only in bristol…

P1190130Since moving to Bristol six years ago, barely a week has gone by in which I haven’t thought “only in Bristol…” at some point; usually in a good way, though sometimes (whilst waiting for the unbelievably s l o w arrival of a cup of coffee), in a bad way.

Today’s “only in Bristol” moment was 100 per cent good …

P1190137P1190136P1190146… several hundred Father Christmases (and one Kermit the frog!) rumbling and roaring down Park Street on their motorbikes. At one point it looked as though a very noisy red carpet had been rolled down the hill – if you squint at the rather bad photo below you’ll get some sense of what I mean (oh, for a telephoto lens!).

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The event, Santa’s on a Bike, takes place each year apparently, though this is the first time I’ve been lucky enough to witness it. Bikers gather all over the South West before converging on Bristol and heading to The Children’s Hospice South West laden with gifts.

a wreath* lecture

I love walking around our neighbourhood in the run-up to Christmas. Day by day the windows acquire decorations and twinkling trees. Some of these appear as early as the 1st of December, others spring up on Christmas Eve. In some cases the front gardens are decked out with fairy lights as well. But it’s the front doors that I’m most interested in.

Wreaths seem to increase in popularity each year. Where once perhaps only a few doors would carry a wreath, now almost every door is resplendent with a Christmassy creation. I like the mix of shop-bought, homemade, natural, fake, gaudy, tasteful, chic and vulgar that can be found in this one neighbourhood. On a cold, bleak afternoon, a dutiful wander with the dog is improved immeasurably with a little wreath-spotting.

The girls think I’m mad to photograph them, and they are quite embarrassed when I stop to take out my camera (oh, god mum! come on, let’s go…). Even Sybil does a passable imitation of cringing shame as she tugs at the lead, ears flat trying to pull me on.

I have now amassed quite a nice library of wreath portraits. These are by no means the cream of the crop, but they are what I managed to snap over the past week or two.

This last wreath is my own rather shambolic affair, cobbled together just half an hour before our neighbours all came round for Christmas drinks on Tuesday evening. My plan had been to weave some pretty lengths of ivy, complete with flower heads and berries into an old ring of hazel twigs which I use each year as a base. But when the moment came to make my festive creation, I realised a) I had no idea where I’d put the ring after last year’s outing and b) we had no ivy – we’d cut it all back in the summer when we terraced the garden. Not to be defeated, I trudged out into the rain-sodden garden and gathered what I could – some hazel twigs, again, and lots of soggy dead sedum heads. It’s not as pretty or perfect as the other wreaths I’ve admired, but I like it all the same.

Time to go and wrap some presents now. Happy Christmas everyone!

*Slightly pointless pun on the Reith Lectures.

and we’re off…

Phew! The school term is over and we are now galloping towards the 25th. It’s not as though the date comes as any sort of surprise, yet every year I feel slightly caught out by Christmas. Anyway, having had the requisite seasonal bout of Bah! Humbug, a trapped nerve in my shoulder and the three-way bicker-fest that heralds the start of all our holidays… seasonal cheer has finally entered the household, and at last we have a tree. All we need now are some decorations. Yesterday evening biscuits were baked using this recipe, which I wheel out every year, and wonder why I don’t use at other times.

And this morning we sat and iced them. And someone tested them. Quite thoroughly as it turns out. And now I am wondering whether we might not need a second batch.

This afternoon, once the scattered siblings have regrouped, we will hang the biscuits  on the tree and I will feel ready for the drink that at any other time of year dare not speak its name: advocaat. I’m not even sure that I like it that much, but for some reason it seems to suit the business of decorating the Christmas tree. In fact I’d say that the way in which my thoughts turn to this sticky, custardy gloop as soon as I start fiddling about with fairy lights and baubles is Pavlovian.

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Christmas Eve! How did that happen? The beast of a cake, above, was iced in the nick of time yesterday – just before the cousins arrived. Only half of it remains. There are still lots of things to be done, but most of them are of the low-key relaxing variety: an onion needs to be studded with cloves and then left to simmer in milk, an easy orange and almond cake will be made later on while the girls and their cousins watch a film, and some bottles of wine need to be sloshed into a pan and mulled for drinks with neighbours later. Weirdly, because we are not hosting the day itself this year, there are lots of things missing – no Stilton! No mince pies! Actually, I’m not a great fan of mince pies, but Christmas without Stilton is a sort of crime in my book, so that will need to be rectified. So once again, despite my best efforts, I will be off to the shops on Christmas Eve. Aagh!

