Cool Yule #3: let’s cook!

I’m not a gambling woman but I wouldn’t mind putting money on the fact that mankind has used food in celebrations for the whole of our history. It’s such a fundamental, human, life-affirming thing to do, to come together to share meals in an atmosphere of giving, gratitude and generosity, forming and strengthening bonds and creating and deepening traditions. Christmas is, of course, no exception to this, and food rightly plays a central part in many people’s celebration and enjoyment of the festive season. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing . . . but I’d like to make a gentle plea that we try to eat, drink and be merry without stressing ourselves, creating piles of waste or generally wrecking the planet.

To be honest, I nearly didn’t write this post; having done a lot of research and reading, mostly around food waste, the shocking statistics left me feeling sad and despondent. I’m not going to repeat the figures quoted in previous posts, but just share one new one: in the UK, 130 million Brussels sprouts are wasted at Christmas. One hundred and thirty million. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. It feels like a complete and utter lack of respect for every part and process of the journey from field to fork, so much work and energy spent producing a fresh, wholesome vegetable that is simply thrown away. Now, I like my writing to be grounded in reality ~ life is not about unicorns prancing in sunlit uplands, no matter who might think it ~ but I do like to weave a general uplifting thread of hope and happiness through my musings and I have to admit, I’ve really, really struggled with this one.

Brussels sprouts don’t thrive in our garden, but cabbages grow well.

Sprouts are one of those foods that people tend to love or hate; sifting through studies and surveys, it seems a third or so of British adults like sprouts and can’t imagine Christmas dinner without them. That’s great! However, the maths says that the other two thirds don’t, and I suspect that is part of the problem: people are cooked or served a vegetable they don’t like and won’t eat and therefore it goes to waste. What a terrible shame when there is such a wealth of options for seasonal green vegetables to choose from. We can’t grow sprouts here as the climate is too mild but with leeks, spinach, chard, cabbage and kale in the garden, we don’t miss them at all. In an earlier post, I suggested that we should not be tyrannised by traditions that don’t serve us and this is surely one of them; if you don’t like sprouts, don’t buy them but choose something you enjoy instead. If frozen peas are your thing, then have frozen peas; the Vegetable Inspectorate is not going to be knocking on your door on Christmas Day and it makes so much more sense to opt for foods you will eat and enjoy rather than something that could end up being wasted. It’s a win-win, surely?

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Christmas vegetables from the garden and not a sprout in sight.

Let’s talk turkey. I have recently completed a 30-day vegetarian challenge and to be honest, it was a breeze; I don’t eat much meat anyway and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, especially experimenting with some new veggie recipes and rediscovering old dishes we haven’t made in ages. Now I’m back to my former flexitarian ways, enjoying occasional meals of good quality meat which started with a local, organic, free-range chicken roasted with all the trimmings to celebrate my birthday. Personally, I believe that a roast dinner is a thing of great glory when it is done well . . . and there is the problem: it isn’t an easy meal to pull off, relying as it does on precise timings and temperatures and juggling a range of culinary processes to ensure everything arrives at the table at the same time. Enter Christmas dinner, and a nation where many people actually do very little cooking through the year, trying to produce the mother of all roast dinners centred on wrestling something resembling a baby ostrich in and out of a hot oven. Turkeys are relatively huge; they require large roasting trays, wide foil, a lot of oven space, a very long cooking time and at the end of it all, unless you’ve stumped up for a super duper delicious free range number, you end up with meat that is often bland and dry. To make things easier, many people opt for a turkey ‘crown’ which is basically a limbless bird; I understand the reasoning but to me it seems a bit weird, and stranger still that you can now also buy a turkey crown with ‘added’ legs. Mmmm. If you enjoy turkey, fine; it’s traditional, after all, and can be lovely. However, if it means ending up feeling stressed on Christmas Day (as surveys suggest many people do) and piles of leftovers going to waste, then have something else instead. One of the arguments for turkey is that it feeds a lot of people but so does a good sized roasting joint of other meats and, given that turkey is not a cheap option, it might be better to go for something different. In all our years together, we have only ever had turkey on Christmas Day once; in other years, choices like a rib of local pasture-fed Welsh beef did us proud and helped to support farmers and butchers in the local community. One year, in deep snow, we famously had a barbecue. I know people who have dispensed with the whole idea of a grand Christmas roast and had a marvellous time on good old bangers and mash instead and others who pack a special picnic every year and head off to a beautiful spot to eat it. Traditions can be great but some of the best are the ones we make ourselves.

