Tuesday 31 December 2019

On The Seventh Day of Christmas

Hello!  Thank you for calling in, and congratulations on making it through to the other side of Christmas, whether you celebrated it or not.  I have just enjoyed two very therapeutic, restful days which have put me right back on track after the frantic pace of the last couple of weeks and it feels good to be back here again.  Lots of potential blog posts are swirling around in my head and I need to untangle them slowly and thoughtfully so in the meantime, I thought I'd share with you some of what I've been doing since I was last here.  First of all, however, I'd like to show you how my Advent Calendar Nativity set looks now that all the doors have been opened. -
I love it.  However, the figures are prone to falling over if you sneeze/walk past/breathe which is a bit tiresome, although they are happier now that I have moved them off the mantelpiece onto a shelf in the corner of the room, so next year I am planning to start them off on the shelf and put a tiny piece of blu tack on the bottom of each one.  I'm not usually keen on having shepherds and wise men in the stable at the same time and prefer the magi to arrive at Epiphany but I decided to allow them to show up early this year and join the melee.
So, what have I been up to?

I wrapped up fifty-three parcels, I think, so it's a good job that it's a task I enjoy.  I have always liked prettying up my parcels with ribbons and bows but like many people, this year I have been more aware of the wasteful consequences of that so I eschewed much of it and simply  used nice wrapping paper - the kind which can be recycled, sans glitter or foil - and fabric ribbon.  I did use some villainous sticky tape but I am planning to reduce that next year.  I think my favourite parcels were these gift bags made with paper and glue  (I used a Pritt Stick) and fastened with fabric ribbon, all reusable and then recyclable.

I often describe our house as "tealight-tastic" at this time of year.  Every evening we light a string of tealights on the mantelpiece in containers made of glass, pottery and metal, the joy their light brings me being worth far more than their cost.  There's a pillar candle to light too, and Christmas tree lights and, on cold evenings, a fire.  In fact, on special days we light the fire even if we don't need its heat because we love its company.  The weather here has been very mild (and mostly wet) so our bodies could have managed without the fire but I don't think our souls could.

Our Christmas fare has been quite modest really.  There has been no cake at all, barely any chocolate and only a few mince pies.  There was pudding on Christmas Day and Boxing Day but not at any other time.  However, on Christmas Day the Best Beloved and The Mathematician cooked up a magnificent feast: roast goose, stuffing, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, mashed swede, red cabbage and steamed broccoli, carrots and peas with gravy.  It was all perfectly cooked and after a little rest we enjoyed Christmas Pudding with brandy cream.

My mother has made the family's Christmas Puddings for more than fifty years.  They are always made in a batch and when I was a child we ate them on Christmas Day, Easter Day and either May or August Bank Holiday, leaving one to be served at a dinner party.  Now, there are none for the rest of the year as my sisters and I claim them.  This one was too big for three of us to finish at one meal so I cut the remaining pudding into sections and pressed them into my smallest pudding basin, as I saw Mary Berry suggest on the television.  I covered it with new pieces of baking parchment and foil, secured the covers with string and took the pudding to The Teacher's house the following day.  After steaming, it turned out like this and we were delighted.  A further four portions were greedily enjoyed, with a little sadness that we won't be enjoying it again for another year. -

I knew that there wouldn't be much time for reading in December so I picked some easy books.  I've been dipping into Nigel Slater's The Christmas Chronicles since the end of October and enjoying it very much.  I read The Christmas Mystery during Advent last year, one little chapter every day of December until Christmas Eve, and I did the same again this year.  Both of these books helped to buoy my festive spirit.  The third book I chose was one I first read more than forty years ago when Puffin books cost 20p, a serious children's book by Barbara Willard called A Cold Wind Blowing.  I wanted something snowy, seasonal and not at all taxing and my first thought was Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter but when I looked at the group of her books on my shelf I discovered that I don't own that one, I must have borrowed it from the library.  I thought that A Cold Wind Blowing might fit the bill but the cover is deceptive as it's not a winter story, although there is a chapter about the twelve days of Christmas, and the titular wind is a metaphoric wind of change as the Reformation takes hold in England in the sixteenth century.  However, I enjoyed it nevertheless.

