Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

A Very Happy New Year!

Belated – but no less heartfelt – New Year greetings!

For me, 2022 has got off to a fairly rollicking start. It is an old belief that whatever you do on the 1st January will set the tone and pace for the rest of that year. Well! I had carefully planned the day to be more relaxed, a lot more flexible, with lots of lovely activities (watching the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna in the morning among them) with an early, less formal dinner for 5.pm.

All was going well and I was thoroughly enjoying my day. Yet, as our meal ended, a very dear friend and guest who had joined us for dinner suddenly lost consciousness and gracefully – with assistance from my husband and son – slithered down off her chair onto the floor. It was just as well that my son is both a medical herbalist and  an Emergency Medical Technician – he was therefore able to begin treating the lady in question immediately.

There then followed many hours of phone calls, urgent conversations, oxygen cylinders and read-outs, paramedics, numerous cups of tea, coffee and soup, and finally, just after midnight, the arrival of an ambulance to transfer our dear friend (now well on the way to recovery) to hospital for more tests.

It just goes to show that you can never tell what might happen next – even when you are sitting in your own cosy, comfy, safe home environment around your own table enjoying a happy family meal!

I have deeper thoughts about this which I will share with you another time, but for now, please accept my love and best wishes for a marvellous new year. We shall be gently winding down our Winter celebrations as the month progresses. Already, the birds are singing and the indefinable quality of light has changed… spring is on its way.

Make 2022 a brilliant year of choices, new adventures, wonderful experiences and love for all that is… indeed, a very happy new year!

A Very Merry Midwinter!

We have reached the turning point of the Winter… the shortest day… the darkest time of the year. Before us lies the Solstice… the rebirth of Light, of the Sun; the turning of the year and of a new spring season to look forward to.

I wish you all a golden, joyous Midwinter, a tremendous Yule, a very happy Christmas and a New Year of bright and beautiful days!

With my love, always.

It Works!

My family and I have been engaging in our ‘Advent calendar wreath’ activity for just over a week. For those of you who haven’t read the post (entitled The Advent Calendar Wreath) this consists of twenty-four suggested activities for all the family to share , which are written on numbered pieces of folded coloured paper and suspended from an evergreen wreath. One piece of paper is removed from the wreath each day. I am now happy to report that the concept is working very well!

Each evening after we have eaten our meal, we sit drinking our coffee, following whatever the day’s suggestion might be. So far, we have discussed what we most like about Christmas, played our favourite Christmas carols, told seasonal jokes, and so on. However, yesterday evening was the best  so far.

Earlier in the week, my husband (who loves going for walks) had opened the Advent wreath command to organise a torch-lit walk – in other words, a walk after dark. Unfortunately, storm Barra was currently raging across the countryside and walking anywhere outside was definitely unpleasant not to mention dangerous. With the weather finally calming down, the rain reduced to a slight drizzle and the gales abated to blustery wind, we decided to fulfil the challenge.

Suitably kitted out in our warmest coats (which for me is a massive red duffle coat with thick, cosy hood) and a plethora of scarves, hats, gloves and boots, we set forth with our two bemused dogs in tow.

It was a very dark night indeed, but we planned on doing a full circuit of the village  which is largely illuminated by street lamps, except for one stretch of old lane further up the hill where the the full force of the gusts buffeted us mercilessly before we plunged down an even narrower, darker lane, taking us past the old bakery and back onto the bottom road.

Our objective was to seek out as many Christmas lights as we could and in that cold, black night, the sight of gaily lit trees and cosily illuminated house windows was welcome indeed. Eaves and roof were edged in ice blue or frosty silver; fence tops were decorated with peeping Santas and jolly snowmen; front doors sported wreaths and porches were festooned with swags of jewel-coloured pinpricks of light.

We did note with some distress that many of the houses were in darkness which reflects the sad fact that nearly half of the dwellings in our village are now holiday homes and stand empty for a good portion of the year.

Once safely back indoors, we divested ourselves of our thick outer layers. I made hot chocolate to drink and as we sat around the toasty warm Aga in the candlelight from our German wooden decorations and soft glow of fairy lights, my son fulfilled his Advent wreath challenge for that evening, which was to tell a Christmas story.

He had  searched on the internet for some time until he found one which he felt conveyed a compatible message. It was about how the White Envelope Project came into being. A woman bought and donated to a poor inner city church some sports equipment to be used by underprivileged children – and she did this in her husband’s name. She presented these charitable actions to her spouse in the form of a note in a little white envelope which she hung among the branches of their Christmas Tree and which was opened on Christmas morning along with the rest of the presents. Her husband, who adored children, was utterly delighted, and it became an annual event which the whole family eagerly anticipated.