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Speaking of making things, one of the aspects of festive food that saddens me is the extent to which so much of it is bought ready-made. Yes, I know I’m a keen cook and I appreciate not everyone shares the pleasure I get from cooking from scratch, but I think making your own stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, mincemeat and mince pies, pudding, cake, biscuits, chocolates or whatever is a wonderful thing to do for several reasons.

#1 It’s economical. This applies particularly to foods like stuffing and gravy which are really made from scraps and these days I tend to make mincemeat and Christmas pudding from whatever is knocking about the house rather than buying a set of specific ingredients. Even if you push the boat out and buy pricey ingredients, you will end up spending less than for the equivalent ‘luxury / handmade’ article bought from the shops . . . and end up with something far, far superior.

Candied peel is simple to make and costs pennies.

#2 You can choose your ingredients. Many people (including a lot of the children I taught in the past) don’t like certain festive foods because of particular ingredients or flavours, so if you make your own, you can tailor dishes to suit different tastes (as well as to any specific dietary requirements, of course). If you’re not a fan of sage, leave it out of the stuffing; if nuts upset you, don’t put them in the mincemeat. If you can’t stand Christmas pudding, make something else for dessert, something that will delight you and make you purr. You can also be a choosy consumer; having spent a fair bit of time perusing the ingredients lists for a range of ready-made or packet mix Christmas foods (I know, I should get a life), I’m pretty horrified at how many of them contain palm oil. We have managed to produce delicious stuffing, mincemeat, pastry, pudding and cakes for centuries without it so why is it so necessary now? It is an ecological nightmare and I refuse to buy anything that contains it until 100% of it is guaranteed to come from a sustainable source that doesn’t harm people or nature; yes, it’s a personal thing (and I’m certainly not trying to preach here) but principles matter ~ even at Christmas! Gravy is another one. A good quality piece of well-seasoned meat will release wonderful juices which put over heat, sprinkled with flour and whisked with vegetable cooking water or homemade stock makes fabulous gravy. Gravy granules and stock cubes contain a list of ingredients that puzzle me and it seems especially curious when certain brands describe them as ‘real ingredients.’ These include things such as monosodium glutamate, hydrolysed vegetable protein, permitted flavourings, maltodextrin, modified starch, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, disodium 5’ribonucleotides, colouring, potassium iodate, sodium inosinate and guanylate. Real ingredients? Really? Give me meat juices, flour and vegetable water any day ~ plus a splash of wine or dollop of cream if I’m feeling decadent. So what if homemade gravy is a bit lumpy or lacks the colour and gloss of this commercial stuff? It’s Christmas, time to be kind to ourselves and choosy about what we put in our bodies.

Homemade mincemeat

#3 It’s enriching. I’ve said before how creativity is empowering and this is true of making foods and dishes yourself rather than being a consumer. I’m not sure how we arrived at a point where it’s possible to pretty much buy an entire Christmas dinner off the shelf but I think that many people deny themselves a hugely important and beneficial sense of achievement and pleasure by not having a go at making at least a few bits and pieces at home, especially when much of it is so simple. Take stuffing, for example, which ~ trust me ~ is the easiest thing in the world to make. Start with a large bowl of breadcrumbs: these are best made from stale bread (we freeze bits and pieces until we’ve gathered enough), and if you don’t have a food processor, just rub it, crusts and all, down a cheese grater. Lumps are fine, no finesse required! Cook a chopped onion in butter or oil until soft and stir into the breadcrumbs along with plenty of salt and pepper and a pile of chopped fresh or dried herbs of your choice. At this point, you can also add anything extra you fancy such as chopped fruit, nuts, mushrooms, celery, spices or citrus peel. Go crazy, it’s your stuffing! Bind with an egg, adding a drop of hot water if the mixture is dry, and you’re done. Yes, it takes a few more minutes than opening a pack of ready-made fresh stuff or pouring boiling water onto a packet mix, but it’s so much more satisfying and the result will be truly delicious. It used to make me smile when we still had sprogs at home how the last few crumbs of stuffing were what everyone fought over.

