Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

Christmas Grocery Shopping…

Gingerbread stall, Erfurt

A whole stall selling nothing but gingerbread!

Yesterday I ventured out into Retail Land and did my big grocery shop for the Midwinter period. I try to be as organised as possible – write out a schedule of special days for which I want/need to specially cater, decide on menus and write a shopping list accordingly. Most of my purchases are ingredients with which to bake or cook things, so I have quite a task ahead of me in the kitchen! But it is of my choosing and I feel that it is important to remember this.

Wandering around the shops in the centre of town and the supermarkets always has an odd effect on me – I often become very tired and a little depressed. there is just so much and all my senses go into overload. Yes, there are some lovely luxuries and tempting treats but if we all spent a million pounds we still wouldn’t be able to achieve the occasion which so many of us seek.

This is because some of the vital ingredients which go to make up the perfect Midwinter/Christmas celebration are simply not for sale. What really makes a special time are the instances when people come together in common understanding and love… when someone shows compassion or empathy… when a person suddenly volunteers to help or to do… when a habitually grumpy person suddenly cracks a joke and changes the whole atmosphere… when one or more people rally round and jointly make something good. In other words, when humanity shows love and care it creates a magic which nothing else can rival or achieve.

Astonishingly, this magical element is more often found in the most mundane of situations. It is in all the thought and planning and effort… the tidying of cupboards to contain all the extra provisions… the cleaning of the house to ensure that all who enter there at Midwinter are as comfortable and cosy as possible…the extra and unexpected card hastily scribbled… the effort to get all the boxes of decorations out of the garage or down from the loft… the peeling, chopping, whipping and kneading that goes into producing even the simplest dishes… the steadying hand on the shoulder… the wordless hug… the smile which needs no explanation… the unsolicited cup of tea… these are just a few of the tiny ‘magics’ which go to make up the magnificent whole!

In other words, it does not matter a jot what we do, buy, make or have – it is the spirit in which we live our days… each hour… each moment, which makes all the difference and which will ultimately make a wonderful and memorable occasion. It will be the people, the laughter – even the disasters, later chuckled over – which will be remembered long after the wonderful (or unwanted) gifts, the table settings and the decorations have been forgotten. Done with the right approach and in the right spirit of loving and giving, a single candle on a table set with a paper napkin and a sprig of holly… with sausage and mash to eat and little promises of loving or caring actions written on slips of paper instead of lavish gifts can mean far, far more.

However you are spending this time of preparation – of Advent – and whatever you achieve once the time to celebrate actually arrives, make the very most of it. It is actually easier to get the most out of a few dishes, gifts, activities… to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy a single glass of wine rather than half a bottle… truly taste a couple of rich chocolates as you slowly consume them rather than guzzling down the whole box and then finding that you haven’t really tasted or even registered eating any of them. In over-abundance, so much can become obscured and lost.

Stollen stall, Erfurt

Thought that there is only one kind of stollen? Then think again. Here is every varied ingredient and type of stollen you could ever wish for!

Back to the two dreaded ‘c’ words – consumerism and commercialisation – try not to become distracted from the true relevance of what it is you wish to achieve. There are many occasions when the spectacular displays of the commercial world can be both enjoyable and inspiring (as in my recent visits to the German Christmas markets) so, go ahead, feast your eyes, and your other senses too – settle for one or two little treats which you can enjoy there and then or which will lift your special gathering when it arrives.

Remember not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Millions of people earn their livelihood from making and/or selling something, or supporting those who do. Just don’t allow it to get out of hand and, wherever possible, buy from local producers which then directly feeds money back into your local economy and supports your local community.

Lastly, don’t forget to have fun! Whatever you are planning for this weekend, stop, take a deep breath, give a smile, and remember to enjoy it!

Star stall, Erfurt

These wonderful stars really show up well in the dark of a winter’s night!

 

 

Hugs To All!

