Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

Warmest New Year wishes to all my readers from a very soggy Britain.  The above photo was taken by Grandson#1 after church yesterday morning. The river is actually behind the trees, though you would never have guessed that. Here’s wishing us all good health, contentment, and somewhat better weather in 2013.

Back home on Wednesday, after which normal blogging service will hopefully be resumed. J

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas greetings

With a Christmas cake to ice and games to play with an excited grandson, I only have time to wish you and your loved ones a happy and peaceful Christmas and all the very best in the coming year. Your blogs and your friendship enrich my life immeasurably.

Image: Adoration of the Child by Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch 16th century) via Wikipedia

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Day with a difference

One winter morning I opened the front door of my childhood home, stepped out onto the garden path and fell flat on my back. It was Christmas Day 1962, I was sixteen, and though we didn't know it at the time, this was the beginning of one of the longest and hardest winters of the twentieth century in Britain.

The rain that had been falling as my sister and I came home from our first ever Christmas Eve party had frozen solid overnight, coating paths, trees and, more significantly, power lines with ice. We had woken to find ourselves without electricity and my mother had sent me to the neighbouring farm to investigate and, if necessary, to report the power cut, as we had no phone at home. Picking myself up, I did as I had been asked and gingerly made my way home with the news  that we had company in our misfortune, as the entire village was without power.

Our cottage was the second from the right, with my grandfather living in the end cottage next door
Thus began one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmases of my life. Not only had it been heralded by my very first kiss under the mistletoe at that Christmas Eve party, but it would continue to provide experiences which are still vivid in my memory after fifty years.

Luckily the weather was clear, cold and sunny, so that the only immediate problem was how we were going to cook our Christmas dinner. With the electric stove out of action, everything had to be cooked in or on the coke-fired Rayburn range which was our only source of hot water. Christmas dinner was later than usual, but the chicken (no turkey for us back then) was mouth-wateringly tender and delicious after its long, slow roasting.

It was only when the last mouthful had been eaten and the last plate washed and dried that the real difference of this particular Christmas Day came home to us. No electricity meant no lights, no TV or radio for the Queen’s Speech, no Christmas specials from our favourite TV stars – in fact, no ready-made entertainment of any kind.

Instead, as the short winter daylight dimmed towards evening, out came the candles in jam-jars, the playing cards and board games, and we settled down round the kitchen table for a mammoth session of games until it was time for tea.

In the Lancashire of my youth, Christmas tea was always a highlight of the day. Not for us a desultory pecking at a sandwich or a mince-pie because we felt too full for anything else. Instead the table would be laden with ham sandwiches and salad, with jelly, trifle, mince-pies and Christmas cake and of course a large pot of tea. How we managed to do justice to it all after so much Christmas dinner I will never know, but do justice we did. Eating by candlelight made it even more special that year, and in my mind’s eye I can still see my parents and grandfather and my sisters round the table in that gentle glow.

After the tea-things had been washed up, it was back to the games until it was time for an essential part of all my childhood Christmases – singing carols round the candle-lit Christmas tree in our little front room. The tree was minuscule, a two-foot tall fir which was dug up from the garden each year and brought indoors to stand on a small table, ready to receive our much-loved collection of delicate glass ornaments – baubles and bells and two fragile glass birds with long silky tails.

Tiny birthday-cake candles stood in star-shaped holders clipped to the ends of the branches, which were draped with long strands of tinsel: red, blue, green, purple, gold and silver – no tastefully colour-co-ordinated Christmas trees for us! The kitchen and front room were hung with home-made paper chains and the tiny, flickering candle-flames on the tree were reflected as an infinity of points of light by the tinsel and ornaments – a moment of sheer beauty which tugs at my heart-strings even now.

Finally we made our way to bed, still by candlelight, and woke next morning to that special light which told us immediately that it had snowed in the night, snow which wouldn't completely disappear in many places for almost three months. But that is another story…..

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just reaching for my apron

The third Sunday of Advent is nearly over and time is hastening on. Cards have been sent, gifts bought and the first tentative decoration has been hung from the beam next to the fireplace. Tomorrow I must unearth the crib figures and begin to hang the cards that have been arriving from family and friends, as well as finding the sellotape and the gift wrap. There’s still no rush, but the pace is hotting up slightly, even in the Transit household.

We shall be spending Christmas with DS in Oxford and New Year with DD in Yorkshire, so I have been spared the anxious planning of menus and frantic purchasing of food which seems to absorb so much time and effort for many people.  Instead this week I shall bring out my home-made mincemeat and make a goodly supply of mince pies to take with us next weekend. I’m no great cook, but my mince pies are quietly renowned in the family and I have some lovely new baking trays to make them in.

