Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Family Christmas Rituals

Christmas is such a magical time, I truly love this time of the year. The Christmas story is beautiful and meaningful for even those of us who just loosely align themselves with Christian beliefs. It speaks of the timeless strength of love, the humanness of spirituality and the humility of greatness. Christmas is a time of reflecting on one's journey, drawing inwards as a family unit, yet always offering hospitality and kindness. It is a time of sharing, and celebrating what each of us have to offer our communities.

Establishing Christmas rituals has been something I have very much enjoyed over the years since Nath and I were married, and have had children. We have put a lot of thought into what we would like our children to learn from the rituals we put in place, and what messages we want them to take away from the Christmas period. In recent years, we have become adamant that the commercial face of Christmas is not for us, and have tried to instil a different way of celebrating into our children's experience of Christmas.

We do this in a variety of ways. Our focus is on giving. We don't write Christmas wishlists, we write lists of what we are going to give to others. The kids don't get to peruse catalogues circling every toy they wish they could have. The focus is on how we can make someone else's Christmas that little bit lovelier.

Every year before Christmas, we ask the kids to choose some toys that they would like to give to children whose Christmas may not be as bountiful as ours. We donate these toys to our local women's and children's domestic violence refuge. Our kids choose without much input (sometimes I need to say, no sweetheart, that one is broken/sentimental/not in good enough shape to give as a gift)- it is their choice as to what and how much they give. They know where their gifts are going, and they accompany me to do the drop off. We discuss the traditional story of St Nicholas (a version of this story of the impoverished maidens) and talk about how this links to the modern story of Santa. (Interestingly, even though we have always been very upfront that the 'Santa' of today is not 'real', they cling to this belief in the jolly fat man in the red suit. We have given up and now just go with it. Childhood only lasts so long.)

Another tradition we have is to travel the 55km to the nearest metropolitan train station, then catch the train into Perth CBD to show the kids the Perth City Christmas Lights, the illumination of the old Perth GPO and then go up to the Myer Santaland so the kids can ride the Santa Express train. This year, instead of buying tea, we took a packed picnic and sat in the Government House gardens. We put all our leftovers in a clear plastic container and left it on a bench, hopefully for one of the homeless people who use the gardens as a sleeping place.

Of course, a much-loved part of our Christmas ritual is the putting up of the Christmas tree. We did this today, a couple of days early, but I felt it was deserved after we attended our local community Christmas fair with three very tired but very well behaved children. We dress our tree with homemade (mostly kid-made) decorations, and other homemade decorations adorn the room. This year, we set up the absolutely beautiful wooden Nativity Scene that Nath's parents bought the kids from Taiwan when they moved back to Australia, and used it to tell the story of Christmas to the kids. Over the coming weeks, we will have more craft days and make more decorations to put on our tree.

Our gift giving focuses on the handmade and secondhand treasures. We usually give the kids two or three presents plus a stocking filled with little things like new toothbrushes, cherries and hair elastics. Christmas gifts are not an extravagant affair in our house. We make batches of hamper foods for gifts for grandparents, teachers and friends, and have a Kris Kringle for Nath's brothers and their wives. We keep it small and personal and very much enjoy thinking about each person we are making or treasure hunting for.

Finally, our last Christmas ritual is to go camping over Christmas. We head down to Margaret River and spend a few days camping, swimming, beach-going and exploring. Christmas Day is quiet, usually a roast on the Webber or prawns and cold meats, and as it's just our family, we kick back and relax and enjoy the day together. When the kids go to bed, Nath and I sit under the stars with a homemade alcoholic eggnog, Nath plays his guitar and we reflect on the year.

I'd love to hear what you and yours do around Christmastime - do you have any treasured rituals? What does Christmas mean in your family? Happy, happy festive season, everybody!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Frugal Christmas Gifts: Paper Covered Wooden Letters

With a month yesterday until Christmas, exams finished for the year, and my determination to give Christmas gifts that are secondhand or handmade, I have some serious crafting to do! A while ago a friend of mine gave another friend's little girl some gorgeous paper covered letters to make up her name that will look stunning on her bedroom wall. It reminded me that I had, somewhere in the depths of my sewing room, some large wooden letters of the girls' names and decided to make something similar for their Christmas gifts.

I went shopping and chose a pad of fairy-ish, butterfly-ish coordinating scrapbook papers and some embellishments to match. All up it cost me less than $30 for enough supplies to make both girls' gifts (but I already had the letters). I started by choosing the papers I wanted to use for each letter and tracing the upside down letter onto the back of the paper. I then very carefully cut the letters out.

 I applied an even layer of PVA glue to each wooden letter and smoothly pressed each paper cutout on, taking care not to leave bubbles in the surface. When the glue had dried, I trimmed any overhanging paper with a craft knife.

I used some fine sandpaper to sand the edges of the letters, giving them a more 'finished' appearance and preventing the edges from peeling back. Nath (who has had far more experience with spray paint than I) sprayed two coats of a silver glitter laquer to each letter.

I then arranged and superglued the embellishments, including some tiny little rhinestones for some extra shine.

The girls' fairy name letters look just as good as any that you could buy at the shop, and were a fraction of the price. I think the girls will love them.

One gift down, many more to make!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Right Now

Last exam tomorrow. I feel as if life is about to un-pause. It's marvellous. Sadly, my commitment to study has diminished slightly with every exam that passes, I am limping to the finish line whilst dreaming of the unimaginable freedom I will feel when uni is finished for the year! Not that I haven't enjoyed it, on the contrary, I have loved the content and the learning. But..... summer holidays!

Meanwhile, please allow me to indulge some of my holiday dreaming...

