Christmas morning this year began at 4.55am. I thought we had grown out of pre-dawn Christmas starts, but when Posy hopped into my bed on Christmas morning it was with a request to "Please look in my ear - I think a moth crawled into it." I have to say that in twenty three years of parenting I have never had to inspect a child's ear for moths, which just goes to show that there is always a new experience round the corner. Thankfully there were no moths, but as we cuddled back to sleep I was struggling with my Christmas resolution for this to be a day with gratitude to the forefront.
Later as I woke with the sun shining in and I realised it was almost eight o'clock, there was my first moment of gratitude, and I lay and watched my twelve year old baby sleeping angelically and drank in the wonderfulness that is a sleeping child, one who still needs me everyday, if only to check her for moths, and that is a moment to treasure.
More moments of gratitude - I was running around madly getting things done, and getting lunch ready to take out and being grumpy about the fact that my parents were about to arrive and all the girls decided to have a shower and use the bathroom when I wanted a shower, and the breakfast dishes and late night cooking dishes hadn't been done yet, when a little voice inside my head slowed me down.
Here is the truth - my parents don't care if the house is immaculate, they come over because they love us and like to spend time with us. How lucky am I? And sharing a bathroom? Hey, running water is such a privilege. Plus, when I had two bathrooms I had to clean two bathrooms, and that was no fun at all. So when my parents arrived I was still in the shower, and we had presents and fruitcake then Mum and the girls helped with the dishes and Mum rinsed all the lettuce for salad and we all managed to get out the door in time for lunch, gratitude and tempers intact.
Lunch with friends was splendid, as always. Gratitude is easy when you get to spend time with kindred spirits. Here is my gift from my dear friend Karlin - she is a great gardener and very funny. What could be better than a joke gift that is useful and homegrown? I am absolutely using this idea for my work secret santa next year..
Back at home and The Boy arrived on Boxing Day to stay for a couple of weeks which is an unmitigated joy. We had to juggle the sleeping arrangements. The Girl has been here for a month already, and she is upstairs sharing the attic with Rosy. The Boy is sleeping in Posy's room, and Posy is now sharing with me. Later next week when The Boy's partner arrives I will give them my room and I will sleep in Posy's room on a mattress on the floor. I had a brief pang of regret for the large house I left behind, where all the children had their own room. The children themselves have had many pangs of regret over this. But, playing musical bedrooms at Christmastime is a long and honourable tradition. I remember squeezing into cousins' bedrooms like we were sardines, and queueing for the bathroom and getting into trouble Christmas 1984 for using up all the hot water at my aunt's house one day. I mean, I know I like long showers, but I was fifth out of the six persons having a shower that morning.. (clearly there are still residual psychological issues..)
Close quarters means getting in each others' faces a lot, but that means we are forced into relationship - no bad thing in a family of introverts. Conflict resolution is a good thing, right? Last night as we all sat around the table playing a card game with one of The Boy's friends who had popped over for dinner, well, the gratitude was easy. There was just enough room around our small table, but 'just enough' - that's all we need, isn't it?
This is what I am seeing from a few days of attempting to practice gratitude as often as I can remember. I don't have to feel good to feel gratitude. First I search for the good in a situation. Then I feel good. Gratitude is not an emotion, it is a deliberate intent to look for good. And here is the truth. For me it is not hard to be grateful. I have a wonderful life, full of the all the good things; family and friends and hot water and good food and a roof over my head. I don't need to spend any time at all being grumpy and irritable and judgemental and demanding. And yet I do. So going forward I will be practising some gratitude and slowing down to find the good that is all around..
December the twenty fourth is very hot here in Launceston, with blue skies and heat haze on the mountains (we always look twice at heat haze, to make sure it is not smoke). Our wee cottage is very small, and dark with little rooms, like a burrow, which makes it marvellously cool in the summer. Rosy's attic and the kitchen do get the full glare of afternoon sun though. This means that she has been forced to come downstairs from her lair and mingle with the hoi polloi this sunny Christmas Eve. It also means unbearable summer sun in our eyes which beats down on the only kitchen bench space all afternoon, so this morning I bought a bamboo blind, and The Girl and I installed it outside the window. It is providing marvellous and wonderful shade which is a huge relief, especially for The Girl as she is whipping up a glorious dark chocolate pavlova for tomorrow's lunch, and making pastry for mini caramelised onion tarts. She and I are very proud of our DIY job, especially as it involved teetering precariously on a ladder.