Sun behind treesJust a quick reminder to everyone that I shall be talking about my latest book, ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’, with Selina Mackenzie on Talk Radio Europe just after 1.pm. today.

In view of the slight furore which my query about ‘Black Friday’ and observation about the derivation of the name ‘Black Peter’ caused yesterday, I decided to look up what I had written in the ‘Alternative Advent Calendar’ for today. Door number 9 for the 9th December suggests that we give Christmas hugs to everyone. This is particularly good advice as words so often get in the way. How much can be communicated by gentle and loving touch when words just trip us up and obscure our true intentions and feelings?

So, to all my dear friends and readers out there… people whom I literally know or are – so far – only electronic or literary friends  with… there is a genuinely warm and caring hug winging its way to you across the internet and the ether right now. May peace and understanding bless us always… with my love.

Politically Correct?

November Day

Sprinkling of snow on the mountain opposite my living room window this time last year – today everything is very green, wet and windy… but when it comes to a question of black…?

If the use of the word ‘black’ is now seen as politically incorrect (as in the instance of Saint Nicholas and his companion, Black Peter, in the Netherlands), how come everyone is now being allowed to use the term ‘Black Friday’?

Personally, I think that disallowing the use of the word ‘black’ is quite ridiculous and actually draws unnecessary attention to colour prejudice and highlights the problem rather than the reverse. I am not here to debate this question – simply asking why one reference to an ancient custom is no longer allowed (when it harmlessly had nothing to do with race) but is allowed when it concerns making lots of money.

I view Black Friday as very black indeed – appealing to the most base instincts, responses and emotions of humanity – avarice, greed, selfishness, arrogance and acquisitiveness not withstanding.

I love to give. I am delighted to say that on Black Friday, we actually gave away, not fifty, but seventy-six electronic copies of the ‘Alternative Advent Calendar’. I hope that all the recipients enjoy our gift to them and get a lot of fun, satisfaction and pleasure from them.

Meanwhile, it is a very blustery, stormy morning here, although not as cold as it was this time last year as the photo above illustrates! It is the second Sunday of Advent and, as I was in Germany for the first Sunday of Advent, this afternoon I shall be making my wreath and as a family we shall be sitting down by the fire and singing carols around the two lit candles.

Blessings of peace and anticipation to you all – have a really lovely day!

Schöner Advent!

Me among the stalls

On arrival at Erfurt Christmas Market

I bring greetings and wonderful memories from some of the Christmas markets of Germany! While I was away this past week, I visited several Christmas markets, but by far the largest and most mind-boggling was the huge market held on the Domplatz in Erfurt.

Regardless of its huge size, it was very tastefully presented. All the trader’s stands were substantially constructed wooden booths – more like little log cabins – an absolute necessity to protect both the goods for sale and the people selling them as the market is open from 10.am. until 9.pm., seven days a week, from the end of November until the 23rd December. These booths are decorated with lots of living branches of fir, coloured lights and, up on their roofs, scenes of Father Christmas and winter elves and animals abound.

The single word which springs to mind to describe the Erfurter Weihnachtsmarkt is ‘traditional’. The main emphases of the all the decorations on sale is that of wood and light, celebrating man’s interaction with nature, the darkness of Winter and the huge importance of the rebirth of Light in that darkness. Whether lit by wax candles or electrical replicas, the towering pyramids constantly and energetically circle carrying their assortment of traditional religious figures, and well-loved local dignitaries, characters and animals. Illuminated flying buttresses depict winter woodland and village scenes, the trades and crafts of the area or, occasionally, religious scenes.

Market from Cathedral steps

Dusk is falling as the short winter afternoon draws to a close. A view of part of the market from the bottom of the cathedral steps.

