celebrate Valentines day

Valentine’s Day

Do you celebrate Valentine’s day with your loved one?

Perhaps this post should come with a warning that it definitely won’t be all gushing about how wonderful the fourteenth of February is. That way, you have the choice to skip reading it!

I’m in two minds about it, really. On the one hand, I dislike how hugely commercial it has become- even our local florist shop replaced their Christmas window display with a Valentine’s display in the first week of January. Although, to be fair, flowers and plants as gifts don’t bother me, unlike the piles of tacky soft toys and plastic tat that grace the pound shops and supermarkets at this time of year. Contemplating the environmental impact that many of these quickly discarded, mass-produced items will have is a concern in itself. It goes without saying that prices of flowers and restaurants are inflated sky-high around this date, too.

My other issue with it is the ‘enforced romance’ aspect. Should people really need a specified day to prompt them to treat their loved one? Do they buy gifts and make an effort because they feel they should, because society dictates so? It seems far preferable to me that partners choose to surprise each other with little gifts on random days because they spontaneously feel like it, perhaps they spot something that reminds them of their loved one.

The reason why I’ve never been a fan of being presented with a dozen red roses is precisely because they are a cliched symbol of love. Zero imagination or thought need go into them, especially on Valentine’s day as identical bouquets of them are available everywhere to pick up mindlessly. My dear husband knows very well by now that I prefer to be given almost any other type of flowers than red roses- I happen to love yellow or pink roses, though. He is fortunately very thoughtful when choosing flowers for me and always selects ones that he thinks I will particularly appreciate.

However, I admit that I do enjoy marking special days and events, including Valentine’s day. I just prefer to do so in a low-key way. I tend to have fresh flowers in the house most of the time anyway, selected by myself, so my husband usually gives me a card and a small box of my favourite type of chocolates (which is invariably well received).

I give my husband a card, too and in recent years I have made him heart shaped chocolates in a silicone mould. Our two eldest children love helping to make them. Usually we melt large bars of milk and white chocolate then gently swirl the two colours together a little in a bowl, before pouring into the mould. This results in a pretty marbled effect in each chocolate.

Some years we put our our indoor decorative tree and decorate it with hearts and other Valentine’s themed items. We re-use the same ones each year and never replace them with new ones.

We have always made more of a fuss about each other’s birthdays as they seem more personal, special days.

How about you? What’s your take on Valentine’s Day? I appreciate lots of people love it and it certainly adds a little fun to what can otherwise be a cold and dismal month.

 

Christmas Gifts on a Budget

Most of us have a lot of gifts to buy for many family members, friends and other people that we would like to acknowledge at this time of year. I actually quite enjoy buying and selecting gifts for people, but there’s no denying that it can get pretty costly.

So it’s worth considering how to reduce the costs a little. I tend to keep an eye out for suitable gifts year-round (one of my strategies to reduce stress in the festive season). Sometimes if I’m extra lucky, they might be in the sales, too. Even if not, it at least helps to spread the cost out.

Another way to save money on gifts is to make things yourself. Home-made gifts can also be more personal and appreciated than shop-bought items. As a teacher, I was frequently touched by how much effort the kids would put into making me personalised presents. Over the years, I have received all sorts from home-made lavender bags, notebooks with my name stencilled on, knitted and embroidered items, all sorts of baked goods and more.

Everyone has different skill sets and will be limited by those. For instance, Im utterly unteachable at knitting. Yes, I really am. I even tagged along to a knitting club for seven and eight year-olds with the hope of learning alongside them. They all picked it up while I was left clueless. So knitted gifts will always be off the cards.

However, I have made biscuits and confectionery as gifts. Shortbread is incredibly easy and is a typically seasonal food for Christmas. In terms of sweets: coconut ice, peppermint creams and chocolate truffles are all straightforward to make and taste delicious. It’s easy to bulk-buy suitable sized gift or presentation boxes on Ebay to make them look as good as they taste.

Today in a supermarket there were many potted plants that had been reduced in price. In particular there were a number of cyclamen flowers in shades of pinks and purples in cute galvanised mini buckets. It was easy to see why they were discounted, as several of the flowers in each one had died and they didn’t seem to have been kept well watered. We keep cyclamens in our garden in pots during the winter so I feel fairly confident about looking after them. In particular, they need to be deadheaded regularly, given sunlight and watered sufficiently. So I picked up and bought four of these plants, priced at only £2.50 each.

