It's the Thought that Counts…

By the time you read this on Sunday morning, there will only be three more sleeps until Christmas Day. Are you ready? Or are you the sort who likes to live dangerously and leave everything until the last minute? I’m more or less ready. Sadly, I have to work today but only until 4pm and then I’ll be off for a whole three days! Ooh, being spoilt here, the joys of working in retail.

As I work Boxing Day, the decision was made to bring everything forward a day, so therefore Monday is our Christmas Eve, Tuesday is our Christmas Day and Wednesday will be our Boxing Day. It just makes Christmas a bit nicer for me. I’ve had to work the last two Boxing Days and it really puts a serious crimp in the festive revelry. To be constantly checking my watch, to be aware that I have to turn up at work next day on time and sober, ready for one of the busiest days in our retail year. By shifting everything forward a day, I can enjoy myself as much as I want on Christmas Day (Tuesday) and still have Boxing Day (Wednesday) to rest and recover.

We’ve tried to cut down on presents this year. Last year I went totally overboard with everyone and ended up with a debt I didn’t finish paying off until this November. Which is ridiculous and a bit obscene, so my parents and Miss F all agreed we’d not buy presents at all, although obviously I would buy some little things for Miss F to open on Christmas Day. But then her phone broke, as regular readers of my blog will know, so we got her a new phone on my Argos interest free card and I will be paying £200 towards it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas presents this week, about things I’ve given and received over the years. About the great presents I’ve had, the not so great and the downright bizarre. Buying presents is something I pride myself on being particularly good at, in that I try hard to think about what the person would really like. If you know someone, then it should be easy to imagine what would give them joy to receive and then buy that. Of course, the absolute best presents are those that the recipient had no idea they wanted until they open it, and then they love it. Sadly, all too often, people give what they would like to receive, not what the person they’re giving to wants.

I’ve lost count of the smelly body lotion sets, scented candles which smelt like furniture polish, tins of biscuits, slippers and other such stuff I’ve received over the years, all of which I’ve politely said thank you for and then put away ready to be regifted. It is particularly galling when you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort in a wonderful gift for someone that they love, and in return you receive a tin of biscuits! Speaking of giving and not receiving, are Christmas cards now a thing of the past? This year I’ve handed out all my cards to the normal people and a large number of them have turned around and said “Oh, we’re not doing cards this year”.

Not that long ago, I needed four of those long card holders to contain all the Christmas cards I received, this year I’m down to barely filling two. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the waning popularity of Christmas cards or perhaps the waning popularity of me. Either way, it is a little sad. I love giving and receiving cards, but, as I save all my cards until the next year and use them as a guide as to who gets a card from me, it means all those who didn’t bother giving me a card this year won’t get one from me next Christmas.

And then there’s presents. Always a tricky subject, the buying and giving of presents. When clear budgets are set and stuck to it helps to alleviate inequality in spending, so long as all parties stick to the budget. I have on occasion been told a £10 budget which I have rigidly stuck to, only to have a gift clearly worth a lot more than that presented to me, making me feel cheap, mean and ultimately resentful I’ve been made to feel that way. I know that’s not the spirit of Christmas, but it is the spirit of most of us.

And of course, I’ve also experienced it the other way around, when I have given a lovely gift which is smack on the nose, or maybe a little over, budget wise, only to receive a gift in return that is clearly lacking in thought and value. I’m not that hard to buy for and if you’re really stuck, then a book voucher to spend on new books is always a winner.

Sometimes, I wonder if my friends and family know me at all, based on some of the gifts I have received. I remember one Christmas, a very long time ago, I had a big Christmas Eve party and all my friends had brought their gifts to me and each other to open by the tree. Lovely, thoughtful, wonderful gifts came out of brightly packaged boxes and we were all thrilled, until I opened the present from one of my closest friends.

