Sunday, 17 December 2017

Christmas Home

One of my favourite parts about Christmas is decorating the house in celebration of one of the loveliest times of the year. I change elements of it each year but the essentials stay the same; a tree, the nativity, candles and ornaments, an advent calendar, a wreath or greenery of some kind. I start late, add slowly and I really enjoy it. 

Since we moved down here almost three years ago, we've always bought our tree from a local garden centre that I favour for the simple reason that I know they stock pink poinsettias, which I absolutely adore and are hard to find. We did not mean to buy such a big tree. It didn't look that big in the garden centre, honestly.

I bought a Christmas tree skirt this year and I really like the way it finishes and frames the tree. I worried that Ziggy might chew the wicker but no, he's ignored it for the fairy lights and decorations. 

After a few breakages, all baubles have been moved to high branches out of reach, and all the really precious decorations (ie anything the children have made) remain out of harm's way in the loft, but still. It's been challenging. But, after lots of firm "no!"s he is slowly getting the message. Or more likely he's just grown bored of the tree.  

I've strung fairy lights around the living room window and trailed some outdoor lights through all the shrubs in the front border. I never used to see the point of outdoor lights at Christmas - all that expense, all that climbing about on ladders, all that electricity - but I am slowly being converted. There is something very cheering about arriving home in the dark to all that sparkling light and the promise of warmth within.

Just give me another year, and it'll be full-on National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation style. Our sixties house is not blessed with the kind of festive features that look so pretty at this time of year; I have no wooden front door, painted in Farrow & Ball colours or otherwise, from which to hang an evergreen wreath; the four metre wide windows are hard to dress with fairy lights; there is no potted Christmas tree on my doorstep, only a couple of dead dahlias. But fairy lights make everything pretty. 

I also added a few lights to the advent calendar, although this photo was taken last week and there are a sparse seven parcels left on it now. (Today's gift, Christmas socks, was a huge hit with both kids which was rather lovely.)

This year's advent calendar has been the most popular yet. Bella and Angus have developed an almost civilised rota of who's turn it is to cut down the parcel and open it, and I think they've genuinely loved it. The other rather sweet surprise has been how much they still enjoy playing with the little wooden nativity scene. I remember buying this when Bella was tiny and hoping it would be something that would get used and touched, not just sit on a shelf looking beautiful, and that it would stay with us as a family through the years. 

Of course I had the most fun faffing around with the mantel. You knew I would, didn't you?

I love how the two indoor wreaths look up there. Hanging anything square or rectangular on that asymmetrical chimney breast is problematic, but circles seem to work. 

I tried to stick to a fairly minimal colour palate. Lots of white with a little red and green.

The round shelf in the dining room was given a little wintry dressing too, with fairy lights that usually live in our bedroom and trimmings from the tree. 

I very much like this shelf, I think it's one of my favourite things and changing the displays with the seasons is so much fun.

I spent a lovely night - I think it was last Sunday night - writing my Christmas cards in front of the fire. John was out, the kids were in bed, Ziggy was asleep, and it was just me and the TV (with full control of the remote, winner) and a cup of tea.

I know that writing Christmas cards is a chore, but I am so happy every time I receive one, that I don't mind sending them too. It's the one time of the year when you actually get nice post. 

I also have a bit of a thing about Christmas stamps. They make me happy.

Despite all this twinkly prettiness and festive industriousness, I have found it hard to find my usual Christmas spirit this year. It's nothing major, just that I am very tired and have, for the last three weeks, been fighting off a lingering cold/virus that has sapped my energy and left me looking and feeling washed out. In Hampshire, we don't break up for Christmas until next Thursday which is much too close to Christmas for my liking. I have come to rely on that week between finishing work and Christmas Day to get jobs done - wrap gifts, last minute shopping etc - but more importantly to slow down and enjoy spending some time alone with the kids, doing things like making gingerbread or paper chains, something relaxing. But this year, it will feel rushed. On Friday I will clean the house and await the food shop (I'm so impressed with myself for actually remembering to book a delivery slot this year) and bake, and on Saturday family come to stay. 

So, no slow pottering this year, or at least not until after Christmas, but I went to a carol service tonight and that was just wonderful. I do love a good sing. Today I baked and baked (teacher gifts, mince pies, birthday cake) and we have been watching all the Christmas films and TV and I've had Christmas music on repeat at home and in the car so I am trying really hard. I think I just need to slow down, but that's virtually impossible in December, especially when your daughter turns eleven tomorrow and you have balloons that need to be blown up and a cake to ice....