I rarely go to the cinema, in fact I haven't been since Boxing Day last year, but at this time of year The Mathematician and I have taken to going together and this time our choice was... Frozen 2!  That may have surprised you.  I enjoyed it unashamedly, although I remain horrified that a cinema ticket costs more than £12.  On the television I have also watched Some Like It Hot which is one of my favourite films. Marilyn Monroe is luminous in it and her dresses are practically indecent.  Nobody's perfect.  The Best Beloved and I really enjoyed the three-part drama A Christmas Carol, even though it was so different from Dickens' novella and I can be a bit of a grumpy purist, and on Christmas Day I loved Call The Midwife and Gavin and Stacey.  However, the best thing I have watched was Les Miserables on the stage at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, which even brought tears to the Best Beloved's eyes.   

The week of Christmas was bookended by visits to South Wales where my family gathered firstly to celebrate a twenty-first birthday and secondly to celebrate Christmas, as we do every year.  One of my nephews always makes a gingerbread house to share (isn't it a shame to demolish them when they look so pretty?) so last year, when I saw the biscuit chandeliers on the Great British Bake Off, I challenged my sister's family to make a gingerbread chandelier for us.  She wasn't able to do it last year but this year, her nineteen year-old son wowed us with this thing of beauty. - 

He had made and decorated a biscuit for each of us, twenty-two altogether, and each was personalised.  There was an acoustic guitar for an acoustic-guitar-playing cousin, an electric guitar for an electric-guitar-playing brother, a rugby ball for a capped cousin and a sailing boat for a sailing cousin.  Grandpa had a castle because he is the king of the castle and Grandma had a crown because she is the queen.  An aunt who "is Imelda Marcos" was presented with a gingerbread shoe.  For me he had made a star because he had seen my Advent Nativity set (on Facebook) and thought that its star was too small and insignificant.  He had iced two tiny crosses onto it.
At the end of Call The Midwife on Christmas Day, Vanessa Redgrave's voiceover told us, “Christmas is not a competition but the prize itself, a gathering and a sharing of the things that matter most. It is of no consequence whether we’re the biggest or the brightest, whether we’re the strongest, the bravest or the most inclined to win.”  Christmas is a place where a guitar, a rugby ball, a sailing boat, a shoe and a star can gather together and share our
memories, traditions and the ties that bind us together - and I am well aware that this is not everyone's experience, but this year, Vanessa spoke for me.
And now it is New Year's Eve.  The Best Beloved and I will stay in with some party food, some fizz, a fire and Jools Holland's Hootenanny on the television. We will drink too much and kiss each other at midnight and stay up ridiculously late.  Tomorrow morning we'll have breakfast in bed and watch the New Year's Concert from Vienna, as we always do. See you next year.
Happy Christmas.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Back to Anglesey to find a Hero

Hello, thank you for calling in.  It's lovely to see you here, especially at such a busy time of year.  I feel that we are thundering down the road towards Christmas and that I am running out of time to get everything done.  I know that I'm not, I planned well, began early and I'm on track, but I feel that I am fraying.  It's 5.30am and I have been awake for two and a half hours, my mind whirring.  This is absolutely normal for me at this time of year but it's still difficult to manage.  So, in an effort to gather myself together and find some serenity, I have been thinking about my little break in Anglesey last month when the sun shone, the sky was blue and the Best Beloved and I spent some quality time on our own together without the distractions of work or tiny people.

