The Post of Christmas Past

Having launched the #ChristmasCarolChallenge a couple of weeks ago a rather exciting project appeared out of the blue which didn’t leave me with a lot of free time to actually write my own post. However I am now back at my Mum’s sat by the Christmas tree waiting for my nephews’ presents to be delivered so there’s no better time to reminisce about the Christmases of my past.

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From the age of four my Christmases alternated between my Mum’s in Sevenoaks and my Dad’s place in Tonbridge and then, later on, in his cottage in East-Sussex. Both Christmases were similar having been based on the traditions my parents had once shared however each had its own distinct features. A bit like driving a courtesy car that’s the same model as your own: same, same but different. Carols at Kings made an appearance at both and the Queen’s Speech at neither and the routine of the day almost identical at both.

I owe my affection of the Christmas season to my parents and the time, love and effort they put in to making it so special: from standing outside the house ringing bells so I would go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to sooty footprints that appeared on the carpet on Christmas morning. Neither of parents had a lot money when we were growing up so  there were presents but being together and sharing good food was the priority and that’s still true today. The Christmases they created were full of love and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that.

Let’s start with Christmas at Dad’s.

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My Dad’s taste in decor has always been quite minimalist.White walls, wooden floors, clean, light and clutter free. The same was true at Christmas – there’d be a tree of course (with coloured lights) and the traditional light up Father Christmas riding the moon which I assume everybody has. Some years there were stickdad-christmass decorated with white lights.) In his cottage in Sussex there was an huge open fire that we’d keep going from the minute we got up until we all passed out in a food coma at the end of the day.

I’m fortunate that both of my parents are excellent cooks. There were no overcooked vegetables, no lump gravy and Aunt Bessies’s and Bisto were basically blasphemy. Our Christmas food wouldn’t look out of place in a George R.R. Martin novel.

The cooking at Dad’s would begin on Christmas Eve with the first “trial” batch of chestnut stuffing balls which we’d wolf down before they’d even cooled all the name of “testing.” It’s worth explaining at this point that my Dad lay down the gauntlet in our family with his stuffing  balls. I’m one of five siblings and over the years our Mums, partners and even we ourselves have tried to recreate the Paul Brown stuffing ball. Few have succeeded.

On Christmas morning, after stockings (which were actual tights so “you can see the outline of the presents!”), we’d have bucks fizz and crackers with “pink dip”  – another Paul Brown original that is only ever eaten on Christmas Day. Then Dad would announce the time dinner would be served. Except this time was only really because he liked to set himself the challenge of having a deadline .It made the whole thing a bit more Master Chef. He’d spend most of the day in an out of the kitchen listening to the radio or watching the black and white TV.  At some point he’d break from cooking and we’d give out the presents under the tree – the last one would always be a Cadbury’s Selection box which would prove handy if the deadline for lunch was ever “extended.”

sproutsDinner itself was always a fairly traditional affair: My Dad is the King of sides and sundries: sliced sprouts fried with pancetta, honey roast parsnips, cider gravy, cauliflower cheese, pigs in blankets and two types of stuffing ball (chestnut and sage and onion.)  The leftovers would be served with dauphinoise potatoes on Boxing Day. We don’t really do pudding at Dad’s we’re bigger on the savories: cheese, crackers and cool original doritos. However there’s always a box of Maltesers in the cupboard which were useful for pelting your siblings with during particularly frustrating games of Monopoly.

Like moschristmas-dadt families after dinner we’d settle down to watch a film. Except my Dad can’t watch films. He’s constantly getting up, sorting things and pottering before returning to the sofa twenty minutes later to ask, “what have I missed?” For this reason we preferred to stick with television and we’d binge on reruns of The Simpsons, Dad’s Army and, if my Dad won the battle of the remote, Benidorm.

Christmas at Dad’s brought with it the excitement of seeing my older siblings. As a young child there was no one cooler than my older brother and sister. We never lived together but would meet up during the holidays. They’d come bearing card games, DVDs and lots o’ cheese. My younger brother and I would normally arrive at Dad’s first and there was no excitement quite like the excitement of waiting for our older brother and sister to arrive. Now we’re all grown up and married and there are children and in-laws to think about it’s unusual for us to spend Christmas Day together but we have our own sibling Christmas which is pretty special in itself.