Every type and shape of candle, candle holder, lantern, incense cone and incense burner, Christmas bauble and tree-topper imaginable are available. So too is every conceivable size and flavour of spice cake, stollen, and cookie, with stalls also solely devoted to gingerbread and chocolates. And there is a never-ending variety of tempting and delicious foods, snacks and drinks to fortify the crowds as they happily make their way around the colourful and brightly lit stands. Sausages of every size and flavour and other savoury favourites like the hot and sustaining Kartoffelpuffer, (hot flat cakes of cooked potato served with an apple sauce), which I particularly enjoyed. Chestnut sellers pedalling their wares offer a tasty chance to warm both hands and mouths. Then, of course, there is the ubiquitous Glühwein… made from as many different ingredients as you can possibly think of. I had a particularly potent mixture made from rowan berries mixed with rum – it certainly kept the cold at bay! And while you stop and take a break, there is music – both piped modern favourites, and traditional carols played by musicians be-robed in velvet.

Cathedral and stage

The darkening winter’s sky and one of the soaring cathedrals provides a spectacular backdrop for the stage where musicians begin to play… and some of the audience dance!

The Christmas Market is truly a feast for the senses… a kaleidoscope of rich colour… an intermingling of the scent of burning charcoal, hot savoury food, mulled spices and smoking incense… a melodious symphony of chatter, laughter and song. For Christmas is really coming, and these markets mark the celebration of the anticipation and preparation which is key to this very particular time of year… Advent. They are a perfect illustration of how we can all come together, and still include the more tasteful commercial aspect of the season, without loosing the excitement, the wonder and magic, and the warmth of community experience.

Long they may continue, for these marvellous markets do not merely provide an opportunity for consumers and commercial producers alike, they create a spectacle, an occasion, an experience, and generate a scenario in which warmth, friendship and happiness can flourish. Long may they continue!

 

Freeing Black Friday

Me at Book PublicationI detest the warped, avaricious sentiment which drives the ‘Black Friday’ sales! In response, we are giving away 50 electronic copies of ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’.

Instead of accumulation we are aiming for distribution – expansive liberalism as opposed to money-grabbing profit – generosity in place of narrow-minded self interest!

Come and claim your copy – as always, with my love. 

 

Holiday Time!

Tomorrow, my husband and I are off to Germany to spend a week with his family. We shall be celebrating Christmas early with them and also visiting the huge Christmas market which is set on the medieaSprig of Hollyval Dom Platz at the heart of the old city. Visiting a genuine German Christmas market has always been a dream of mine since I was a little girl… now, at last, it is about to come true!

So I shall be out of touch for a little while but you can depend on it that I shall have lots to say – and lots of stories to recount – when I return home.

For all my American friends and readers, I wish you a wonderful and very happy Thanks Giving Day.

For everyone else, have a marvellous time with your pre-Christmas planning and the slow ‘building of the magic’! It will be the first Sunday of Advent this coming weekend – enjoy it all and don’t forget to sing some carols – alternative or otherwise!

A Merry Midwinter Workshop

Candles Trigonos Library

Building the magic in the library

What a marvellous day I had with the Merry Vegan Midwinter workshop group at Trigonos last Sunday!

The centre is only a couple of miles from my home and they stock both of my books (as well as various other crafty bits and pieces like my ubiquitous fir cone gnomes) It was while I was checking numbers and signing a few copies which had slipped my attention that a lady entered the room. It transpired that she was part of another group staying at Trigonos that day; a yoga teacher who had bought a copy of ‘Merry Midwinter’ the previous year and used it to suggest seasonal topics for her classes – and now she was about to do the same with ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’. Of all the ways I imagined ‘Merry Midwinter’ might be read and used, I never could have envisaged that it might be used as a focus for yoga!

My group spent the morning in the main meeting room making traditional decorations from natural evergreens and other locally foraged items. We began with the Welsh New Year calennig: an apple – representing the world – with three wooden legs – representing the trinity – topped by a red candle – the light of the world – and decorated with holly leaves and beech masts to symbolise undying life and the fruitfulness of the seasons.

Workshop Display Table

Examples of some of the things that were made – and my books, of course!

