Daily Decoration: the Holy Parakeets

Playmobil tree with two parrots and a toucan perched on the branches, in front of a Playmobil Nativity stable.

More Playmobil – and possibly not the last I’ll share, either. These birds are an unofficial addition to the crib scene. They were a present from Anne a few years ago. Because she likes birds. And because Tony likes bad puns, possibly. (I mean, he does. I just don’t know whether the Holy Parakeet one was in play from the start.) I don’t know. Do we need a reason?

As is probably obvious, I don’t have anything terribly clever to say today. I seem to have used up most of my brain doing edits on a short story, and that’s perhaps more than I’d hoped. I had said to the editors that I was aiming to get it back to them before Christmas, but I thought that was optimistic at the time. Now it’s done – and so am I.

But that’s fine. We’re nearly, nearly there.

Daily Decoration: Christmas tree

Undecorated, bushy evergreen tree standing in the corner of a room.

This morning the sitting room curtain rail fell down. That made me ten minutes later logging in to work than I could have been, and I was already a quarter of an hour later than I’d meant to be. This evening I logged out and went straight to bed. Now I’m sitting on the sofa in a room with an undecorated tree and a candle burning in the curtainless window. There’s always space for a little more chaos, particularly at this time of year.

I could claim that the tree is deliberately bare, and that wouldn’t be entirely untrue. Tradition in the Jowitt household used to be that there was one grand decorating session on Christmas Eve. And some years it’s been fairly crucial for my sanity to still be hanging on in Advent while everyone around me was three Secret Santas in. But it wouldn’t be entirely true, either, because I think the actual idea was to decorate it yesterday.

But there’s time. There’s time. The truth hidden in the (sacred and secular) admonitions to ‘Get ready!’ is that I’m not really expected to be ready yet.

There’s time. One of the first things I did after I finally logged in this morning was to request holiday for tomorrow. I had time just sitting there: granted, I could carry it over to next year, but why do that, when I’d really appreciate it now? I’ll use it to make mince pies. Or pierniczki. Or write. Or read. Or watch something. Or go for a walk. Or maybe just sleep. And perhaps we’ll decorate the tree – or perhaps we really will leave it for Christmas Eve.

Daily decoration: crib, waiting

Playmobil stable with ox, doves and a mouse

The crib is out. Half the figures aren’t in it yet, of course: all the humans, and the donkey, camel, and sheep, are dispersed around the bookcases, making their way there at their own pace. The angel and the baby Jesus are still in the box.

Speaking of boxes, that’s a rather ignominious thing the stable is standing on. Normally it goes on top of the piano, but given the cat’s predilection for knocking small objects to the floor and chasing them, it seemed safer to have it in a place that’s harder for her to get at: on top of a box on top of a bookcase between the radio and some greetings cards that really ought to have been recycled by now. As it happens, that shoebox also contains instruments, but it’s small, obnoxious things like sleigh bells and the Otamatone.

There is, of course, an obvious point to be made about the placement of the crib. Not in pride of place, under the glare of the purple lamp, but set back, somewhere safer, more hidden. Somewhere you don’t see it, straight away. Somewhere you have to look for it.

Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: O Antiphons calendar

Eight purple cards strung across the front of an upright piano. All but one of them has a circle of card with the letter O on it. The right hand most card only has a star painted on it. On the left hand most card the circle has been opened to reveal a second one, whcih has a letter S.

Now we’re getting into the final stretch. Now the O Antiphons come out. Every day from now until the 23rd, one of these invocations frames the Magnificat at Evening Prayer, each of them another way to think of Christ. O Sapientia. O Adonai. O Radix Jesse. O Clavis David. O Oriens. O Rex Gentium. O Emmanuel.

Read backwards, in Latin, the initials spell out ERO CRAS. Tomorrow, I come. My suspicion is that this is just coincidence, but it’s a nice coincidence.

Today is O Sapientia. O Wisdom.

Really, making them into a calendar seemed like the obvious thing to do. This is made of Graze boxes, of which I used to have quite a few before I got fed up with all the plastic. Graze boxes, and a lot of purple paint, and quite a bit of gold paint, and gold gift ribbon, and five wooden beads to slip under the lid of the piano and keep it in place.

Of course, since it works like any other Advent calendar, I could have arranged the whole thing backwards to make the acrostic work out. But that would mean committing to thinking it deliberate, so I’m going to leave it. For the moment, at least.

