Archive | December, 2011

Christmas is coming…

20 Dec

…but I’m stuck in that busy, stressful hell of finishing up work and getting sorted for our trip to Ireland for Christmas. So, despite feeling very festive last week, I’m feeling rather grinch-like today! But I know (or at least I’m hoping) I’ll get over it once the pre-holiday work stress abates.

What’s definitely more fun about this year is that my son is interested in what’s going on. While he’s not saying Santa or anything, he seems to be delighted with all the to-ing and fro-ing and general good cheer. He helped write (ie scrawl on) some cards. We took him to see Santa at London Zoo, complete with reindeers. His childminder has also taken him and the other children she minds to the Santa at the local shopping centre. He likes twiddling with the few decorations we’ve put up and helped me make paper snowflakes last week. We’ve exchanged small gifts and celebrated with friends and family we won’t see over Christmas and New Year. And on Thursday we’ve driving back to Cork, which will involve some hours of tedium in the car but the ferry will be fun. And of course it will be topped off with arrival at Granny’s house!
But becoming a parent has made me evaluate Christmas in a way I haven’t in the past. I’ve been thinking about what I loved about Christmas growing up and what I love about Christmas as an adult. I’ve talked to my husband about how he and his family celebrated Christmas. We’ve also spent a couple of Christmases with his family, so I’ve some experience of their traditions. Like a magpie, I’ve picked over the shiny bits from our pasts as I think about how we’ll create our own family’s traditions. So here are some thoughts on Christmas traditions I’d like our family to continue or develop.
– no matter where we live, there’ll be crackers. I love crackers. I love the silly paper hats and the thrill of pulling them. The lame jokes. They help make a Christmas dinner that bit more special.*
– dessert for Christmas dinner will feature trifle. My mum always makes trifle and, once I was old enough, I always helped. As an adult, that usually meant encouraging her to add more sherry than was wise (there have been years when the jelly wouldn’t set due to too much sherry – oops!). I will go out of my way to foster the same love of trifle in my children! **
– Santa will be Santa and not Father Christmas. I know some people think it’s an Americanism (something I wasn’t even aware of until I moved to London in 2000), but it was always Santa to me growing up. Well, it was more “Santee” but I figure my children won’t actually be growing up in Cork so I won’t try to make them say it that way! My husband is quite taken by all the English people around us talking about Father Christmas but to me it just sounds odd…
– Advent will be celebrated and I hope to make an Advent calendar by next year. The interactive element of the Advent calendar is so much fun. Though it’ll probably feature chocolate too!
– we’ll hang stockings on Christmas Eve. We didn’t do this growing up – we had pillow cases at the end of the bed that Santa delivered presents to – so stockings have an almost Victorian glamour for me. But my husband always had a stocking and his father always filled it with small, random gifts. And my husband now loves doing this for his own family.
– we’ll continue to collect single Christmas tree decorations from places we visit, as this is a tradition that myself and husband started together.
– I’ll do my best to get spiced beef onto the menu for Christmas dinner. Which is tricky as spiced beef is nigh on impossible to get outside of Cork but I’ll try…and if I can’t get it then I’ll talk about how good it is as I eat whatever dinner we’re having, in the style of a true expat Corkonian.
– we’ll try not to go overboard on the gifts. We already do a Kris Kringle amongst the family in Ireland and my in-laws, as Quakers, also keep gifts to a minimum. I remember from my own childhood that gifts are enjoyable, but aren’t the main focus of celebrations. I’ve also made gifts for my son for each of his two Christmases so far (a knitted teddy bear last year and a canvas bag screen printed with his initials this year) so perhaps that’s something I’ll try to keep up too.
– St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day to the Brits) will involve a long, brisk walk. Ideally somewhere coastal (as that’s what we did in Ireland and I love the sea in winter) but anywhere with a bit of nature will do. The perfect thing for clearing the head after Christmas Day.
Wow, writing this post as brought some Christmas cheer back to me! Now I just need to finish wrapping presents…
*We’re thinking about moving to the States next year, which has made me think about the things from Ireland & Britain I want to bring with me when we move, if you see what I mean. Crackers are on that list.
**We celebrated Christmas dinner in the States last year, which involved a great Christmas lunch of about 30 members of the family who each brought dishes. We made trifle and buying the ingredients was the trickiest thing. My mum just couldn’t believe that in America, land of bounty etc, we couldn’t find things as basic as Bird’s custard…

How to make playdough…or a 10 minute recipe that will gives hours of entertainment!

14 Dec

We’ve got friends visiting this weekend (very excited about seeing them!) and they have a son similar in age to our son. So I thought I’d make a fresh batch of playdough, as I’m sure the two children will enjoy playing with it together.

So I thought I’d share the incredibly simple recipe I use to make playdough, as it really is a 10 minute recipe that will give children hours of entertainment!

