Monday 31 December 2012

On The Seventh Day of Christmas

Not seven swans a-swimming but ...
... a single swan candlestick, that I bought twenty years ago or more and found the other day in the back of a cupboard. It really needs a spherical candle to reinforce the swan effect but I don't have one!

... and a vintage New Year's card I bought a few months ago in Cologne. Toadstools, it appears, according to my German blogging friend, Natalie, are traditional German symbols wishing good luck at New Year so I am pleased these happy gnomes know what's what and have made their home in one!

2013 hovers on the threshold of being and I find myself contemplating the coming year with a mixture of happy anticipation (so many creative projects waiting to see the light of day and a whole new year to complete them in!) and slightly anxious uncertainty (some big decisions and choices around work and priorities loom on the horizon). I am a perpetual worrier so perhaps it's not surprising that I peep into the New Year a little tentatively. 

New beginnings were always unclouded to me as a child  - I loved the arrival of the New Year in January with the novelty of a new number to write in the date and I also loved the beginning of the academic year in September with its opportunities for sharp, new, coloured pencils and pristine exercise books, unmarred by careless writing and crossings out and without the dog-eared corners that they would inevitably acquire in subsequent months, but I seem to have lost that a bit as I've got older so although all my Twelve Days of Christmas Blessings come from the heart, this seventh one particularly so.

May you be blessed with serenity as the old year glides, swan-like, into the new one; may your plans be blessed with optimism, your hopes with possibility and if you have worries or anxieties that seems to cast long shadows, may you be blessed with tranquillity in facing each day as it comes. May you be blessed also with companionship in setting out on the journey that this New Year begins and may there always be light and shared laughter to illumine the way ahead.

Happy New Year!
Bonne Année!
Herzliche Neujahrsgrüße!

E x

Sunday 30 December 2012

On The Sixth Day of Christmas

Not six geese a-laying but six broken glass baubles in spent perfume bottles.

These perfume bottles are not anything special - I just liked their shapes and didn't want to put them in the recycling bin. Washed out and with a few ancient broken glass baubles perched in the necks they have a whole new beautiful lease of life. The broken sides of the baubles are hidden from view and shine as happily as they did in their former life spinning whole and unbroken on the Christmas tree. A lovely metaphor for the potential in what seems empty and broken and only good for the recycling bin or landfill.

If there are spent and empty places in your life, may you be blessed by them being bearers of unexpected newness and possibility. May you be blessed even by those things which seem apparently broken beyond mending, giving you back beauty and light in unforeseen ways.

Saturday 29 December 2012

On The Fifth Day of Christmas

Not five gold rings but three little golden gingerbread houses with glassy windows, made out of Fox's Glacier Mints.

H and I made these together in the run up to Christmas to eat at home and to give away. Next time, I will remember to make chimneys, as the absence of same meant that my happy idea of lighting little candles inside, so that light shines from the windows, only lasted for about five seconds before the candles went out so apologies for the rather poor pic quality but it had to be a speedy snap or nothing!

They are a sweet-tasting reminder of all that's lovely about being at home together, partly and importantly because of the companionable process of making them and partly because the end products are these endearing, if rustic, little houses.

Who would not want to live in one of these where, instead of mangy moss on the roof tiles, there are tiny Smarties; thick royal icing acts as mortar instead of concrete; the window panes never need cleaning because they are made out of boiled sweets and if you're hungry you could nibble on one of the gingerbread walls?! Fairy tale stuff indeed. Our homes are not always straight out of fairy tales - mine certainly isn't, but wherever they are and whatever their characteristics, they are important - places to belong and feel secure and we all need that both literally and figuratively.

May you be blessed with happiness in your home; may it be to you and yours, a place of safety, comfort and rest. May you never feel lost in the world or at sea in the changing horizons of life but know that you belong and your life has purpose and meaning.

Friday 28 December 2012

On The Fourth Day of Christmas

Not four colley birds (which, I understand, was the old English term for blackbirds) but four rather gaudy birds made from felt, sequins, beads and little bells. I made a whole flock, for a fund-raising effort, a number of years ago. These ones were left over and they migrate to my white-painted, twig-in-a-pot tree every December.

They are sadly silent, apart from their tinkly, bell feet, but their exotically coloured plumage, (such fun to stitch!), means they really ought to have a song to match! Christmastime is a time when everyone hums a carol or two, even if singing is not their thing. And because it's always good to have a song in one's head ...

May you always be blessed with a metaphorical song in your heart that keeps you looking ahead with expectancy and looking back with a smile. A song that hums in the background and ripples across the present moment in happy harmony.

Thursday 27 December 2012

On The Third Day of Christmas

Not three French hens but three pom-pom snowmen, H and I made, a few years ago.

Snowmen always seem to me to be potentially lonely characters - stuck out there in the cold, usually solitary and with an inevitable, built-in forlornness when they thaw. One of the reasons I love Raymond Briggs' "The Snowman" so much, is because it counters that slight aura of loneliness so entrancingly. These snowmen are not solitary but a little companionable group of like-minded souls. Not quite sure what is going on in their three woolly heads - possibly not a lot by the look of it (!) but even if they look as though they have been at the sloe gin, on the way to their window sill, or are just rather foolish, they seem on the same wavelength as one another and that reminds me of how important it is to have friends who "get us" and how grateful I have been, how grateful I am, to meet like-minded souls in my life.

May you always be blessed with the companionship of others who understand you and who share where you are coming from and may that companionship give you a light step in all you do.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

On The Second Day of Christmas

Not two turtle doves which, coincidentally, Mary and Joseph brought as gifts to the temple in Jerusalem in thanksgiving for her firstborn baby, an event celebrated at the traditional feast of Candlemas, but presents such as we may have found under our Christmas trees and in our stockings over the last couple of days.

