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.
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.
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.
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.