The first one I set aside as a birthday gift for a relative next week. After removing the browned, dead flowers and a few crunchy leaves, its appearance was much improved. Then, I pulled out a pale pink ribbon from our gift cupboard (I always save nice ribbons that have been used in packaging I have received as they often come in useful when I gift-wrap things myself) and tied it in a simple bow around the top of the silver coloured bucket. It looks pretty nice, don’t you think?

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The remaining few plants were also given the deadheading and watering treatment and have been placed in a sunny window. They looked ten times better just for having had that. When I gift then next week I am hopeful that they will look perfect.

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My daughter is very arty and creative so she was keen to make something for her grandmothers for Christmas. I purchased some small terracotta pots and we pained them plain white in acrylic paint. Once dry, my five-year-old used a combination of finger painting (for the petals and flower centres) and brush painting to create a sweet flower print pattern on the pots. We will just add a little plant and voila, all finished. I’m sure they will be well-received.

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Do you make any of your own gifts? I would love to hear about what you create yourself. Or perhaps you have other tips or suggestions on how to keep costs down when buying Christmas gifts?

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Minimising stress in the run up to Christmas

You’ll know from my recent posts that I really do love Christmas, from decorating the house to luxuriating in the simple pleasures and find the month of December to truly be the most wonderful time of the year.

However, it can’t be denied that it is also the busiest time of year for most people and can prove stressful to juggle the demands on your time, feel that you’re keeping on top of things and have everything ready for the big day.

Below are some of the strategies that I adopt and find that they help to reduce the potential stress at this time of year. They won’t necessarily all be ideas that you want to follow, but hopefully a few will appeal.

Declutter

One of the most stressful aspects of Christmas for me personally is the influx of stuff into the house, especially kids’ toys. They already have so many toys but it’s understandable that relatives want to treat them to new toys for Christmas presents. I aim to have a decluttering session specifically for kids toys in early December, as this is a good opportunity to dispose of broken toys or donate toys they no longer play with to charity shops. It is also a chance to spot toys that need replacing and could prove good things to buy them as gifts. When relatives specifically ask for ideas of what the children would particularly need I can then mention ideas based on what I’ve noticed needs replacing for them or else I try to suggest days out or experiences as an alternative to toys. For example, my eldest daughter has been desperate to visit a climbing centre about 45 minutes drive from our house. So her grandmother is purchasing her a gift voucher to go to the climbing centre as her main gift. I know that she will be over the moon with that experience gift and on a selfish note I am relieved that it will be one less object to find a home for. See my post on decluttering here.

Start shopping early

It sounds dull and geeky, but I always keep a spreadsheet of what I’ve already bought for people gift-wise and note ideas of what to buy individuals on it. I tend to keep an eye out year-round for gifts that would perfectly suit a recipient and snap them up as I see them, as I’ve learnt the hard way that leaving it all until December can mean that I don’t succeed in finding the kind of personal gifts that I aim to give people. This has the added bonus of spreading out the cost of Christmas gifts and takes the pressure off finding so many gifts for people in December. Now, I appreciate that this is a little too late to be of any help this year, but you can always be on the lookout from early next year for suitable gifts for next Christmas.

Get organised with Christmas Day hosting purchases

I have hosted on Christmas day ever since we had our first child, because it means that both sets of grandparents get to spend time with their grandkids and also our house is the largest so accommodates everyone without it being too much of a squeeze. It pays dividends to plan ahead if you’re hosting on Christmas day- and yes, you may have guessed that I recommend another spreadsheet to list all the foods to buy, as well as other related items eg crackers, napkins, turkey foil etc.

Ask guests to bring an specific item each to take the pressure off- I find that often they offer to do this anyway. Also, I aim to buy a Christmas food item a week in my grocery shop from early November onwards to spread the cost and hassle, especially as there are often special offers on and it spreads the expense a little. Obviously this only applies to foods which can be kept in a store cupboard rather than fresh foods but still applies to many items such as soft and alcoholic drinks, cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding and cake etc.

Don’t be afraid to cut corners on Christmas dinner

I firmly believe that Christmas should primarily be about togetherness.  I am more than happy to adopt as many time savers as possible to get to spend more of Christmas day with my young kids rather than slaving away in a hot, stuffy kitchen and make no apology for this. If people want gourmet cuisine, I suggest that they book themselves into a hotel on Christmas day rather than spend it in my home!