Stay sane lovely people. If you have found that elusive Christmas balance, then please share your secret.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Christmas Projects

A very quick - and late - post to join in with my friend Jennifer at Thistlebear's Winter Project Link Party, in which we get together and share the things we are working on throughout the winter months. My projects for December are all firmly focused on Christmas gifts. I am in the zone and there is no distracting me. I am a crochet machine.

I recently finished this rabbit. Ok, not technically for Christmas, but a gift I had promised and intended to make for so long that I couldn't really focus on anything else until it was out of the way.

The pattern is from one of my favourite crochet books, Edward's Menagerie by Kerry Lloyd. I can practically crochet these critters in my sleep now, so many have I made, but they delight me every time.

I have two projects on my hook right now - a duck and a cowl, and they are proving to be the perfect counter-projects. The duck, which will be one of Angus's Christmas presents, is from Edward's Menagerie: Birds. It's small, using DK yarn and a 3 hook, and requires a fair amount of concentration which, depending on how tired I am and Ziggy's antics, isn't always there.  

But I just love how he's already starting to take shape and those colours are perfect. He looks like he's wearing a little fair isle knitted jumper. I'm using Drops Karisma for this duck, a DK yarn I often use now for these animals and birds because it's soft, durable, easy to work with, has amazing depth of colour and is really well priced.

The cowl, on the other hand, is the perfect project for when I am tired but still want to work on something. The pattern is a joy, just rows of herringbone half double crochet or hhdc (US terms) stitches, with three colour changes. I found it on Ravelry and the pattern is available here. It's free and very well written and I'd recommend it if you are looking for any last minute crochet gift ideas.

I am making this one for a friend but I'm already sad for when it finishes, so satisfying and speedy is it to make, with the chunky yarn and 10 mm hook. 

I'm using Drops Nepal for this one, and it's so incredibly soft with great stitch definition. When I ordered this yarn I also ordered three balls for myself, in white, grey and pink, and I'm going to be hooking myself up one of these after Christmas. 

Once these projects are complete, I need to make Bella a toy orangutan and crochet some socks for my mum. In time for Christmas, yes. I don't know why I do this to myself. There will inevitably be some last minute crocheting, as there is every year. I do like a challenge, do I not?

Meanwhile, Christmas has arrived at our house with fairy lights inside and out, and a ridiculously big tree. More on that later, but for now I'll leave you with a picture of the tree. If the fairy lights look a little uneven, or you notice more decorations at the top than the bottom, then you will know to blame a certain whippet puppy whose mission is to shred the tree of lights, baubles and pine needles too, at this rate. 

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Making the Seasons: December

Things are moving along here, Christmas-wise, very slowly. It's so hectic and this year I feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and under prepared. But the tree has been bought and is currently sitting in a bucket of water in the garage. Tomorrow John will (he promises) wrestle the trunk into the stand and the children and I will decorate it over the weekend. I have made a few Christmas cards, although I'm yet to write or post any. I realised this week, a bit sadly, that I haven't had time to do any festive baking lately, so I've written a shopping list that includes ingredients for mince pies and gingerbread, depending on which Bella and Angus want to help me with over the weekend. It's coming together. This weekend we are going to get our Christmas on - we've got tickets to a pantomime and everything! 

But now is time for December's Making the Season's post, where my friend Lucy and I try to find time in our busy lives to focus on small, seasonal, creative projects and, do you know, it's been just the ticket. Despite all the busyness and the looming to-do list, I have managed this week to carve out a few absolutely lovely moments of festive crafting that have, frankly, kept me sane. Nothing complicated, just easy and satisfying creativity that leaves me feeling restored. 

I spent some time on Sunday afternoon with last year's Christmas cards, a pair of scissors and a hole punch, turning them into this year's gift tags. I remember my mum doing the same when I was little and I highly recommend it.

It's relaxing, takes absolutely no skill whatsoever and it makes me feel slightly less guilty about the huge amount of waste that is created at this time of year. 

Before heading off to work one morning this week, I spent a happy half hour sat at the kitchen table with a coffee and Radio 4 on in the background, making a couple of very simple indoor wreaths. 

I bought a couple of metal rings from here, although embroidery hoops would work just as well, and a sprig of artificial eucalyptus. Yes, I know that the whole point of wreaths is to bring the outside inside at the darkest time of the year, and that real greenery would have been more authentic but, while eucalyptus lasts well in water I find that it dries out quickly when picked. So I went for fake leaves, which you can buy from IKEA, Amazon or in Hobbycraft to name just a few places, for a wreath that I can pack away then bring out again next year. 

