Cool Yule #2: let’s keep it simple

Traditions can be lovely things. Coming from the Latin tradere meaning ‘to deliver,’ there is something very comforting and fundamentally human about the idea of activities and customs being shared and passed down through generations; a gift of history, if you like. They give us a sense of continuity, familiarity and of who we are, a cherished sense of belonging within a family, community, nation, language or faith. Christmas, of course, is packed with tradition and I understand completely the excitement and anticipation of, for example, tasting that first mince pie or decorating a tree with bright-eyed young children. They are very special moments indeed.

However, the Latin tradere also means ‘to betray’ and I think it is a useful reminder that there are two sides to every coin; traditions are great but they shouldn’t be allowed to morph into tyranny. After all, just because something is ‘traditional’ doesn’t necessarily mean it is good or right. They are not set in stone, either. Like everything else in life, traditions change: turkey has only became popular for the UK Christmas meal since the 1950s (it was goose and game previously); mincemeat, that sweet confection of dried fruit and spices, was just what its name suggests ~ meat; carols were dances; Christmas trees were lit with candles; in northern climes, holly was the red plant material of choice, now it’s poinsettias, those ubiquitous South American hothouse pot plants (which are an environmental disaster all of their own, but that’s another story!).

For me, it’s still holly every time.

I am willing to put my hand up and admit that during my lifetime, I have been part of what has led to the current climate crisis. I can’t undo the damage that I have caused, but through changing my attitude and lifestyle and committing to a simpler and more sustainable approach, I hope at least to do some good for the future. Where Christmas is concerned, the same story applies. Yes, we had the ‘big’ Christmases; we always grew our own vegetables (and eventually, trees), did home baking, made decorations and tried to create homemade gifts that were personal and meaningful . . . but, there were still the piles of presents, the shiny wrapping paper, plastic tape and ribbon, the mountain of cards to write and send, the crackers and party poppers, the special tablecloths, the extra food bought in and a whole host of other things that, quite honestly, just weren’t necessary but we did them anyway.

Local greenery and pine cones ~ a simple, natural decoration.

Now things are very different and on reflection, I think it’s refreshing and also perfectly acceptable to stand back and think about what Christmas truly means to us and how we can celebrate this in a personal way. It is okay to break with tradition and the perceived ‘right’ way of doing things, especially if it means a reduction in the stress that so many people feel, the unfettered consumerism and the negative impact on the planet. These days, Roger and I like to mark the festive season with a midwinter feast, in line with the old Yule which celebrated the return of the sun a few days after the solstice. We send messages to close family, enjoy a long walk in a wild place, bring in greenery, light homemade candles and cook a lovely meal together. That is it . . . and it’s blissful.

Homemade beeswax candle (and festive tablecloth!)

One of the pertinent statistics from the Mintel survey 2018 is that almost a fifth of Britons find Christmas stressful because they spend it with family members they don’t get on with. Where such time together genuinely brings comfort, enjoyment, happiness and relaxation in a loving affirmation of close bonds, then it is a blessing that money can’t buy. However, if it is a case of false hopes and expectations, forced jollity, resentment and tensions in a highly charged atmosphere, then who does that truly serve? In an earlier post, I wrote about kindness; Christmas is a time for compassion and charity but they really do need to start at home. Only through loving ourselves can we love others, the rest of humanity, life and the planet, so if sitting at someone else’s table in a paper crown or listening to cheesy songs or eating Brussels sprouts or going to social functions or battling round hot shops or whatever really don’t float your Christmas boat, then just say no. It is allowed.

Roger and I no longer send cards or exchange gifts, neither do we have a tree, tinsel or turkey. We don’t own Christmas jumpers, but we do get to share in the fun of some spectacular examples . . . 😃

God jul, Sam (and nisser friends)!

What interests me is how when I share the sort of Christmas we choose to have, so many people’s reaction immediately defaults to bah, humbug! Why? The point is, we are not miserable or mean or tight-fisted, neither is our celebration of the season boring, sad or empty. Quite the opposite in fact: by paring back all the unnecessary stuff, our Christmas has become so much more meaningful. Simple, stress-free and kind to the planet. I like that very much.

Goodbye shiny paper and plastic tape: plain brown wrapping paper folded and tied with a homemade decoration is more personal and can be re-used.

Our simple Christmas doesn’t mean we forget family and friends either, we just do things a little differently. Instead of sending gifts, we agree to have a lovely time whenever we can next get together – perhaps go for a meal somewhere or a trip out for a walk or picnic, or simply enjoy each other’s company preparing and sharing food (we’re a very foodie bunch!) then playing games. It’s a lovely way to spend time together without all the added pressure and stress the festive season tends to bring. I do try to put a special gift in the post for the littlies, homemade and quirky but always something that has been made with a lot of love.

Mini stockings knitted from yarn scraps, ready to be stuffed with little chocolates and sent northwards.