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Lemon balm, thyme, parsley, celery leaves, sage and rosemary heading for the stuffing.

#4 It’s fun and inclusive. No-one should feel stressed about feeding themselves and others at Christmas (well, at any time, to be honest); no-one should have to get up at 5am to stick the turkey in the oven and then spend the next few hours fretting about it; no-one should end up being a frazzled martyr in the kitchen while everyone else is busy being festive elsewhere. For many years, I have used Delia Smith’s reliable recipes as good starting points in the kitchen and her famous 36-hour countdown to Christmas dinner has undoubtedly helped many people cope with the complexities of feeding a hoard. However, I do smile at the few ‘free’ minutes allowed for the cook to enjoy a glass of pre-lunch bubbly between turning the chipolatas and boiling the sprouts. Apologies and big respect to Delia but my take on that one is this: open the bottle earlier, pour everyone a glass and give them a pinny to go with it. Get all hands on deck and everyone involved, or at the very least, stick a few seats in the kitchen and invite everyone in. With appropriate supervision around hot and sharp things, there is no reason why children can’t get busy, too. Yes, it may well be chaotic and noisy and cramped, but that’s the whole idea. Play some music, chat and laugh, let the fun start here . . . sociable cooking is a truly wonderful thing to do.

Making mince pies is my favourite seasonal cooking activity.

#5 It gives you control. This might sound like a strange one, but the more inclined you are to do your own cooking for Christmas, the more confident and in control you will be. That allows you to choose which bits of tradition you are going to keep and celebrate, which you plan to change and which to ignore. For years, I persisted in making a traditional Christmas cake decorated with frosted icing and reindeer frolicking through a forest of fir trees until I asked myself why I was doing it. Since Roger doesn’t like fruit cake, I don’t like marzipan and icing and the littles were more interested in the plastic tat on top, it seemed like a pretty pointless activity. Discovering a wonderful recipe by patissier Eric Lanlard for a rich and luxurious cake full of dark chocolate and topped with jewelled glacé fruits (not a plastic reindeer in sight) was a eureka moment and I never looked back. Where a Christmas pudding is concerned (previously always made at the end of October), nowadays I tend to leave the decision to the last minute ~ to make or not to make? It depends totally on how we feel and I have to admit, I’ve yet to notice any difference between the properly matured version and the ‘throw it together on Christmas Eve’ number. We have never subscribed to the idea that Christmas dinner must be on the table by a specific time, preferring to drift slowly towards it in a relaxed fashion (easier if there’s no giant turkey involved). When we had children at home, there was never any chance of eating at lunchtime as is often the tradition, since late morning would find the cooks and their helpers wandering about in pyjamas and the vegetables still growing in the garden! These days, with just the two of us, we tend to go for a long walk somewhere, armed with a flask of coffee and mince pies, then prepare our midwinter feast together when we feel like it . . . and yes, that bottle of bubbles is definitely opened before we start.

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#6 It gives you possibilities for simple gifts. One of my grannies used to shake her head over the excess of expensive Christmas presents that had become the norm, saying that in ‘her day’ people were happy to give and receive small handmade gifts such as a pair of knitted gloves or jar of homemade jam. I’m definitely with Gran on that one: homemade foods can make lovely, personal gifts which tend to be acceptable to everyone and are far more meaningful than anything bought. There is a wealth of possibilities: preserves like jams, jellies, marmalades, butters, pickles, chutneys, bottled fruits, oils and vinegars, biscuits, shortbread, gingerbread, chocolates, truffles, small puddings and cakes ~ a double layer of foil wrapped round a large tin makes a brilliant mould for mini Christmas cakes. There are many beautiful ideas for wrapping and presentation (eco-friendly being the best, of course!) and if something homemade lacks the predictable, banal perfection of a commercial product, then so much the better. It’s an individual and unique gift, made with truly ‘real’ ingredients and something you won’t find on any food label ~ love.

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Homemade marmalade ~ add a pretty label and lid covering and it makes a lovely gift.