1. Pour one cup of plain white flour into a medium saucepan and add half a cup of table salt.

2. Add 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar and one teaspoon of vegetable oil.

3. Add a few drops food colouring to a cup of water (I tend to measure the food colouring using the cap – I usually add 2-3 caps of colouring). Then pour the coloured water into the saucepan.

4. Stir all the ingredients together while heating gently on the stove. Quite quickly, it’ll come together as a dough which you can tip out into tupperware or onto a surface in order to cool.

Once it’s cooled, then it’s ready for playing! It’ll keep well in an airtight container.


On the Third Day of Christmas…

13 Dec

…my true love sent to me, a load of baubles in an evergreen tree!

I love Christmas trees. I love the smell, the colours, the way they change the room in such a dramatic way. A Christmas tree just makes day-to-day life that bit more glamorous and cheerful, which is perfect for the depths of mid-winter!

So what’s the greenest way to have a Christmas tree?

Real versus Fake?

Well, the first thing is that real trees are the more eco-friendly choice. This may seem counter-intuitive, when thinking about an artificial tree that can be used for years versus cutting down a living tree merely to stick it in your living room with decorations on it. But artificial trees are made using a PVC, so a petroleum-derived plastic, which is non-renewable and polluting. Lead and other additives are also used to make the PVC needles on artificial trees more malleable. The addition of lead can make these trees harmful, particularly to children (nothing like worrying about lead to dampen festive cheer!). They can shed an invisible dust of lead particles, especially when hoovering (see this article for more information). As they’re not bio-degradable, the afterlife of an artificial tree involves many years of polluting landfill…

On the other hand, real trees have less of a carbon impact. They usually absorb as much carbon as they’ll emit when disposed off. They’re also renewable, with  replacement trees planted for those harvested. While growing, they also act as a wildlife habitat. And they’re just so much nicer in your home (biased, moi?).

Tree Buying Tips

Look out for trees that have the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) mark, as this means they’ve been grown under responsible conditions. Try to buy from small-scale sustainable growers. You could also keep an eye out for Fair Trees, which supports fair trade practices in Georgia, where most of the seeds come from (you can find the trees online at Fairwindonline).

You can also choose to buy a tree with roots, that you can replant and use year after year. Our local highstreet florist stocks cute little trees in pots that would suit even tiny London backgardens.


The most fun part of the Christmas tree is decorating it. I have a peculiar horror of “fashions” in tree decorations – what happens if you buy red and gold decorations one year only for the fashion to be for blue and silver the next year? Do you just chuck all everything out? Seems not only wasteful but stupidly expensive…

In our family, we buy an ornament as a souvenir of places we visit. Myself and my husband started this tradition when we first got together 8 years ago and it means we buy 2 or 3 decorations a year. And each decoration has a special meaning for us, and it’s fun to remember the places we’ve been while putting them up. It also means we can support craft shops in places we visit without cluttering our tiny flat with too much stuff!

Homemade decorations are also loads of fun, particularly if children are involved in making them. Our Christmas tree at work has homemade decorations this year, made by staff members volunteering at craft sessions at a local day centre for the elderly. There are some lovely things on it. I’m particularly taken with the sparkly, upcycled CDs, like this one:

Or this one:

Of course a Christmas tree just wouldn’t be right without lights. The best choice is to choose LEDs. They’re much more energy efficient. And the simplest energy saving tip of all is to remember to switch them off when it’s not dark!

After Christmas

If you’re using a tree with roots, then of course you’re going to replant it after Christmas.  But many of us will be using a cut tree, so it’s vital to recycle it after use. Many councils and garden centres run recycling points, where you can drop off your tree for it to be turned into lovely mulch or composted properly.

Recycling your Christmas tree makes a great green new year’s resolution, it means you start the year as you mean to go on!

The simple pleasure of paper-cutting or How to Cut A Paper Snowflake

8 Dec

I find it incredibly satisfying to take a blank piece of paper and transform it into something decorative. It reminds me of childhood, when I would spend hours making things out of cereal boxes and scrap paper. This afternoon was a bit windy and rainy (and I was feeling all festive and organised after sending our Christmas cards this morning!), so I decided it was the perfect afternoon to get the craft scissors and paper out so we could make paper snowflakes. It was great fun, even if my son is still a little young for the scissors (he’s 20 months). He got stuck in with the folding and unfolding and seemed very impressed with the transformation from boring piece of paper into beautiful snow flake!

So I thought I’d share my simple method of cutting paper snowflakes.

Step 1: Start with a square piece of paper. I prefer to use a square as it ensures symmetry in the snowflake.

Step 2: Fold one corner to its opposite, creating a triangle two-layers of paper thick.

Step 3: Now fold the bottom corner up to the top corner, creating another triangle four-layers of paper thick.