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Christmas at Mum’s

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Christmas at Mum’s would start weeks before the day itself with numerous lists (my Mum and I are big fans of a list.) There’d be long walks to pick the ivy to decorate the house, we’d burn M&S oil throughout the whole of December and the highlighting of the Radio Times, and the negotiations that would follow, took up the best part of the month. My Mum has excellent taste and the house always looks beautiful around Christmas – full of decorations and candles – but no tinsel. Never tinsel. We’d pierce satsumas with cloves and put them around the house (to this day I’m still not sure why but it’a a very fond memory.)

Our street is very small and close knit and around Christmas there was a continuous stream of visitors dropping in for mulled wine, baileys or just to enjoy the fire. Our Christmases were open to all and we often shared the day itself with friends as well as family. Some years there were more friends than we had space for so we’d pack up our Christmas and take it to a holiday home in Wales, Cornwall or Rye. I believe 22 is the record for the most around our table. My family aren’t religious – in fact we’re staunch atheists but we’d often wander down to the church at the end of the road to sing carols on Christmas Eve before heading home for hot chocolate and to make the preparations for Father Christmas. One  year those preparations included building a barricade in front of my bedroom because I didn’t like the sound of a strange man in a red suit coming into my room at night – regardless of the gifts he may bring.

Christmas Day itself would start with stockings which, once emptied christmas-stockingof presents would end on my head. It’s hard to say why. Breakfast was always fizz and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon which in recent years is cooked by my brother as me makes the best scrambled eggs known to man.

Lunch would be the traditional turkey and all the trimmings as well as a ham – which later would be part of a pie (more on that later.) If my Dad is the King of sides and sundries then my Mum is the Queen of desserts. Yes we all love figgy pudding  but why stop there? Christmas cake, vanilla custard, homemade banoffee pie, chocolate yule log, baileys ice cream, freshly baked shortbread and creme brulee. Throw in a pot of coffee and the dessert course could last longer than the main. It was like something out of Enid Blyton.

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Boxing Day at my Mum’s is unique for one reason: Boxing Day Pie. This is one of my Mum’s most genius creations. It’s a simple enough concept: all the leftovers from Christmas dinner sandwiched in pastry. I will try and find the recipe because it really needs to be shared.

And that was pretty much been Christmas for the last 30 years. Magical, happy and full of love (and food.) There was that one year where, due to adverse weather conditions, my brother and I spent most of the day in my flat in London feeling a little bit like we were in Home Alone. But that’s another post for another time.

 

Introducing: #ChristmasCarolChallenge

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I’ve been doing my annual read of, “A Christmas Carol” one of my favourite Christmas stories and it gave me an idea. I’m not taking part in “Blogmas” (for those who aren’t familiar with the term, “Blogmas” is a blogger challenge that involves writing every day from December 1st – 25th on the theme of Christmas.) I always felt it would seem at odds with the education/politics posts I write most of the year.

The idea is really simple:

 

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No prizes for guessing what the 3 posts are about:

1. Christmas/Christmases past

This could be the recent past or a Christmas from your childhood. What was Christmas like for you as a child? Whether it was making gingerbread or roasting chestnuts on an open fire (does anyone actually do that?) to pelting your siblings with chocolates after a particularly stressful game of Monopoly – we want to hear about it.

You could write about one specific Christmas or the Christmas traditions you’ve kept throughout the years. It could even be about the first Christmas you can remember.

2. Christmas Present

This one is fairly straightforward. How are you celebrating Christmas this year?

3. Christmas future

Be as creative as you like about this one. This could be a Christmas you hope to have in the future or even a bleaker vision if you really want to get in touch with your inner Dickens

How To Get Involved

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Write your posts and share it on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag: #ChristmasCarolChallenge.

If you don’t have a blog and would like to get involved you could write your piece as Facebook status or in a Word Document and screenshot it for Twitter. You can even write your piece and share it as a comment under any of the #ChristmasCarolChallenge posts. If we are inundated with pieces from non-bloggers then I’ll compile them as a post.

The challenge will be running until December 31st. Your posts don’t have to be written on consecutive days – you can write them as and when you want. This is meant to be an enjoyable experience and a chance to be creative. I can’t wait to read what you come up with.

Happy writing!