We have been visiting the island for more than twenty-five years and of course we have favourite places but each time we go now, I like to seek out a place we haven't been to before.   There are two bridges linking the mainland to Anglesey and this one is the Britannia Bridge, built between 1846 and 1850.   I had read about a statue which stands down here on the Menai Strait and I wanted to see it so on this beautiful November Sunday morning, after attending the Act of Remembrance at the cenotaph in Lanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch (which we call Llanfair PG) we drove to St Mary's Church, which is tucked away almost right under the bridge, and left the car in the car park.  We followed the path down through the churchyard.  Now, I have to say that if you like poking around churchyards, as I do, this one is delightful.  There are many different styles of headstone, some rather grand, and there is this monument which commemorates those people who died during the construction of the bridge - not just builders, but their family members, too.  It's an interesting story and you can read more about it here.  The most recent names were added in the early 1970s when the bridge was reconstructed after a devastating fire.

This was fascinating and we looked all around, reading every name, but it wasn't what we had come to find so we carried on and picked our way carefully down the path to the Strait.
I caught a glimpse of him from the path so I knew where I was heading.  The Best Beloved went ahead of me across the seaweed and the mud and through the very shallow stream to make sure that the route was safe and I followed behind.  Here is the hero. -

And just what is Horatio, Lord Nelson doing here, looking out across the Menai Strait?  An art lover and sculptor called Lord Clarence Paget, a younger son of the Marquess of Anglesey, lived beside the Strait at Plas Llanfair.  He had been experimenting with concrete to create statues in the grounds of the estate and liked it because it was cheaper than marble and more durable outdoors so he decided to create a statue of Neptune to stand down on the shore.  However, he was persuaded that the statue's subject should instead be Lord Nelson,  who regarded the Strait as "one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world" and said that "if you can sail the Menai Strait you can sail anywhere".  The Admiralty was surveying the Strait at the time and suggested that if Paget erected the statue in a slightly different place to the one he intended, it would serve as a navigation aid to sailors, marking the entrance to The Swellies, and by the time the statue was unveiled in 1873 it was already marked on the naval charts. 

We lingered here, it was so very peaceful.  Then we strolled back to the car and on the way, I stopped for a while to enjoy the trees.  I know, I'm a bit odd, but I like trees, especially in the autumn.

Back in the car, the Best Beloved was keen to drive off the island into Snowdonia because it had snowed the previous day and he wanted to see the mountains.  It was a very picturesque drive and we stopped at Llanberis to take some photographs.

On the right at the back, under a snow blanket, is Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.

It was a beautiful and memorable day.  The following day, the sky was grey and overcast but we were not deterred - we are British and we dress for the weather!  So, we wrapped up well and went to Porth Trecastell, Cable Bay, so-called because the first telegraph cable from Anglesey to Ireland was laid from here.  This is one of my favourite places and we walked along the beach recalling the many happy days we have spent here - our children paddling in the shallow sea and poking about in the rockpools when they were small, the time we found a line of stranded jellyfish all along the shoreline, our twenty-ninth wedding anniversary when the sun beat down and I danced in the sea in my party dress, the time Storm Bryan washed up a dead leatherback turtle onto the beach, and watching wild waves and brave surfers.  This was not a day for taking photographs but we recalled many of the snapshots we hold in our heads.  Here is a photograph I took there in July 2017.

Then we moved on to another place we have visited before, St Cwyfan's, the Church in the Sea.  Of course, the church was not built in the sea, it was built on the land in the twelfth century but the sea has eroded the land around it and would have taken the land beneath it too had a protective wall not been built in 1893 after some of the graves fell away.  I think the church looks as if it is perched on top of a hatbox and when the tide comes in, it is completely cut off.  I have walked along the causeway at low tide and climbed the steps up to the church, but this was not the day for that.  The wind had become bitter and our visit was brief but rather wonderful.

Here's what it looked like when we were last here on Valentine's Day in 2012. 