#7: It reduces waste. With this one, I’ve come full circle from where I started with all those wasted sprouts. If we have a close connection with food and a better understanding of where it has come from and how it is produced then we are less likely to waste it. It’s not so easy to throw a pile of mince pies away if we have spent time and energy making them ourselves, rather than plucking them off a supermarket shelf. Making your own Christmas foods tends to enourage meal planning and shopping lists which in turn lead to less waste. It’s not just the food, either; if we are sourcing ingredients ourselves, we can make eco-friendly choices where packaging is concerned, too. The inclination and ability to use leftovers is also hugely important. I once watched in horror as the entire remains of a Christmas buffet of bought ‘luxury’ foods ~ including a side of smoked salmon ~ was swept off the table into a bin bag because the hostess refused to use leftovers; that food would have fed my family for a week or more. For us, leftovers from any meal are a wonderful opportunity to be creative in the kitchen and, at the very least, form the basis of tomorrow’s dinner. It’s amazing how a bit of roast meat, cooked vegetables, stuffing, gravy or whatever can be transformed by sheer culinary alchemy into heartwarming dishes (some sort of pie topped with creamy root mash is always a good crowd pleaser). Cooked meats, mince pies and Christmas pudding can be frozen perfectly well and safely for future meals. Leftover mincemeat makes a fabulous filling for baked apples, or a wonderful surprise at the bottom of an apple pie, crumble or Eve’s pudding; you can bake it into muffins or even stir it into your porridge. Many people have an aversion to boiling up bones but it is a simple thing to do and for me, does full honour to the life of the animal in squeezing out and valuing every last drop of nourishment. It yields wonderful stocks to use in soups, stews, risottos and gravies and can be successfully frozen for future use.

New research suggests that almost a third of Britons don’t know how Brussels sprouts are grown, as in they have no idea what a sprout plant looks like in a field or garden. Perhaps if as a society we could connect more with food properly at a very basic level, literally go right back to the roots of food production and understand the whole holistic picture beginning with the soil and weather, then we would be less inclined to be wasteful. Perhaps we could be more aware of what we are eating and make better, healthier and more informed choices at the point of buying. Perhaps we could rediscover the joy and freedom of being engaged and enthusiastic cooks rather than passive consumers. Perhaps we could come to an understanding that Christmas doesn’t have to be built around excess and waste. I don’t know. Maybe I’m dreaming . . . but having finished a post I nearly didn’t write, I am at least feeling more optimistic about the possibilities. I sincerely hope that those of us fortunate enough not to need the support of foodbanks this Christmas will cherish every precious mouthful and do complete honour to our festive food, ourselves and the planet. Happy Christmas cooking, everyone! 😊

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas….

(This blog has been hi-jacked. This is not Lis in Asturias!)


I have sat down a number of times over the last fortnight to write about a sustainable Christmas with children. Straight-forward, I thought.

It is not.

There is potential to sound like a really ungrateful, privileged, preachy kill-joy, and so I apologise profusely in advance. (It is also not easy writing anything with young children, so please go easy on me).

Like many children, Christmas forms an immensely exciting period in my little ones’ calendar. Children and Christmas is a magical combination. Plus, to be honest, we could maybe all do with a bit of Christmas cheer this year, couldn’t we? In this strange and difficult time, the idea of coming together, reaching out to loved ones and neighbours, and spreading a bit of happiness is a wonderful thing.


Yet, each year, a gnawing sense of unease grows and grows in my stomach. I don’t know if the consumption is worsening over time, or I have grown more aware of it; as we continually try to make other areas of family life more sustainable, and the environmental crisis becomes more startlingly evident. Christmas feels like an unstoppable wave of consumption, shiny plastic and waste. So far from the point.

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Lichen…because lichen’s pretty cool. Plus better for Rudolf’s digestion than glitter.

In the non-Covid Christmas run-up there’s a stream of parties, fairs, concerts, Christmas dinners and Santas distributing presents. That’s without more recent “traditions” of advent present calendars, lights being turned on, glittery oats for reindeer, elves on shelves, Black Friday and Christmas Eve boxes. Then the day itself, and a mountain of presents. It feels like a marathon of overexcited, sugar-filled, tired and over-whelmed children; and so much stuff. I breathe a sigh of relief when we get to January. There have been Christmases in the past where the aftermath of bin bags full of packaging and wrapping has made me feel sick, and the pile of presents has been more than my children could need in a lifetime (not to mention no room to store it). It has also resulted in some undesirable behaviour and attitudes that I am desperate not to encourage.


