Seeking the Spirit of Christmas


I have found myself pondering the meaning of Christmas over the last week or so.  Now I know that sounds very deep but from an agnostic’s point of view it is quite a key question.

We are a somewhat small and depleted family having lost Dad a few months ago.  There is me, my two adult sons and Mum.  Of course there is also my brother-in-law and niece but since my sister died five years ago his focus, understandably, has been more to his own family, and I find myself thinking of them as an extension to our family rather than the core family if you understand my meaning.

When my sons were small the whole focus of Christmas was around them.  The excitement that built up from shopping trips, visits to Santa’s grotto, school activities until by Christmas Eve they were fit to explode and indeed they did around 4pm on Christmas Day when it all got too much and they burst into tears.  As they got older the focus moved to my niece some 11 years their junior and then we had the trauma of Christmas without her mother.  We found a way of moving forward going through the motions including trips to the pantomime.

This year, as I have said, there will be 4 of us around the Christmas table.  There is no pantomime trip for a range of reasons and it has started to feel that I was going through the motions following a prescribed routine which was fuelled by the media and commerce. It felt as though Christmas was really just a glorified roast dinner with some gifts, that none of us really need, thrown in. This is why over the recent weeks the sense that I needed to provide Christmas and some magic, whatever that maybe, has grown and grown.  It lead me to wonder what Christmas was actually about.  We don’t go to church so once you take out the whole religious meaning of Christmas it seems you are left with the commercial aspect which doesn’t sit well with me at all.

I have said I am an agnostic; despite being christened and confirmed I struggle to embrace organised Christianity.  However, I do believe there is something out there – I have no idea what – and over recent years I have felt myself more empathetic to the old religions, the circle of life, mother nature, call it what you will. I find myself more attuned to the changing seasons, lengthening of days, cycles of the moon than I ever will be to the teachings of Christ or any other religious deity.  I believe more and more in respecting our surroundings and working with nature.

So as I pondered on how to make Christmas special for my small family, how to bring some magic into the house, how to move away from the commercialisation of it all (prompted by my son on a recent visit to a well-known supermarket saying ‘You can buy Christmas here’). I found myself thinking about why we decorate our homes with greenery, why we have Christmas trees, why we feast and why Christmas is when it is?  It doesn’t take much effort to discover that the timing of Christmas coincides, almost, with the winter solstice and the old religion celebrations.  When Christianity was being devised (I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend I can’t think of another word) the key celebrations were timed to coincide with existing pagan festivals in order to ‘sell’ the new religion to the masses.  In so doing many of the traditions associate with the pagan festivals were subsumed into the new celebrations which is why when you start to think about things like mistletoe and the obsession with holly and ivy and how they relate to Christianity it makes little sense – the same applies to some of the Easter customs. The bringing in of greenery into the house was partly to ward of evil spirits, it was for decorative reasons, and  in some cultures evergreen were brought in and decorated to represent gods or goddesses.  Mistletoe was considered by the druids to be extremely sacred. It was cut on the sixth night after the winter solstice and distributed to the people to hang over their doors to ward off evils spirits. As for our modern obsession with gift giving this may have developed from the  Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December.

Where does this leave me and my quest for the spirit of Christmas?  Well I have decided, that I wanted to refer to the winter solstice and nature more, and to start some new family traditions.  So I have left the artificial tree in the loft and instead we had the fun of going to choose a real Christmas tree, the annoyance of trying to get it to stand up straight and we will no doubt spend a considerable amount of time over the Christmas period hovering up the needles but it feels special.  I have kept the decorations simple and traditional – no gaudy tinsel.  Finally, I have used the branches cut off the bottom of the tree to make a wreath for the front door to which I have added foliage collected from around the garden which for me is a celebration of mid-winter and marks the turning of the year and days getting longer – as a gardener something I look forward to more than Christmas.  Just these simple things have brought Christmas to life in our house far more than in previous years.  I think the ‘effort’ of having made/created these things myself rather than buying them ready-made off a shelf means more; my sons have certainly commented on it.

This year it will be a quiet Christmas, with a nice meal, some gifts and spending time together. We will miss Dad and my sister and remember past Christmases and tell stories.  It will be a time for reflection but also for looking ahead to the future and I think that is what Christmas is, for me,  really all about – being with loved ones and sharing good times and in a way tapping into the American tradition of Thanksgiving, remembering how lucky we are in whatever way.