Daily Decoration: Fling Wide The Doors

A six-sided Advent calendar illuminated from within. One window is open, showing Christ in Majesty

This year for my Advent blog series I’m going with an idea that’s intrigued me for a while: I’m going to pick one decoration every day, and write about it. Having got all the Christmas boxes down from the loft (causing some damage to the loft hatch) yesterday, I am at least confident that I have far more than twenty-four of the things.

Of course, this may not be the best timing, since this year we’ve acquired a cat with an unshakeable conviction that anything sparkly, trailing, or both, is hers to chase and destroy. In previous years, we know, she has shredded an angel and made herself sick eating lametta. Also, I’m not at home all the way through December so may have to skip or improvise a few days. But we’ll see how it goes. (I think we’ve got rid of all the lametta, for a start.)

This object might be familiar: I’ve certainly featured it in previous Advent series, and usually early on in the season. Every January I close all the doors again and flatten it carefully and put it away for next year. It isn’t exactly a decoration, though it’s certainly decorative. It has a title (not sure I’ve ever come across an Advent calendar with a title before): Fling Wide The Doors. It’s an Advent calendar, but it runs all the way to the Baptism of Christ. It’s designed for children, but I find it helpful even after several years’ consecutive use. It looks fabulous with a light inside (after some experimentation, I’ve taken to using a USB bottle-stopper light in an empty gin bottle; very Anglican, I know). It engages with some heavy subjects (see the skeletons at Our Lord’s feet?) but in such a way as to make me always want to open the next day’s door, or doors. (There isn’t one for tomorrow, though. It picks up with St Andrew on the 30th.)

Anyway, I love Advent, with all its glory and terror and anticipation, and this calendar gets all of that. To a surprising extent, considering it’s just made of cardboard and tracing paper.

(Incidentally, if you watch the Advent Procession at Ely Cathedral, you get to see me reading the second lesson. Purple coat, 28 minutes in.)

Advent Sunday

Advent calendar window, lit from behind, labelled 'First Sunday of Advent', with a picture of Christ in majesty with two skeletons.

I’ve shared a picture of my lovely six-sided Advent calendar in previous years. Advent is a season of varying length, of course, so sometimes, as this year, the traditional ‘starts on 1 December’ calendar is missing a few days. This one, however, has doors for St Andrew (30 November) and each Sunday of Advent, so this year it works perfectly. First Sunday of Advent today. St Andrew tomorrow. Then we’re into December.

I don’t have anything terribly original to add to the myriad observations about how weird this year is, the plethora of jokes about how today is March 274. Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about time this year. I revisited Waverly Fitzgerald’s lovely Slow Time and David Steindl-Rast’s Music of Silence. Pottering in my garden, I thought about The Morville Hours. Exploring Ely, I found two new sundials. This evening I listened to The Annunciation by Edwin Muir, and noticed myself noticing all the signifiers of time passing in the second half, noticed my mind leaping to a friend’s setting of The Spacious Firmament On High. Time. Time and space.

And where I am I? What have I learned? Nothing more than to try to be here, and now. I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot about that over the next month.

I love Advent. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. And yet this morning found me late for church (over YouTube, so nobody knew!), pulling my top on as the processional played, breakfasting on cake. Somehow, Advent has crept up on me. It often does.

Even in normal times, time has never behaved the way I’ve thought it should. I remember the Advent calendar that was a pyramid shape, so that each day it had a little more wax to burn, and the closer it got to Christmas the longer I’d have to wait to blow it out. Not the sort of thing that King Alfred would have used for a candle clock.

So here I am. Here and now. I seem to know less than I ever did, and to be far less bothered by that than I’d ever have expected. I’ll be taking part in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections project again this year, looking back over the last twelve months, looking forward to the next twelve months.

To the pedantic western Christians reading this, Happy New Year! To everyone else, I hope March 274th is treating you well.

The Christmas question

Christmas tree with decorations

It’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, I’d gripe. In a normal year. (And my clergy and church worker friends, who would have been thinking about Christmas since August if not before, would roll their eyes.) In a normal year I’d have been making excuses to get out of this term’s workplace choir sessions (because weekly Shakin’ Stevens turns out to intersect really, really badly with my tendency to seasonal depression) since September, and right about now I’d be pondering whether it would be more socially awkward to sign up for the Secret Santa and misread my giftee’s preferences than not to sign up at all. I’d also have worked out which branch of the family I’d be spending the actual day with, booked the leave, and had a look at the trains.

But here we are, and a whole load of people are thinking about Christmas vocally, loudly, and argumentatively. We’ve just had a minor hail shower, so one could even argue that the weather’s getting in on the act.

So here are my thoughts about Christmas under Covid-19 restrictions, how I will (attempt to) deal with it myself, and some ideas which anybody’s welcome to act on or not, as they feel would be most helpful.

