Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

Month: November 2021

The Advent Calendar Wreath

Tomorrow is the first day of December when many children (and adults) will be opening the first door of their 2021 Advent calendars. Many of us already receive so much around Christmastime that I like to do something for Advent which involves all the family and giving of oneself to others.

This year, I have hit upon the idea of the Advent Calendar Wreath. It is a smaller door wreath made from natural willow and covered in holly and ivy to which I have tied 24 pieces of coloured paper which have first been written on then tightly folded and sealed. Each piece of paper is numbered, 1 – 24 and each member of the family will take it in turns to find the appropriate number for the day, open the paper and carry out the suggestion written there.

However, we are going to do this the evening before the date it falls due, so that the person in charge of carrying out that day’s task has time to make any necessary preparations. For instance, they might be asked to find three Christmas jokes and tell them to everyone else, find and play their favourite Christmas carol, organise a little Christmas afternoon tea – even if it is only a biscuit and a hot drink – organise a game for everyone to all join in with, or search for a small parcel wrapped in a certain colour of paper which is hidden in a particular room and share its contents with everyone else…. and so on. They are only small actions, but most are calculated to involve everyone and, at the very least, to bring some seasonal cheer and togetherness into our lives each and every day.

Alternatively, this could be adapted to cover the Twelve Days of Christmas instead, and keep the winter seasonal festivities and sense of sharing going past New Year and on into the beginning of January.

If you would like to try it for yourself, this is how I did it:

Cut as many pieces of coloured paper as you will need – they only need to be about 3″ or 8cms square. Write a suggestion or ‘command’ on each one and then fold it up so that it is a long thin rectangle and seal with a bit of Sellotape so that it can’t begin to open up again. Write the numbers 1 – 24 on each folded paper. Then, take a needle and a 6″ or 15 cm length of thread (preferably some dark colour) and run it through one end of the folded paper, removing the needle and leaving the thread ends dangling, ready to tie the paper on to the wreath.

To make the wreath itself, take several very thin willow whips, two – three foot in length, and bend them around into a circle 8 inches (or 20cms) in diameter. Weave them in and out of each other if possible and secure firmly with one or two lengths of green garden twine.

Gather a few little lengths of holly and two or three long strands of ivy, plus three or four florets of ivy flowers which are in bloom at this time of year, and arrange them around your wreath, tying them onto it securely with the garden twine. Decide which part will be the top of the wreath and add a loop of green string or coloured ribbon with which to hang the wreath up by once it is finished.

Lastly, tie all your paper ‘days’ around the wreath. (See picture at beginning of post.)Be prepared to get your fingers prickled but it is in a good cause!

Find somewhere to hang your Advent Calendar Wreath where it will be seen frequently by everyone… and don’t forget to open each day in turn, gently reminding others when it is their turn if necessary. You may have to volunteer for the first couple of days to set the tone and pace.

Enjoy – happy days!



Black Friday Antidote

My cosy corner for the evening.

Today, Midwinter has definitely been in the air – quite literally… it was hailing at lunchtime. Today has felt incredibly ‘Christmassy’. Today, I made my Christmas cakes!

While the mountains disappeared beneath blankets of cloud, rain pelted down, and windows steamed up, it grew steadily darker as the afternoon advanced and I had to switch the main room lights on. However, my kitchen grew increasingly fragrant with spices… rich mounds of sticky dried fruit appeared on my work surfaces… glowing glacé cherries were heaped waiting to be sliced in half… brown piles of nuts were ready to be chopped or ground, plates of golden butter and sweet, soft, dark brown sugar gleamed, the tang of grated lemon peel filled the air. Christmas carols played and the rooms became cosier and more inviting by the hour.