You know when you’re opening a present and someone says “Oh, it’s nothing special” but it is and it’s lovely, well, this wasn’t one of those times. She said, “it’s nothing special” and it really, really, wasn’t. It was a basket of an assortment of Mrs Bridges pickles, jams and chutneys – for your 25 year old best friend? Bearing in mind, my gift to her had been tickets to see a West End Show in London, it seemed a little unbalanced and lead to a rather awkward moment, and, I won’t lie, a cooling of our friendship. It wasn’t so much the disparity in spend, although she earned a lot more than me so could well afford the pre-agreed budget, it was more the lack of thought that hurt.

Another friend for every birthday and Christmas for ten years, always insisted on buying me an article of clothing. Now, clothing is a tricky thing to buy for someone. You need to be very, very sure of sizes, tastes and fit before attempting to buy anything more complicated than socks or a scarf for someone, and always make sure you give them the receipt. But this friend was confident she knew me well enough after all our years of friendship. She didn’t.

Every time a soft, squishy parcel was handed to me my heart would sink, wondering what awful thing she’d got me this time. A teeny tiny denim mini skirt that would barely cover my arse. A dreadful white frilly blouse that looked like your Great Aunt Nelly’s net curtains and was so itchy no one could wear it longer than two minutes. A tarty, off the shoulder, black sequin top that made me shudder to look at it. A peach chiffon top that washed all the colour from my skin.

All clothes that she would wear, but not clothes that I would ever even give wardrobe space to. She was making the classic mistake of buying what she liked, rather than thinking about all the clothes she’d seen me wear over the years and realising that white isn’t my colour and I don’t do short, tarty apparel, it’s just not me. There was never a receipt included and usually she’d ripped all the tags off so I couldn’t even exchange. On the rare occasions a tag was left intact, I would take it back to the shop in question only to find that she’d bought it in the sale, and it had an exchange value of £1.50.

All too often with buying presents for people, it’s the “what the heck do we buy them” that causes problems, not the actual buying and wrapping. Most people nowadays have enough money to buy themselves whatever they want, so Christmas is no longer a chance to give people things they really need but couldn’t justify buying themselves. Now more than ever, presents are about the thought you have put into them. My ex-in-laws (the outlaws) are a good example of this. They live in a tiny retirement flat, crammed in with all their belongings they simply cannot give houseroom to “stuff”. There is nothing they want, need or desire, so buying presents for them was always a challenge.

Then, a few years ago, I hit upon the idea of making them a hamper and wondered why I hadn’t thought about it sooner. Now, you can of course, buy hampers ready-made, but they are always hellishly expensive and always contain a ton of stuff that you know the recipient won’t like or want. So, what I do is simply go around the supermarket and buy about £30 worth of food and drink I know they will use and enjoy, but I buy a nice version of it – Twinings English Breakfast tea instead of a value pack – that sort of thing. I then make a hamper from an old, sturdy box and arrange everything neatly. It looks great and is full of things they will use, things that won’t clutter their flat, well, not for long. It was a huge success and ever since that’s what I’ve done.

My mum, bless her, has had one or two spectacular fails with present buying over the years. When Miss F was young obviously my mother would buy her things to give to me for Christmas, and Miss F would run into my room on Christmas morning, her stocking clutched in one hand and her present to me in the other. More excited about watching me open mine, she would eagerly wait with quivering anticipation as I tore the paper off. One year, I opened the beautiful package to find a tube of foundation for coloured skin tones.

I was stunned. So stunned, I had to phone my mother there and then.

“You’ve bought me foundation?”

“Yes, I knew you were running short and it’s so expensive.”

“Ok, so nice thought, but Mum, this foundation is for coloured skin tones.”

“Well, that’s alright isn’t it?”

“No, Mum, it’s for black skin.”

“Can’t you still use it?”

“Have you seen the colour of me, Mum? I’d look like the lovechild of Judith Chalmers and David Dickinson!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this pair, they were TV presenters well known for their love of fake tan and the rather alarming tangerine colour of their skin. After Christmas, I related the tale to a friend of mine who is black, she roared with laughter and offered to buy it off me. In the end we did a swap, she gave me the bottle of rather nice red wine her work had given her which she didn’t want, and I gave her the foundation.

