…you’ve been wondering where I’d got to, any spare time I’d imagined there might be has been well & truly usurped by these two cuties…
Not to mention this:
Or running my stall, or attempting to declutter via the local car boot sales, or helping my 92 y.o. mother prepare to move house, or preparing for the summer shows! Back in a little while, when things have calmed down and I can walk down the hallway without a kitten wrapped around my ankle…
…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!
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.
It has always been a puzzle to me, how much my lovely, intelligent, adaptable & creative mother hates cooking… but I’m beginning to understand now. The other day, she casually mentioned that until she married my father, back in the immediate post-war years and aged just 21, she had never cooked or prepared a meal in her life. On the first morning of their married life, she woke up in a blind panic because she had no idea what to do about breakfast – not a clue. She had never even fried an egg.
I was somewhat amazed at this revelation; she grew up in a multi-generational household, as her mother died soon after she was born and her father was away on the North-West frontier most of the time, and re-married before too long. So she was raised mostly by her grandmother, who had grand ambitions for her; her grandfather was Chief Engineer at the local paper mill, and her aunt and uncle both had good clerical jobs, so by the standards of the time, they were solid middle-class citizens. Old photographs show a lovely dimpled child who was clearly everyone’s pet, and she went on to grammar school, where she excelled at music in particular. But sadly she failed the Matriculation, by just one point (in art, of all things) so dreams of university had to be shelved. She spent some time pursuing her musical talents, but by that time she had met my father, curate at a local church, and was sternly told that she could either sing OR marry. Luckily for us, she chose to marry…
But no-one ever taught her how to cook. It may well have been that my great-grandmother was living a little in the past, and thought that cooking should be something that cooks did. It’s certainly true that for most of my mother’s teenage years, rationing made ingredients hard to come by, and even harder to stretch, and as they lived in a town, they didn’t have access to the large & productive rural garden that my other set of grandparents had, or the time to work it; running a paper mill in wartime was a dawn-to-dusk, and sometimes beyond, commitment. My great-grandmother pooled the family’s rations to keep them all fed, but discouraged any “help” that might lead to wastage. Thus she failed to pass on the basic skills that would have kept my mother afloat when she suddenly had to feed two people, and sometimes entertain, too, on strict rations and a pretty low income.
However, she persevered; she tells tales of surreptitiously buying recipe magazines, despite not even knowing what half the ingredients were. And plunging into despair when the recipes started with sentences like, “First bone and roll the joint” or “Rub in the lard” – rub it into what, exactly? Your hands? The chopping board? How do you “bone” a joint? The bone doesn’t just pop out… To someone raised to be a blue-stocking, 1940s cookery books might as well have been written in a foreign language; they assumed a level of basic knowledge that she just didn’t have.
But then, rationing dwindled away; my parents spent some years abroad, and along came the “new” cooks – Elizabeth David, Prue Leith, Josceline Dimbleby and the like, who explained things much more clearly, with pictures, and cookery started to become more than just trying to get the most out of very basic ingredients. But just as everyone else was discovering that food could be fun, and “exotic” ingredients and recipes were becoming easily available, my father died, leaving her with just £11 in the bank, living in “tied” accommodation which she had to vacate very swiftly, and with two young children still at home. She found a job, and kept a roof over our heads, but buying & cooking food were just chores she could have done without at the end of every tiring day…
She has always done her best, in every way, and we are all immensely proud of her and grateful to her. But our childhood wouldn’t have been the same without the cries of, “But it doesn’t look like that in Delia!” or “No-one said you had to turn the oven on!” I’m glad that now she’s 90, she has the option of buying good, nutritious meals ready-made, to just heat up. But I’m also sad for her, that something should be a fundamental and creative skill became such a panic-inducing chore. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned; never assume that your kids just won’t need basic skills. Things like knowing how & what to buy and cook can turn a boring necessity into an interesting challenge; knowing to knit, crochet, sew or do basic maintenance on your car can save you lots of money as well as being very satisfying and even creative, and knowing how to swim, or tie an appropriate knot, or what or what NOT to pick in the wild, can save your life.
Life may not turn out the way you’ve planned in every detail, for you or for your loved ones…