Remembrance Day Tree Planting


My sons never cease to impress me in one way or another.  My eldest, the cabinet maker, is also a Scout Leader.  He is conscientious and wants the best for his scout group, always trying to improve the scout hut and facilities along with his best friend.  Anyway back in the summer I noticed on Twitter that the Woodland Trust was offering community projects free trees to mark the Queen’s Jubilee.  I mentioned this to my son and he was very interested.  The scout group over the last few years has had a new building and new fencing has been installed particularly to try and prevent equipment being stolen.  My son, a keen woodsman, did not like the chain link fence and wanted to soften it with trees with a goal of at some point in the future being able to use wood from the hedge to teach woodmans skills.

Anyway, having investigated the options offered by the Woodland Trust he applied for a ‘Year Round’ medium sized hedge and waited.  Then in October he had an email to let him know that the application had been successful and the 105 young trees would be delivered late October.

Planting 105 young trees is some undertaking and my son wanted to make it an event so given the timing of the delivery he decided to incorporate it into plans for the scout group to mark Remembrance Day.  Last weekend he and another scout leader dug 105 holes along the fence to give a double hedge.  The plants arrived in a large box along with a Royal Oak sapling.  This sapling had come from a Royal Park and one was included in each pack in order to mark the jubilee.  At the Scouts grounds there is a small hill, mainly constructed out of the spoil from the new building being built and the plan is that the Oak will be planted on the top so they have a focus for future rememberance events etc.  However, we think there will need to be some serious soil preparation so the oak has been planted in a nice pot and will live over winter in my  garage.

Today, Remembrance Sunday, a service was held at the Scout Hut to mark the day but in such a way that it was relevant to the young people, unlike many church services.  The Oak was formally presented to the group by the vicar and after the service all the scouts, cubs and beavers went outside, were given a tree each to plant and an oak label (made by my son) on which to write their name and a message.  Of course the Scout leaders went along behind to make sure the trees were planted properly and watered.

I think this was a wonderful idea.  The hedge, providing it survives and grows, will be associated with remembrance by many of the scout group and the Oak will especially, as it grows and matures, provide a focal point for the group and their activities – what better way for young people to show their respect and rememberance for those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.

Note: there are no photos of the tree planting due to the number of childre involved and the need to have permission for their photographs to be put on the web in the first place.



The Autumn garden through a lens

I am absolutely shattered to the point where I keep falling over!!  I have spent the last week heavily involved in our graduation ceremonies (commencement in the US).  We have had 2500 students graduate in eight ceremonies over four days.  My job is to look after the University’s guests (VIPs) and ferry them back and forth between the University and Worcester Cathedral.  This equates to 400 people over the four days and sixteen coach journeys.   Every day has had different challenges: people in wheelchairs, a guide dog for a blind guest, non-English speaking guests, people turning up at the last-minute, lost robes, mislaid speeches, missing coaches, the threat of rain but we got through as we are an excellent team.  On top of this there were two dinners – one formal with people I don’t know and one relax and fun with the guys that robe all the students.  I have spent four days  and two evenings making small talk so not only is my body shattered from being on my feet all this time and walking miles but my brain has turned to mush!

I had a notion that I would  be gardening today but the body and brain are unwilling which is a pity as the sun is shining so instead I went for a walk around the garden to clear my head and to remind myself of the jobs that I need or want to do.  I found myself really looking at the detail.  I think in Autumn, as the plants decay, you start to notice more detail.  I found decaying leaves quite wonderful to observe just as I do water drops on plants.

As I was too tired to do any gardening I spent some time fiddling with the controls on my bridge camera trying to work out how to use the manual option.  I  failed and have a lovely collect of white photos.  I really want to try to work out how to use this function better but am yet to find any helpful book, web page or instructions.  I would love  an SLR but the budget doesn’t stretch that far at the moment.

However, I think some of the photographs I took this afternoon aren’t that bad considering its with a point and shoot camera.  I love  the detail of the fading hydrangea flower above, its like fine lace work.  The light was strange as well due to the scudding clouds which meant that one moment the sky was clear and bright blue and the next it was full of menacing grey clouds threatening rain

Having mooched around the garden taking photographs I didn’t want to go back in so I spent a happy half hour in the greenhouse tidying up the various plants I have put in there to over-winter.

Tomorrow I am hoping that I will feel more rested and have the energy to finish off the bulb planting.

