Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Musing

I find that in this country Advent sometimes gets swallowed up by Christmas leaning over it and breathing down its neck as it were and pinching its territory, which elbows Advent out from having a proper place of its own. It also means that many people have had enough by the time it actually gets to 25th December. I think it's a bit of a shame because there are supposed to be twelve days of Christmas that follow on after the big day itself, as per the carol. And if Christmas is all "mistletoe white and holly red" as the carol in Alison Uttley's "Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas" has it,  jolly and ebullient, in other words, Advent is meant to be more subtle and subdued; possessed of a certain mystery; indigo-blue and violet-toned.

p52 of my 1930s edition of Alison Uttley's "Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas" inherited from my mother-in-law with the carol I am referring to above, that is sung, outside Little Grey Rabbit's house, by the "waits".
Happily the Little Grey Rabbit stories have recently been republished. Less happily, they have been abridged and meddled with "for modern audiences", and have lost much of Alison Uttley's atmospheric descriptive writing in the process, so sadly you will find no "fairies at foot and angels at head" in the modern edition.

Traditionally Advent has been a time for reflection on Life and Where We Are Going not as in "Where are we going next week or tomorrow?" but "Where are we going on our whole Journey Of Life?" I think the old pattern has something to be said for it because life is always a mixture of stuff, some of it heart-warming and cheerful and some of it less cheerful and rather less heart-warming, and it's actually easier to let one's hair down when Christmas arrives, even if there are things that in truth don't feel so jolly, if one has been able to spend a bit of time thinking through the reality of things and acquired a bit of "peace on earth" in the heart as a result.
I may be on my own but I do find myself asking myself at this time of year, "Am I where I was this time last year? What has changed? And has that been for good or bad? What might I hope to change by the time I get to next Christmas? What might this Christmas be a last opportunity to do? What do I really want to celebrate in my heart of hearts this December?" And I try to give these questions a bit of head-and-heart time in Advent because even if they aren't resolved, (and they usually aren't) the process of considering them, as I say, can bring a bit of "peace on earth" to the potentially frazzled soul. I think they come to the surface of my mind at this time of year because I am conscious of the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one approaching fast on the horizon.

The Christian tradition used to major on encouraging this kind of thinking in Advent and it was always observed as a season of fasting and restraint. That has long gone out of the window for most in the 21st C, although for those of us, like Mrs T, who have a serious Christmas cake habit and who may still want to fit into their jeans come January, possibly the fasting and restraint thing in Advent might have something to recommend it!

Anyway this is a rambling way of saying, let's hear it for Advent as a time when, along with all the anticipatory Christmas stuff, we might make a few oases of space for reflection and pauses for thought. Oases like that may not be going two a penny in your household but I defy you not to carve out just a few minutes from time to time over the next few weeks.

And in these pages I thought I might post a few little ideas that I find help me make oases for just "being and reflecting" and I hope might help you too, if you like the idea, that is.

So first up is making an Advent Wreath. Traditionally in homes and churches, the passage of Advent is marked by lighting a candle for each week in a wreath of evergreen leaves. The candles are traditionally blue or purple and there is sometimes a white one as well in the middle to light at Christmas itself. I say "wreath" and often it is just that, but strictly mine is not a wreath. It's more of an arrangement in water, as over the four weeks of Advent, an actual wreath, in the warmth of the house, dries out and can look rather sad, by the end of it. Even with my method you might need to replace a few sprigs by week four but it should last pretty well in a coolish place.

Try it! It's extremely cheap and very easy to make and rather therapeutic to enjoy, once made.

When I was a child, my mother used to make one of these every year and it was a lovely winter Sunday tea-time treat to sit by the open fire, toasting crumpets or thick white toast on a toasting fork by the light of these candles. Of course, by the end of Advent there was rather more light, by which to check that you hadn't burnt the crumpets, than at the beginning, when only one candle was lit!. Although we didn't keep the candles alight for all that long at a time - my mother was too frugal to want to keep them burning all evening, it gave a lovely rhythmic pattern to these weeks and "space to be" even though at six or seven I wouldn't exactly have phrased it like that. Sometimes I think that this can be quite a pressured time for children as well as adults, with parts to learn and perform for Nativity plays and carol services and all the end of the Christmas term hustle and bustle and high jinks that go on. So even if your children are high as kites on Christmas anticipation, you might find they too will be happy to sit for a few minutes in candlelit dark and just "be". And if they aren't, save it just for yourself, after they are tucked up in bed.