We were all busy today. My husband was sweeping both our chimneys – although with wood-burning stoves there is very little residue to clean away. My son was bustling about the house, too, and our friend (who sometimes does building repairs and jobs for us on the house) also called in, as did our next door neighbour. The kettle was set on the Aga to boil, (frequently), and the freshly baked lemon drizzle cake I had made this morning was generously cut into. There was a tangible buzz, a feeling of expectancy – almost of excitement – in the air. Anyone who passed through the kitchen at the critical moment was offered a chance to stir the huge metal bowl of cake mixture and make a wish…

I have thoroughly enjoyed today. Yes, it is quite hard work, but I wouldn’t miss the seasonal ambience, the sights, scents and sounds of this traditional winter alchemy which takes place every year in my kitchen around this time. In the past, I have suffered from long-term chronic illness, and just this autumn I am facing the challenge of cancer, so I do know what it is like to not have the strength or energy to do this type if activity. But even so, I still find simply going out and purchasing a cake from a supermarket shelf an empty, boring activity, with little to interest me and resulting in no sense of pride, satisfaction, or dare I say, pleasure?

I saw that one very famous London store was advertising ‘stir up Sunday’ (which actually occurred last weekend) as ‘put your feet up Sunday’ – but where is the fun in that? When you have put your feet up, what then? I am putting my feet up this evening after a busy but incredible day of music, laughter, warmth, creativity and loving friendship.

As I repeatedly remind everyone in my first book, ‘Merry Midwinter‘, sedentary past-times are all very well in reasonably small doses, but you only get out of a situation what you put in… what you contribute… what you help to create. It can be the most ordinary activity or chore, but approached in a positive and festive frame of mind, the magic of the season – of life itself – can be introduced into every mundane nook and cranny.

Try it and just see.

Meanwhile, the gales forecast for tonight are beginning to gather apace, yet the dense darkness of a moonless night is still feels oddly welcoming and benevolent. Inexplicable, unidentifiable but very real seasonal magic is almost crackling through the atmosphere. Perhaps these gales are partly created by the furious passing of Herne the Hunter, or Gwyn ap Nudd as they traverse the winter skies… or the flight of Frau Holle, or the slip stream from Father Christmas’s sleigh, out on a ‘practice run’? …


Once again I am astonished by the advertising hype that annually assumes such ludicrous proportions at this time of the year. I am being repetitively admonished by my favourite radio station to ‘order now and have the magic of Christmas delivered to your door’. What nonsense is this? One of the definitions of the word ‘magic’ in the Oxford English Dictionary – and the one which I feel applies most closely to Christmas – is ‘an enchanting quality or phenomenon’. How can any sane person seriously suggest – or believe – that this elusive and ethereal quality can be boxed up and popped through one’s letterbox?

Surely, the magic of Christmas is an outlook, a perspective, a state of mind? It is reflected in the selfless and kind actions and thoughts of humanity. It could perhaps be explained as the winter manifestation of unconditional love. How could anyone suggest that thus can be physically quantified and purchased?

More sadly, it overtly implies that you can achieve this blessed and happy state by simply flashing your cash – that it is not necessary to exert yourself in any way, that you do not have to actually do anything yourself, you can simply buy it. How tragic. No wonder so much depression and despair follows the Midwinter holiday season!

The final straw which prompted me to write this post was when I opened a mail order catalogue from which I sometimes buy clothes for my menfolk. This particular mail-out contained an extra Christmas section. Among the items was listed a ‘singing dancing Christmas pudding – delightful fun – great entertainment for all your Christmas guests’. Words fail me. It might amuse little children, but can you really envisage your adult friends and family gleefully watching a plush pudding with white custard hair and a red cherry top-knot jigging about on your beautifully set Christmas dinner table? Have we all completely lost our senses? Is this what ‘Christmas’ comes down to?

I cringe as I hear those dreaded words ‘Black Friday’, which for many of the larger retail businesses has now become ‘Black November’. Of all the more recently human-generated retail traditions, this surely has to be the most despicable. in essence, it encourages and promotes the very worst aspects of human nature, ruthless avarice and greed.

What do you truly want from your Midwinter/Christmas celebration this year? If you could have anything at all as a gift under your Christmas tree, what would it be? What is the most precious thing that is within your power to give to a loved one?  I can guarantee that if you think deeply about it, your answers mostly involve the intangible qualities of life: time, good health, peace of mind, comfort, courage, love….

Before you  grab some over-priced piece of irrelevance in your panic-stricken seasonal shopping spree around the stores, or overheated trawl of the internet, just stop for a minute to think about what that person might really want… or need. One of my most treasured gifts was to receive a super-strong stainless steel, sharp bladed garden spade which faithfully served me for many years and gave me huge pleasure.