It's always lovely to give and to receive presents and I really dislike articles like one I came across before Christmas, where people are asked to talk about "their worst Christmas presents" which seem to me to encourage a very self-centred way of looking at gift-giving and gift-receiving. Of course some presents will be more welcome than others or more suitable for the recipient than others but that isn't the point. And sometimes the best presents, really are, not the wrapped ones - gifts of shared laughter, friendship, a helping hand or a kind word when we need it. The smile of a stranger or support of a colleague. The patience of family and friends when we are stressed or under pressure. Forgiveness for when we mess up. And, of course, the good news about those gifts is that, although they can be costly to give, they won't make a hole in your bank balance or leave you with a pile of debts in January.

May you be blessed in all you give and in all you receive this Christmas.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

On The First Day of Christmas

In the Twelve Days of Christmas ... Christmas Blessings.

This is a watercolour painting with raised details highlighted with gold embossing powder that I made as a Christmas card twelve years ago for D (without the text across the image).
 I'm using it as a button in my sidebar to link to the little collection of posts that follow,
(if I can get my technologically-challenged brain to make it work!)
Blessing is an ancient form of well-wishing that does not belong exclusively to any one religion, although Christianity has always been big on it as a concept. One of my favourite writers is John O'Donohue, poet, scholar, writer and Roman Catholic priest from the Celtic mountains of Connemara in Ireland. Shortly before his untimely death at the age of 52, he wrote of the need "to retrieve the lost art of blessing" in our society and I think he's onto something. Blessing is well-wishing at its best. It expects nothing, asks for nothing in return and offers just itself and lovingkindness for the one blessed.

To which end I thought I would post a series of twelve short posts in the next twelve days with an image or two and a blessing in each, for all of you kind readers, both known and unknown, as a little Christmas gift to you. They will be short and non-specific as far as any expectation of shared beliefs or spirituality is concerned but I hope you will like them. Simple but heart-felt wishes for a very happy Christmastide and 2013.

So on the first day of Christmas ... not a partridge in a pear tree but icing on the cake.

Most of everyday life is like the fruit part of Christmas cake - the routine fabric of our days that sustains us, keeps us going and is full of hidden, good things as well as may be the odd raisin pip. But at Christmas, plain fruit cake wears its extravagant cloak of marzipan and icing - not needed exactly because actually, fruit cake is very good on its own, but just there for the sheer exuberant joy of it. So this first blessing wishes you that sort of joy - sheer, over-the-top-joy for its own sake.

May unmeasured joy fill you, heart and soul, today on Christmas Day and spill over into the days to come. May it surprise you, even when you think Christmas has ended and may you know the contentment and strength that comes from having known such joy, in the coming year.

E x

Sunday 23 December 2012

Advent Ending and Christmas Coming!

Every year in the week before Christmas, ever since H was tiny, he and I have got out our little collection of "santons", or Christmas crib figures, and the homemade stable that goes with them and set up our own version of the back of the Bethlehem inn. Actually, it's more of a draughty shed than a stable. It's made from a reconditioned (or do I mean upcycled?), wooden skittle box, scraps of hardboard and an off-cut of timber for the base. The base is covered with "grass paper" snaffled from D's model railway supplies, to add a touch of outdoor verisimilitude, and it has three pine trees from the same source, whose twisted wire stems go into small holes drilled into the base board. There wasn't quite enough wood to make solid walls so the wind blows in rather less cosily than I feel it ought to, but may be this just adds a touch of realism! You will not find a reference to a ladder, to enable access to the loft of the Bethlehem stable, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, but who's to say there wasn't one? It enables the seraph to get up there when his wings are tired!

"Santons" are a tradition from Provence and ours come from various trips there over the years. The idea of such figures began in Italy, I think, where St Francis of Assisi started the tradition of setting up Christmas crib scenes. It was taken up assiduously in France, particularly in the south, in the 18th C, during the Revolution, when it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas in churches and people set up tableaux representing the Christmas story in their own homes instead.

Along with the principal players, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and three kings, people wanted to personalise the scenes and include the folk, not just of Bethlehem in the 1st C, but representatives of those they saw around them every day, with whom they lived and worked.

So, in a traditional set of santons, you will find, along with the standard male shepherds, the shepherdess like Marcel Pagnol's "Manon", in "Manon des Sources", the "bûcheron" or woodcutter with his packed lunch tied up in a spotty handkerchief and a bundle of wood on his shoulder, the melon-seller with his basket of rosy, orange-fleshed melons (from the local, melon-growing centre in Cavaillon, of course!), "la marchande de limaçons", the woman who sells freshly-cooked, Provençal snails from a tureen with a ladle, "la gitâne", the gipsy woman, with a tambourine and a baby of her own on her back, the lavender-seller with her apron filled with bunches of the dried scented flowers, from the blue summer fields of Provence, that stretch out far and wide below the peak of Mt Ventoux.

You will find the shepherd's wife, complete with her half-spun spindle of wool. The traditional ox and ass are joined by a cockerel, a hen and chickens and a wild boar from the slopes of Les Alpilles.  The camel, of course, is there but you might also meet an elephant and also the camel boy who looked after the animals en route because how else did they travel in reality?! You will meet the woman with a basket of new-laid eggs and the man with a hamper of poultry on his head. An old woman with a broom joins the throng, (like the Russian babushka), busy with her sweeping, but intrigued by all the excitement to come and see what's afoot for herself.

My favourite of all, I think is "le ravi" - "le ravi" is the Charismatic, the one who is ecstatically filled with joy at the arrival of the baby Jesus and who holds up his arms in an attitude of praise and wonder, overcome by the enormity of God arriving among humanity.