Here are some of the corners that I cut when cooking Christmas dinner for my family:

We have never bothered with starters. Even as a child growing up, my mother (who is an excellent cook) never made starters and because there are so many types of food for the main course no one ever goes hungry. In fact, we often struggle to find room for dessert even after just a main course. So don’t feel pressured to include extra courses that aren’t necessary.

Despite turkey being the traditional meat here in the UK, I have bought 2 large free-range chickens for Christmas dinner in recent years. We prefer chicken anyway as it tends to be a little less dry than turkey, and it is very affordable to buy free-range meat (which I prefer to do where possible) which would be hugely expensive if it were free-range turkey at this time of year. Our oven is only a small, standard oven so to maximise the space in it I have sometimes cooked the chickens in slow cookers on Christmas day itself, or cooked them in the oven on Christmas day morning, then sliced up the meat after cooling it quickly then found that adding hot gravy to it during the meal means it tastes fine (and not cold at all). It’s a pressure removed to know that the meat is cooked already leaving you to focus on the side dishes.

I’ve become a convert to frozen vegetables year-round and am happy to use them on Christmas day, too. Honestly, vegetables are frozen so quickly than minimal nutrients are lost (probably fewer than fresh ones that have been lingering around for several days before use both in supermarkets and in the home). There is no waste with frozen vegetables because you simply remove the exact quantity required from the bag and they have the added bonus of being ready prepared for you (eg sliced carrots, small broccoli florets) which is a massive time saver.

I shamelessly use gravy granules and Paxo stuffing mix, packet mix bread sauce (bread sauce is the best component of the Christmas dinner for everyone, surely?), as well as ready-bought desserts. Personally I believe the difference in taste is so small that it is not worth the significant extra time it would take for me to make my own from scratch. I have nothing against ready-prepared or frozen Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes, either, although I don’t use them every year.

Organised gift wrapping 

I loathe wrapping gifts and must admit that it’s my least favourite aspect of preparing for Christmas. I find it easiest to start at least a week or so before Christmas day, spread the task it over a few evenings, with a Christmas film on and a glass of something nice. Use a tape dispenser and sticky Christmas labels for name tags for speed. A friend once told me that for family she just wraps and scrunches coloured  tissue paper sheets around each gift then pops them in a gift bag, so doesn’t need to worry about folding and taping which sounded a good idea, although I have yet to try it.

Do you have any of your own tips to share to reduce the stress in this busy month? Please do share them in the comments below.

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Simple festive pleasures in December- read for simple, fun ways to get yourself into the festive spirit.

Luxuriating in simple festive pleasures in December

December really is the most wonderful time of the year for me. The weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with excitement and anticipation. We do plan several Christmassy days out as a family to make the most of it while our kids are young enough to really enjoy them, including a steam train ride to see Santa, a pantomime and breakfast with Santa on Christmas Eve. However, a lot of the things I enjoy about the weeks before Christmas are actually simple, home-based joys that cost very little.

Decorating the home

It starts in late November for us when we decorate our tree and put up all the smaller Christmas decorations around the house. Unpacking all the familiar decorations, recalling where and when we purchased them or remembering when the kids made them in previous years brings on a sweet sense of nostalgia. It’s a heavenly feeling to relax in the living room in the evenings, the room illuminated by twinkling white lights on the tree and snuggled up with fleece blankets on the sofa.

Festive films

Here in the UK, the TV Channel 5 dedicates itself almost completely to festive films (movies). They are mostly low budget TV movies and rather cheesy and predictable, but still enjoyable. I often set them up to record if they are on during the daytime then watch them in the evenings. Plus, I look out for some of my all-time favourite Christmas films being screened on TV to record, such as The Holiday, A Christmas Carol (any and all versions of it!), Love Actually etc.

Creating Traditions

Although Christmas Eve boxes have become popular here in recent years, I decided against starting this tradition for my own kids. This is mainly because Christmas Eve is a pretty busy day for us, with visiting our local garden centre in the morning for breakfast with Santa an established annual tradition, then we make preparations for hosting both sides of the family the following day. It’s a already enough of a challenge to fit it all in without introducing a special box for the kids to unpack. I do like the principle of the Christmas Eve box though and think that the kids will enjoy the tradition of it, so I decided to schedule it as an ‘advent box’ to be opened on December 1st each year. I didn’t want to go overboard, so just packed it with a few little items including mini polar bear mugs, hot chocolate with mini marshmallows, a net of chocolate penguin and their Santa hats.