In addition I fancy trying my hand at Christmas gingerbread this year, using DD’s fail-safe recipe and have even splashed out on some fancy festive cutters. I have a willing recipe tester in DH and my main problem, other than making sure they don’t burn, will be stopping him eating them all before we even leave home.

In this cold and wet weather, with such sad news filling the airwaves, there will be something comforting and sustaining in the scents of mincemeat and pastry, cinnamon and ginger, and the sight of family treats ready to feed the family. Will you be baking too?

Images via Google – I haven’t made mine yet, but the mince pie recipes are on the page above. J

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The sound of silence

Those who know me well would probably tell you that I can be almost irritatingly Pollyanna-ish at times, always prone to look on the bright side and declare my glass half-full, not half-empty.  Just occasionally my normal optimism slips a bit and today is one of those occasions.

For the next couple of days I’ll be on my own at home, while DH visits his mother. Usually this gives me a chance to get on with things more easily achieved when I have the house to myself, and indeed I have a mental list of what I hope to do and have already made a start on it.

But being on my own in a house far from traffic noise, and on a frosty day when not a twig is stirring outside, means that the silence which surrounds me is profound - something I have always loved and valued. The problem is that I have just been brought face to face, as never before, with the stark fact that this silence I love so much has actually disappeared for me and will never return.

The simple reason is that I have tinnitus and it’s getting worse. It started, oh so deceptively, about five or six years ago with a very slight whispering sound in one ear. Over the years it has grown to be a constant, high-pitched, hissing noise in both ears, which is increasingly difficult to ignore and which is gradually making it impossible for me to hear those tiny sounds which are so precious and evocative.

Sounds like the chirp of a distant bird or the gentle rustle of leaves high in a tree or the almost imperceptible murmur of water over pebbles in a slow-moving stream. Close to, the sounds still penetrate, but their clarity and immediacy are blunted by the unceasing noise inside my head. Even music, which plays such an important part in my life, has to be listened to through this barrier and this saddens me.

I’m very aware that this doesn’t mean I’m going deaf and for that I am profoundly grateful. But I still mourn for the loss of something very precious – the silence which I used to find so enriching and sustaining and which made me so aware of being a very small part in the vastness of nature. Tomorrow I will probably bounce back to my normal optimistic state, but tonight I wish I could hear just once more the sound of silence.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Let the people sing

As I sat in church this morning, listening to the magnificent words of the Old Testament and Gospel readings for the second Sunday of Advent, my mind was carried back irresistibly to my childhood and the annual Christmas tradition of the performance of Handel’s Messiah. The readings concerned were a passage from the prophet Malachi and Saint Luke’s account of the work of John the Baptist. Words from both passages were set to music by Handel in two of the most demanding and brilliant of the arias in this marvellous work.

I grew up in industrial Lancashire, just outside a small cotton town, and every year, as Christmas approached, posters would go up in shop windows and on notice-boards, advertising performances of Messiah by this choral society or that chapel or church or school choir.  For very many people Christmas would not have been Christmas without attending a performance of Messiah.

The grammar school that I and my sisters attended always held its performance just before the end of the autumn term. Year after year I longed to sing in it, but was told I was needed to play violin in the school orchestra which accompanied the singers. It was only after I had left school that I was welcomed back at the end of my first term at university to sing soprano in the chorus and hear my next-to-youngest sister sing the contralto solos.

The tender beauty of the solos, the rousing grandeur of the choruses and the Baroque intricacies of the music form part of the essential background to Advent and Christmas for me even now. So, in the spirit of this tradition, here are the two aria inspired by the readings I heard in church this morning. 

Such glory, such faith.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A time of waiting

A few days ago I read a cracking post from my friend Broad, in which she reminded us all that “Advent is not Christmas”. It was a clarion call to put all the rush and bustle of the pre-Christmas season into perspective and remember what it is that we are preparing for.

I have always loved the season of Advent, especially because, long before its religious significance truly came alive for me, our first child, our son, was born on Advent Sunday. DH and I had recently graduated and were poor as church mice, but felt very rich indeed as that Christmas approached.

Years later, at some point every Advent DD and I would drive home from church singing our favourite Advent hymn, the ancient and beautiful O Come, O Come, Emmanuel with its hauntingly solemn melody. The version I've chosen reminds me of my long-ago student days, when I too sang in my college chapel choir, though without the dignified robes.

Nowadays, Advent for me is a time of expectant waiting for the joy of Christmas to come. Neither my house nor our church is decorated as yet and won’t be until shortly before Christmas.  Traditionally Advent is solemn, even austere, rather than celebratory, so that the celebrations, when they arrive, are heightened by the quiet waiting which has preceded them. Counter-cultural, perhaps, in the 21st century, and not easy to achieve in the pre-Christmas frenzy that surrounds us all, but it works for me every time. However you mark it, I hope that Advent will be peaceful and contented for you too.

Image via Google