 

23 ways teachers know that Christmas is coming…

Last week the TES published an article called, “23 ways that primary teachers know that Christmas is coming”. Now I like the TES but I am not sure the article accurately captured what the countdown to Christmas is like for primary school teachers. So here we: the truth.

23 Very Real Ways Primary School Teachers Know That Christmas Is Comin

1) You will wake up with nativity songs in your head. Every. Single. Day.

2) With shows, secret santa and class parties happening, your shopping trolley starts to look totally unhinged. My last shop contained: 18 age 5-6 green t-shirts, a santa hat, 2 buckets, 90 oranges and a litre of vodka. Fine.

3) You exist off meals made up of food that can be scavenged from the staff room/class parties. Last week my lunches consisted of a homemade wrap, a side salad, fruit and big bottle of water. Today I had two packets of Pom Bears, 6 celebrations and a carton of apple juice.

4) When a parent appears at the door at the end of the day and asks for “a quick word” you want to cry/swear/hide under the desk.

5) Last week school was bustling with staff at 7:15am. This week 8:15am is only for the really keen ones.

6) You survive on coffee from 7am – 6pm (and wine from 6pm-8pm.)

7) Bed time is 8:30pm.

8) The children are exhausted so at least two children a day completely lose it because they can’t find their coat (one will be on their peg and the other will already be wearing theirs.)

9) Whilst tracking down costumes for the show, you will, on more than occasion, Google “Christmas space alien outfits” and be horrified at the results. You will then try googling, “Christmas space alien outfits – non-sexual.”

10) There’s at least one efficacious member of staff that wants to talk about interventions/planning/groups/timetables for January and it takes all your efforts to not stab them with a Biro.

11) Whether you’re teaching Reception or Year 6, you’ll do an RE lesson where the children have to sequence/retell the Christmas Story.

12) The penultimate week of term everyone quietly pretends to still be doing all the stuff but no one is doing any of the stuff.

13) One child will be violently sick all over the hall/classroom/cloakroom. Or, in my case, three children will be violently sick.

14) The exhaustion means your class will really start to get on your nerves and just when you think you might actually lose it one of them makes you cry by giving you a card like this:

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15) You will eat a questionable Christmas dinner on a plastic tray. The slices of turkey will be perfectly round.

16) You try to avoid being in the classroom when the cleaner is there as you can’t apologise enough for the fact that your classroom looks like a herd of wildebeest have charged through it. Glittery, sticky, wildebeest.

17) “Not long to go now!” becomes the standard response to, “How are you?”

18) The closer to the holidays – the longer the playtime.

19) A member of staff will fall asleep in the staffroom at lunchtime.

20) A child will fall asleep during story time/assembly/the middle of your lesson.

21)  “Ooo I think you can colour that in MUCH better than that” becomes a perfectly legitimate next step.

22) You all know it’s not going to snow but that doesn’t stop you checking the weather forecast every hour, on the hour.

23) Despite all of this, by October next year you’ll be looking forward to starting the whole thing over again.

I wish I was the gold Power Ranger

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“If you could have one wish come true what would you ask for?”

I asked a group 6-year-olds and their answers ranged from the moving to the downright bizarre.

I Wish…

To be the gold Power Ranger. No, black. NO, NO – gold, gold.

For a crown,

For a Christmas tree,

To have a gun.

 

To see my Dad again,

For book with a lock and a code,

I want to have new glasses,

I’d like a BMW.

 

That my mum plays games with me,

To be the pink Power Ranger (no prizes for guessing who this child was sat next to.)

For a penguin,

I wish for beautiful Batgirl clothes.

 

I want lots of chocolate!

I want Nanny to come out of hospital,

For a magic stick,

I would like a friend.

 

So lovely readers –  what would your wish be?

Lonely This Christmas?

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Holidays are coming. Just like carols, mistletoe and Coca-Cola truck, the Christmas advert are a tradition that is here to stay. John Lewis have developed a fairly sold formula for their ads: a well-known song covered by an up-and-coming singer in breathy tones over soft focus shots of children/animals/snowmen preparing for Christmas. All of which is meant to distract you from the fact the purpose of the advert is to charm you into spending even more money at John Lewis. However I love Christmas so I will try and park my cynicism to one side for the sake of being festive. This year’s advert, “The Man On The Moon” is no different. Whilst it’s not clear why this old man has been sent to live on his own on the moon the message is clear enough: reach out to people who are lonely this Christmas.