What you need to make one:

a watertight ceramic or glass bowl - I am using a small glass straight-sided souffle dish about 6" in diameter with (of course!) a crocheted bowl to fit snugly round it but this is optional!

a block of florists' foam - the green sort for fresh flowers not the browny grey sort for dried flowers

a sharpish knife but nothing too cheffy or lethal required!

four tallish dinner candles, preferably blue or purple ones and if you like, a white one as well

greenery from your garden or from a woodland walk - don't worry that there are no flowers in the garden at the moment - you don't want flowers. You are after evergreen stuff - bits of fir tree or pine, sprigs of bay or rosemary, some trails of ivy, privet or box snippings from a hedge or any other evergreen material that looks promising, even if neither you nor I have a clue as to its name! My mother always avoided holly for the Advent wreath as that was kept for Christmas and I've always followed suit but that's just personal preference.

anything else you have to hand that you want to add in - a few seed-heads or a pine cone or two - nothing too bright or decorative though - it's meant to be subdued in tone with just the light of the candles as the focus of brightness

florists' wire to attach to pine cones etc

a pair of secateurs or strong scissors

a bucket of water


What you do:

First you need to fit your florists' foam into your bowl. Ideally you want it to squeeze in quite tightly so that it stays put while you soak it rather than floating off by itself, so trim it roughly to size by eye with your knife and squeeze it in to your bowl. It cuts really easily. Err on the size of too big rather than too small. It won't fit precisely probably but that doesn't matter. As you can see in the pic, I've got a few gaps at the sides but the foam is firmly wedged in and there's plenty of room to get creative. Now put the whole thing in a bucket of cold water and leave it to soak.

Once thoroughly soaked (several hours or overnight) you are ready to assemble things.

Push in your candles to the depth of about an inch, keeping them nice and upright and not too close to one another.

Cover your work-surface with plenty of newspaper as the greenery can shed quite a bit of dust and dirt (as well as the odd creepy-crawlie!) I find it's best to cut more greenery than I will need so that I can be selective about the bits that will work best. Spread out your pile of greenery on the newspaper so that you can see what you've got to play with and cut off shortish sprigs and twigs and insert them into the soaked foam around the candles to make a nice evergreen bower for them. Angle the sprigs away from the tops of the candles so that they won't catch light when the candles are lit. I don't strive to emulate a professional florist's effect with this but go for something fairly naturalistic and informal but just play around for the look you like. The idea is to hide the florists' foam from view though obviously.

Once you've got the greenery how you want it, add any extra bits and pieces you want, like pine cones, seed-heads and the like, twisting a bit of florists' wire onto the bases so that you have something to support them on.

I have used a mixture of little pine cones, (two sorts), some little gall apples collected by H from the school playground when he was about five or six and some funny castanet-like seed-heads culled from the ground of a car park in Andalucia when on holiday there, one summer, years ago. There are also a few pieces of cinnamon stick and a poppy seed-head. Use whatever you have to hand or have collected on walks during the year. Shells would be nice if you live near the sea or have some from a seaside holiday. Or of course you can add a few more glittery bits if you want something slightly less naturally austere.

I've left mine plain, apart of course, from the crochet bowl I made to measure to fit snugly over my souffle dish! You can't see much of it but it just adds a touch of colour to match the stripy candles. All very Advent blues and purples apart from a single accent stripe of my favourite magenta!

That's it! Wait until it's dark and then light one of the four candles this week, two next, three the week after and four once we reach the fourth Sunday of Advent just before Christmas. And if you've got room for a fourth candle in the middle, light all four blue ones and the white one at Christmas itself.

Five minutes' reflective candle-quiet in the stillness of a winter afternoon or evening can be very therapeutic.

Happy Advent!

Ed to add: This post is linking in with Floss's "Pause in Advent" series. Click on the button in my sidebar to explore Floss's lovely idea on her blog Troc Bloc & Recup and for a list of links to other participating blogs.


