The Spirit Of Christmas For Non-Believers

Quite a few years back when my eldest daughter was around 8 or 9 years old, she came home from school upset and cross because her teacher had told her that people who don’t believe in God or Jesus should not celebrate Christmas. I was pretty pissed at the time, not least because it’s a rather cruel thing to tell a young child, who had no say at that age over her families choice of religion or lack of.

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I’ve never been religious. I was not raised with a religion, and neither was my mother or her mother before her. Like everyone else, I learned about the different religions at school and I understood that the predominant religion in England was Christianity. This meant that we had to sing hymns in school assemblies and say prayers.

I often wondered if God was real at that age, and I used to say the odd awkwardly hopeful prayer when I wanted something, but that was about it. Of course, as I grew older I thought about religion in more depth and like the rest of the family, I concluded happily that there probably was not a God. I won’t go into the ins and outs of this thought process, as this isn’t a post about atheism or religion. I’m perfectly happy with the idea of no God or Heaven, and though I am also prepared to keep an open mind about anything and everything, I can’t say any religion or indeed any religious person has ever been able to convince me otherwise.

This is a post about Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, as we see played out in every school nativity across the country at this time of year. (Even though I don’t buy the story, I do get tearful every time I watch small children in a nativity!) But if you’re not Christian, or indeed religious at all, then why celebrate Christmas? What’s the point? What’s it all about?

My husband finds it hard to justify. He also grew up in a non-religious household and he finds it hard to understand the yearly fuss and stress that comes with Christmas. He sees it as consumerism and materialism gone mad, and he’s probably right. Our poor planet could do without the extra plastic and packaging that goes on at this time of year. So, if we want to reject all that, and we’re not religious either, then why celebrate Christmas?

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Well, my reasons are personal and I’m going to list them below. Not because I feel I have to justify anything to anyone, but because I think it’s an interesting subject and because it’s what sprang to mind when I thought about writing a Christmas related blog post!

  1. All my favourite parts of Christmas stem from the Winter Solstice …  The way various cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice led to so many of our Christmas traditions. Pagans, for example, would mark the shortest day of the year by slaughtering cattle so that they would not not have to feed them over the hard winter months, and at this time the wine and beer were fully fermented, hence the traditional feasting we know so well. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian tradition from Scandinavia, and is where we get the word yule from. Fires were lit and a log was dropped into the hearth as a tribute to the Norse God Thor. Saturnalia was the ancient Romans way of celebrating the Winter solstice, and involved banquets, gift-giving and a party atmosphere. So many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are pagan in origin or have evolved from ancient cultures marking the shortest day. The Christmas Tree, wreath, holly and ivy, fires, candles, feasting, and giving to charity to name but a few. I wish I’d known this when I was younger, but I was able to explain this to my daughter when she was upset. I suppose technically if you’re going to celebrate the Winter Solstice in this way then you ought to do the whole thing on the shortest day of the year and not on the 25th. My son wanted to do this last year, but instead, we decided to mark the shortest day with pagan inspired ideas and save our gift-giving for the 25th. So this Winter Solstice we will be making bird feeders and hanging out for the birds, bringing in holly, ivy and fir cones to decorate the house, making a chocolate yule log, lighting a fire and putting together our Winter Solstice altar.
  2. Christmas is a time for nostaligia and I love a bit of that… It’s the end of the year. We all slow down a bit. The kids are off school, there are days off work, and more time than usual to sit and reflect. There is something so nostalgic about this time of year and I think it affects us all. We can’t help but look back on Christmases of the past, the good and the bad. I always think back to my childhood Christmases, and of course, over the years I have copied some of the family traditions we had then with my own kids. I talk to my kids about Christmases that stick in my mind and I smile sadly and think about the food we ate back then, the relatives no longer with us, the things we watched on Tv. It;’s no wonder I get a bit emotional this time of year!
  3. Christmas is a time for giving… My eldest daughter has just turned 16 and for the first time this year she went out shopping without us and bought us all a present using her own money. we have no idea what she got us, and I and my husband were so surprised an touched by her thoughtfulness. This is the first time one of the kids has used their own money to buy something for the family and I think it’s lovely. What’s even more lovely is how excited she was about it! I think she’s now at the age where she realises that choosing thoughtful gifts for your loved ones is actually way more exciting than receiving them. This is something that comes with age and maturity. When you’re a little kid you just want the presents! As you get older, you begin to find true joy in choosing gifts for the people you love, things that will mean something to them and let them know how you feel about them.
  4. Christmas is a time for hope… It is an optimistic time of year. People tend to be more forgiving, thoughtful and reflective. As the year draws to an end, we look forward to the next one and think about how we want it to be. Perhaps we want to make changes, try new things, make amends, and even do our bit to make the world a better place.
  5. Christmas is a crazy, often tacky, quite bizarre, exciting, nostalgic, reflective chaos and if you’ve got kids it’s even more so… Christmas changes. It doesn’t stay the same. When you’re a little kid it’s all excitement and jumping up and down and hanging out your stocking and writing to Father Christmas…Then when you grow up a bit and enter your teens and early adulthood it becomes less about family and more about friends. I remember some great Christmases around that age, hitting the pubs and clubs, all dressed up and sparkly, and swapping silly joke presents with my friends! It becomes about drinking and hangovers. Then you have kids of your own and it changes again. You bring back traditions you loved as a kid, and you create your own. You spend all year picking up things you know they will love. You thrive on their excitement as the big day gets closer. You happily feed the frenzy of Santa’s sleigh bells and reindeer and leaving out milk and cookies, and watching Elf and Home Alone. You get to do it all again! And then I imagine, as they get older and grow up and leave home, it changes again. I quite look forward that sometimes, as much as I adore the current crazy we have at this time of year. I sometimes imagine me and my husband as old people, slowing down, enjoying time together, drinking some home-made cider and wine and falling asleep in front of the TV.