Another year I was very excited to see three, book shaped presents with my name on under my parents’ tree. In excitement, I ripped the paper off the first one to find a book on hedgerow foraging. Surprised, I looked at it, then opened the second parcel, only to find another book on hedgerow foraging. Sensing a theme, I wasn’t too surprised when I opened the third parcel to find yet another book on hedgerow foraging. I looked at my mum.

“Umm, why?”

“Well, I know you’re into that sort of thing.”

“I go blackberry picking once a year and I don’t need three books to tell me how to do it.”

I sold all three books on eBay in the new year and bought something I actually wanted, but are you beginning to see why I don’t get very excited about Christmas presents?

My ex-husband always bought me things he wanted himself, and although he did stop short of buying me a power drill, there was a camera I didn’t want or need that he then took as his own, DVD boxsets of shows I’d never heard of, and things for the kitchen I didn’t want that then languished in the cupboard after one use when he found it wasn’t as much fun to use as the ads had suggested.

One year, in desperation, I sat down and wrote a very long and comprehensive list of things I really wanted and needed. Even that didn’t work. Whilst most people did buy off list, my mother is a free spirit who won’t be told what to do so instead bought me frumpy slippers (I hate slippers, they make my feet too hot) and a large gift pack of Marks & Spencer Magnolia body stuff (it smells like cat pee on me and makes me itch).

One year, she gave me two tops, two lovely tops, perfect for me, there was just one problem.

“Why have you bought me these?”

“Well, when I saw them, I could just see you in them.”

“There’s a reason for that. You have! I already own these exact same tops.”

Then there was the year my poor mum forgot to tag any presents. That was an interesting Christmas Day. Like some kind of festive Russian roulette, we’d all choose a tag-less present from under the tree, shake it, squeeze it, and try to guess what might be in it. I ended up with a tie, an XXL hoody and a cordless screwdriver. Once all the presents were opened, we then had a Swap Shop session.

One year, we had a party the week before Christmas. A lovely evening, it was all very festive and a huge success and, as a friend was leaving, she put her arm around me, thanked me for a wonderful evening and told me she’d slipped us a little something under the tree. I thanked her, we wished each other Merry Christmas and she left. For the rest of that week we couldn’t figure out what on earth the disgusting smell was in the house. I bleached bins, we cleaned drains, we moved furniture to see if the cat had left a dead mouse anywhere, but no matter what we did this foul smell prevailed.

Then it was Christmas Day, and I lit scented candles everywhere to drown out the smell. We opened our gifts, including the one from my friend, only to discover it was the ripest, stinkiest, smelliest piece of Stilton cheese! In a box, under our tree, in a warm lounge, for a week! Needless to say, it went straight in the bin. I asked her what on earth she’d been thinking of. Yes, lovely present for my ex-husband (I don’t like Stilton, so again, lack of thought) but it needed to go into the fridge, not be slipped under the tree for a week. She got quite shirty at my lack of gratitude.

Did anyone make cherry brandy as I showed you a few weeks ago? Well, if you did, then you need to be bottling it up this week. It’s really simple. All you need to do is strain the fruit infused brandy through a linen or muslin lined sieve into a large jug and then pour them into clean, screw top bottles. You can use the bottles you fermented it in but obviously you’ll need to rinse them out first. The four 75cl bottles I made was enough to decant back into one 75cl bottle and then three 40cl bottles which I then labelled and gave as Christmas presents. I had a sneaky taste and it’s lovely, very warm and Christmassy.

By the time I blog next week it will all be over. All the work, expense, stress and preparation that goes into one day will be done for another year. I hope you all have an amazing Christmas Day, and if you don’t celebrate Christmas then please let me extend well wishes to you and your family.

Thank you for once again taking the time to read my ramblings, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Merry Christmas

Julia Blake

The Goose is Getting Fat… Christmas Past & Present (or possibly no presents)

This week I’m going to be using the C word a lot. I apologise for using the C word and know that halfway through November it is still way too early to be using the C word, but, events have occurred that have left me with no choice but to think about and say the C word a lot. Christmas. Sorry, I know most of you don’t want to hear it yet, but there’s no escaping from it. Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.