Then we moved on to constructing a fir cone gnome, by which time, I felt that everyone had deserved a break and we all enjoyed a mug of hot spiced apple and other fruit juices which had been slowly warming on a hot plate. After that it was down to the really serious business of making door wreaths or kissing balls which were constructed from hoops of living willow and then had lengths of bay and holly tied around them, decorated with bunches of ivy and other red-berried sprigs.

Main Meeting Room, Trigonos

The Main Meeting Room at Trigonos, set up and ready for the morning’s activities – the large piles of cut holly, bay and ivy are behind the camera!

Three hours for such a workshop might sound interminable, but it always flies by. The look of stricken panic on everyone’s faces once I announced that they only had half an hour to complete everything was almost comical, but they thankfully all managed to finish what they had set out to do, producing some beautifully individual decorations full of character and the very essence of wild Midwinter life brought within. Burnham Woods had come to Trigonos earlier that morning, but it was more like Burnham copse that we packed back into the car to take home again!

Meanwhile, Lee, my partner in organising and delivering the workshop, had been beavering away in the kitchen with the rest of the Trigonos catering team to produce a sumptuous three course plant based Christmas feast for our lunch. The dining room was lit by soft wall lights and candles… tea lights, ivy and fir cones  and colourful tiny camels decorated the long table around which we all sat… the warmth and scents of hot savoury food were tantalising.

We started with roast squash, coconut and ginger soup which was thick and smooth and steamingly delicious. The main course was parsnip, chestnut and rosemary roast accompanied by creamy Potato Dauphinoise, pan fried Brussels sprouts and kale (the deep green, red and darker colours of which looked like a glorious Christmas table decoration),  mini Yorkshire puddings, heavenly Christmas gravy and fresh cranberry and orange sauce. Our dessert was hot chocolate and orange brownie cake topped with mulled berries and cool dollops of vegan fromage frais.

The first part of the afternoon was spent with Lee giving a cookery demonstration of how to make some of the dishes we had just eaten. Perhaps I am beginning to feel my age a little but I was quite relieved that I could quietly retreat to the library where everyone was due to come together for the last activities and the close of the day. Softly I trod around the peaceful room, setting out my candles, standing my little musical Christmas Tree on a small table, replenishing the blazing fire with more logs and placing a plate of vegan flapjack ready to offer to everyone, just in case they still had the odd empty corner left after our amazing lunch The clock ticked quietly, the logs occasionally repositioned themselves in the grate on their bed of glowing ash, the candle flames winked and danced.

Library, Trigonos

An oasis of warmth, calm and cosiness!

Once we were all together once more we began to discuss how one might satisfyingly achieve an authentic Midwinter/Christmas celebration – or, in fact, any celebration – without killing oneself with the effort. (Watch this space for more ideas on this!) I had handouts and a questionnaire for everyone to fill in – not the usual ‘feed back on the event’ kind, but questions as to how people might really wish to celebrate the Midwinter season and how they thought they might achieve it… who they might ask to help them… who they might extend hospitality to this year, and so on.

As dusk began to fall outside the big bay windows and the mountains were swallowed up in the darkness of the late November afternoon, shadows pooled in the corners of the room and fire and candle light became softly prominent. I handed round the alternative carol sheets and we began by tentatively trying out one for ‘Mother’s Night’ on Christmas Eve, sung to the tune of ‘Silent Night’. As we reached the last verse, Lee’s partner, Jane, came in through the door bearing a large tray of steaming mugs of hot chocolate. The flapjack was also now shared around. In much more vigorous voice we next sang my dear friend, Jackie Worcester-Box’s alternative words to ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’.