Bringing the two principles of giving of oneself and supplying something which people might want or need, I try to make at least some of my own gifts. Last week I went on a Christmas shopping foray, but many of the items I purchased were to make things from: material, thread, pipe-cleaners, felt. I also bought a bag of oranges and some dark chocolate from which I shall be candying the orange peel and dipping it in melted chocolate to make the most gastronomically sumptuous (yet simple) gifts. Far from perfect, but absolutely delicious and definitely my own.

So, stop and think. What do you wish to give and how can you achieve it? If it is something intangible, you can always convey your intention by writing it down in a seasonal card or simply on paper and giving that, so long as you make sure that you follow through with your promises.

I wish you all an alternative and, perhaps, very different but far more satisfying and happy Christmas shopping experience this year.

Thank You!!!

It is already a whole week since my birthday… I can hardly believe it! I want to thank everyone – family, friends, ex-students and readers alike – for all the wonderfully warm, loving and deeply touching messages, emails, cards and letters which I have received. It truly has gladdened my heart!

The centre of any celebration for me is my loved ones, near or far, but especially around the hearth, a dining table, the Christmas Tree…. wherever. Here I am, about to blow out the candles on my birthday cake, with the little wood burning stove roaring behind me and the Aga kettle (very decorative!) merrily burbling away in the background ready to top up the tea pot.

My sweet son and his equally sweet girlfriend had laid out the table, produced the delicious cakes and assembled all my cards and presents to be opened and by four o’clock, the fun was all set to begin! We did indeed have a wonderfully cosy tea and ‘together time’ which lasted far into the evening.

So, thank you, everyone, for all your kind and loving wishes and good thoughts. You ALL helped to make my solar return extra special with many precious memories which I shall treasure.

Welcome Winter!

This picture is of my drawing room, all ready and prepared for our rather more seriously adult Calan Gaeaf/Hallowe’en celebrations last Sunday. The first day after the clocks ‘went back’, the end  of the Celtic year and beginning of Winter.

I chose this picture because it typifies how I feel and what I like about this time of year – a drawing in and coming together of friends and family… a time to sit and cogitate, drift and dream beside the hearth… a chance to process all that has happened in one’s life over the light, sunny spring, summer and autumn months…

This is a special time – a few weeks when we can stop and draw breath, reconnect to our roots and grow into ourselves again before all the craziness of Midwinter and Christmas celebration engulfs us. It is a quiet, very personal time. My deeply hidden, secretive and passionate Scorpio self revels in the shadows, the darkness, and all that which is mysteriously hidden and only hinted at. I LOVE this time of year! Perhaps that is why I chose to be born now? But it speaks to all of us.

When I was a child I believed that it was the close proximity to all the excitement of Christmas which made this time of year so very precious and special to me, but it isn’t that at all, just the reverse. Midwinter/Christmas is a part of it, but the deep resonances of heath and home, of ancient connections and ancestors, of rest and rejuvenation and reaffirmation of belief in and love of life reach very much further into our genetic history… our psyche… the very fibre of our being.

Instead of shrinking away from the cold and the dark of winter, I like to enter wholeheartedly into each activity which the change in season and temperature brings. I mark the day when I need to once more get out my thick winter dresses and the evening I first need to wear my warmer nightdresses or fill my hot water bottle. My taste for certain foods changes too, and once more we are into days of baking cakes rich and heavy with fruit, sticky ginger parkin dark with molasses, steaming, savoury stews and casseroles and one of my childhood favourites, ‘taty pie (meat and potato pie) with pale pastry crust and accompanied by well buttered and peppered root veg from the garden.

Longer evenings mean more time to talk and share with the family, to enjoy leisurely meals, to be unhurried. They also facilitate opportunities to plan and create treats for the Midwinter festivities, secret surprises for all to enjoy with all the glee and little or none of the corrosive pressure. And they provide the time and space to settle with a good book, a long neglected hobby, or simply the space to simply be…

So, please don’t reject the winter – grab it with both hands and thoroughly enjoy it while it is here . The long, light, frenetically busy spring and summer months will soon be back with us. Take this opportunity to absorb the nourishing darkness, sink into the shadows, relax and find yourself again.

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