I always think that nothing illustrates the law of diminishing returns better than Christmas. Think about it. When you’re a kid you do absolutely nothing to contribute towards Christmas – except throw a strop on Christmas Day because you got Barbie Princess, and not the Barbie Diamond Princess you actually wanted but your poor, harassed mother didn’t realise was completely different from plain, boring Barbie Princess. Or by helpfully puking your guts up with excitement on Christmas morning. Or by refusing to go to sleep until gone midnight on Christmas Eve, thus meaning your exhausted parents are falling asleep on the sofa they’re so tired, but can’t go to bed until after you’re well and truly down – well, they have to sneak into your room and quietly fill the stocking at the foot of your bed.

Tip to all new parents, start the tradition on the first Christmas of hanging up their stockings either downstairs or on the handle of their bedroom door – so much easier for sneaky Santa shenanigans. If they really insist on having the stocking in their bedroom, then buy two identical stockings. Hang one up in their room, the other one is hidden in your room already filled to the brim with their presents. Then the moment their little peepers are firmly closed, it’s a simple case of creeping in and doing a switch. You’re welcome. This has been a Public Service Announcement by Julia Blake.

Anyway, as I was saying, when you’re a kid you do NOTHING to help with Christmas, yet you get EVERYTHING. Christmas plays, parties, carol services, lunches and trips to Santa in his grotto to give him a list of your demands. Your excitement levels ratchet higher with every door you open on your chocolate stuffed advent calendar. You enjoy decorating the tree, without giving a thought to the poor parent who’s had to tramp around a muddy field picking the “perfect” tree, wrestle it into a car too small to take it, manhandle it into the house and into a suitable pot and then play the ever popular game of “will the lights work this year”? Even if your parents opted for a plastic tree, they’ve still had to climb into the loft to find it, risking life and limb crawling over a year’s worth of stuff that’s been shoved in front of the boxes of Christmas decorations.

As you get older, maybe you start to contribute a little more – you have to write the cards for your school friends, maybe mum makes you write cards to family members, perhaps you even have to help choose and wrap presents. As teenagers, yes, you do a little more, actually buying presents for your family and maybe helping a bit on Christmas day with food preparation and serving. But as kids grow, so the things on their wish list grow smaller and more expensive – iPhones, PlayStation games and money – being the most asked for teenage things.

Once you get beyond the teenage years then it’s all downhill, and as soon as you get a place of your own, Christmas begins to gobble down your money like an ever-hungry festive fledging. Suddenly, all the things that mum and dad bought and you always took for granted, you’ve got to buy for yourself – and you’re starting from scratch having to not only buy a tree, but all the ornaments, lights and other Christmassy bits and bobs to make your new nest a Noel ready retreat. Every Christmas since Miss F was born, I have bought her one beautiful tree ornament, so she now has fifteen plus a few others she’s acquired over the years. That means by the time she eventually leaves home, at least she’ll have enough to make a good show on her very first Christmas tree.

For a brief while, before kids come along, Christmas is still fun. But the moment you become a parent then that’s it, you’ve reached the bottom of the pile in that you do EVERYTHING to make Christmas happen and in return get NOTHING! Most women are sole co-ordinator and cook over the Christmas period. We’re the ones who make the present list, think of what to get for everyone, buy it, wrap it and usually arrange distribution of it. We’re the ones who plan menus and write endless shopping lists.

Going around the supermarket doing the big Christmas shop one year, I looked around at all the other women doing the same, frantically grasping their precious lists, muttering under their breath, eyes glazed with stress and exhaustion. A near fight broke out in aisle seven over the last packet of sage and onion premade stuffing balls. Husband’s – completely failing to understand the severity of not being able to find the right jar of caramelised red onion chutney to go on a cheese board everyone will be too full to eat – trailed miserably after their wives, and wondered just how much trouble they’d get into if they slipped away and went to the pub. And over it all, the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” floated down from the store’s radio onto the heads of women who every year swear Christmas won’t be the stressful, exhausting, disappointing hot mess it always turns into, yet know with a sinking sense of inevitability, that it will be.