Time was getting on and I was aware that some people had a long journey home ahead of them, but when I asked if they would prefer another one – or two – carols, or me reading an extract from one of my books, there was a resounding cry of ‘All of it!’ Lee and Jane also now joined us and I spotted my husband sitting quietly by the door. We set off with a roof-raising rendition of ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Druid Folk’ (to the tune of ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and ended with a slightly quieter version of ‘We Three Gifts’ (‘We Three Kings’) which focuses on the elements of the natural world and how blessed we are by clean air, fresh water and good earth.

Everyone calmed down as I began to read about collecting evergreenery when I was a child, and our annual walk to Bessie’s farm to cut holly with red berries on it. But people still seemed loath to leave and there was a great deal of chatter, laughter and hugging before we all finally dispersed.

I feel that if I can help to clarify – or in many cases, rekindle – the love of celebrating Midwinter and Christmas, then it more than recompenses and validates my work…  my job is truly done.

Black Friday… All Month?

Vase of hollyStand up and make a difference! Rebel against consumerism! Do not fall for tacky sales techniques. Many years ago, I was told by a very successful businessman that the way to generate sales and boost profits was to raise the price an item and slap a ‘sale’ sign on it. Trading standards wouldn’t allow it these days? Don’t you believe it. Our clever sales teams have become craftily adept at manipulating our perception of reality.

This last few years I have been deeply concerned that we, here in Britain, have decided to follow in the U.S.of A.’s ill-considered footsteps and have a Black Friday commercial jamboree all of our very own. In fact, when I first heard the term, I hadn’t a clue what was being referred to. Sadly, I should think that everyone is now very well aware of exactly what Black Friday is.

Unfortunately, it no longer refers to merely the day after Thanks Giving (which in America usually falls on the fourth Thursday of November). No. Now we have sales going on all through the month which are generically referred to as Black (no longer politically correct) and on any day of the week for all the weeks in the month.

In America, Black Friday falls on the 29th November. Today on Amazon, I distractedly noticed that there was a clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the start of their Black Friday sale tomorrow, (the 22nd).

I have an alternative suggestion to make. It involves a cardboard box, a sheet of plain paper, some scissors, a pad of paper, a pack of envelopes, a tube of glue and a set of coloured pens. On the first day of December, get your family together and present them with all of these items. First they have to cover the box with the paper. Then they need to cut a postbox-shaped slit in the top of one side of it. If they wish, they may then decorate the outside of the box with the coloured pens – make it more festive or personal. Then they can all decide what they would like to do for one another… instead of giving gifts this year, everyone can give something of themselves… their time, their company, their commitment to do something for someone else, even their commitment to do something for themselves which will effect everyone else favourably (like giving up smoking or refraining from being  untidy or inconsiderate).

Everyone writes their promise or pledge on a piece of paper – decorative script can be employed, poetic words may be used, the coloured pens may come into play again to illustrate or decorate the pledges. Once all the pledges have been written, they are sealed in the envelopes and ‘posted’ into the box which is then placed under the Christmas Tree ready for the 25th December.

Some might be funny or facetious… others might be very sincere and beautiful… to make it work, everyone has to join in and play the game AND stick to what they have written – really deliver what they have promised to do for someone else.

Apart from the initial outlay for pens, paper, envelopes and glue, no money is required. Any competitive spirit will be subverted in to ingenuity of a totally different kind and have possibly far-reaching consequences… consequences which will certainly last a whole lot longer than the emotional response and disappointment which the millions of unwanted gifts that are given each year must surely generate.

Let’s make this a really positive Christmas.

Christmas gift shopping? Sorted!

This winter, instead of having a spending spree celebration, make it a spending free celebration!

 

That Time Of Year!

Christmas Cards

Writing my Christmas cards at the dining room table yesterday – a lovely, sunny, winters afternoon.

Yes, it is that time of year again… time to write my Christmas cards! Some people love it but many seem to have negative feelings about this seasonal task. I hear complaints about the cost… the feeling obliged to send them… the environmental issues of using so many trees to make the cards and then the pollution involved in transporting them to their destinations. But there are some positives among all these too.