We spend our Christmas lunch with three other families, all the assorted grannies, plus a smattering of waifs and strays who have no other Christmas plans. Each year we have the same menu. Sometimes we think we'll change it up, but then can't bear to because it is all so yummy. Everything is as local as possible, and it is all served cold. We have platters of cold stuffed turkey, ham with fig jam, and smoked salmon with cream cheese rolled up in crepes. We all have gardens so there are myriads of interesting salads - I'll be doing a green garden salad with masses of sugar snap peas from the garden. I have discovered tarragon - it has the most intriguing and delicate flavour when tossed through a salad. I will also be roasting a tray of vegies tonight to make a roast veg and feta salad with toasted pumpkin seeds. There will be local cheeses and marvellous condiments, because none of us can resist making new preserves. The Girl will make her signature chocolate pavlova for dessert, topped with cream and raspberries from a friend's garden. Then all the enthusiastic folk will pop down to the local pool for a swim, after which we will smash up a home-made gingerbread house for afternoon tea (in case anyone is hungry). After that we will come home and nap and well, I think we will just nap.
Today in preparation we are eating very sparingly. I ate peas and strawberries out of the garden for breakfast and we had apples and crackers with cream cheese for lunch, and the girls are helpfully eating up all the fruit so we can fit the salads in our little fridge. We will have salad and boiled eggs for dinner, and no doubt Posy will attempt to just eat eggs.. then Rosy will make us more fabulous egg nog, which is a specialty of hers, then we will go to sleep under the shining stars and dream of a world of peace and goodwill.
I'd love to hear about your Christmases, when you have a minute.. or your Solstices or Hannukahs or your cunning plan to hibernate and pretend Christmas isn't happening at all..
Wishing you all the joy of family, friends and feasting..
Updated to add: First Christmas cooking disaster - I was pre-heating the oven and chopping up vegetables when I smelled burning, and ran shrieking to the oven where I had singed the pav that The Girl had left cooling in the oven all afternoon. Aargh! Luckily The Girl is very calm and assures me that she can trim the edges and cover it all with lots of cream and all will be well. Deep breaths now..
I love vegetable soup. It is immensely comforting and calming. It is so much more than the sum of its ingredients - it is a warming and nourishing hug for the digestion. It is also the thriftiest meal of the week.
How to Make Nourishing Vegetable Soup:
First, persuade someone else to cut up the onion while you wander into the vegetable patch to pick celery leaves (celery is a notoriously difficult vegetable to grow if you want it to look like the celery at the greengrocers. It demands continuous water and nourishment, but never fear, grow it unsuccessfully anyway and cut its wonderfully salty and mineral-rich leaves for all your soups and stews, and buy stems of celery from the greengrocer for your salads..).
Once your onion minion has rushed out of the kitchen to find a handkerchief to stem her tears, it is safe to return and rummage through the vegie bin. I like to use ghee to cook onions, as it has all the goodness and flavour of butter, without butter's annoying tendency to burn. Cook the onions slowly and tenderly while you discover what else there is to throw in the pot. Tonight I found three small wrinkly potatoes, two limp carrots, a small and only very slightly mouldy piece of pumpkin, and half a packet of baby spinach that Rosy-the-spinach-fiend refused to eat, because it was from the farmer's market, and didn't look like supermarket spinach.. of course the secret to vegetable soup is that there is no secret. It is a glorious melding of whatever 'needs eating up'.
I chopped all of this 'seen better days' veg up and popped it on top of the onions along with several cups of vegetable stock and two handfuls of red lentils. Actually, if there is a secret to vegetable soup, it is red lentils. These boil down to an indistinguishable mush and give the soup its thick and hearty rustic nature. It all bubbled away for half an hour and then we ate it. We didn't have any bread, so we had crackers instead. I just had more soup. And there is some for lunch tomorrow. Life is good.