It's a special place.  Occasional services are still held there, including weddings.
Thank you for bearing with me.  I feel much calmer now, more ordered.  It's 7.45am and time for my day to begin.  I plan to be back here again before Christmas, hopefully at a more civilised time of day.  I hope things are going well for you.
See you soon. 
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Sunday 8 December 2019

The First Week of Advent

Hello, thank you for dropping in.   It's a busy time of year, isn't it?  I am always tempted to panic at this point in December when I think about how much there is to do before Christmas, no matter how organised I am, but this year, I feel quite relaxed.  I popped out one day this week to buy a few gifts and found the shops quite civilised which was very helpful for a worrier like me.  I have some more to buy and there is some industrious knitting and crochet going on which may well become frantic knitting and crochet in a couple of weeks' time but at the moment, I feel that everything is on track and I am enjoying Advent.

My "Merry Christmas" mug is in daily use, reminding me to be cheerful and of the jollities to come, the glow of the Advent tealights brightens my evenings (although not enough to help me with my dark brown knitting project - what was I thinking?) and honestly, I am rushing downstairs like a child every morning to open my Advent calendars, it's quite ridiculous for a woman of my age.  Would you like to see how the new wooden Nativity is coming on?

I must admit that I am a little worried that there are all these stray animals in Bethlehem and so far, not a single person to look after them.  I am hoping that somebody will turn up soon.

Something else which I am enjoying is Selma's blog, Eclectic Home and Life.  She loves Christmas and blogs every day during Advent, sharing traditions, recipes and crafts from her Norwegian heritage which are really helping me get in the right mood.  On Thursday evening I used her recipe for pepperkake to make up some dough and the next day I took it to The Teacher's house along with a baking sheet, a heart-shaped cutter, my rolling pin and the small rolling pin which my mother bought for my daughter when she was a small child.  Tom Kitten and I had a lovely time together rolling the dough, cutting out the shapes and getting absolutely covered in flour.   

They have all gone now and I shall definitely make some more as they were delicious. 

Yesterday we had a festive family trip on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway with The Teacher, Flashman and the children.  Tom Kitten has seen steam trains in books and on television but he hadn't seen a real one before and he was a bit overawed at first.  He enjoyed the journey, looking out of the window at trees, the river and sheep but he was quite overwhelmed when Father Christmas and some elves got on the train!  He recognises Santa and knows that he says, "Ho, ho, ho!" thanks to Julia Donaldson's Stick Man, so that's another thing he's seen in a book which he now knows is real.  The Best Beloved was also excited, not by Father Christmas but by the steam trains and explained the narrow gauge to me in possibly a bit too much detail.

If you are in the vicinity, I thoroughly recommend this outing.  The staff (who I think may all be volunteers) were very friendly and cheerful, the enthusiastic elves led us in renditions of Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while we waited for Father Christmas to make his way to our carriage and when he arrived, he didn't rush but gave every family as much time as they needed with him, happily posing for photographs.  He gave appropriate, good quality gifts to the children, even Cottontail got one and her ticket was free! (When The Teacher booked the tickets she had to give the children's genders and ages.)  After the journey, we went to the tearoom where we were each given a cup of mulled wine (or fruit juice) and a warm mince pie. 
I expect things will ramp up a notch this week but as it does, I shall continue to drink Earl Grey from my festive mug every morning, open my calendars, read a chapter of The Christmas Mystery and light a tealight every evening and this routine will,  think, provide the framework which will hold me together, joyfully.  
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Monday 2 December 2019