I think we’re all in love with an ideal image of Christmas that simply doesn’t exist. An image created and fed by films, TV shows and magazines, by the longing inside us all to have the perfect Christmas that sadly, most of us never have. The reality being a group of exhausted, stressed out, disappointed people being forced to sit in an overheated room together, exchanging gifts they don’t want, and having to fake gratitude at getting yet another scented candle and bath bomb set that smells like primary school toilets, and for him, deep joy, socks and a mini car maintenance kit.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Especially, why do us women do it to ourselves? I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were left to men, Christmas would comprise of a pie and a pint down the pub, then falling asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. It’s us women who make it such hard work. Before Miss F came along, I used to almost collapse from exhaustion and stress trying to make it the perfect Christmas. Hundreds of pounds spent on presents that all had to be wrapped just so, handmade Christmas crackers and individually wrapped beautiful and thoughtful little table presents for everyone to open before Christmas lunch. Handmade place settings. And enough food and drink purchased to keep a small, third world village going for a month.

Every year it was the same. Every year I’d vow not to do so much, to not spend so much, to not stress so much, but every year I’d get swept up in the Christmas tide and every year I’d run myself ragged. Every Christmas Eve, I’d finally sink into an armchair with a sigh of exhausted relief, glass of something festively alcoholic in hand, with everything done, every card written and delivered, every present perfectly wrapped, all the vegetables prepped for the next day and the house a shimmering, shining homage to Christmas, and then I’d feel it – the ominous, scratchy tickle in the back of my throat which by Christmas morning was a fully-fledged throat infection – every single year, I’d be ill for Christmas Day purely because of the amount of needless stress I’d put myself under.

Then my marriage fell apart and suddenly everything changed. I had neither the money, time, energy or inclination to make everything absolutely perfect. I had a small child, and obviously her needs came first, but children don’t care if the tag on their present is handmade and they don’t care if the paper is responsibly sourced, fully recyclable and handcrafted – all they care about is that there are presents, a big heap of plastic crap under the tree for them to rip apart in a feeding frenzy of excitement.

Gradually, over the years, I’ve looked for ways to make life just that little bit easier for myself – cut down on the amount of food bought. It’s a family of four you’re feeding, not the whole of the Welsh Rugby team – you don’t need a 20lb turkey, make do with a turkey crown, bought all ready to go in the oven pre-stuffed and wrapped in bacon and in its own handy baking tin. The busy woman’s friend, it’s considerably cheaper than buying a whole turkey, fits in the oven, cooks quicker, doesn’t tend to dry out so much and doesn’t leave you with a carcase to try and cope with on Christmas evening. Cut down on the veg. One Christmas dinner spent at my brother’s house, my then sister-in-law had prepared fifteen different vegetables! Fifteen! A truly ridiculous and unnecessary amount of extra work, fuss and worry. Buy the Christmas pudding ready-made. Trust me, no one will ever know the difference.

Don’t be a martyr. Delegate jobs. If you’re hosting Christmas dinner this year, then get all the family in the kitchen Christmas Eve on veggie prepping duty, open a bottle of wine, put on cheesy Christmas music, arrange funny guessing games to play whilst peeling the mountain of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips. If you can, lay the table days in advance. Don’t worry about a starter, trust me, the amount of food there is, no one is going to be getting a takeaway on the way home. Or if you simply must have a starter, have plates of beautiful bite size canapes to serve with Prosecco before dinner instead.

Above all, do everything you can to make life a little easier for yourself. After all, this is your Christmas as well. No one is going to be happy if you’re too ill to enjoy yourself because you insisted on being a martyr and doing it all yourself. Ask for help. Demand help if needs be. This is everyone’s Christmas, so EVERYONE should chip in. Many hands make light work is at no time as true as it is at Christmas.