Here is an update on my campaign to avoid the supermarkets - well, turns out, shopping locally requires forward planning. This is not my strong suit. I ALWAYS discover that there is no milk at about half past seven at night when there are no local shops open. That is also the time that Posy remembers she needs a block of chocolate to make truffles for her teachers for Christmas, and the cats realise that they have run out of cat food (those cats really need to get their act together). That is when I sigh deeply and take the dog and slink out to Coles. Again. I have had to do this at least once a week since I swore to avoid the evil supermarkets forever.. However, in the spirit of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I am celebrating the huge, vast majority of our food that is coming from local sources. I am finding new and interesting treasures every week. I am trying to remember that the butcher down the hill opens Wed to Sat, and that the greengrocer stocks milk and is open until 6.30. I discovered that a local company makes the best tortillas I have ever eaten, and that none of us will actually die if there is no milk in the house, because herbal tea is actually a thing. And you never know, I might even learn to plan ahead.
In the Christian calendar there are feast days and fast days. My English and Scottish ancestors would have observed the great feasts and saints' days of the liturgical calendar and also the fasting days that preceded them. Many of the world's religions still observe times of fasting to clear the mind and encourage a focus away from the material world and towards the spiritual, but our secular society has chosen to keep the great feast days of Christmas and Easter, and drop the fasting altogether. Here in Australia the most sacred fasting day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday, has been turned into a marketing opportunity for an enormous slap-up seafood buffet.
Excess and restraint, feasting and fasting, are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of the cycle of living. The natural cycles of the year encourage feasting and fasting as well, with late summer and the autumn harvest giving us a time of feasting, and then the late winter, early spring 'hungry gap' before spring greens come on providing us with a natural time of fasting. A recent diet trend encourages intermittent fasting on the basis that our paleolithic ancestors would have had irregular access to food, and that the feast/fast cycle is how our bodies evolved for ultimate health.
However you look at it, whether for its spiritual or physical benefits, fasting has been part of our past and is part of many cultures today - but not ours. We appear to be very uncomfortable with the idea of voluntarily consuming less than we can. Our society is predicated on the value of More. Even when we put ourselves on diets, they are usually anything but simple. We have invented an enormous dieting industry that makes eating less somehow complicated and expensive.
I am tentatively exploring facets of the simple life, and what I am looking at now is food. There is so much of it all around us in our incredibly privileged enclaves, and so little of it in so much of the rest of the world. Recently I have been trying to ditch the supermarkets and shop as locally as I can for food. We didn't eat a lot of processed food before, but now there is even less in our kitchen. The children are continually complaining that we have no food. This is not even a little bit true, but what you mostly get when you shop locally is ingredients. We have a kitchen full of ingredients that need a little work to be rustled up into food. We can have boiled eggs in five minutes, an egg salad in ten minutes. Rosy has just made us Christmas egg nog in five minutes from local eggs, cream and milk, and rather non-local nutmeg, sugar and vanilla bought at the whole food shop. But the fact that there are five minutes between us and our snacks has curbed a lot of mindless snacking, and the fact that the ingredients are full of flavour and also quite expensive makes me want to cook them simply and let them shine.
Local meat is eye-wateringly costly. I buy it from the farmers who have tended it, killed it carefully and butchered it superbly. They generally tell me how to cook it as well, and I take great care with it and its taste is transcendental. Meat eating has been elevated to a ritual, like the Sunday roast in granny's day. And like the Sunday roast, the left overs are also carefully consumed and the bones made into soup stock. This is a once or twice a week treat. For the rest of the week we are happy vegetarians, with homegrown or local vegies and eggs filling our bellies. See, right there, by deciding to place some limits on our consumption, we have created a little feast and fast cycle over the course of the week. Our meat days are a bit special, fill us up, build up our bodies, but also require a lot of digesting.. and then we balance that by eating gently nourishing eggs and broth and vegies on other days. Also our budget evens out with a large expenditure on meat being balanced by vegies and beans and lentils for the rest of the week.
December is often a month of parties so that by Christmas we are are not as thrilled as we might be by our mid-winter or mid-summer feast. I am thinking that in order to highlight our feast day this month, at our place we might do some gentle fasting for the remainder of the days leading up to Christmas. I just looked up the rules for fasting for different religions and I find it fascinating that these guidelines for eating were developed in a time when food was not at all as plentiful as it is now. It is almost as if fasting was developed as a form of rationing, and as such possibly helped communities to survive lean times as food could only be consumed sparingly on many days. Mostly, fasting in religious traditions does not mean a complete abstinence from food, but merely eating smaller meals, or less of them, and refraining from including certain groups of foods, mainly meat, and sometimes dairy and alcohol as well.