As with icons, which are "written" (never drawn or painted, strictly speaking) according to a set of rules, while allowing for each iconographer's interpretation, but in a strictly limited way, traditional santons have a prescribed form and traditional colouring.  They come in various sizes and may be made of various materials but are most often made out of clay or wood. Mine are clay. The carefully moulded figures are shaped in special moulds, touched up by hand, biscuit-fired and then painted. A traditional maker of santons is known as a "santonnier" and there are some very skilled ones. My santons, are quite small, the larger upright ones each measure only about 7cm high. They have been collected over a period of about twenty five years and all come from the same santonnier workshop in Graveson, a little village near St Rémy de Provence. The workshop is, (or was), run by a lovely and very gifted husband and wife team, M et Mme Rozier. It was still in business when I was last there a few years ago but it doesn't have a website or anything that I can give you a link to.

When H was small, he was enthralled by going to visit this workshop and M Rozier, the santonnier, very kindly allowed him to help mould a couple of figures and gave them to him to take home. At two and a bit, H, not surprisingly, had not a word of French and M Rozier speaks no English, but they got on like a house on fire and I will never forget the two of them, heads bent over the little models as they worked on them together. We took them home with the clay still damp, of course, from the moulding, and they had to be "fired" in the "four" of the kitchen of the "Mas" where we were staying at the time. Unfortunately the oven could not be persuaded to reach the 1000℃ required for biscuit firing(!) so they are slightly more fragile than the professionally finished ones! But it's really special to have them and so far, my amateur firing (and painting) efforts have stood the test of time.

I don't, by any means, have a complete set. There are many others: "le vigneron", of course, the wine-grower, musicians playing tambourines, pipes and drums and other tradesmen, there is the hunter and the fishwife, the washerwoman and "la sage femme et enfant". There are some whose significance I don't know and who have special names - "Barthoumieu" and "Gigie", "Margarido" the old lady who rides a donkey and the elderly couple, arm in arm, "Grasset et Grassette". There are dodgy dealers as well as upright burghers among the throng, because it isn't just  the good and the religious who are welcome in Bethlehem, so the poacher and the thief are also part of the crowd, although traditionally the journey made in this joyful company, changed the hearts of the ne'er do wells! No one is excluded - the crowd includes the young and the old, the frail and the hale and hearty, the good and the bad, the pious and the sceptical.

Everyone brings a gift for the child - something they have made or harvested or grown. And some figures who apparently have empty hands bring unseen gifts like the joyful dancing of "la danseuse", the silvery fluting of those playing "la musette" or the rapturous worship of "le ravi" or "les orants" who are a pair of kneeling worshippers.

The lovely thing about them is that the figures invite interaction. They do not remain static, once initially set up, but move about. The kings travel along a bookshelf as Epiphany draws closer. They are still some way off as of today but they are slowly making their way past the poetry books to reach the stable hopefully by 6th January!

The villagers crowd in and mill about among the trees and along the filing cabinet on which the little set-up stands and people visiting are often tempted to rearrange the figures at whim. That's as it should be and I love coming in to my study and finding that, perhaps, the melon-seller is no longer outside the stable but inside it, hobnobbing with the donkey, or the gipsy is cosily comparing new-mother-notes with Mary. The fierce, "sanglier" or wild boar sometimes lurks moodily behind the pine trees and sometimes he is happy to lie down benignly with the chickens! The angel mostly perches on the stable roof outside, singing his song of peace and goodwill, but occasionally he hives up in the loft of the stable near the battery-powered light bulb. Even angels need a break sometimes!

And along with the quaintness and charm of the idea of ordinary folk mingling with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, is the underlying belief that the baby born in a stable does not belong to the pages of a fairy tale book but is the God who came to be a part of ordinary life with us. Ordinary life then and ordinary life now, in all its glory and all its sorrows. And, as we have seen in the news recently, and as we know in our own lives, life has plenty of both. You may, or may not, feel that that belief is one you share, but that is what Christmas at its heart is celebrating.

And if it's true, then it is indeed a miracle worth going to town for in our hearts. Even a little town, lying still and silent in the hills of the Judean countryside where, as the carol has it, "the wondrous gift is given", the gift of the one, in whom rested and in whom, for many, still rest, "the hopes and fears of all the years".

I know it's the fourth Sunday of Advent today and I am linking in again to Floss's A Pause in Advent but because of the way the days fall, it is the Eve of Christmas Eve too, so ...

... Happy Eve of Christmas Eve to you all! 

E x

Thursday 20 December 2012

Happy Hooky Christmas Wreath

By now, Advent is giving way to Christmas proper, which happily means going to town on a few decorative fronts. I never throw out Christmas decorations, unless seriously broken, so every year the box gets heavier because every year I can't resist making additions! This year's principal addition is ...

 ... a happy hooky wreath inspired by Lucy of Attic 24's beautiful one here.

I think this idea of Lucy's is absolutely inspired - the perfect excuse to make lots of decorative hooky bits and put them together in a joyous feast of colour and cheer.

Like Lucy, I used a polystyrene ring as the base and the most tedious bit of the project was making the base cover. I was very tempted to go the Lucy stripy route but as the strip needed to cover the ring is surprisingly long - about three quarters of a metre - I decided, in the interests of speed of production, to keep it plain. One ball of yarn and a hook travel anywhere and everywhere much more easily than lots of colours and I needed to whip this out and add a few rows whenever a few minutes presented themselves in order to get it done. I wanted a nice, dense background so I hooked it in double crochet (UK terms) but I think it might have been better to use treble crochet or half treble (UK terms) as it doesn't have as much stretch as it might and the fit is a bit wrinkly in places, not that this is exactly noticeable in the finished article. It looks very plain indeed unadorned but of course unadorned is just what it was not going to be!