This year, Miss F and I have taken the ultimate step, in that we are having a practically present free one. It has taken me almost a whole year to pay off what I spent on Christmas Day last year. Think about that. Eleven months to pay off one single day. Looked at in the cold light of day, it’s ridiculous and a bit obscene. So, we discussed it, and jointly decided no presents. After all, as Miss F rightly stated, that’s not what Christmas should be about. It should be about family and friends, being together, enjoying good food and spending a stress-free time away from work and life. For me, it’s even more important that Christmas is a relaxing time because working in retail means I only get three days off over Christmas. The 23rd, 24th and 25th.

For the past two years I’ve had to look at my watch all Christmas Day, thinking how I have to be at work by 9am the following morning – and trust me, that puts a real crimp on things. So, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. The 23rd will be our Christmas Eve, the 24th will be our Christmas Day and the 25th will be our Boxing Day. At first a bit sceptical how this would work, my family are now fully on board as things have slotted nicely into place. My brother will be spending proper Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family but can spend the 24th with us. The village my parents live in have a beautiful “carols by candlelight” concert at the church every Christmas Eve at 6pm. Usually, we’re all too busy getting ready for Christmas Day to even think of attending, but this year we will have eaten Christmas dinner and be quite up for a stroll to the church for a bit of drunken carolling. Then on Christmas Day proper, I can relax and enjoy a completely stress-free day before plunging back into work and the madness of after Christmas sales. Oh, the joys of working in retail.

So that’s our Christmas sorted, and do you know, I have noticed immediately a difference between this year and last year. Not having to worry about what I’m buying for everyone and how I’m going to afford it has lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It was the grand switching on of the Christmas lights in Bury St Edmunds this week – and I hope you’re liking all the photos, sorry they’re a bit blurry but I have a rubbish camera – I wasn’t able to go this year as I had to go to a college thing with Miss F, but it’s always well attended whatever the weather. And then of course, next week is the actual Christmas Fayre. The third biggest in the country, it is a massive event with practically the whole town closed off and busloads of tourists coming in from all four points of the compass. I remember last year, chatting to a couple of girls I was queuing for something with, they told me they’d travelled all the way up from Devon just to come to the Fayre for the day!

As I told you last week, myself and four other local authors are having a stall on which we will be selling our personally signed books. I am excited about it and also worried, I have invested quite a lot of money into this event – not only the cost of buying a good supply of my books to sell, I’ve also had lovely little scented candles made to match my books, I’m buying lots of gift wrap supplies to offer a free gift wrapping service and I’ve had to invest in a card reader as most people don’t carry cash with them, and the ability to take card payments should hopefully mean more people will buy my books. It’s just as well I’m not buying any Christmas presents this year! Fingers crossed my gamble pays off.

If there’s anyone local reading this (or perhaps you’re bussing in from the West Country), then why not pop in and say hello. We will be in The Guildhall down Guildhall Street from 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday, then the others will be there 10am to 4pm on Sunday – sadly I have to work, so I won’t be there on the Sunday. It would be lovely to see you. I may even be wearing a Christmas jumper and if you’re looking for some unique and personalised gifts for Christmas then there will be a wonderful collection of books on offer, all personally signed by local authors, along with bookmarks and candles. Very importantly, there is also a café and toilet facilities in the Guildhall.

What do you think about Christmas? Are you an Elf or a Grinch? Do you love all things Christmassy or do you bah humbug at the whole shenanigans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. As usual, you can comment here or contact me on Facebook or Instagram.

Finally, many of you have contacted me asking about Queenie Ant. Thank you, it’s so sweet of you all to be concerned. I am happy to report that we think she’s still alive as earlier in the week Miss F is convinced she saw one of her legs uncurl then curl back up again so we’re hopeful that come the Spring she will wake up and we’ll have lots of little ant babies running about all over the place. Imagine that.

Anyway, once again it has been great chatting with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Take care.

Julia Blake