For many Christian traditions it seems that a vegetarian or vegan fast without alcohol was required on Wednesdays and Fridays, with other fast days throughout the year, particularly before Easter and Christmas. I find it interesting that this is almost what we have found ourselves doing with our budgetary constraints which have accompanied eating local. With a roast, plus a left-overs night, plus a chicken dish, we are left with four vegetarian days a week, only one or two of which might be vegan, the others with eggs or yoghurt. Sometimes we also go out to eat, so there is generally another meat night as well once every few weeks. Our vegetarian meals are mostly very simple - soup and bread, or a tray of roast vegies with feta and chickpeas; salad with roasted pumpkin seeds and hardboiled eggs tossed through, or our quick favourite, a fry up of eggs, mushrooms, spinach and haloumi.
We live in the midst of a cornucopia of plenty. Every day can be a feast day, which leaves no room for gratitude and joy for a splendid meal, and is bad for the planet and bad for our health. Imagine the benefits of sometimes choosing less. The more I simplify my life, the happier I find myself becoming. Simple food is one of the great blessings of my life, because food is wonderful of itself, and I would rather read about food than cook it! If you would like to read about how to keep food simple, try Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace.It is my favourite book about food. So far. It is particularly special among books about food in that for Adler, food must be treated with care and reverence. Even the peels and stalks are worthy of saving and transforming into broth.
And I think that this is what we have forgotten in our bubble of protected plenty - food is precious. It keeps us alive and strong and happy. Maybe if we have a little less of it, sometimes, from day to day and season to season, we might appreciate it all the more when we gather together to feast.. so here in our wee cottage we will be eating vegetable soup and a salad or two over the next week in preparation for some serious feasting come the 25th..
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!"
How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
I imagine your house looks a little like mine this Christmas - maybe like us, at the beginning of December you pulled down crates of Christmas from the attic. Maybe like us you put together the fake tree from Target, maybe like us you have an eclectic collection of department store baubles and lights, the lovely wonky Christmas decorations the children made in kinder, the beautiful hand-made Oxfam decorations, lovely hand-crafted treasures and the candy canes from the $2 shop.
I imagine that most of you, like me, have spent many years feeling uncomfortable about consumerism at Christmas and tried to steer your family towards more meaningful ways to celebrate. A couple of years ago, tired of the proliferating Christmas tat I decided that enough was enough and that we didn't need to spend another cent on Christmas decorating, ever. Recently I read this rather disturbing essay on the real home of Christmas where thousands of young Chinese men and women churn out our Christmas wreaths and Santa hats and I actually felt ill at the state of our society that demands this kind of mindless and demeaning work from people out of mind and far away so that we can celebrate a religious holiday mindless orgy of consumerism.
Now, I am not intending to turn into a Scrooge-like figure of uncharitable grumpiness, or attempting an Oliver Cromwell-style Christmas ban. I think Christmas has many redeeming features. Hope and peace and joy are truly excellent endeavours. Taking some time out to consider goodwill towards, well, everyone, seems like a refreshing change. Gathering together with family and friends and neighbours to eat, drink and be merry has much merit. Thoughtful and restrained gift-giving, especially to those who really need it, seems like a pleasant and useful thing to do. And decorating our houses for fun and to make our December merry? Well, who doesn't like a bit of pretty with their cheer? I certainly do, but I don't want anyone in China to slave away for my Christmas festivities any more. I just don't, so here is my plan.
First, I won't be buying any more Christmas tat, ever. Second, I will care for what I have. I will sew the bells back on the Christmas hats and glue the Christmas decorations back together. The earth's resources are finite and so caring for what we have, whether it is Christmas decorations, clothes, cars, or public infrastructure, is a way to slow down the demand for raw materials and keep stuff out of landfill. Third, I will send Christmas bits and bobs away with the children as they leave home to share the joy so that they won't be buying Christmas decorations either.