  1. As I work for two bishops, Advent is an extremely busy time of the year! I like you, reflect on what I was doing this time last year, and this usually happens while I am putting the tree up. I think of people that I have lost, and people that I have found. By the way, the candles look fantastic and I will definitely be doing this at some point this week. Thank you for your wonderful blog. Chel x

  2. Dear E
    A very thought provoking and interesting post, echoing the quiet and reflective time of advent. I think your advent wreath is beautiful.
    Best wishes

  3. This is a very helpful post. It is too easy for me to let time speed on by without gathering my chicks around and simply meditating on the Christmas story and its significance. And without that, for me, Christmas can become a time of weariness and stress. Thanks for combining your wisdom with a very practical way to implement it:)

  4. Another beautiful post E. Happy Advent to you and yours.... xxx

  5. One of my boys used to receive an Advent Candle every year and as we could never keep up with the daily lighting, we used to just light it every Sunday evening and of course as children there was the Blue Peter advent wreath made from coathangers but these weren't as decorative as yours.
    Wise words Elizabeth; we will have to make time for reflection and thought each evening when we open our Advent calendar. A x

  6. I wish I'd done this at the weekend! I still might give it a go - it's right up my street, and I love the idea of some thoughtful reflecting. Although we go with the bonkers 'let's get it on' with starting our Christmas as early as poss, we still soak up everything festive with relish, and Advent seems just perfect as a calm traditional thing to enjoy. Thanks Elizabeth for this post.x

  7. What a super post! I'm delighted to meet you - anyone who begins with Little Grey Rabbit has to be on my bloglist... I will link to your post in my Advent sidebar, and if you would like to do any further posts and link them to the Pause in Advent, please feel free to borrow the 'logo' picture and make a link to my blog or to a specific post.

  8. What a lovely, thoughtful post. I really enjoyed reading it, and will return another time to ponder. I suspect cats and Advent wreaths and candles don't mix, but I'll keep one in my heart! God bless you, my dear.

  9. Hi TT! GREAT idea! If I don't find the Advent ring, I'm going to make one! Thank you for the good words and practical helps!
    Would you tell us about the Christmas cakes? I'm curious!
    It's fun to pause with you this year!

  10. That looks really good. I can never think about advent candles without remembering the excitement I felt as a child when the fourth candle got lit on the tinsel and coathanger Blue Peter advent candle holder! I've been feeling very nostalgic about everything Christmassy related today. Love Judy.

  11. I really like this post, it made me stop and think. Thanks for reminding us to pause and reflect. In my family, when growing up we used to have an austere December (no Sunday roasts - just soup and spuds) in the run up to Christmas which made you appreciate Christmas day even more. I'm not sure if we'll manage that this year but I definitely think it's a worthwhile thing to do.

    I love your advent wreath, so simple and beautiful. Nature speaks for itself.

    Helen xx

  12. I was very interested to read that traditionally Advent is a time of musing and reflection - this gets so lost amongst the Christmas mayhem! I tend to do my thinking and planning and reflection around New Year. I remember how excited I used to get when the advent candles were lit in church as a child. My parents always lit a single advent candle at our evening meal and we would have to keep an eye on it and make sure it didn't burn down further than the correct day!

    I like your wreath very much - I am fairy certain my Grandma used to do this as she would have a five-candle and greenery arrangement as the centrepiece for the Christmas lunch table. Lovely post Elizabeth. x

  13. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak up for the keeping of Advent. Really, Christians need to push back against the world and its hurry-shop-buy-stress-crash tendencies.

  14. Very interesting post, I find candle light extremely soothing and calming, your advent wreath is's important to have this time of reflection and thoughtfulness, and I love 'Little Grey Rabbits Christmas', it was one of my childrens favourite stories when they were small.
    Kim x

  15. Thank you for this post. I just happened upon your blog. I agree, Advent is an important time before Christmas. It is a time for reflection, preparation and sharing. I have had wreaths or candles in a row. We have used Advent books with
    readings and prayers before lighting our candles. There are also many Advent Carols. Christmas Carols should really be sung at Christmas and after. Happy Advent.


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