Three years on

Althaea cannabina

Althaea cannabina


Three years ago my family was torn to pieces as we faced one of those nightmares you wouldn’t want to wish on anyone.  Instead of a supportive family unit we became a group of individuals each locked into our own individual nightmare bubble, each of us bewildered, lost and stunned and not knowing how to deal with the trauma, bewilderment and eventually the grief that consumed us. Unable to cope or deal with the others.

I remember clearly feeling lost and alone. Needing my parents to turn to, to lean on and being unable to as they too had  each gone into themselves  trying to find some way to understand the sudden and unexpected shock of losing a child.  All the relationships carefully constructed, albeit unknowing, over in my case 40 years, vanished and they have never returned – not in the same way.

For some time it felt as though we would never be a family  again.  We crept around each other’s emotions and feelings.  I avoided my parents, feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt  at being here whilst my sister wasn’t.  Guilt at my anger at my sister for causing the trauma we were going through – not an easy feeling to admit to as it certainly wasn’t her fault but who says grief is rational, it isn’t.  It is like losing a skin.  You find yourself experiencing extremes of emotions that surprise and shock you.  It  is exhausting and a deeply private thing, everyone experiencing it differently, and therefore very hard to share and support.

I had thought that this year, the third one, was better than last year but today, or should I say in the early hours of this morning, I realised that I had underestimated the deep subconscious awareness of the passing of time and the coming round of another anniversary.  It isn’t helped by the fact that I am very busy at work at the moment organising a week of graduation ceremonies.  I do this at this time every year and this is what I was doing when my sister was rushed into hospital. The tasks I am performing are inexorably linked now with her death.  I have found myself mentally taken back to that windowless hospital  room, the quiet and mechanical breathing of the life support system, the stillness, the hush and quiet and the overwhelming feeling of wanting to scream and break the awful nightmare we were all in.

Today I have struggled, the anniversary of her death isn’t for a few days yet, but this is the anniversary of that first phone call, that first one hour dash to a hospital, trying to be positive and supportive of parents that visibly  aged 10 years in 10 minutes.  So on the way home this evening I made a slight detour and went to my parents, this time for me to ask for help and support.  My poor Mum thought something terrible had happened as I was crying walking through the door.  We held each other, we cried and we drank tea.  We talked about how strange the whole business of grief was, how it was different for my parents to me but no  less difficult.  We are bonding again and we have definitely been  for the last 18 months.  I think we will get there eventually, it will never be the same, we are different people now and the balance of the relationships have changed.  This nightmare has caused difficult conversations, many of the them whilst digging at the healing allotment, but we understand each other better than every before.  I have learnt some hard lessons about myself.  I am learning not to stew on things for so long, to try to risk saying what I think rather than create a whole big thing in my head out of something small.  My mother understands me better, she knows I am prone to guilt  trips and am an expert at blaming myself for everything under the sun.  I have learnt to be more demonstrative to her and am beginning to try to be more demonstrative to my dad, although he is of the generation where this doesn’t come easy. I don’t feel like we have a child parent relationship any more in the sense of me having to defer to them so much.  I feel as though I am treated more of an equal.

We have grown, we are different, but we are a family again though there is always that someone missing.

Mum and I wondered this evening whether it would get better, whether it would be less hard or whether this was how life would be and we would just have to accept these moments of despair and grief  when they crept up on us, and they do creep up often quite unexpectedly.  We concluded that there was no answer to this, that you just had to get on with life but recognise that the feelings and emotions we went through were normal.  Most importantly I have my Mum back, my support system, she was there for me today and I shall cherish that for as long as I possibly can.

RIP Claire – we miss you terribly

I am closing the comments on this post. This post, like others before it, has been written to help myself work  through my feelings and emotions.  I find it cathartic to write.  I also hope that by sharing my experiences I may help others going through something similar – then maybe something small and positive may have come out of this.

Black Dog Days

I suffer with depression.  Not to the degree I am on medication or in any form of therapy but I also don’t mean depression in the sense of feeling sorry for myself or a little down.

Many people don’t understand depression.  It is a silent illness, those with it rarely talk about it and many don’t even understand what they are experiencing.  Depression is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  Depression is difficult to make sense of full stop.  I know when the black dog days are coming since one of the sure signs is that everything sounds loud  and irritates.  I hadn’t understood that this was an indicator for me until I read  Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden about 5 years ago in which he talked about his depression and how exaggerated hearing was an indicator.  It was one of those light bulb moments for me and I found myself nodding  as I read the book, finally someone else who experienced what I did.