And last of all, I will decorate with what I have. Like you, I have a lot, including a double set of drawers full of craft supplies that somehow never seems to diminish even though I refuse to buy more. Here are some Christmas decorations my clever girls have made over the years:
Felt angel on a dolly peg
The felt Christmas magpie..
Paper mache bauble
Yesterday The Girl made origami stars out of wrapping paper
...and Posy started a paper nativity scene she is blu-tacking to the wall.
This is The Girl's origami crane string made out of pages from a book that fell apart.
I don't actually do craft, but I can tie string around jars, which I did last Christmas:
And this afternoon I picked bottlebrush from the garden and stuck pine cones in a vase and on a cake stand. I am so all over the Christmas decorating!
And yes, I do realise that tea lights are made in a factory in China, but I have about fifty left from the box of 100 I bought two years ago. I am saving the little foil containers, and I bought a big chunk of local beeswax and Posy is going to attempt to make beeswax tea lights for me..
There are so many ways to celebrate Christmas without going to the store. Our homes and our lives are so full of things already - why add to them? Let's give some away, mend some, make some, arrange what we have, and make Christmas a little oasis of grateful thankfulness for the many good things in our lives..
Yesterday afternoon the patch of backyard next to my vegie garden looked like this. It was annoying me no end. I had spent all morning buying lovely Christmas things at the Christmas market at a big old hall with lots of wood panelling and twinkly Christmas lights and then I spent all afternoon in bed reading Snuff by Terry Pratchett for about the fifth time because it is a truly excellent book, and eating the chocolate I bought to put in the Advent calendar, and then I went outside before dinner, and this.. it really didn't fit into my lovely day at all.
Mmm, no better from this angle. You can see the tiny spot I cleared last week to put in a teepee of beans. I had to bring down the hideous plastic chair that I found in the garden when I bought the house because the radio only works in the back garden at waist height. And here is one of the beautiful wooden day beds that The Man made for me as a parting gift before we broke up the partnership. He really is lovely. But sadly, it is about to be eaten up by the garden triffids. Which is a pity because the girls come outside to read their books and sun themselves and I don't want them to be eaten up by the garden either.
Sometimes I can come up with good excuses to get back into bed with another good book, and sometimes I can put on my Ignoring Hat, which is often quite effective, but sometimes I just have to get the shovel out of the shed and put my back into it. Which is exactly what I did, while The Girl and Posy made dinner (The Girl is home from uni for the summer. Happiness and general extra-person-to-make-dinner-joy). The horrible and vile triffid-like weed plague which I imagined would take about three weeks of full-time hard graft to quell looked like this after an hour:
Clearly I seem to have a very unrealistic view of the efficacy of hard work. This is because I spend so much time in bed reading instead of actually doing any. This morning I got up at dawn (aka 8.30am) to do some digging while this space was in shade. My main job was to make the space level enough to fit both day beds, which kind of worked out although my spirit level says, "Not quite there yet," in its most pernickety voice. This job means I win a 'get out of gym free pass' for the next week. I currently cannot move any of my limbs. In the process of moving lots of dirt I also dug up approximately one hundred and twenty thousand jonquil bulbs, each of them wrapped lovingly around with yards and yards of twitch grass (substitute the name of the worst invasive grass from your area with mile-long rhizomes and no redeeming features and you will know just how much fun I was having). Disentangling them was quite jolly, and now I think it is time for a little lie down.
Possibly next time I get tired of reading on the weekend (ho ho) I will get some decomposed granite delivered for a nice hard surface under the daybeds. Hopefully that will happen before all the weed seeds germinate (too late, they are probably doing that right now).
I have managed to carve out a little extra vegie patch. I think this will be the corn and bean patch.
Gratuitous photos of my vegie garden:
We are eating rhubarb, lettuce, spinach, rocket (arugula) and various herbs (plus one strawberry) and have peas, beetroot, capsicum, chillies, celery, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash coming along.
Here is the crazy enthusiastic potato patch.
And the tomato plantation.
And a baby cucumber in the tiny teepee I made to protect it from being kicked over by the hooligan blackbirds.
That is my weekend in the garden. Sometimes I get a little tired of my garden. It can be so needy..
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (16) and Posy (11). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..