For me, this is one of the beauties of doing things in a simpler, greener way, the chance to be creative without any pressure to produce or perform . . . and just to prove you can have a lot of fun, here is one of my favourite ideas. If you have a freezer (or a spell of arctic weather!), creating ice lanterns is a lovely thing to do; they are one of the most beautiful seasonal decorations and are ridiculously simple to make. Whilst traditional greenery and berries are an obvious choice for decoration, the only limit to creativity is imagination ~ it’s incredible how simple things are transformed when caught inside bright ice. The basic idea is to trap water between two freezerproof containers, stuff decorative bits into the gap and freeze to create an ice block with a central hollow for a tealight. For the demonstration photos in the following instructions I used a small plastic tub and spice pot as we are currently very short of freezer space, but for bigger versions like the one below, ice cream tubs and plastic mixing bowls are ideal; play around with shapes and sizes, there are no rules here!

To make an ice lantern you will need:

  • Two freezerproof containers, one small enough to sit inside the other with a good gap all round but large enough to hold a tealight
  • A jug of cold water; previously boiled and cooled water will give clearer ice
  • Small weights such as pebbles
  • Sticky tape (optional)
  • A poking implement such as spoon handle, knife, skewer or knitting needle
  • Decorative bits and pieces (in the lantern above I used holly leaves and berries, ivy leaves, mistletoe, sprigs of pine and rosemary, small pine cones and rosehips)

To make a lantern:

  • Place the small container inside the larger one and pour water around it, not quite to the top.
  • Place weights inside the smaller container to stop it floating completely; it needs to sit in the water but not on the bottom of the bigger container as it’s important to have a good thickness of ice on the lantern base. The trick is to weight it evenly so it doesn’t keel over!
I used a couple of pebbles and a shell as my weights.
  • With bigger containers, it can be easier to tape the edges of the smaller container to the rim of the bigger one to keep it central. Warning: I once followed instructions to use duct tape for this and spent several years subsequently trying to scrub sticky residue off a perfectly good mixing bowl! 😣
  • Gather your decorations together and sort through them, cleaning or trimming if necessary.
I foraged bits and pieces from our wood: green and brown ferns, ivy leaves, oak and chestnut leaves, Spanish heath sprigs and fallen eucalptus seed pods and holly berries.
  • Now for the fun bit! Push the decorations into the space between the two bowls, poking them down and arranging them with your tool if needed. Don’t panic if the smaller container starts wandering aimlessly off centre or the plant materials either sink or float in a clump. Have faith, this will work! What you should find is that as you add more stuff, it all settles down, the inner pot stays central and the decorations spread out. Don’t fret about organising them too much, random is good here.
I added a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme from the garden to pad things out a bit.
A reasonably transparent container allows you to check the levels of everything.
  • Very carefully, transfer the whole lot to a freezer (or similar place of extreme cold). If your freezer is anything like ours, you might need to jiggle things about a bit to ensure the container sits flat and upright. If things have moved about in transit, just gently push them back into place. Shut the door / lid and leave to freeze solid.
  • When you want to use the lantern, remove from the freezer and dunk the container in a bowl of hot water to release the ice from its mould. Gently pour a trickle of hot water into and around the outside of the smaller container to loosen it so you can pull it out.
  • If your lantern is very frosty, a quick ‘polish’ with warm water or your hand will soon have it sparkling.
  • Now pop in a tealight and you’re ready to go!
  • If using indoors, place the lantern on a shallow tray or similar to catch any ice melt. We tend to use ours outdoors (mulled wine and mince pies under the stars, anyone?) so we just plonk them down on a slate on our picnic table, a flat stone, tree stump or on the ground.

These lanterns last an amazingly long time, even in warm environments, so it’s perfectly possible to remove the tealight and put them back in the freezer for further uses. When you’ve finished with your lantern, leave it in a bucket or bowl to melt (essential if you have used non-natural decorations as they will need to be fished out and rescued / disposed of ) or just put on the ground outside or directly onto a compost heap.

By the way, this is a lovely idea to use with children, especially during a spell of really cold weather. Let them collect ‘found’ natural objects like leaves, flowers, seed pods, twigs, empty shells, feathers and so on, then freeze in small containers ~ yogurt pots are ideal. If you drape a loop of string into the water before freezing, the resulting ‘ice art’ can be hung up outside and admired. It’s a brilliant home-ed activity, there is so much science, discovery and creativity involved and it’s fascinating to watch as the creations slowly melt away. If you include a few unsalted nuts and seeds in the mix, the birds will be happy to feast on the leftovers once they’ve dropped.

So, to anyone who finds the usual trappings and traditions expensive, stressful or questionable, then I say, be the change! Drop those things that do not serve you and embrace, foster and enjoy the things that do; make Christmas your own, and let the resulting peace and joy ripple outwards to others. For many people, Christmas is a cold, lonely and miserable time because of circumstances beyond their control; instead of stressing ourselves over choice of presents or stuffing a turkey, perhaps we could be asking what we can do together that costs little or nothing and helps us to reach out and to strengthen our relationships with others and nature? Simple. Possible. Powerful. (And yes, of course you can still wear your crazy jumper! 🥰)