, the local Tip, where needless to say they’ve been inundated with redundant Christmas trees over the last few weeks. A few pennies secured me a promising well-taped-up box, which said it contained a 6′ “Woodland Pine” tree. As the box was only about 3′ long, I was fairly sure that this would be easily re-jigged into a smaller tree, and so it proved when I got home; three graduated trunk sections, with lots of slot-in “branches”, taped with different colours according to size. It just took a minute with a pair of pliers to move the fitting that the top piece of the tree sits in from the middle to the lowest section of the trunk, and a small bit of masking tape wound round to make it stay put in the larger tube, making a 3-4′ tree. The smaller branches slot into the lower trunk perfectly well, and the plastic stand was unbroken. It’s not a thing of beauty, but I’ve tied a festive-coloured scarf around it so it’s not visible.

I happened to be visiting the city this morning, and visits to £land and W!lko’s secured me two small sets of battery lights, one clear and one coloured. The intended recipient doesn’t bend too easily, so I thought battery lights would be easier for them to cope with. I’d already bought some pretty acrylic “jewel drops” for our own tree; there were more in the box than we’ll need, so I put some on the little tree to scatter the lights. And I’ve made some felt hearts out of old, moth-eaten blankets, stitched round with gold thread rescued from old needlework boxes, and some of those have found their way onto the tree too.

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However I did bust the budget when it came to topping the tree; it had to be an angel or a star, and I didn’t have anything suitable, or enough time to make something. So off we trotted to a town up the road which has a an all-year-round Christmas shop, where I invested in a pretty little glass angel, which gives the impression of being lit up with an LED or two underneath her. But she is not in any way begrudged; I’m just glad that saving money on the tree itself has allowed me to buy the loveliest tree-topper in town!

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