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So, there we have it. Reasons I love Christmas and have always loved it despite not being remotely religious. I think this is a special, sparkly time of the year for anyone who enjoys it. I think the trick is to think about what it means to you and go with that. It can be a weird and stressful time of year, but it really doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, all you really need are your friends, family, some good food and a drink or two! I absolutely love this time of year, although I’ve had my fair share of horrible Christmases and many moments of wondering what the point is. I don’t stress about it at all now. I do it exactly the way I want to do it and love every moment. Merry Christmas folks!! Have a good one!!

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Character Interview; Aunt Mary from A Jar Full Of Angel Feathers by Susan Russell

Hello and welcome to another character interview! This time we have the pleasure of chatting to Aunt Mary, one of the main characters in the beautiful A Jar Full Of Angel Feathers  by Susan Russell

1 ) Tell us what your positive character traits are

I s’pose I’d best be described as a steady sort of person. I’m reliable and no-nonsense, but I’ve got a soft side once you get to know me. Positive too – I’ve seen tragedy aplenty, but I don’t see any point in letting the bad things rattle around your head for years dragging you down. Better let it all out at the time, I say, and then get on with things

2)What would you say are your negative character traits?

I said I tend to get on with things, but I must admit I do eat a bit more than I should if I’m honest. So I’m a bit plumper than I should be, but where’s the harm? All good home baking, and it keeps me busy. Now I think about it, I s’pose I don’t let myself feel too much. When your heart’s been battered it wants to protect itself, doesn’t it? Mind you, the young’un, Alex, managed to thaw me out good and proper, bless him.

3) What are your current ambitions or dreams?

Now that the young’un’s gone back up to London, Mallow Cottage feels a bit empty. I reckon I’ll wait a bit, while he settles back in with his dad, and then I’ll get the train up there to see them. I could have him back down for the holidays maybe. That ‘gift’ him and Flora left tucked away between the photos for me to find, that was some shock I can tell you. I came over all faint when I opened it! Don’t tell anyone, but I talk to Flora now. Alex would understand, but I mustn’t let Arthur, Mr Godolphin, catch me or he’ll think I’ve lost my marbles. Kind man, Arthur, he’s been coming round more often lately

4) What are your fears?