Such fun with making the hooky decorations! The flowers are made from Sue's lovely pattern for felted crochet flowers here. I made them with thick German felting wool and a big, 7 mm, hook. I then just stuck them in the washing machine on a 40℃ cycle and, hey presto! they emerged all gorgeous and felty!  The first ones I made, I washed at 60℃, which was a bit too high a temperature and all the stitch definition was lost. They are not wasted - going to use them for something else but these ones are better.

The holly is Lucy's Jolly Holly pattern which I tried last year but got in a pickle with. This year I was determined not to be beaten by it and they've come out OK. Not quite the right green for holly, I know, but I wanted this project to be a use-what-you-have-project which meant using a green I had, not one I didn't. And apart from the polystyrene base ring purchased for £1.99 from Hobbycraft, I didn't buy anything to make this at all.

The pom-poms are made with a little kit I had for Christmas when I was eight and have gone on using ever since. They are deliciously soft and the colours are yummy - leftover Sublime Baby Cashmere Merino Silk from my Summer Has Come From The Sunny Land Blanket. They make nice fluffy centres for the felted flowers and have filled in any gaps not otherwise covered by the flowers and holly.

On the flower petals I stitched beads salvaged from broken jewellery, squirrelled away over the years, and the holly berries are scarlet wooden beads from a bead set I had when I was four and which I used to thread on shoe-laces, to make necklaces and the like. My frugal mother saved them, and when I muttered about "those wooden beads I had when I was small", lo and behold, she produced them! My mother never throws anything out. I am so grateful!

A few tiny coloured bells from a jar of assorted decorative bits and bobs in my sewing basket were added here and there, a little bunch of felt balls that came on some packaging found a happy home among the pom-poms, the whole lot was stitched in place and finished with a velvet bow and voilà!

One happy hooky Christmas wreath!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Advent Reading

As part of trying to carve out a bit of space in all the busyness of this time of year I have been dipping into some of my favourite Christmas books. All old friends of some standing.

1 "Christmas At Fairacre" by Miss Read - a compendium edition which contains an extract from "Village School" and some of her other heart-warming Christmas stories "Village Christmas", "The Christmas Mouse" and "No Holly For Miss Quinn". A slightly different but similar edition to mine is available here. I've read and reread these stories, time and again, but their allure remains, partly because in different ways they all manage to evoke a sense of the possibility of quiet, contented serenity at the heart of all the bustle. One of my favourite snippets is in "The Christmas Mouse" when old Mrs Berry stands in the old-fashioned, white-painted kitchen of her small cottage, on Christmas Eve, looking at the rain pouring down outside, into which her daughter and two small granddaughters, have ventured, to catch a bus for a last minute Christmas shopping trip. Alone in the quiet, homely kitchen with its wooden armchair, cherry-red curtains and old, blue and white tiles, Mrs Berry puts her hand on the comforting teapot and finds it reassuringly still hot enough for her to pour another cup of tea, to drink in peace, by the fire, before she tackles the washing up. She muses on the past with its sadnesses, acknowledging them but not letting them take over; she is grateful for the present moment; she looks forward happily to all the joy of the coming day. There's just something so anchored about the little scene, so devoid of stress and hassle, so unambitious, contented and contained. Moments of quiet, homely solitude like this can be incredibly lovely sources of Christmas joy, especially when set among all the more sociable, crowded, noisy stuff. I think, anyway.

2 "A Country Christmas" edited by Johnny Coppin. I think this is now out of print but you can get secondhand copies here. This is a delightful compendium of Christmas-themed extracts from novels and stories, Christmas poems, carols, and an amazing collection of country Christmas traditions and folklore from the British Isles that you can dip into, whether you have five minutes or an hour. Many of the stories are very funny such as the anecdote told by June Smith in an extract from "A Devon Country Christmas" of the time "Granny" came for Christmas and the author had forgotten to ice the cake until on her way to bed on Christmas Eve. Conscious that "Granny" currently tucked up in bed with hot cocoa, would be disappointed not to be able to partake of a properly iced cake on the morrow, she goes back down to the kitchen and whips up a bit of icing for the "old cake" engagingly referred to in the masculine gender. "He" (the cake) needs something to decorate him but late on Christmas Eve, what is there? With inspiration born of necessity, "Father" goes out to the shed and comes back with a "baccy tin" full of ball bearings. Polished up, they do the job of silver dragees rather well! At teatime the following day the cake is much appreciated by "Granny" who has two large slices. The ball bearings do not, as you might think, break her teeth - she has none - but there are nonetheless unforeseen and humorous consequences! There is lots more, including part of Dylan Thomas's wonderful "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and a poignant but entertaining extract from Winifred Foley's "A Child In The Forest" about her longing for Father Christmas to bring her a doll that her family cannot afford.

3 "Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas" by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest. As previously indicated in these pages, this is one of my all-time favourite books. The unabridged version. Amazon has both the modern abridged edition and some secondhand, unabridged ones here. Atmospheric and utterly enchanting. The descriptions and images of old Mrs Hedgehog and Fuzzypeg, trudging home with their Christmas shopping in the snow, Hare catching snowflakes on his tongue and racing down the snowy hillside in moonlight on the new scarlet sledge, until his own shadow frightens him, are magical. Fuzzypeg getting rolled into a snowball, and emerging, still eating the slice of bread and jam he was consuming beforehand, makes me laugh as much in my forties as it did when I was four!

4 A slightly more recent acquisition is "Babushka" retold by Sandra Ann Horn with illustrations by Sophie Fatus. It's published by Barefoot Books who produce the most beautiful children's books - I did my best to keep them in business single-handed when H was small! The paperback version is available directly from Barefoot Books here. The story is a traditional Russian fairy tale that tells of the Russian Babushka or Granny who "kept busy all the time because there was an empty place in her heart and it made her sad to think about it".

She is so busy dusting and polishing and cleaning that the Christmas star which peeps in through her window, hides again behind a cloud in case it gets wiped away like the mark on the window pane and the Christmas angel who sings of good news, flies away again on being told she will have to wipe her feet if she wants to come in.