Ok, before I go further. I realise this sounds incredibly ungrateful. I am not. My children are RIDICULOUSLY lucky to have so many wonderful people in their lives who love, and want to spoil them. I also appreciate that too much fun and too many presents is hardly a “problem”, when so many people suffer true hardship. This topic is tricky to navigate, but all the more reason to try and create balance.

My own favourite Christmas memories involve things like Christmas baking with my Mum, choosing a tree with Dad, seeing extended family, playing board games, Christmas carols, nativities and yummy food. Yes, of course I was excited about presents, but I can hand on heart say that a bigger pile wouldn’t have made Christmases any more special, and I think the same applies to my children.

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The following are statistics for the Christmas period in the UK, found here: https://www.gwp.co.uk/guides/christmas-packaging-facts/

We generate about 3 million tonnes of extra waste over the Christmas period. We waste:

  • 125000 tonnes of plastic food wrapping
  • £42 million of unwanted Christmas presents (into landfill)
  • 8 million Christmas Trees
  • 500 tonnes of Christmas lights
  • 108 million rolls of wrapping paper (we use 227000 miles each year, an average of 4 rolls per household).
  • 40 million rolls of sticky tape
  • 54 million plates of food
  • 1 billion Christmas cards – the equivalent of 33 million trees

  • Two-thirds of people throw away part of the 10 million turkeys we buy
  • 7 out of 10 people admit over buying food
  • 14% of people bin their fake Christmas tree each year
  • We use 189 million batteries

Meanwhile.

Earth Overshoot Day fell on 22nd August this year. This is the day when humanity’s use of resources outstrips what Earth can replenish in a given year. We are well beyond this by Christmas.

Between April and September this year, the Trussell Trust website states they provided 1,239,399 emergency food parcels to people in the UK. 2,600 parcels daily for children for the first 6 months of the pandemic.

Microplastics seem to be everywhere.

We are seeing more bush fires, flooding and droughts – most likely a result of climate change, and some of the poorest communities are already suffering due to climate change (despite being the least contributors to the problem).

Irreplaceable ecosystems such as the Amazon are being burnt to grow soy and rear cattle, and rainforests in places like Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations – to feed our consumption (yes, this includes us in the UK). There are also plenty of incredibly sad environmental issues closer to home.

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So. What to do? I haven’t got all the answers! We are most certainly not perfect, and any suggestions very much appreciated here, but these are some of the things we’ve tried so far:


First, I was worried about doing this: I talked to family members about maybe downsizing presents. Thankfully everyone seems to be understanding. I had moments of guilt where I worried I was being some overbearing Victorian character, depriving my children and potentially seeming like an ungrateful grouse to my family. Maybe we’d end up with NO presents under the tree. The children would cry. I’d have to explain that I’m actually the Grinch. In reality everyone understood in their own way, and happily, recent years have been far less overwhelming.


No competing – I don’t try to keep up and Santa doesn’t try to keep up with the most generous of gift givers.


Making gifts/cards. Now, I don’t have any photos of this. Crafty, bakey sessions in this house are nothing like those beautiful wholesome snaps you’ll find littering the internet. It. Is. Utter. Chaos. My children love it though. I think with time (I hope) the mess, the melt downs, and the oven not cooking things fast enough will be forgotten, and these are the moments we’ll look back at fondly. My children are always so proud of their creations, and so excited to give them to grandparents, cousins, friends etc. They look nothing like those arty online photos, but they are made with love.


Give to charity. We’re filling a shoe-box for Help Our Homeless Wales, plenty of local charities, foodbanks etc look for donations over Christmas.


Alternative advent calendar. I saw a lovely idea a while ago, where you write down an act of kindness to do each day – smile at someone, put a coin in a charity box, leave some seeds/a piece of apple for the birds etc.


Buy second-hand. Here, Father Christmas does his shopping in charity shops, local buy and sell/swap groups, and online auction sites. (Plus local food shops). No-one has filed a complaint. Once, a book arrived in a stocking (that was a second), it turned out that the cover had been put on upside down, so when biggest-littlie opened it, the pages were the wrong way up. After a moment of confusion, we hypothesized that maybe it was an elf playing a silly trick – this resulted in lots of giggles and the book thought no less of.