Some years later, the first Christmas after the man had passed away, the children – now grown to young adulthood – all did something similar in their father’s memory – and so the charity was born and grew.

We all felt heartened, warmed and inspired by such a lovely account and my son was obviously well pleased that he had found a little story which so richly illustrated one aspect of the true meaning of Christmas.

This evening, my husband has been tasked with organising a family game, and so our own simple story of seasonal activities and resulting togetherness continues…

Wishing You A Very Normal Christmas!

I recently read an advertising slogan: ‘Have a memorable Christmas!’. While it is most important to share and make good, happy memories, I would suggest that after the past couple of years, surely we shall all be happy – and lucky – to simply be able to celebrate an ordinary Midwinter festival?

Recently, so many people have lost loved ones, or are experiencing ill-health due to Long Covid, or the effects of lock-down, or burn-out from working too long and too hard under traumatic conditions, that a bit of ‘normality – whatever that really is? – would be a genuine blessing and boon. After the isolation and loss of contact with loved ones for so many months would agree. I am also sure that the thousands of people still without electricity and water in the wake of Storm Arwen would also be heartily delighted just to have a bit of normality in their lives at present.

Of course, it is also true that times like Christmas give us the opportunity to lift ourselves out of the everyday mundane rut and splash out… go  a little overboard… let our hair down and forget everything else for a while.

Just keep things simple. Focus on enjoyment and fun along with kindness and hospitality. Aim to create wonderful memories. I have seen a  simple setting with a few tasteful, natural decorations and candles, good quality but simple food carefully cooked and served and activities which all ages and abilities can join in with produce the most superlatively memorable results. This is the sort of tried and tested framework on which to hang any fool-proof celebration. It is very easy to spice things up a bit and suddenly embellish something with a little luxury if that is what suddenly takes your fancy. Otherwise, start small and simple – your pocket, your brain and your emotions won’t feel so overwhelmed – and take it from there.

So, however you decide to spend your Christmas, I most sincerely wish you an extremely normal winter holiday – after all, it is a magical time, and when has magic ever been truly ‘normal’? … but you know what I mean!

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’? …

Humbug!

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.

Hallowe’en Greetings!

This is a big celebratory weekend for my family. The house is warm with all the candles, lanterns and illuminated pumpkins; decorated with photos and mementos of past family members and fragrant with spices from baking the baking of ‘soul cakes’. The Ancestor Tree stands on the table in the hall. Two cauldrons adorn the hearth, reminiscent of Ceridwen’s mighty Cauldron’s of Regeneration. A glow of connection and coming together permeates the whole house and a frisson of excitement tingles through the air.

This is Calan Gaeaf… Samhain… Hallowe’en… the ending of the Celtic year with the last of the harvest when we enter into the dark time, to pause and reflect, which is only brought to an end with the rebirth of the light at Midwinter. A time between times… a threshold… a liminal space where worlds – different levels of life and energy – may draw closer to one another, when we are able to look back into the past, and forward into the future. A mysterious, unsettling time time of magic.

Yesterday evening we began our celebrations with a Dinner for the Ancestors. We gathered around the dining table where an extra place was set for each person attending the meal, so that they could invite any of their past antecedents to sit and join us. After serving the main course, we all ate in silence to allow everyone the space and opportunity to fondly recall their loved ones who have already entered the Summerlands. I have to say that I sensed our cosy dining room to be absolutely crowded out with folk – a wonderfully heart-warming feeling of loving presence and reconnection.

Later today, we will be gathering with friends to let go of this past year – to literally cast what is no longer relevant or necessary in our lives into the fire where these energies will be transmuted into something more positive and useful. We shall be writing out our hopes, wishes, plans and dreams for the coming new year and carefully placing them into the cauldron where Ceridwen shall keep them safe, allow them to germinate and return them to us as viable new strands to our life. We shall, again, give time and space to remember those who have gone before – not just those genetically connected to us by blood, but those we love and honour in our spiritual and professional lives, or any other aspect of our existence – brothers and sisters who have walked facets of our own path before us, and who we now acknowledge and remember with loving gratitude.

Tomorrow, the day of All Souls, we shall finally come together to remember ALL our ancestors… the hundreds of thousands of people from whom we are directly descended, right back to the beginning of time.

Then, as the last remnants of autumn fade into the dark of true winter, we shall sink back into the shadows, with time to think, to reassess, to visualise and dream, before we set our faces towards the Midwinter and the return of the light.

May this hurly burly time of year, of chaos and temporary lapse in ‘normality’ treat you gently. May you courageously touch infinity with a loving heart and allow it to inspire and illuminate what comes next in your life.

My love to you all, always.

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