I used a small amount of thin wire to attach the leaves to the ring and it was as simple as that. I think what I love most is the sparsity of the decoration and the lack of colour. My brain must be telling me something here, that it wants quiet and calm in the midst of colour and hubbub.

They look rather nice against the grey wall in the kitchen but they are destined for the wall above the mantel in the living room which is painted a very pale creamy grey.

And finally, I have been having a bash at making my own Christmas cards this year. I did, for one wild moment, consider carving a festive linocut for the first time, something I've always wanted to do, but then I came to my senses and thought that three weeks before Christmas might not be the time to start a new hobby. Instead, I bought this absolutely gorgeous stamp from Noolibird. I know I didn't carve it, but every time I pick up that stamp and press it to a card I feel a bit of that "I made this" satisfaction (and I supported a small, independent business too which makes me feel a little better about the number of Amazon parcels that have come my way over the last few weeks....)

I found a couple of stamps I already had (remember Angus's bedding?) and had fun experimenting with different colours and patterns.

The black and grey trees came out quite well although I worry that they are maybe not that festive for some, perhaps the green is a little more cheerful.

So there you are, a few suggestions for festive crafting that might, if you're anything like me, give you a little feeling of handmade warmth and the chance to do a quiet, mindful activity for half an hour here and there in the midst of a crazy - yes, happy too, but still crazy - time of year. 

Do pop over to Lucy's blog, Attic24, to read her Making the Season's post

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Cookery Calendar Challenge

Thank you so much for your wonderful comments and suggestions on my last post, in particular how to address Christmas traditions like stocking fillers and advent calendars as children grow older. I loved all your ideas and was very heartened that so many of your older children still enjoy these elements of Christmas. Personally, I always had a stocking until I left home for good, so right through university, and always looked forward to seeing what little treats were inside. And I remember the first time John came to stay with us for Christmas and how excited my mum was to produce a stocking for a boy, after raising three girls. So I think I will continue with my embarrassing traditions for as long as possible, right up until my two leave home. Who doesn't like chocolate anyway, at any age?

I am almost through my Cookery Calendar Challenge, led by Penny at The Homemade Heart, in which we trawl through our less thumbed cookery books looking for inspiration and deliciousness. For November I chose Pieminister: A Pie for All Seasons by Jon Simon and Tristan Hogg. Neither John or I can remember where we got this book, but we know that we didn't buy it. I think it was a free copy given to John some years ago when he worked in a bookshop. Many of our cookery books came free (either damaged or a gift from a publisher) or heavily discounted from our time working in bookshops. I chose it for November as this cold, dark month seemed like a month for pie. Also, before we go any further, can I just apologise for the horrible electric light in all these photos. I don't spend much time in my house in daylight lately, what with being at work all week, so electric light it is. 

The book is divided into the four seasons with pies, both savoury and sweet, that match what is available and at it's best in those months, so I chose one from the autumn and one from the winter section. While the recipes in this book are very solid and well written, I was irritated by the tone, which seemed firmly aimed at men. Or, rather, "blokes". It made me realise how many of the cookery books I enjoy reading and cooking from are aimed at women like me, and perhaps male readers find this equally irritating. I don't know, I didn't really think about it before. Dishes have names like "Posh Paddy's Pie", "The Chairman" and "The Screaming Desperado" and there is a section on "booze matching". The book is full of lifestyle photos of the authors in fields wearing check shirts and gilets, chatting to farmers, camping, or lighting fires or barbecues on the beach. It's all a bit Boden catalogue.

First, "Cheesy Tom's beef hash with homemade baked beans", named after their friend Tom who is a "great bloke", apparently. But once I'd stopped rolling my eyes and started cooking, I was quite taken with Tom and his beef hash. 

You slow cook a beef brisket in stock for three hours, then when it's cooled a little shred it with two forks. Meanwhile, you peel and boil some potatoes. Then you fry four onions in 250g of butter. Yes, that's right, a whole pack of butter. I just couldn't do it. It just seemed wrong. Too much butter, and I do like butter, so I halved the amount.

The onions just melt down to the sweetest, most buttery goo. I kept eating then out of the pan they were so good. The hash is simply a case of mixing the onions, potatoes and beef with some chopped parsley before transferring to an oven dish and smothering in cheddar, before baking for half an hour. 

It did dry out just a very little bit - I probably should've used all the butter, or at least added a little stock to the dish - but it was everything it promised to be, cheesy and savoury and comforting.