The Three Kings and their camels drop by on their way to Bethlehem and invite Babushka to join them, in their quest for the newborn king, but Babushka hasn't "got time to go journeying about... What about the washing up?" And she flaps her duster at the camels who are leaving muddy footprints on her clean path, scaring them into disappearing, with the kings in pursuit.

After all her manic cleaning and tidying, Babushka (not surprisingly) is tired and falls asleep. In her dreams, the angel and the star return with the news of Jesus' birth in the stable. Struck by the baby's lack of amenities, Babushka packs a basket of presents and scurries out in search of him. She does not notice the angels singing, or the millions of bright stars in the sky as she travels, only the dust lying thick on the road. She meets various individuals in need, along the way, to whom, out of kindness, she gives the presents in her basket.

On reaching the stable Babushka realises she has nothing to give the baby. Sadly she begins to turn away but she hears Mary calling her name and she goes into the stable to find all the things she has given away en route, are in use, with and for the baby. Still afraid of confronting the empty place in her heart and because old habits die hard, Babushka thinks she will turn her attention to the cobwebs which clearly need sweeping out from the stable, but the baby holds out his arms to her and smiles. And the story ends like this:

"His eyes were like the deep starry night. In his smile was love itself. A strange feeling crept over Babushka. She forgot about tidying up.
Would you like to hold him?" asked Mary. Babushka took the baby in her arms.
All the animals crowded round. Babushka stroked the old grey donkey's nose. He nuzzled her ear.
The baby chuckled and so did Babushka. She held him close.
"Peace", sang the angels."

Text © 2002 Sandra Ann Horn
Pictures © 2002 Sophie Fatus
(used with permission)

It's a dear, engaging tale, especially for all who, in trying to run themselves ragged to get everything done for everyone else, may feel they risk missing the boat of what Christmas is really about for themselves. I feel this is me sometimes, both from a professional and a domestic perspective, so the story echoes at more than a superficial level, especially as Mrs T can get a bit obsessive about cleaning and tidying on occasion. The happy ending fills me with hope that even if my efforts are awry or misdirected sometimes, all is not lost.

And along with reading the book this Advent, I have indulged myself in making the little Hooky Babushkas from Nicki Trench's book, "Cute and Easy Crochet".

A bit fiddly, but surprisingly quick, to make, they are cosy little reminders of the story. You may remember that Lucy of Attic 24 made some of these last year. Have a look at her more expert versions here. If you want to have a go, Lucy is right, you really do need to use stitch markers but as I say they were surprisingly quick to hook up. I have given them some plastic pellet, beanbag filling in their bases to give them a bit of stability, after reading of Lucy's trouble with Tiny Babushka's tendency to fall in the coal bucket, and can report that this really helps them to stay where you put them!

I made the babushkas using what I thought was the correct yarn recommended in the pattern only to discover that I had bought Aran weight Rooster yarn not DK weight. I used a larger hook size therefore to correspond with the thicker yarn and my babushkas have come out a bit bigger than the pattern envisages as a result. The faces were the tricksiest part. Embroidering a mouth that looks like a smile and not a grimace is not easy and I gave up trying to use French knots for the eyes and used small black glass beads instead. Even so, they are homely, rather than sophisticated, little people, but I love them!

They are currently sitting on a 1940s vintage wool blanket that belonged, appropriately enough for "babushkas", to my own grandmother. My mother passed this on to me because I was looking for a bit of wool blanket to cut up for a post-Christmas project but I just can't bring myself to cut into it! It's a bit old and faded, but beautifully light and warm and smells of my own "babushka's" home so I think I'll have to buy something else for cutting up. This is ridiculous, I know, but I also know, the moment I take my scissors to this, I'll regret it!

 I hope you get a chance to curl up with a lovely, atmospheric bit of Christmas reading in the coming days and if you have any suggestions of your own favourites that you'd like to pass this way I'd love to hear them!

Linking into Floss hosting A Pause In Advent - do have a look at other pausers listed on Floss's blog here.

Wishing you all a very happy 3rd week of Advent!

E x

Wednesday 12 December 2012

White Beauty

It's been bitterly cold here the last few days. And yesterday brought clouds of freezing fog to add a bone-chilling dampness to everything. I know freezing fog is hazardous for driving etc but I feel a frisson of delight when it occurs because it is such an amazing artist. Wait for a few hours after its arrival and then go out for a walk and prepare to be ambushed by beauty at every turn. The tiny freezing droplets cling to the most delicate structures - threads of cobweb, veins on leaves, stamens and calyxes on drooping flower-heads. Where a few hours before, there was nothing much to delight the eye, now intricate engraving, like that on Indian silver, adorns the drab piles of dead leaves and there is exquisite chasing on the miserable stems of decaying rosehips. Wire fences, hardly things of beauty in everyday life, become frames for filigree portraits; an old telegraph pole has new function as a trellis for fragile spider-lace; and spider-streamers, spun so fine they tremble in the still air, hang like fairy tinsel from its sturdy trunk.

Beatrix Potter wrote once that in her work as an artist she had cultivated a "seeing eye". A tautology you might think, for surely all eyes are seeing eyes. But it's amazing how much we look at and do not see. Freezing fog comes, cold-coated and seemingly inhospitably-minded, and shows us what we so often miss in the world around us. It lends us a "seeing eye" for a space. I love that and although I shall be grateful not to have to drive down country lanes in freezing swirls of mist, I shall be sorry to see it disappear. As it will, as silently and imperceptibly as it came, leaving only the faint, chill memory of evanescent beauty hovering over the most ordinary and unlovely of objects. It's fanciful, I know, but I wonder whether secretly those objects now rejoice, knowing that they have had these moments of heart-stopping beauty given them.