Buy second hand for other people’s children. Felt weird about this initially, but have established with a few like minded people that we are all happy with this (we had no problems receiving second hand toys/books etc at all, just felt uneasy about giving them).


Give time – last year my children’s gift from their cousins was a swimming trip with them. For my smallies as toddlers, a trip to the park, feeding ducks, or playing silly games with a loved one would be the best present ever!

Buy less but better – opt for more sustainable options.


Adults – many of the adults in my family have decided for a while that we won’t do presents, this really takes the pressure off. Previously we have tried things like a £5 limit and a secret santa between us.

Ahh, wouldn’t this be lovely? A Covid-free cuppa together.


Take part in community events, call in on neighbours, maybe bake them some mince pies. Sadly not a great year for this.


Nurture that cosy feeling, like the Danish hygge……wrap up warm and go outside to star gaze (if fortunate to live somewhere with no light pollution), or maybe go for a walk to spot Christmas lights, go for a wintery wander in the woods together – preferably with a warm flask, share a coffee with a loved one, dim the lights, cosy up under a blanket and drink hot chocolate. That kind of thing.


Decorations – we have some second hand wooden ones bought years ago. They will last us a lifetime, and if the Christmas “fashion” changes then so be it. We make a few things – mainly involves being creative with bits of hedge and lots of paper snipping. Paper chains are fun if you can track some down.

Old-school snowflakes


Odds and ends. We don’t do crackers etc. Wrapping – I hoard last years’ wrapping to reuse and any bits of tissue paper that make their way into our house. If necessary, plain brown paper is effective, economical and can be composted at the end of it’s life – sadly haven’t seen any recently not sold in cellophane. If you scrunch up paper and it unfurls by itself then it can’t be recycled, glitter is actually evil plastic micro particles – I avoid like the plague. Paper tape is great. Old cards make good tags.

We eat local, sustainably produced food, don’t over-buy and waste nothing.

Continue watching other areas of life – electricity use, heating, etc.

So, there we go. We are not perfect, but I hope we can find a balance. A balance between keeping Christmas magic alive for little imaginations, but also eliminating a lot of consumption and destruction. Hopefully with more meaning, kindness and love along the way.

Nothing to do with Christmas. Here’s a relaxing Autumn picture to finish.

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! 🥰)

Cool Yule #1: let’s be kind

Christmas. Mmm. Generally, I wouldn’t even be thinking about it at this time of year, let alone writing a blog post, but this is all part of the change and challenge coming from the 50 Shades of Greenish project I wrote about last time. It’s giving me a prod out of my comfort zone and also encouraging me to look at life from other people’s perspective and that is a very good thing; when Sarah pointed out that many people are indeed thinking about Christmas right now, making this the best time to start sharing our thoughts and ideas, I could see she was completely right. So, here goes . . .

I’m going to jump right in with a few statistics to ponder (sources are hyperlinked):

  • In the UK in 2019, people on average were expected to spend £727 each on Christmas, including food, drinks, decorations and presents; that equated to nearly two weeks’ pay on an average UK income of £29,588.
  • The biggest expenditure ~ £363 ~ was on presents.
  • In 2014, Ebay forecast that consumers would have spent £495 million on unwanted presents (equivalent to £32.13 per person); the previous year had seen over 100,000 items listed on Boxing Day.
  • According to respectfood.com, approximately 7 million tonnes of food is wasted at Chritmas in the UK, including 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and74 million mince pies, all of which are still edible when thrown away.
  • A 2016 poll found that only 22% of Britons celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ.

So, perhaps I’m not understanding this properly, but as a nation it seems we spend money (which many of us haven’t got) on presents that aren’t appreciated and food that isn’t eaten to celebrate something we don’t believe in. Um, why? Please don’t get me wrong. First, I’m not picking on the UK: it’s by no means alone in this, simply the culture I know best. I am not going to get all Scroogified, either; I’m happy to admit that I am not exactly the world’s number one Christmas fan but I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone they can’t celebrate. After all, in northern European countries where winters are long, dark and cold, bringing light and warmth into the home and coming together to share food, drink and merriment within a family or community have been natural responses to the darkest time of year for millennia. In the 2016 poll cited above, 91% of British people said they celebrate some sort of Christmas, 76% considered spending time with family the most important part and 63% enjoyed the giving of gifts to loved ones. Many of the seasonal traditions, whether religious or not, are truly beautiful. There’s a lot of lovely, positive stuff going on here.