Step 4: Fold the right-hand corner over towards the middle, creating a 60 degree angle. It looks like this:

Step 5: Then fold the left-hand corner over like this:

Step 6: The sticky out bits at the top are now surplus to requirements and need to be trimmed. These are the extra bits:

Step 7: Once you’ve trimmed the extra bits, your folded paper looks like this:

Step 8: Get cutting! You can make cuts as big or small as you like, so experiment with whatever appeals to you. This is how I cut this snowflake:

Step 9: Unfold and reveal your snowflake!

The easiest way to flatten your snowflake is to stick it in a big heavy book for a while. You could also iron it on cool…but I avoid the iron at all costs so I prefer the heavy book! You can also experiment with the size of your snowflakes by having bigger or smaller initial squares of paper.

How Mothers Love – Naomi Stadlen

7 Dec

How Mothers Love is Naomi Stadlen’s new book and it’s already on my Christmas wish list.

Her last book, What Mothers Do, is one of my favourite books about becoming a mother. I found myself almost gasping in recognition while reading it. I found it very supportive and affirmative, which makes a welcome change from the often bossy tone of the parenting “manuals” foisted on new parents by well-meaning friends and relatives! Motherhood is an amazingly diverse experience and, no matter how you’ve felt, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. I wish I could slip a copy to every new mother (and new father!) .

So you can see why I’m excited about the publication of Naomi Stadlen’s new book. The excellent Free Your Parenting are giving away a copy of this. Check out this link for more info on how to enter. Motherhood is an amazingly diverse experience and, no matter how you’ve felt, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.

On the Second Day of Christmas…

6 Dec
…my true love sent to me, a huge pile of Christmas cards. 
Christmas cards are one of those festive traditions that provoke a lot of debate. Many people feel it’s not even worth sending them, in this age of social media and email. They think they’re a waste of money and a waste of resources. They just don’t see the point in these old-fashioned bits of souped-up paper with handwriting inside.  
Which is fair enough, especially if they’re acting out of an eco-impulse to conserve the resources involved in printing and shipping cards. Though I particularly admire people who combine this with donating the money they would have spent on cards to a charity instead (as MummyBarrow is doing over at her blog).  
But for me there is still very much a point to sending (and receiving!) cards. We live abroad from most of our extended family and most of that extended family aren’t actually on email, let alone on Facebook and Twitter. So Christmas cards are often the only direct communication we have all year and are tangible reminders of that person or that family.  
So if you decide to send Christmas cards, what’s the greenest way to go about it? 
Recycled cards – Choosing recycled cards is a great green step to take. It’s a good way of supporting the recycled paper industry. There are also loads of lovely recycled cards to choose from, like this selection from Nigel’s Ecostore.
Charity cards – We always buy charity Christmas cards, but it’s something you have to be careful about. Most retailers stock “charity” cards, where as little as 2% of the cost of the cards go to the named charity (read more about it here). We buy from Card Aid, as they have so many pop-up shops across London that it’s easy to buy them. It means we can choose to support lesser known charities like Knit for Peace.  
Make your own – this is aimed mostly at the crafty amongst us. For some, there’s nothing better than making your own cards and it certainly helps make a card as personal as possible. It’s also a great way of getting children involved in the preparations for Christmas. We’re making some cards this year (by “we” I mean I’m letting my toddler son go mad with finger paints and then assuming his grandparents will be delighted with them!).
Upcycle & Recycle – what you do with the cards you receive is just as important as the cards you send. You can upcycle cards into lots of things, from bookmarks to gift tags for presents. I tend to turn ours into gift tags, though you could also use them if making your own cards for next year. Otherwise it’s important to recycle your cards. In the UK, you can avail of the Woodland Trust’s highstreet recycling centres

A day in Bath and getting lost in a maze…

4 Dec

It’s Sunday night sofa-time after a lovely (if hectic!) weekend.

We spent Saturday in Bath, checking out the Christmas Market and catching up with friends who live nearby. It was a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies, as you can see in this picture of Bath Abbey:

What this picture doesn’t show is how utterly crowded the area around the Abbey was! It was mobbed. The market stalls were full of gorgeous arts and crafts but it was hard to get anywhere near them, especially with a toddler in tow. Luckily, we did come across the Animurals stall – the personalised prints are just fantastic (as you’ll see if you click through to the website). There’s a good chance we’ll be visiting this site in Spring when we’re looking for our son’s birthday present!

We also popped into the Roman Baths:

It’s amazing to think of the thousands of years of history in such a beautiful place.

Today we spent the day with my sister and her family, and a cousin visiting from Paris. It was our last day of hanging out before 2012, as they’re off to the States for Christmas and we’re off to Ireland. The kids (aged 1, 4 and 7) had loads of fun. And so did the adults, especially when we all got lost in the maze at Hampton Court Palace!

Is this the way out?

Or is it this way?

On a more seasonal note, we also came across this lovely mistletoe on a tree in the Palace gardens:

I must admit it did get me feeling a bit Christmassy!