I am obviously rather suggestible because inside, I have been adding whiteness, rather less beautifully, to chocolate cupcakes. These are Nigella Lawson's Christmas Cupcakes from How To Be A Domestic Goddess, reworked slightly. I omit the coffee and replace it with a teaspoonful of orange oil - somehow the mixture of spices, dark chocolate and aromatic orange is very Christmassy indeed. If you haven't got any orange oil, use the grated zest of an orange instead. 

Despite my normal aversion to frosting things, the freezing fog has influenced me to top the dark little cakes with a thick, muffling blanket of royal icing and white sugar snowflakes ...

..... and to light pale candles in these white fretwork ceramic candleholders.

White beauty outside
and, to a lesser extent,
white beauty inside!

Sunday 9 December 2012

Advent Playing

One of the delightful things about this time of year is the opportunity for play. As any child psychologist will tell you, play is essential to children's healthy development and we take that pretty much for granted these days. When small children are in our orbit (or we are in theirs) we get to revisit play through them and there is unparalleled joy in that. Children provide the perfect excuse to mess about and be a little bit foolish and not worry about it. As children get older, they naturally tend to do their own thing more, and such opportunities correspondingly diminish somewhat, except, that is, at this time of year! No matter how old you are or how old your children are, Advent is the perfect time to let your inner child out and get blissfully stuck into playing. Of course it's not necessarily labelled as "playing" but, joy oh joy, that's what it is, even if it comes under the heading of arranging a crib scene on the mantlepiece, making Christmas decorations, designing Christmas cards or making or doing other frivolous things just for the sheer delight of them. Now is the time of year when you can sing along to a carol or two, regardless of your ability to hit the notes, wear a silly paper hat, play with baubles and gewgaws and get covered in paint, glitter-glue and cotton wool to your heart's content! Never mind the fact that the oven needs cleaning or the laundry needs sorting, Christmas is coming! And we have permission to get out all manner of toys, our poster paint and felt pens, glue sticks and scissors, fabric and ribbon and have a ball!

Not only do I think there is a huge amount of truth in the old adage that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", I'd go one stage further and say, I think play is vital, not just to keep our tendencies to dullness at bay but to enable us to feel properly and vividly alive.

I saw an article the other day about a book written by a nurse out of her experiences of providing palliative care in which she highlights the regrets that are most commonly experienced by those nearing the ends of their lives. My own experiences of being alongside the terminally ill, echo her findings and what she writes makes interesting reading. You can read the article in full here if you're interested. Not surprisingly one of the most commonly expressed regrets is to wish that less time had been spent on the treadmill of work. But up there also, is a wish to have laughed more, to have let oneself go more and allowed some silliness to light up the routine of life. Work, of course, is not an optional extra for most, even if it isn't full time, but it's salutary sometimes to remember that no one ever gets to the end of their lives and wishes they had spent more time in the office (or the equivalent). And it seems we might get to the end of our lives and wish we'd been a bit more frivolous.

To which end I am taking the opportunities for play in Advent seriously and shall aim to uphold them in the coming New Year as well. In playtime news here:

1 I have been playing with paper and scissors (and the sewing machine!). I have given up sending vast numbers of Christmas cards because I just couldn't keep up with it and the cost was becoming exorbitant but I have always made a handful for immediate family and friends. Keeping numbers small means that the process remains fun and enjoyable and never gets into a sweatshop-production-line situation - been there, done that and it's not play, it's hard graft!

I got the idea from Sue on her beautifully thoughtful blog, Mouse Notebook, in her post here. So simple but so effective. (And so thrifty!)

For the Christmas trees I have used pages from a pile of obsolete, old hymn books, that the church down the road was throwing out and I thought I could turn to better use. Each one is cut from a different Christmas carol melody and a verse from the same carol, (artlessly, but carefully!) torn out, is stuck on the reverse of the card. If you don't have a pile of obsolete, old hymnbooks to hand, you could use the same idea and just photocopy some music and carols. I used the sewing machine to embroider lines of tinsel in iridescent sewing thread and the paper pom poms are made, (as per Sue's instructions on Mouse Notebook), from discs, punched out from junk mail catalogues and scraps of old wrapping paper, and stitched down the centre.

2 I have been playing with paint and sponges, as the kitchen, slightly alarmingly, bears witness to in odd places! I refuse to buy expensive Christmas wrapping paper and find that the cheaper sort tends to be so thin that I always tear it in the wrong places, when wrapping things, and it looks a mess. The solution? Buy a roll of thickish brown parcel paper (£1.65 for six metres at the village shop and probably less at WHSmiths or somewhere) and play with sponges and paint! So quick, so easy, such fun!

I used acrylic paint, because that's what I had, thinned out with water, but any poster type paint will work. Raid the kitchen cupboard for a pan scourer sponge (and an apron), spread out a sheet of brown paper as big as your work surface allows, and you're away! Weigh down the corners of the paper with a pebble or two to keep it flat. Choose several colours that will blend well together and daub and dab to your heart's content. Wet your sponge first so that the paint releases nice and easily. I started with red, moved onto the deep yellow colour then went to pink and finally purple to get the sort of sunset effect here. I then sponged on some coppery gold stars with an old star-shaped sponge that H had in a set of painting sponges when he was tiny. No star-shaped sponge? Make a star shaped potato print or cut up another pan scourer. On the second sheet I used a patterned roller also originally belonging to H, to make swirly coppery gold stripes. A bit homespun may be but what fun to do! The results have a lovely thick, expensive feel to them and the slight initial roughness of the brown paper is replaced by the satisfying, satiny glaze of the paint.