For years my depression has been labelled as PMT  or tiredness bringing up two children on my own or feeling sorry for myself.  I was told to count my blessings, appreciate how lucky I was etc.  The trouble is depression is irrational and you know, if you are lucky enough to be able to recognise it, that it is irrational.  You know that you are seeing demons where there aren’t any but that doesn’t make them go away.  It’s not like a bad dream where if you open your eyes, read a book, the dream won’t come back.  You have to wait and go through it, you can’t fight it.  It’s like a kind of mist that clouds  everything but you can’t grasp hold of it as it slips through your fingers.

Monty said in his book that there are certain times of the year which are bad for him.  My depression hasn’t had a real pattern, well not one that I have noticed, until now.  I have today realised that the trigger, and there is often a trigger of some kind, for me is loneliness.  I am a single parent, a real single parent there were no weekends off while the visited their father etc. I am used to being independent and resourceful in fact I have prided myself on it.  I have worked hard to change our fortunes and I have always put  my sons first to get them established and following their desired careers.  There have been relationships but none lasted long.  I’m difficult.  I won’t play the little woman, I will stand up for myself  and I desperately need my own space.

But that is what is so strange as it is loneliness which now triggers my depression. I used to end relationships as I felt suffocated and losing my identity.  Now my sons are men and following their own lives and I find that I have more time to fill.  For the past  two or three years I have been busy rushing around visiting gardens, meeting people  to do with gardening etc etc.  It was a form of running away all to do with my sister’s death which I won’t go into now.  However, I have felt recently like I have turned a corner and can face day-to-day life a little more but this week I have realised that another problem has crept up on me – an empty nest!  My eldest lives at home but has been away this week and my second son although home from University has been working.  I have booked two weeks annual leave to use up holiday (I can’t believe after all those years off trying to stretch annual leave to cover school holidays I am now struggling to use it up) and the weather hasn’t been great and I am bored and lonely.  I am embarrassed at that – it is pathetic.  I am an intelligent capable woman I should be able to entertain myself.

But it’s not that simple, not when the black dog of depression is snapping at your heels.  The slightest thing that goes wrong becomes a failure on the grand scale.  I have been trying to knit a jumper for four months, I am good at knitting but this pattern has been a nightmare and today I have concluded it has a mistake somewhere and I am going to just give up – a failure.  I have decided to give up the allotment – another failure.  I’m dis-satisfied with the top and skirt I made over the summer and consider the amount of money I spent on them a waste – a failure.  I dislike my cottage garden border it is dull and empty and failing to deliver.  I go out in the garden when the sun shines and just can’t be bothered.  I have run out of books to read and can’t be bothered to get another one and then there was nothing to watch on TV for the umpteenth evening running.  I have no real friends so no one to go out with.  I am a failure – I will never be good at anything, I am just marking time, I might as well give up now.

My sons, bless them, understand my depression.  They know the signs as well.  They  give me space and then try to talk me back into the real world.  We talk about many things, we end up laughing about silly things, agreeing some people are idiots, etc.  They think I need a new hobby preferably one non-garden related. This is amusing when there is so much written about how gardening is good for you physically and mentally.  I would be the first to agree with this, I have seen the positive impact on my mother  but I think that as gardening is so much a part of me, of who I am, that when the depression hits you try to run away from who you are and that means running away from the garden – if that makes sense.  Maybe they are right. They tell me I am good  at things – the garden is often commented on, the blog gets lots of visitors, I did a good job bringing them up on my own etc but whilst I know in my sensible head that much of what they say is right it doesn’t make the mist clear.

Nothing makes it clear apart from time, rest and peace.   I need to try to let the mist flow over me and away and be kind to myself, this is not the time to make big decisions or commitments.  When the mist clears everything will be better, I will  feel more positive, my old self. But until then this is not a sensible logical time – these are black dog days.

Why do we moan all the time?

Why are British gardeners such opinionated whingers?

They never stop.  If it’s not the rain, it’s the lack of rain or the slugs or the whiteflies or the greenflies or the ….. it goes on and on and on.  It’s not only the weather and it’s any form of media commentary/advice on gardening.  Take Gardeners World for example when it was in its Greenacres phase the criticism never ended that it was dumbing down and not providing enough for experienced gardeners.  Now the criticism is that incorrect advice is given….. it goes on and on and on.