And this is the end of my mini-marathon of blogging, the end of advent, the end of the daily post. Phew! Normal service to resume sometime soon. In the meantime, Happy Christmas and have a wonderful 2011. And thank you to all who posted such lovely comments over the last few months, it’s so nice to get feedback from time to time. X

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I love all the little rituals that combine to make Christmas what it is. We are not a religious family, so I think the rituals are particularly important as they give the celebration a meaning and a focus beyond frenzied present buying. For me, as for most people, the 25th is about spending time with my family, and showing them how much I love them – which is a good thing, as I have to admit that it’s not always evident.

Without the ritual of the cake, the tree, the decorations, the cards and the carols, a secular Christmas could be a little dull really. That’s not to say that the presents aren’t pretty key to the whole shebang. They certainly are – I love present-buying, and I know the parcels above will be gleefully received. But it’s more that the ritual helps to balance things. And just in case that all sounds far too measured and calm and reasonable, I also find that Christmas is the single most unbloodybelievably stressful time of the year too: there is a clock ticking, there is an immovable deadline, and there are high expectations (oh, and a very naughty puppy). But nothing that a ridiculous drink, such Warnick’s Advocaat (alcoholic custard in a bottle!?) – something that I simply wouldn’t contemplate drinking at any other time of year, won’t fix.

For more Christmas love check out Tara’s gallery, where this week’s theme, the last of the year, was LOVE in all its forms. I’m a day late, so you may have to scroll down to find the links to everyone else.

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Iced honey and cinnamon biscuits for the tree. Usually I do this with the girls, but as the various activities piled up I found myself doing this alone, which was rather nice and soothing.

The recipe is from Christmas Treats to Make and Give by Linda Collister, and is very straightforward. I paticularly like the lack of sugar in the recipe (though there is a fair amount of honey), as I often find biscuits like this a bit too sickly sweet, especially once they have are laden with icing and silver balls.

Ingredients: 300g plain flour; 2tsp ground cinnamon; 1tsp mixed spice; 175g unsalted butter (chilled and diced); 6tbsp honey.

(Our mixer broke the other day, so I did this all by hand, and because of that I softened the butter slightly beforehand, with no ill effects.)

Put flour, cinnamon and mixed spice into food processor, or large mixing bowl, and whizz to combine them evenly. Next add the butter and blitz until it resembles fine crumbs or sand. Add the honey and process until it comes together as a soft dough, or, if you are doing this by hand, stir in the honey and then start to work the mixture with your hands. Leave the dough to chill in cling film for 30 mins (you can leave it in the fridge for up to 5 days).

Dust a clean surface with flour and roll out the dough until about 5mm thick. Cut with various shaped biscuit cutters and lay the pieces onto a lightly oiled baking tray. If you want to hang these on the tree, don’t forget to make holes for the ribbon with a skewer. Cook at gas mark 4 (180C/350F) for 10-15 minutes. Leave to cool completely before icing.

For the icing I just filled a small cereal bowl with icing sugar and sloshed in some lemon juice, stirred it in and added more until it formed a paste of the right consistency to drizzle through my home-made icing bag – a freezer bag with a tiny hole in the corner – classy!

As you can see some of the biscuits didn’t quite make it. They were delicious though.

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Oops. Falling behind a little now. I had planned to write a Christmassy post every day in the run-up to the 25th. But I’m slipping. A last-minute invitation to see Boing! at the Bristol Old Vic (book NOW, if you can), happily took up a big chunk of yesterday. Afterwards, the Christmas lights, which are twinkling all over the city, transformed what might have been an exhausting trudge home through the snow into an exhilarating adventure. Each time there was a hint of a whinge, a new set of  lights silenced it.

Today, when I should have iced a cake, lots of children appeared, disappeared, reappeared and so on, all day. So, I didn’t ice the cake and neither did I ice the biscuits which should be hanging in the tree. The children also want to know where all the presents are. Martha, in particular is very concerned about lack of parcels under the tree.