3 H and I always begin the Christmas holidays with some Christmassy project or other - last year it was paper birds (a homemade paper aeroplane design tweaked to produce birds rather than B52s!) and 3-dimensional paper stars to hang on the Christmas tree. This year is still open to suggestion! I've got until Friday, when he breaks up from school, to think of something! After seeing Lucy's festive wreath beginnings here and Kristen's here, a pom pom garland perhaps? We'll see!

4 Other playing will include messing about with molten chocolate and gingerbread dough and also setting up my Provençal santons in their stable, aka an old skittle box sawn up and given a new function in life as shelter for those for whom "there was no room in the inn". More on this when they reach Bethlehem, as it were! I do love Advent!

Most of my play, I realise, involves some form of creative whatnot, but play embraces a lot more than just creative stuff - hum a tune, dance a jig, run in the rain, taste snowflakes on your tongue, make believe according to your imagination. Really anything goes that isn't measured by the standard of its output, but is driven by imagination and enjoyment for its own sake. Play can result in something constructive or useful or beautiful, but it doesn't in the least have to. So much in the world we live in, comes under the inexorable and unforgiving scrutiny of evaluation metrics which only sees things in terms of measurable output and dismisses what falls outside that. I think this is quite pernicious and can stifle initiative, dessiccate inspiration and kill creative risk-taking stone-dead. It's countercultural, healthy and liberating for the human spirit, deliberately to choose to bypass that occasionally.

So if anyone challenges your choosing to play, you can rebut them with the response that you are investing in the health of your spirit. I believe that the human spirit when luminously and vividly alive is one of the most powerful and creative forces for good in the universe. Conversely, the human spirit when impoverished and denied, not only does not have much fun, but can also be very destructive.

So I shall continue to make space for play, and hopefully re-energised and quickened by it, (in the old-fashioned sense of being brought to life), I hope, I won't reach Christmas frazzled, weary, or, perish the thought, dull!

Happy Advent Playing!

E x

PS This is the second of my posts linking in to Floss hosting A Pause In Advent. Click on the link or the button in my sidebar to explore other takes on the theme via Floss's blog.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Advent Baking

Most of my everyday cooking is from the Whizz Bang School of Cookery (not listed as a recognised Cordon Bleu establishment I fear!) That is to say, it's mostly things like casseroles, hastily thrown together and shoved in the oven all afternoon, while work claims my attention, or cakes that can be blitzed in the food processor and tipped into a tin for half an hour between meetings. That sort of thing. Homemade soup speeded up by the pressure cooker and bread dough that can get on by itself in the bread-maker and shaped into rolls later, gets a look in and flapjack is good - you can melt, pour and bake that in a brace of shakes, but most weeks, anything more complex or individually time-consuming is out, certainly anything involving multiple processes or requiring topping or icing afterwards.

But every now and again I break the pattern to make something that is not susceptible to the Whizz Bang method and my Christmas Cake is such. Of course there are methods for making a Christmas Cake that are not so lengthy but this does not apply to mine. I use an old Victorian recipe that has been in my family for over a hundred years and although (unlike the Victorians) I do use the food processor for part of the preparation, it is a stately undertaking that Is Not To Be Hurried.

It is with some dismay that I increasingly realise that homemade does not necessarily equate to frugal whether that applies to cooking or clothing or anything else. Sadly, if you are on a really tight budget, it will often be cheaper for you to buy a commercial product than make your own from scratch. I find this quite upsetting as an indictment of modern life - I feel it ought not to be like that somehow. But it's not just my perception - I saw an article in yesterday's Guardian saying exactly the same thing here although it seems there is good news for homemade chocolate truffle-makers! But of course making your own homemade stuff is not just about saving money. And although making a Christmas Cake is not cheap (especially by the time you've bought all those ground almonds for making the marzipan later on), it is nevertheless worthwhile. It's worthwhile because a great deal more than the ingredients go into the cake and this is one of the reasons it needs time.

Stirred in, along with the dried fruit, the flour, sugar, eggs and butter, is history. Family history. Social history. Sacred history. Memories pepper the rich mixture and love, given and received at Christmases past and present, streaks the batter as vividly and dramatically as the spoonful of dark treacle in the ingredients. Prayers and blessings are folded in, along with the fruit; thoughts for those I love but now no longer see in this world; thanksgivings for all that the last year has held; wistfulness for what has been and is now gone; hopes and longings for the year to come; trust for the unknown future that awaits.

And this can't be rushed. It needs time to happen gradually. It began weeks back, when I bubbled up, in a cauldron of sugar syrup, a new supply of candied orange peel in anticipation of the season's Christmas Cake making. (I use the recipe in "Jane Grigson's Fruit Book", if you're interested. It's listed under "Grapefruit".)

Actually, it began even earlier, in the summer, when my mother gave me a small, precious container of homemade, candied angelica to add to fruit cakes such as this. And, if you've ever candied fresh angelica yourself, you'll know that it's the product of a labour of love, if ever there was one. Not to be squandered on any old cake but kept for something special.

But these advance preparations aside, I like to set aside a whole morning or afternoon for the actual Cake-Making so that each stage can be done without rush or the pressure of being against the clock. And I find the slowness of the whole business has a blessing and a delight built into it in our fast-moving world. I begin by weighing out the butter and sugar into the food processor to allow it to come to room temperature and then happily potter about between larder and work surface; assembling the dried fruits; snipping up the glossy orange lozenges of candied peel and the pale green angelica, brittle with sugar; halving the shiny, garnet-coloured glacé cherries; spooning out the creamy flour and aromatic spices.

So on my day off this week, even though Stir Up Sunday was a few weeks back (better late than never, Mrs T!) Christmas Cake Making was where it was at. It's Monday morning. The rain pours down outside and spatters the window panes in vicious squalls of wind; it is grey, cold and wintry. Inside, in the warm kitchen, I am absolutely content as I become absorbed in the present moment; holding the eggs, cool from the fridge, in my hand and wondering if they are too cold to use straightaway; surveying the deep blue mixing bowl of jewel-like fruit and chopped, milky almonds, waiting to be stirred in and pondering the metaphor of a cake like this and Life - made up of so many strands from so many sources, joined into one by both choice and chance, with the capacity to nourish, delight and feed at so many levels.