Outdoor Lights

With the shorter, darker days that we experience in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, the abundance of festive lights everywhere is a real blessing to counteract what would otherwise be a dark and dismal time. As well as the indoor lights, it is cheering to see the range of exterior illuminations locally, from simple strings of lights around windows and wrapped around tree branches to less subtle giant inflatable snowmen and Santas. The latter might not be to my taste and I wouldn’t choose to display them outside my house, but they are still comical and the kids love them. Sometimes we glimpse them from the car whilst driving somewhere, other times we go for family walks and can pause to appreciate them better.

Baked Goods

My eldest daughter adores baking biscuits and cakes at Christmas time, especially as we have built up a collection of festive cookie cutters and I usually buy cake toppers such as silver balls and sugar Christmas characters. The end results are enjoyed by us all!

So, there are plenty of simple festive joys to enjoy during the month of December. What are your favourites?

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Decorating the house for Christmas

Apologies to those of you who still consider it too early to think about decorating the home for Christmas. In our house, it invariably happens towards the end of November. This is primarily because our eldest daughter’s birthday falls on the twenty-ninth of December and we take down every last decoration the day or two before her birthday, to make space for visiting guests and to make her feel that her birthday is a separate celebration from Christmas.

A large part of the joy of the Christmas season lies in the anticipation of it, for me at least. Indeed, that’s true of many of the most pleasurable things in life, such as holidays, birthdays, concerts etc- even though the event itself is, of course, enjoyable, a lot of additional pleasure can be gained by excitedly counting down to and looking forward to it. A French friend once told me that in the French language they have a verb that describes this anticipation: rejouir. From the last week of November, the time feels right to me to start embracing this period of anticipation so we assemble our 6-foot tree ready to decorate. We have had the same tree for almost ten years now and it is still in pretty good condition. I do love the heady pine scent of real trees, but on balance I prefer the convenience of artificial ones that don’t drop needles!

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We always opt for soft white LED lights to wrap around the tree first. Over the years, we have accumulated quite a large collection of tree ornaments. I adore hand-made ornaments and ones that are a little different or original in some way rather than multipacks of identical baubles. We generally buy at least one new ornament for the tree each year and it’s wonderful to unpack them one by one, rediscovering them. Paul proposed to me eleven years ago on the 23rd December and we purchased a little handmade, wooden carved decoration with a robin on it from a nearby craft centre that same day. Of course I’d remember it anyway, but I etched the date on the inside of it for the sake of posterity.

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We don’t consciously choose any particular theme per se, but I find myself naturally drawn towards decorations in and red and white more than any other, and I love ones made from natural materials such as wood, wool and metal. A few years ago, we went on a cruise holiday to Norway. On one of the days we disembarked at a small port city called Stavanger, where there was a huge shop that sold nothing but Christmas decorations, all year round. It did admittedly feel a little strange to be wandering round such a festive store in early August, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. Honestly, I could have happily bought one of every single ornament within the shop to add to my collection. It made me realise that my favourite type of ornaments are probably Scandi-style due to my preference of the colours and natural materials. We have a few of these Scandi dolls which came from Norway, but I’ve recently seen similar ones on sale in the Danish-owned Tiger stores here in the UK this year, very reasonably priced.

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Poinsettias (those beautiful potted plants with the red leaves on sale everywhere in December, in the UK at least) are so cheery around the house and I used to buy a few each year. At first I tried to look after them to save for future Christmases, but never had any success in keeping the leaves red, they always turned green. Then a couple of years ago I spotted artificial poinsettias in a shop and bought a few and I’m always pleased to unpack them with the Christmas stuff and place on my kitchen windowsills and table. They look pretty realistic, too.

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In the weekends preceding Christmas, we often visit local garden centres which stock a wide range of Christmas gifts and decorations.  Two years ago we were there on Christmas Eve and the adorable musical animated Christmas villages we always admired were being discounted. Unable to resist, we gave in and bought a fairground animated scene. The kids get so excited to see it and our baby is utterly captivated by the sight of the big (ferris) wheel turning, ice skating figures on the lake and pirate ship swinging. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

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As our children are getting older, they are starting to produce decorations at school and nursery which get added to the tree. Hopefully they will withstand years of use and we will be able to use them far into the future.

Are any of you readers early to put up your decorations, too? Or perhaps you are someone who always leaves it close to Christmas? I’d love to hear about your favourite decorations.