The best bit about this dish though was the homemade baked beans. After frying some finely chopped onion, celery and garlic, you add the haricot beans to a jar or passata and a whole lot of spices, and just let it simmer away. The recipe said ten minutes but I gave mine more like forty and it was better for it. But homemade baked beans, wow. And the leftovers are great on toast with an egg on top.

Next were "pulled pork, cider and sage pies". Again, you start by slow cooking a pork shoulder for four hours before removing the fat and shredding it when it's cooked and cooled a little. Then, to make the rest of the pie filling, you fry onions, fennel and sage with cannellini beans, adding the cooking stock from the pork to make a sauce. 

Then add the shredded meat and transfer to a pie dish before covering with shortcrust pastry and baking. This recipe called for eight individual pie dishes, but we chose to bake it in one dish, partly because I don't have eight mini pie dishes, but mostly because why would you wash up eight things when you can wash up one?

It was excellent. It thought that amount of sage would be too overpowering, but it was good and balanced out the pork. The kids, who will pretty much eat any pie, liked it although there was some moaning from Angus about the "white kidney beans". 

So now I have lots of leftover pie in the freezer for rushed weeknight dinners, plus a huge amount of pulled pork which I think might end up in a chilli.

I hope you're all ok. I am looking forward to another Making the Seasons post at the end of the week and have some crafty ideas that I want to share with you. Simple ways to feel festive without spending too much time or money. I'm not actually feeling especially festive yet - we haven't bought a tree, I haven't yet written any cards or made any mince pies - so I think I need to find my sparkle somewhere and crafting, as always, is the answer. 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Driftwood and Eucalyptus Advent Calendar

Last Sunday, I was up in the loft going through the Christmas things looking for the advent boxes I made last year. I had intended to get them out again, but when I found them all I just wasn't feeling it. Some of them were in quite a bit of disrepair, while others were empty since the contents had been eaten or played with. The thought of sorting them out five days before the start of Advent made me feel a little faint, frankly. They were a wonderful thing to make but they took a really long time. 

So I decided to do something different this year, something quick and simple. I usually hang my advent garland down the banister and add chocolates and treats for the children, but I'm aware that that will be very tempting and chewable for Ziggy this year, so I'm not going to risk the garland being chewed to death, or Ziggy eating chocolate. Both would be disastrous. 

I wanted something I could hang on the wall: puppy proof but accessible and fun for Bella and Angus. Based on a few ideas I'd seen on Pinterest, I decided to hang 24 small parcels from a driftwood stick decorated with eucalyptus. Simple and plain, nothing complicated. Choosing the contents was fun. I aimed for two thirds food, one third gifts, and sticking to a tight budget so shops like Poundland, Home Bargains and supermarkets were where I did my shopping. For non-food based gifts I chose things that both children could enjoy, as each little parcel contains two gifts, like stickers, erasers, key rings, Christmas socks and lip balm.

For the food, there are of course chocolate and sweets in those little parcels, but I added things like those individual flavoured hot chocolate sachets, and those funny little milkshake straws that you put in plain milk - in short, the kind of things the children wish I would buy in the supermarket but that I always say no to.

Wrapping was fairly quick, a couple of minutes per parcel. I don't think I will ever tire of the brown paper and string look for gifts. It's cheap, can be recycled unlike most foil based Christmas wrapping paper, and is suitable for any occasion. Plus it's just really pretty. And that ball of red and white baker's twine is about to go into it's third Christmas. I remember it was a huge ball when I bought it for something like £8 or £10 but when you think that you can pay a couple of quid in the supermarket for a metre or two of ribbon I think it's pretty good value to buy it this way. 

The fiddliest job by half was hanging them all onto the wooden stick. It's also quite heavy, what with 48 small things dangling from a piece of wood, and I wasn't sure that a little picture hook would take the weight. Bless John, who drilled a hole into the wall for me last night, with a proper wall plug and screw, just so I could hang the calendar in the dining room. He rolled his eyes and huffed a little (another one of Gill's crafty ideas....) but I'm sure he loves me really...

I really like it's position in the dining room, in a funny shaped wall space next to the asymmetrical chimney breast and shelves.

I hope the children like it. My two are almost eleven and eight but, with Bella off to secondary school next September, I realise that I may not have that many more years of wrapping small toys and chocolate snowmen (parents of teenagers - what on earth do you put in their stockings?!) at Christmas. This may be the last year she puts things like Sylvanian Families on her Christmas list. She's the only one in her class not to have a mobile phone. What I'm saying is I want to make the most of these sorts of traditions for the children before they lose interest. What I'll do then is make an advent calendar for John and I - twenty four little bottles of gin perhaps?