Wishing: ...we could have been with family in the UK for the dedication of a delicious newborn nephew.

Reading: ... An Anthology of Modern Verse, found in an opshop for $8, complete with old clippings and an inscription from 1925. Lovely.

Looking Forward To: ...Christmas! I love this time of the year, and I have so many gift and craft ideas to get onto after exams!

Creating: ...a memory wall in my bedroom. A place for artwork, photos, quotes, letters and inspiration.

Planning: ...handmade Christmas gifts, including some beautiful wall name plaques for the girls.

Cooking: ...Christmas pudding. All the fruits are soaking in a generous amount of sherry and brandy, ready for baking into pudding for Christmas Day.

Arranging: ...Christmas meat. We sent a pig, purchased from a friend, to slaughter last weekend, and are picking it up butchered and dressed next weekend. A full freezer, including a lovely rolled pork roast just in time for Christmas!

Enjoying: ...the longer days. Evening swims, walks and bike rides, drinks on the deck, no wonder it has been hard to concentrate on studying!

Hoping: baby boy (who really isn't a baby anymore) enjoys his second birthday this Saturday!

See you on the other side of my last exam!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Contentment.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

- Lao Tzu

Happiness is not a's a by-product of a life well lived.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.
- Socrates

Our day old fresh batch of chicks.
 I've been thinking a lot about life purpose lately. I think it's probably because of one of my units at uni - getting the mind ticking about all kinds of deep things! In one of my lectures it was said that in modern, secular life, people tend to engage in the pursuit of happiness as their ultimate life purpose. I wasn't sure if that resonated with me. Happiness seems so fickle, you think you have it and it slips through your fingers. The pursuit of happiness seems to me to be akin to chasing echoes. You know they are there, but you just can't seem to grasp them. Happiness is fleeting, and dependent on influences outside of ourselves. Things make us happy. Things make us happy.

Lazy summery days in the hammock.
What I seek is contentment. Contentment begins inside of me, it's not a fast, rolling boil of emotions, it is rather like a simmering pot, always warm and ready for a pot of tea. Contentment isn't about what we have, or haven't, it's about enjoying what's there, without feeling we need more. Contentment is about being in tune with our values and beliefs and living accordingly. Contentment is not restless, or dissatisfied, it's calm and strong enough to ride out the harder days secure in the belief that our lives are just as they should be.

Labneh in chilli and herb olive oil.
Lately, I have been feeling so thankful for the life we lead. We don't have much money. We make sacrifices accordingly. But we live well, so well. We love our home, our little family, our community. We love the land that surrounds us, the Earth that sustains us. We love the animals and the gardens that feed us. We love making do, repurposing, breathing new life into old things. We eat like kings and queens, and appreciate the skills we are learning to help support ourselves in the life choices we have made. We live simply, we don't need much, we run out of money nearly every fortnight. But it's fine. We go without. We thrive without.

When Nath finished work, the money question was the one we were asked most often - how will you survive? I will admit, it was the thing we were most nervous about, too. Four months in, though, and I can honestly say that not only are we surviving, we are thriving. We want for nothing. Sure, our holidays are shorter and more local than they have been in the past. Dinners out are fewer, and we tend not to pay for convenience anymore (Can I make it myself?). Do I miss these things? Not really. This life we lead, is the right life for us.

Probably for the first time in my life, I am truly content. It's wonderful, and even bad days are made better with the knowledge that life is just as it is meant to be.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Inaugural Swim

Late yesterday afternoon we christened our pool. It's taken us a couple of weeks to get the hang of the maintenance and get all the levels right for swimming, and yesterday, the first day of a week's worth of 35 to 41 degree days, it was just right.

I feel like I have forfeited my greenie credentials but look at these happy faces!

Don't you just love Nath's hat???

We are looking forward to a Summer of swimming!

From Our Kitchen.

A basket of backyard goodness.
I am in the midst of exam preparation, my first exam is on Monday. I have three all up, and will be so relieved to have earned my holidays when they are over. Uni has gone well, I am sitting on a distinction or high distinction in all of my units, but exams may change that! Nath is on uni holidays now (no exams for his course) and he has maintained a high distinction average for his Masters degree, which has him on track to complete it by doing his thesis.

Amid all this study, though, life has a habit of continuing to tick along, regardless of how much we feel we have in the day to get things done. I have been feeling quite overwhelmed with the need to remain 'on top' of everything, and my days have felt not as slow as I would like them to be. My goal for next academic year is to achieve a bit more balance, and this will quite possibly involve actually saying 'no' to a few more things! I've missed having the time to do some of the things I love to do, like cooking and sewing. To be honest, it's probably not so much a lack of time as a lack of prioritising these things which nourish me (Mezz over at Mezz Makes Stuff wrote a post recently on the difference between indulging and nourishing ourselves - worth a read).

Anyway, the past couple of days, despite the mountains of washing, despite the uni notes to be made and the cleaning to be done, I have snuck in a few moments of kitchen time, and thought I'd share some pics with you.

Salad with greens from our backyard, eggs from our chooks and dressing made from homemade yoghurt and homemade chilli sauce.

Potatoes which, having been blanched in vinegar and sprinkled with salt, are ready for dehydrating to make salt and vinegar crisps.
Finished potato chips. Very tasty!
Homemade yoghurt being strained to make labneh which will be marinated in olive oil with a blend of spices.
Two jars of loquat and lemon jam. I was so excited to find loquats at the markets!
Preserved lemons, which will be ready for winter cooking.
For me, it is the times when we are eating and drinking largely from our own produce, spending evenings preserving, fermenting, making, that I feel most connected to the Earth, each other and our family values.
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