If you sense that I’m climbing up onto my green-wrapped eco-warrior soapbox, please bear with me a bit longer. Yes, of course, this is a plea to think green, to walk away from excessive consumerism and to do things more simply and sustainably . . . but there’s far more to it than that. As described previously, I’m currently studying permaculture and I’m particularly interested in how the principles can be applied holistically to all aspects of life, not just food production (as I said, please stick with me 🙂 ). It revolves around three ethics which are usually expressed as People Care, Earth Care and Fair Share; they are interconnected and overlapping, the idea being that each one helps to support the other two. People Care is essential, not selfish: if we can’t look after ourselves and the well-being of others, then there’s not much hope for caring for the planet, either, and it’s this concept of promoting care, welfare and yes, love, that sprung to mind when reading the results of a Mintel survey from December 2018. How can it be right that 36% of UK adults feel stressed by Christmas, and in particular at the cost of buying presents? What a terrible thing it is when what should surely be the best meal of the whole year creates further stresses and results in such waste. How sad that Boxing Day, that traditional time of walks and sports and turkey sandwiches now sees a large part of the nation spending their day returning or selling unwanted gifts online. What on earth are we doing to ourselves and each other? This isn’t People Care . . . and it doesn’t have to be like this.

It’s been a strange and terrible year, bringing illness, hardship and fear as well as financial difficulties and emotional turmoil to many, many people across the world. I can understand that Christmas ~ whatever that might mean or prove to be in the light of restricted socialising and the like ~ may well now be the focus of hope and positive thinking but, at the risk of sticking my neck out, I’d like to suggest that going even more overboard than usual in the pursuit of ‘stuff’ is not the answer. Let’s simplify things. Let’s concentrate on what’s really important. More than anything else, let’s be kind to ourselves and others. Kindness costs nothing and we all have it in buckets ~ honestly, we do. It takes very little effort to share it but the effects can be huge, like the famous butterfly wings of chaos theory.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Choose a day when you know you will come into contact with people you don’t know (that’s the really important bit), whether physically in a shop or business premises, medical centre, school or community building, or at the end of a telephone, video call or email. At the end of your transaction or communication with someone say, “I hope you have a very happy day!” Not have a good day or enjoy your day because those phrases tend to be trotted out glibly a lot of the time; say it meaningfully, to show you really do care, and smile if you can see them. Now obviously, there may well be some folk who simply think you’re slightly unhinged, but that’s all part of the big adventure! From the vast majority, though ~ and I speak from experience ~ the response will be immediate and lovely; the truly wonderful thing is that not only are you likely to get something heartwarming back, but people who have been shown small gestures of kindness tend to pass them on. Try wrapping that and putting it under a tree.

Ancient midwinter festivals celebrated the passing of the solstice and the rebirth of the Sun, a promise that spring would return and there would be another seedtime, another harvest. The Christian festival that largely replaced older ways gave thanks for the birth of a Son and the hope it brought for peace on earth and the salvation of mankind. However we may feel about them and whatever our religious (or non-religious) convictions, both offer great comfort and optimism for life and humanity; both encompass love and kindness, sharing and giving in simple yet meaningful ways. Perhaps there are lessons for us all here, if we turn our backs on the stress and the debts and the waste and instead opt for fun and laughter, help, support, companionship, rest and loving kindness . . . and that doesn’t mean you have to ditch the turkey or tinsel (of which, more next time).

In Cool Yule #2, I shall start to share the ways in which Roger and I celebrate the festive season and how that has changed greatly over our years together; I also know that the rest of the 50 Shades of Greenish gang have masses of great ideas for enjoying a simply green but amazing Christmas with young children to share both here and on Facebook in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the beauty of the season here in Asturias, amongst other things, some truly stunning sunsets . . . and of course, whoever and wherever you are, I hope you have a very, very happy day! 🙂

Simply celebrating

Christmas means different things to different people and how it is marked and celebrated comes down to personal preferences. I’m sure that many people would think our Christmas was very boring – even miserable, maybe: no pile of presents; no tree; no turkey or mountain of festive food; no frantic shopping trips or round of visits and visitors. We have had huge traditional family Christmases in the past but I have to admit there has been something lovely about paring it down in recent years to a very simple celebration.

