The Christian tradition used to major on encouraging this kind of thinking in Advent and it was always observed as a season of fasting and restraint. That has long gone out of the window for most in the 21st C, although for those of us, like Mrs T, who have a serious Christmas cake habit and who may still want to fit into their jeans come January, possibly the fasting and restraint thing in Advent might have something to recommend it!
Anyway this is a rambling way of saying, let's hear it for Advent as a time when, along with all the anticipatory Christmas stuff, we might make a few oases of space for reflection and pauses for thought. Oases like that may not be going two a penny in your household but I defy you not to carve out just a few minutes from time to time over the next few weeks.
And in these pages I thought I might post a few little ideas that I find help me make oases for just "being and reflecting" and I hope might help you too, if you like the idea, that is.
So first up is making an Advent Wreath. Traditionally in homes and churches, the passage of Advent is marked by lighting a candle for each week in a wreath of evergreen leaves. The candles are traditionally blue or purple and there is sometimes a white one as well in the middle to light at Christmas itself. I say "wreath" and often it is just that, but strictly mine is not a wreath. It's more of an arrangement in water, as over the four weeks of Advent, an actual wreath, in the warmth of the house, dries out and can look rather sad, by the end of it. Even with my method you might need to replace a few sprigs by week four but it should last pretty well in a coolish place.
Try it! It's extremely cheap and very easy to make and rather therapeutic to enjoy, once made.
When I was a child, my mother used to make one of these every year and it was a lovely winter Sunday tea-time treat to sit by the open fire, toasting crumpets or thick white toast on a toasting fork by the light of these candles. Of course, by the end of Advent there was rather more light, by which to check that you hadn't burnt the crumpets, than at the beginning, when only one candle was lit!. Although we didn't keep the candles alight for all that long at a time - my mother was too frugal to want to keep them burning all evening, it gave a lovely rhythmic pattern to these weeks and "space to be" even though at six or seven I wouldn't exactly have phrased it like that. Sometimes I think that this can be quite a pressured time for children as well as adults, with parts to learn and perform for Nativity plays and carol services and all the end of the Christmas term hustle and bustle and high jinks that go on. So even if your children are high as kites on Christmas anticipation, you might find they too will be happy to sit for a few minutes in candlelit dark and just "be". And if they aren't, save it just for yourself, after they are tucked up in bed.
What you need to make one:
a watertight ceramic or glass bowl - I am using a small glass straight-sided souffle dish about 6" in diameter with (of course!) a crocheted bowl to fit snugly round it but this is optional!
a block of florists' foam - the green sort for fresh flowers not the browny grey sort for dried flowers
a sharpish knife but nothing too cheffy or lethal required!
four tallish dinner candles, preferably blue or purple ones and if you like, a white one as well
greenery from your garden or from a woodland walk - don't worry that there are no flowers in the garden at the moment - you don't want flowers. You are after evergreen stuff - bits of fir tree or pine, sprigs of bay or rosemary, some trails of ivy, privet or box snippings from a hedge or any other evergreen material that looks promising, even if neither you nor I have a clue as to its name! My mother always avoided holly for the Advent wreath as that was kept for Christmas and I've always followed suit but that's just personal preference.
anything else you have to hand that you want to add in - a few seed-heads or a pine cone or two - nothing too bright or decorative though - it's meant to be subdued in tone with just the light of the candles as the focus of brightness
florists' wire to attach to pine cones etc
a pair of secateurs or strong scissors
a bucket of water
What you do:
First you need to fit your florists' foam into your bowl. Ideally you want it to squeeze in quite tightly so that it stays put while you soak it rather than floating off by itself, so trim it roughly to size by eye with your knife and squeeze it in to your bowl. It cuts really easily. Err on the size of too big rather than too small. It won't fit precisely probably but that doesn't matter. As you can see in the pic, I've got a few gaps at the sides but the foam is firmly wedged in and there's plenty of room to get creative. Now put the whole thing in a bucket of cold water and leave it to soak.
Once thoroughly soaked (several hours or overnight) you are ready to assemble things.
Push in your candles to the depth of about an inch, keeping them nice and upright and not too close to one another.
Cover your work-surface with plenty of newspaper as the greenery can shed quite a bit of dust and dirt (as well as the odd creepy-crawlie!) I find it's best to cut more greenery than I will need so that I can be selective about the bits that will work best. Spread out your pile of greenery on the newspaper so that you can see what you've got to play with and cut off shortish sprigs and twigs and insert them into the soaked foam around the candles to make a nice evergreen bower for them. Angle the sprigs away from the tops of the candles so that they won't catch light when the candles are lit. I don't strive to emulate a professional florist's effect with this but go for something fairly naturalistic and informal but just play around for the look you like. The idea is to hide the florists' foam from view though obviously.
Once you've got the greenery how you want it, add any extra bits and pieces you want, like pine cones, seed-heads and the like, twisting a bit of florists' wire onto the bases so that you have something to support them on.
I have used a mixture of little pine cones, (two sorts), some little gall apples collected by H from the school playground when he was about five or six and some funny castanet-like seed-heads culled from the ground of a car park in Andalucia when on holiday there, one summer, years ago. There are also a few pieces of cinnamon stick and a poppy seed-head. Use whatever you have to hand or have collected on walks during the year. Shells would be nice if you live near the sea or have some from a seaside holiday. Or of course you can add a few more glittery bits if you want something slightly less naturally austere.
I've left mine plain, apart of course, from the crochet bowl I made to measure to fit snugly over my souffle dish! You can't see much of it but it just adds a touch of colour to match the stripy candles. All very Advent blues and purples apart from a single accent stripe of my favourite magenta!
That's it! Wait until it's dark and then light one of the four candles this week, two next, three the week after and four once we reach the fourth Sunday of Advent just before Christmas. And if you've got room for a fourth candle in the middle, light all four blue ones and the white one at Christmas itself.
Five minutes' reflective candle-quiet in the stillness of a winter afternoon or evening can be very therapeutic.
Ed to add: This post is linking in with Floss's "Pause in Advent" series. Click on the button in my sidebar to explore Floss's lovely idea on her blog Troc Bloc & Recup and for a list of links to other participating blogs.