It may not surprise you to know that I love my Christmas cards. They are one of the most important features of Christmas for me. In this automated, electronic age, I relish being able to still hold something – touch it while I write it – that the recipient is going to also soon hold in their own hands – no matter what part of the globe they may be living on. Similarly, I adore receiving cards in return… saving them up until two or three days before Christmas to open with the family, and hearing all the news, reading the enclosed letters and messages and, yes, touching the paper that my loved ones have also held with their hands. It almost feels like we are holding hands together across all the time and miles… our cards unite us.

Which is why, when I write my cards, I try and take my time. I am as busy as the next person, but it is important to me. I write a message which I genuinely feel for the person I am addressing, and once that is done, I lay my hands across it and ‘charge’ it with some positive thoughts and feelings like love and light.

If you are only writing your cards – or doing anything else – because everyone else is doing it, then stop! Don’t do it at all. ‘Have to’ and other people’s expectations are not nearly a good enough reason. You need to mean what you do – and enjoy it too. Otherwise it is an empty gesture which benefits no one.

No matter how many or few cards you wish (and I use the word advisedly!) to send, stop and think about what you really want to say to the person you are writing the card to. What would you say if they were standing in front of you? If you could say anything at all that your heart desired, what would that be? That is what your Christmas message should be – that is exactly what you should write. These days there is a lot of talk about authenticity; in this case speaking our truth and  expressing ourselves – our feelings – authentically. So do it.

If what you would truly like to say to this person is not nice…is  offensive… insulting… then you shouldn’t be writing a card to them at all. So don’t. But on reflection, it is the time of year for putting aside your grievances – can you not find it in your heart to wish them well anyway? We all have challenges, emotions, misguided good intentions … and make mistakes… how about giving the gifts of generosity, second chances and benefits of the doubt this year? Forget the expensive presents. Give something which really means something and will have a positive, beneficial effect into the new year ahead.

As for the environmental impact of the production and transportation of so many millions of cards, let us get this in perspective. Look out for environmentally friendly cards to buy – not just the paper production but there are also options to use less toxic dyes and colours too – and lobby for them to be used at other times of the year. When all is said and done, when one considers just what quantity of unnecessary goods we rape the riches of the Earth to manufacture, why pick on the innocent Christmas card? When the good feeling, friendship, healing and love which they annually carry all around the globe is weighed against their production, I would suggest that it really is worth it after all.

I understand that I will probably never know most of the people who read my blog posts. But, hey… you… yes, it is you I am talking to… my sincerest wishes to you for a marvellous Midwinter, a very happy Christmas, and a wonderful winter in general… With my love.

 

A Wonderfully Unique Opportunity…

Jess' Workshop PictureJust a reminder that this amazing day of seasonal creativity and celebration is almost upon us!

I shall begin the morning by giving a short explanation of why we decorate our homes with evergreenery at Midwinter/Christmas and what some of the decorations specifically signify. Then everyone will have the chance to make their own decorations to take home with them:- fir cone gnomes, Welsh calennigs, Advent wreaths and kissing balls. There will be hot mulled fruit cup to fortify you along the way. This will be followed by a gorgeous, three-course, vegan Christmas Lunch, after which, Lee will give a cookery demonstration of how to make some of the dishes that were served at the Christmas meal.

Lastly, we shall gather around a blazing fire in the library where I will lead a discussion on how to celebrate the Midwinter and Christmas festival more authentically, ending with the singing of alternative carols by candlelight and hot chocolate to drink by the fire.

£79 for the day – including a recipe booklet especially designed for event containing all the Christmas Lunch recipes.

Bed and breakfast rates for those coming from further afield.

TO BOOK:

Tel. 01286 882 388 or email info@trigonos.com
For a booking form, visit Trigonos’ website www.trigonos.org
Address: Trigonos, Plas Baladeulyn, Nantlle, Nr. Caernarfon, Gwynedd, North Wales. LL54 6BW

 

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