Feelings

There are many feelings. I’ve been through disappointment (I’d have loved to host a big Christmas gathering in this, our first year in our new house) and am now somewhere between irritation and boredom.

It is OK to be disappointed. It is OK to be irritated. It is OK to be bored. It is OK to be sad. (If you’re somebody who finds it helpful to think about how there are lots of people in the same boat, it might be worth remembering that millions of people are, well, in the same boat. Not to mention folk of other religions who have had to modify their festival celebrations without nearly so much of a fuss having been made.) It is OK to be secretly relieved! (Personally, I’m rather glad that my parents won’t be spending four hours in a car with each other, debating the merits of an outdated satnav and outdated Ordnance Survey maps all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Fens. And I’ll also miss them.)

Anyway, whatever you’re feeling, there’s probably a good reason for that, and, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be obnoxious, that’s fine. Not that you need my permission, obviously.

Traditions

What’s going to be weird this year is that thing we always do – which we can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or won’t do.

And I suppose the question to ask oneself, when considering how or whether to replace that thing, is: what is it about this tradition that is important? Why do we do this? What’s the quality, the essence, of this thing that we always do? And can you replicate that in some other way? To pick a very obvious example: if you always visit your great-aunt on Boxing Day, but this year her care home isn’t allowing visitors, well, can you make it a phone call instead? Do you usually bring her a box of marzipan fruits? Put one in the post to her, and get one for yourself too. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it will have enough of the original essence to work. And see Feelings, above: you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel about it not being the same.

One of the least negotiable elements of a Jowitt Christmas is the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. The Queen is optional; Doctor Who is dependent on whether we have a working television; the communicant members of the household may or may not be awake enough to go to Midnight Mass; but you’d better believe that at 3pm on Christmas Eve Radio 4 will be playing. We will sing along with the congregational carols (some of us will attempt the descants); we will have grumpy choral opinions about the choir-only carols; we will listen out for our favourite passages (upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude whom no man can number; the weaned child shall put its hand into the cockatrice’s den); we will argue about the correct pronunciation of cockatrice.

When I was a child, we’d decorate the tree (fighting over who got to put up which baubles) while my father lit a fire and my mother iced the cake. Now we all live in different houses, it’s become rather looser. I doubt, for example, that my brother could get Radio 4 when he was working in a ski resort in the French Alps. But it’s still an important part of the festivities. In 2017 my husband and I got up at 5am and queued outside King’s for the tickets to be there live. In 2018 we listened to the broadcast and then went straight on to sing the exact same service at our parish church. Other than that, it tends to be my father and I texting each other ‘Bound!’ when the choir sings Adam lay ybounden. This is a reference to a long-dead dog. Hey, it’s a tradition.

And honestly, a lot of what’s important about that is that we always do it. We: me, my parents, whichever brothers happen to be around. Always: every Christmas. It’s about that shared experience, doing the same thing at the same time. It isn’t so much about the Christmas story, which comes across better to me at live church (more on that further down).

What’s that going to be like this year? I suppose it’s down to King’s and Auntie Beeb. I’m sure there’ll be something in that 3pm slot, whether it’s a smaller, physically distanced choir, or a recording from a previous year, but let’s imagine there isn’t. What might we do instead? Off the top of my head:

  • find a previous year’s service on YouTube, send the link around, and agree to watch that at 3pm
  • conduct our own service (it’s all in the back of the first volume of Carols for Choirs)
  • put on a CD/record/playlist of carols
  • listen to what was being broadcast on the radio instead

By next year, that would probably have become a tradition in its own right. And circumstances that are less than ideal can spawn their own, more optimistic, traditions. For example:

The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.

That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.

Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.

Cardboard box containing Christmas tree decorations made from faceted glass beads and silver wire.

Enjoyment

I talked about relief, further up the page. And if it’s a relief not to be going home, not to be having the blazing rows over Brexit or your sister’s wedding or why you don’t have children, then make the most of it. This could be the year you break the tradition. You don’t actually have to do things just because you’ve always done them. If you’d actually prefer Christmas at home, Christmas on your own, Christmas with your bubble, then why not go for it? Work out what you want to do, and do that.

Looking out

Christmas is traditionally a time for attempting to make things a little brighter for people one doesn’t know. Here is a seriously incomplete list of ways in which someone who had the time and/or funds might do that, even (particularly!) in such a year as this.