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The subject of family perhaps needs a little more discussion before I go any further. We have been asked how on earth we can bear to live abroad when we have young grandchildren in the UK: surely we miss out on so much? Well no, not really. Ironically, I have seen more of our grandchildren in the time we have lived in Spain than I did in the same amount of time living in the UK, where full-time work and all the responsibilities and demands of life left me short on ‘Granny time.’ I’ve also seen more of the little munchkins than a fair few of their other UK relatives have in that time, and the truly wonderful thing is that we might only get together three or four times a year, but each one is like a mini-Christmas. I’ve been reflecting this week on some of the things we have done together in 2017: had day trips out, eaten cafe and picnic lunches, had long walks in pretty places, climbed trees, made dens, built towers, jumped in puddles and paddled in rivers, grazed and nibbled around gardens, shared ice creams and gingerbread men, explored caves and ‘castles’, done very serious business with toy farms, horses, machines and Lego, coloured pictures, stuck stickers, curled up with stories, gazed at the moon (and talked about why you can’t go there on a tractor) . . . priceless moments. You can’t wrap any of that and put it under a tree. 🙂

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So, to our quiet and simple Christmas here. One of the things I value now that we aren’t tied to the timetable of work is the fact that we have the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the Winter Solstice. For me, the solstices and equinoxes all mark important turning points in the wheel of the year and I like to spend time at each one reflecting on their significance. I love the Winter Solstice! Yes, I know it’s a while before we really notice the days lengthening and of course the coldest months are yet to come but . . . there is something so joyful about knowing we are turning a corner and spring will come again. I’m not fussed on tinsel and glitter but I have always enjoyed gathering winter greenery and what better day to choose than one where the sun ‘stands still’ – especially when it is shining?

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A short walk up the lane and I turned to look at the view; I never tire of seeing those beautiful mountains and there is something so comforting about the wood smoke spiralling up from the chimney. No need for a Christmas tree in the house when we can enjoy those enormous beauties next door!

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No holly for the house, either: it is a protected species here and cannot be cut. That’s no problem as I’m happy to enjoy it outside; we are blessed with swathes of it in our woodland and I have recently found several tiny new self-set trees growing in the garden – precious things indeed.

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There was no shortage of colour and greenery and I found myself revelling in the simple beauty of the trees around me, native or otherwise.

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Even on the shortest day of the year, my very favourite spot at the end of our forest track, was bathed in sunlight. One resolution for 2018 is to build a simple seat here.

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Over an hour of wandering about with my head in nature, five minutes to ‘create’ in a vase. My kind of Christmas decoration! Later that evening, we sat and watched the sun go down, marking the spot against the mountainous skyline.

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I’ve heard of an elderly couple who pack smoked salmon and a bottle of bubbly and enjoy them as a picnic every Christmas Day as they have done for all the years they have been together. How lovely to be brave enough and imaginative enough to do something different. We did have a delicious roast dinner (local free-range chicken, most definitely not turkey) and a pile of vegetables from the garden but chose to do that on the 21st; for Christmas dinner, we had good old-fashioned homemade steak and kidney pie. Well, why not? We’ve indulged in a couple of cooked breakfast, too, enjoying Vita’s lovely eggs . . . and sending her box back as full as it came. This is the sort of gift-giving I love.

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It has been so good to spend time outside and smile at those little signs of hope for a new growing season. The peas and broad beans are through the ground and enjoying the current mild weather.

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Borage and calendula have provided splashes of colour non-stop but there are a few new arrivals to enjoy, too.

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Given the weather forecast, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve a day early: yesterday just shouted out for a barbecue in the early evening sunshine (and yes, Roger is wearing shorts!).

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It’s wet and windy today for the real event but that’s no bother. I don’t know about resolutions but of one thing I am very sure: whatever 2018 brings, we will continue to enjoy this simple, lovely life as fully as we can every single day. That’s better than all the Christmas presents in the world. Happy New Year!

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