The advert was made with the help of Age UK to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness. Although not currently classed as a mental health issue, loneliness is closely linked with mental health problems. A study by the Mental Health Organisation found links between loneliness and problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems;  you are more likely to be ill, less likely to sleep and more like to overeat and drink if you are lonely. It’s a real problem: 51% of people over the age of 75 say their main source of company is the television and it is estimated that 10% of the over-65 population feel lonely all the time. That’s approximately 900,000 people that feel as though they have no one they can reach out to. The Campaign to End Loneliness got together with Channel 4 to make this video which really brings home the issue. “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s nobody there to rescue you.” (A little heads up: this video is probably not to be watched when tired or emotionally unstable.)

It’s not surprising that so many elderly people feel isolated. Local communities have become fractured, particularly in large transient cities like London. Community centres, libraries and other local spaces have been closed down, there are no longer local pubs at the end of every road – ultimately there are fewer opportunities for people to congregate. That and people are moving around with increasing regularity (there have been 3 sets of tenants in the flat above ours over the last 5 years.) Research carried out in 2013 found that a third of people would not recognise their neighbours. People are more likely to move away from their home town; it’s not taken for granted that people will live close enough to their parents and grandparents to look after them and keep them company as they get older. Interestingly, whilst I was researching this post I found out that research shows that Southerners move twice as far from their home as Northerners. Make of that what you will.

So with all this moving around how do you create a community? It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked working in schools – the school community provides support, friendship and, in some cases, husbands. But what about if you don’t have children that are school age or you aren’t a teacher? People are trying to answer this question and find new ways to build communities. The Sunday Assembly is a “secular” church. It provides the community of a church but it is inclusive of all – no matter what they believe. Their argument is:

“Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”

Taking a more practical approach, Streetbank have tried build communities in a slightly different way. Streetbank describes itself as a “movement of people who share with neighbours.” Type in your postcode and you can borrow anything from a lawnmower to a hoover from the people in your area. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar.

Jumble Trail is another fantastic idea my friend Kirsty told me about. The idea is communities host their own jumble sale. Anyone who wants to can set up a stall selling art/second hand clothes/food/homemade lemonade. People can come and buy from one another, meet their neighbours and other local residents.  Anyone can set up a Jumble Trail – just follow the link: http://www.jumbletrail.com

This issue of building communities came up at Labour party meeting about Mental Health that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I raised the point that activists are willing to knock on hundreds of doors to get people’s votes but most (myself included) haven’t EVER knocked on their neighbours doors to ask how they are. Jumble Trail and Streetbank are both fantastic ideas but its unlikely your 87 year old neighbour has heard of them. Sometimes you need to go back to basics. I’ve suggested a Christmas Cheer campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbours and the people that share our streets. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you regularly pass someone on your street make the effort to smile and greet them. If you live in London you may look a mad person but persevere.
  • Send Christmas cards to your neighbours. Even if you don’t know their names – use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Have a Christmas Song sing-a-long! You only need a flyer and a few posters. Maybe invite a few friends and mull some wine to get the singing started.
  • When the last tenants moved out of the flat above us they put the things they didn’t want to take with them on the wall outside: old toys, furniture etc… Slowly but surely all the items went. If there had just been a person “manning” the wall it would have been a fantastic way for people to have met.
  • Set up a Facebook Page for your street. People can post about events, share news and keep in contact even when they’re not able to meet face-to-face
  • Campaign together. Want to improve your local park? Too much rubbish on the road? Nothing brings people together faster than a shared cause. Start your campaign and pool the skills and ideas you have on your street.
  • Finally, if you know that there is an elderly person living alone on your street take the time to get to know them. Find an excuse to knock on their door and strike up a conversation.
Of course the only flaw in my “door-knocking” campaign is that we don’t answer our front door unless we are expecting guests. Why?
Really though, if we can’t reach out at Christmas when can we? So be brave, don’t worry about looking mad, take a deep breath and knock on that door. If there is a Christmas message that can apply to all of us in multi-cultural/multi-faith 21st-Century Britain, surely it is: “you don’t have to be alone.”