  • Make a donation to your local foodbank. It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that there’s a real problem in this country with poverty, and poverty-related hunger. There are going to be a lot of people this year for whom Christmas is not going to be fun at all. (I have a standing order set up, but I also throw the occasional pack of fun-sized Mars bars into the collection basket at Sainsbury’s, because poverty is miserable enough without being wall-to-wall lentils.)
  • One idea I’ve seen is the ‘reverse Advent calendar’ – put one item aside every day to give to the foodbank. The only problem with this is that, if you want someone who have nice things at Christmas, you need to get it to them in advance, so maybe do it through November instead of Advent.
  • Make a donation to another appropriate charity. Safe Passage, for example.
  • Find out what’s going on near you and who needs help. Is there a befriending service? A Covid mutual aid group? A local newspaper, Facebook group, or community noticeboard should give you some pointers.
  • Here’s an initiative for getting Christmas presents to children and teenagers in mental health units.
  • You’re expecting me to encourage you to fill a shoebox with toys for an underprivileged child. I’m not going to do that. Here’s why. And here’s an alternative if you still want to.

Church

Well, we got through Easter. Easter was before we had proper internet access, so in this house we got through Easter livestreaming a Zoom service via mobile phone tethering, so Christmas ought to be a doddle.

Seriously, though. Nobody seems to know what church services will look like come Christmas, but I think it’s fair to say that they probably won’t look any less weird than they do now. At the moment, in the Church of England, people in church have to wear masks through the service (unless they’re leading, singing, or reading), the congregation isn’t allowed to sing, and numbers are limited – which might mean that, come the big turnout of Christmas, services may have to be ticketed.

If your typical Christmas includes attendance at a church service (crib service, carol service, Midnight Mass, whatever) and you haven’t been to a service since the pandemic hit, you might want to try one in the next few weeks to get the initial weirdness out of the way.

Your church may have something on its website to explain the arrangements. They may also be streaming services. Anyway, it’s extremely unlikely to be the same as normal, and you’re probably better working out how it’s going to be different, and how you feel about that, well before Christmas.

Advent

My plan for this year is to lean hard on Advent. Possibly harder than I usually do. As I hinted at the top of this post, I don’t deal terribly well with the festive pre-Christmas season, and I just don’t have the energy to celebrate all the way from mid-November. I get sick of the parties and the music and the constant expectation that I be cheerful and sociable all the time. So this is one of the aspects of normal Christmas that I’m rather relieved to escape this year.

In a normal year, I lean hard on Advent. To quote something I wrote last year,

Advent suits my mood. The readings are apocalyptic, saved from despair by the hope that something better is coming, is on the way even now, if I can only keep hanging on until I see it. The music is alternately spare and intense. I shut myself in the study each evening and take time to be where I really am. Advent comes a day at a time, a door on the calendar, a centimetre on the candle. A square inch of sweetness, which is about all I can manage while others around me are already on the mince pies and gingerbread liqueur.

Advent leaves space for me to rant and rage and demand why everything is awful. Advent lets me admit that things are awful. Advent acknowledges the hole in my life. It doesn’t demand false cheer. And very often I find that, little by little, it makes room in my life for something that is genuinely joyful, whenever that comes.

And if that was true last year, how much more so this year?

Come and grump with me! Tell me what I’ve forgotten, or about new practices or traditions you’re inventing this year. Comments are open.

December Days 19: tasty

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Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.

I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?

There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.

(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)

There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.

I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.

December Reflections 3: orange

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I bought myself a Playmobil Advent calendar this year, because – I’d had it on my wishlist for ages – and things like this didn’t exist when I was eight – and I wouldn’t have had one even if they had – and it was a fiver cheaper than the last time I looked – and I’m thirty-three and I have a job that pays me money and I can buy frivolous things if I feel like it.

And then it came to Advent, and I opened the first two doors, and put the princess together, and the sledge, and immediately felt massively guilty because – I had bought things I don’t need – and where was I going to put it? – and we have a house inspection on Saturday – and what am I, eight? – and little bits of plastic that will get lost and trodden on.

Then I remembered that sitting in my desk tidy there was this little orange-haired Playmobil doll. I found her on the pavement outside the council offices in Woking years ago, with her broken feet and her scraped face, and picked her up and took her home with me. I hadn’t the heart to throw her away, and I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want her, so she’d been sitting in my desk tidy ever since.

I put her on the sledge, and immediately felt better about the whole thing.

This story doesn’t have a moral. It’s just a picture of the way my head works at the moment: a mixture of guilt and whimsy and sentimentality; of playfulness and prudence and extravagance; of self-consciousness and a resolute refusal to give a damn what anyone else thinks anyway. It says as much about me as anything, I suppose.