Advent Sunday

Hello, thank you for calling in.  At last it has stopped raining and we have had three whole days with no precipitation.  Hooray!  It has rained so much over the last few weeks that my wooden front door has swollen and is sticking.  The ground is still saturated and there is standing water in the fields. It has been very cold and we have had to scrape the frost off the cars in the mornings but I don't mind, it is December after all.
So we are in the season of Advent, one of my favourite times of the year.  Yesterday I read that if you are sick of Christmas by 25th December, you haven't done Advent properly.  I have had great difficulty finding my Christmas spirit over the last few years, even though I have tried to do Advent properly; I know that it should be about anticipation, reflection and excitement but I just haven't been able to muster the excitement.  However, at the end of last week I read that it should be about anticipation, reflection and joyful preparation and by replacing that "excitement" with "joy" I felt completely different about it.  I lay part of the blame for my difficulty at the feet of a vicar who, about thirty years ago, told me that Advent was about "penitence and preparation" and I've never really shaken off the penitential bit - I didn't know that I was allowed to be joyful.  I have been in churches where they don't allow the Christmas tree lights to be switched on during Advent.  Honestly.
So, with all this in mind, on Saturday I joyfully cleared, dusted and polished my mantelpiece and laid upon it the pompom garland I made last year, in traditional colours of green, red and cream, and then gathered together my Advent paraphernalia. 

I like the daily countdown, as each new day is over the remaining numbers remind me that there are still plenty of days left in which to achieve all that needs to be done for the Christmas festivities, despite what the fast-edited television adverts might be telling me, and for a list-maker like me, that's very helpful.  I also like that moment of opening the door on the advent calendar or lighting the candle, the stillness which is in that moment, the opportunity for a little bit of mindfulness, reflection or prayer.  So, I have an Advent calendar.  I'm a bit old-fashioned and I like a simple card calendar with doors which open to reveal nothing but a picture so my children think I am ridiculous.  (The Best Beloved has bought each of them a chocolate Advent calendar, even though they are proper grown-ups and don't live with us any more, apparently this is his paternal duty.)  I like there to be glitter on the card - and yes, I know that we are not supposed to be using glitter because it's so bad for the environment, unless it's biodegradable, but my calendar is on its seventh year so it's definitely not a single-use item and by the time it's worn out I expect all the glitter will have dropped off anyway.  In January I shall carefully close all the doors, weight it down under a heavy book and then tuck it away until next year.

The house-shaped starry box is the gift my thoughtful sister gave me for Christmas last year.  When I opened it I realised that it is a Nativity scene Advent calendar - one little wooden figure to add each day until the whole cast is assembled.  Although I was excited about that, I put it away and decided that I would open it during December this year.  When I thanked my sister, she said that it was a shame to wait almost a whole year for it but I said no, it wasn't a shame because this way I get to open a present every day for twenty-four days! 
I was given this copy of The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder by a friend last year.  It's a magical story divided into twenty-four chapters, each one only about ten pages long, one a day during Advent which gathers together the cast of the Nativity through a time-travelling mystery about a missing girl.  Although written for children, I enjoyed it and I intend to read it again this year.
In the star-shaped tealight holder is a tealight with the number 1 on it.  I love the soft glow of candlelight  every evening during Advent but I discovered a couple of years ago that I prefer these numbered tealights to the traditional dinner candle.  These burn for a few hours and I don't have to worry about burning down into the next number.  As I got these out on Saturday I felt just a bit smug about the fact that I had bought two sets of these when I found them in a shop last year so I didn't need to hunt them out this year.
The envelope labelled "A moment to breathe in Advent" was given to me by friends and contains four postcards, I suppose one for each Sunday during Advent.  I read the first one yesterday and enjoyed a minute or two of reflection over it.
Lastly, I took my Merry Christmas mug off the top shelf of a kitchen cupboard.  I bought this in a sale at the end of November last year and used it every day from 1st December through to Epiphany.  It's a constant reminder that I don't have to be penitential and it's OK to be merry - or it would be, if the Best Beloved hadn't brought me my tea in a rather lovely strawberry mug this morning!

So, yesterday morning, after drinking tea from my Merry Christmas mug and opening my Advent calendars I went to The Teacher's house.  She had suggested that we have a creative Advent Sunday together so we wore reindeer antlers, painted the tiny people's feet to print Christmas cards, stamped some brown paper with Tom Kitten to make wrapping paper and drank mulled wine to a background of Christmas songs.  I think I might get the hang of this "joyful preparation".
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x