The Benedictines were (and are) big on understanding that there is no real difference between the sacred and the secular, that everyday objects and tasks can be, and are, holy in some sense. Nowhere am I more aware of that sense than when I make this cake, made by women in my family for generations before me. Each one, myself included, tweaking the recipe with her own twist, yet essentially replicating the same cake, for the same celebration.

Once mixed, and with all the wishes and prayers stirred in, it is time to pour the mixture into its tin, wrapped in its thick and tatty, brown paper "coat", tied on with string, ready for baking. I have used the same brown paper "coat" for about fifteen years and it is now rather worse for wear, but it has a shabby charm and reminds me of all the cakes I have made in that time, which it has insulated against the fierceness of the oven - celebration cakes for my parents, for my grandfather's eighty-fifth, ninetieth and ninety-fifth birthdays, H's christening cake and all the intervening Christmases. And these memories are part of the making of each new cake. Christmas, after all, is not just for Christmas - it's for Life.

It isn't too late to make a cake like this even though it won't have terribly long to mature. If you'd like to give my family recipe a go, here it is, (but any rich fruit cake recipe will serve you well.) It is easy and straightforward but give yourself time to make and to bake it. And, if you are anything like me, I promise that the making and eating of it will bless you and yours richly.

What you need:
9oz unsalted butter ("or margarine" as my grandmother annotated the recipe in wartime)
6oz soft brown sugar
1 dsp treacle

2oz natural almonds, chopped quite finely
8oz sultanas
8oz currants
4oz raisins
4oz candied peel, chopped
4oz glace cherries, rinsed in boiling water to get rid of excess syrup, dried and halved

12oz plain white flour
1tsp mixed spice*
a good grating of nutmeg*
5 eggs (In the original Victorian recipe I suspect the eggs were small or medium ones. I use large eggs if the bantams aren't laying, as they aren't at the moment, deterred by the miserable weather and the fact that one of their company was snatched by the fox, which has put them off their lay so to speak.)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda dissolved in two tbsps milk

*the spices were not part of the original recipe but I like to add them and sometimes also include the grated rind of an orange and / or a lemon.

What you do:
Line a large round cake tin with baking parchment. I use a tin that is 10.5" in diameter. Tie a "coat" of at least double thickness brown paper around the outside with string. (In my experience, this, by the way, is a two person job)

Preheat the oven to 140 C.

Weigh out the butter and sugar first into the bowl of the food processor and get the eggs out of the fridge.

Now turn to preparing the nuts and fruits and pile them up in a large separate mixing bowl.

Weigh out the flour and add the spices.

Now whizz up the butter and sugar and add the treacle. Whizz again. Break the eggs into the food processor bowl and pile in the flour and spices. Whizz again until you have a smooth batter. Scrape the sides down and whizz to ensure everything is well and truly mixed. Add the bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in milk, and whizz one final time.

Now decant the batter mixture from the food processor into your mixing bowl containing the fruit. Fold in the fruit and nuts carefully and thoroughly, with a large spoon, not forgetting to make a wish and pray a blessing on the cake and all who will consume it.

Tip and scrape the mixture onto your prepared tin. Bake on a low shelf in the oven for about 3 hours. May be a tad more of your oven is quite slow but I find three hours is enough in mine. Do not open the door until towards the very end of the cooking time. When it is cooked, a skewer inserted in the cake will come out cleanly and it will have a burnished dark brown colour with several cracks in the surface of the crust.

Leave it to cool completely and then spike it all over with a skewer before dosing it with a couple of tablespoons of cherry brandy, sloe gin, cointreau or whatever liqueur you have to hand. Plain brandy will work fine if you have nothing fancy and I certainly wouldn't buy anything specially.

Wrap it in a double layer of foil and at least once more before Christmas, give it another dose of your chosen alcohol. Then a few days before Christmas, give it its traditional hat of marzipan and royal icing and decorate as you like.

The decoration doesn't need to be fiddly and complicated. This cake needs no apologia or spin-doctoring. I keep mine plain - "rough iced", I think, is the technical term ie not mirror smooth, but with visible swirls made with a spreading knife.

And in the resulting snowdrifts, every year stumble, not one but two, ancient Victorian Father Christmases and a Victorian snowman made out of painted plaster. I inherited them from my grandmother twenty five years ago. They were a bit "has been" - as you might be if you had been struggling through icing snowdrifts for eighty years or so! They have been mended and one Father Christmas has had a face lift and a substantial nose job, courtesy of D's modelling skills and the judicious use of Plastic Padding. Re-modelled and repainted, they stride forth again in the snow that falls "deep and crisp and even" year in and year out without fail on my Christmas cake, among a couple of bottle-brush Christmas trees dating from the 1960s. Mere junior saplings by comparison with the others!

And every year, as their boots sink into the sugary snow, all the Christmases of my childhood flood back and I am a small girl again, standing on a chair and helping my grandmother in the kitchen and gingerly handling, with enormous care, these aged figures. H, in his turn, loves them and I hope, one day, I will be able to pass them on to him and his children. I hope then that they too, will remember them affectionately and in the mysterious, holy place that is a kitchen in which things are made with love and memory, generations, past and present, will continue to meet one another in the timelessness of Christmas.

And on that you cannot begin to put a price.

I was wondering how to photograph these, since this year's Christmas cake is not yet iced but the weather smiled on me and when I woke up this morning the first snow of winter meant that Frs Christmas and Snowman could sink their boots into some real snow for a photoshoot!

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.