At the allotment site I have a plot at it is rare to meet any one with a positive attitude.  Last year the first year the site was opened they moaned endlessly about the weeds and stones in the ground.  Really, what were they expecting?  Isn’t that part of gardening to take a piece of land and transform it into some productive or beautiful?  Then it was the lack of rain, then the whitefly on the brassicas.  Whitefly are annoying but they do come off when you wash the crops, it’s not the end of the world and yes you have to spend time watering but at least we have water.  At the risk of sounding like a frustrated parent whose child won’t eat their dinner, think of Africa.  At the start of this year way back in February it was all there’s going to be a drought, the council will turn off the water supply to save money – doom and gloom.  Not how can we water efficiently and effectively – maybe tell people they can only water between certain hours i.e. early morning and evening.  No just moaning.

So what happened? It rained and it’s still raining off and on.  So now we are all complaining about not being able to garden, the increase damage from slugs and snails and the latest potato blight, no doubt soon to be followed by tomato blight.  A bit of a boom year for the whinging gardener.  Now I know I have commented on the rain and how it has affected my gardening mojo but on the plus side it has led me to rediscover some old hobbies and I feel far more content and relaxed about the garden.  As for the potato blight the tubers are still usable even if you can’t store them for long.  I have also had a rubbish garlic crop due to garlic rust and last autumn my leeks were affected by leek moth – so what?  Its part of gardening, working with and trying to understand Mother Nature but human beings seem to have a need to control nature, and to impose their will.  We really should have woken up by  now to the fact that we are only a very small cog in a vast network and we should learn to respect and understand nature rather than bend it to our will.

The whole notion of imposing our will comes into play when you look  gardening media and particularly garden television programmes.  It seems to me that anyone who says in the media that you should prune this plant then, use this compost/fertiliser, water in this way, take cuttings like this or sow this way is really setting themselves up to be hung drawn and quartered.  It is particularly unpleasant in the gardening social media where some individuals are making a name for themselves through their vitriolic criticism.  Is there a right way or a wrong way of doing gardening tasks?  Surely it is more a case of someone passing on what they have found works for them and you can then decide how much of that information you want to use?  I strongly believe that there is an element of our inherited perceived wisdom handed down from the head gardeners of yesteryear to blame.  Various tasks were done religiously at a prescribed time in the gardening year and in a prescribed way.  Why?  There is evidence that in many cases the theories had little substance behind them.  For example the RHS trials have shown that pruning your roses with a hedge trimmer gives you just as good results as doing painstaking careful pruning, counting buds etc.  There is also a case to be made for  some of the annual tasks to be done at certain times of the year purely because  that is when there was time in the calendar.    Now I’m not talking about ‘horticulture’ here I am talking about gardening, the sort we do in our back gardens, not clever grafting or producing masses of plants for sale etc.  You could also ask why if these ‘critics’ hate the programmes so much do they continue to watch them.  The response is apparently they need to save the rest of us from bad advice!

Gardening is a hobby ‘enjoyed’ by 1000s but does that enjoyment depend on how much they can moan?  I was reminded yesterday when talking to an Aunt in Australia of the expression “whinging pomms” which was/is used to refer to UK immigrants to Australia who complain about everything.  Maybe we British just like to moan and maybe there is as much moaning in other hobbies?

Personally, I follow Christopher Lloyd’s maxim that you should do a gardening task when you think of it.  If you do the Chelsea chop in June so what, it won’t kill the plant and it doesn’t matter whether you cut your sedum back with shears or carefully go through each stem looking for nodes.  I know, I have tried both and in late June and had excellent results.  We should learn to trust our gardening instincts, to work with nature and not to fixate on what the ‘gardening guru’ says. We should enjoy watching gardening programmes whether they are extravagant make-overs or simple ideas of what to do now and take them as opportunities for inspiration and encouragement.  We should learn to enjoy what nature gives us; to enjoy a beautiful gushing waterfall with its amazing wildlife and rejoice that the river isn’t dried up in the previously forecast drought.  And we should learn to stop blaming that monster ‘climate change’ for everything that goes wrong including the fact that we left our half-hardy plants outside and the temperature dropped to -18C in the winter!!!

I am turning the comments off as these are my views.  I know others won’t agree but I don’t really care and I don’t want to encourage anymore whinging and moaning so you will have to do that elsewhere. So as the comedian says ‘Thank you and goodnight’!.

Update 7/8/12 – Goodness I can’t believe how many hits this blog post has had.  I think it is the most I have had in one day for one post.  It seems that many agree with me although I am sure there are also many who don’t.  Anyway, I have been persuaded to be braver and turn the comments back on.