Fears? Me? I lost my first husband to the war, then my sister and niece to illness. Once I got over that I don’t reckon I’ve been afraid of anything much – can’t see the point. If something bad’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen. No point in worrying about something you can’t change, you have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Mind you, when the young’un first arrived I was fearful for him. I don’t think I showed it, but seeing all that pain locked up inside of him…well, I did worry that we wouldn’t get past it.

5) Do you have any enemies?

Not that I knows of!

6) Tell us about your best friend

Old Hilda. Been friends for years, though she’s quite a bit older than me. Both lost our other halves in the war, both not blessed with children, both ‘get on with it’ types… I first started goin’ up to her place on the moors when she needed help with the farm. ‘Course, that’s all gone now and she’s just got her cottage left. It’s a poky little place, but she’s determined to stay up there ‘til she’s taken out feet first,’ as she says. Bit too much for me to walk up there nowadays, what with being a bit rounder than I used to be, but I get a lift up with the weekly grocery van. We have a right old natter, and all the while she’ll be busy with her crochet. Her place is strewn with crocheted throws of all sorts. I doubt she’d admit to it, but I reckon she does it to stop herself being lonely. No doubt she talks to herself when no-one’s there, seeing as she never stops when someone is!

7) What’s your biggest secret?

When my sister and my niece died, and then all those other little’uns in the village succumbed as well, I went a bit mad for a bit. I was numb at first, and then a couple of weeks after the last burial I got up one night and headed towards Tappers Wood. It were a full moon, good and bright, and I went by the lanes because a day or two earlier I’d seen a big coil of rope left by one of the field gates. It was still there. I remember the feel of it: cold, rough, and heavy, wet with the mists rolling off the fields. Don’t know how long I stood there, holding that rope and looking all the while at the trees up ahead – sussing out the ones with the strong branches, the ones I might be able to climb up to. I’d got one in mind–worked out how to get up there with that rope, where to tie it, how much drop would do the job–when a fox strolled out, bold as you please, and just sat there looking at me. So beautiful in that moonlight… Well I came to my senses, threw that rope back where I’d found it and went home.

8) Do you have any regrets?

Regrets is pointless.

9) Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

Five years time I’ll still be here, baking my bread and traipsing down to the village when I needs to. Maybe it won’t be just me in Mallow Cottage though, maybe Arthur’ll be joining me there! Young’un would like that as well, I reckon.

10) How do you hope people remember you?

As someone who could see to ‘the heart’ of things, the calm in the eye of the storm.

Thanks so much to Susan and Aunt Mary for joining us today! If you’d like to find out more about Susan, just click on the links below!

Website: http://www.susanrussell.eu Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Susan-Russell-author-745681398937235/

Twitter: Susan Russell @contact_susan Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jar-Full-Angel-Feathers/dp/0995600651/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1504115967&sr=1-1&keywords=a+jar+full+of+angel+feathers

Bio: Born in Norwich, many of Susan’s earliest memories are of writing, drawing, and ploughing through piles of books from the library. She began her working life as a nurse, and after two years as Staff Nurse she moved to Sidcup to work in a residential home for handicapped young adults. Meeting her future husband resulted in a move down to West Dorset, where a busy life included opening a kitchenware shop, raising three sons, and qualifying in the natural health care fields of massage, the Bowen Technique, and Medical Herbalism.

Where Is My Mind?? On End Of Term Brain Fog

I feel like I’ve done a lot of stupid things lately. You know, how we all have days when our brain just isn’t functioning properly? You go upstairs to get something, then come back down empty handed? You tell people the same thing more than once? You go the shop to buy something and come out with something else entirely? This is all annoying stuff, but what it if gets worse? What if you forget people’s birthdays or special events? What if you make arrangements and then totally forget about them? You start to feel like you are losing your mind.

Last Saturday I had an event to go to. It was a bit of a weird one that came about due to a conversation via Twitter months ago. Another author tagged me in a Tweet from Waterstones asking if there were any YA authors in the Bournemouth area. I replied yes, someone took my email address, and that was that for a while. It later transpired that they wanted someone local to interview two YA authors (proper ones, with actual books in actual Waterstones.) I thought why the hell not? It will be an experience. These past few years I’ve been saying yes to a lot of stuff I once would have said no to, and the results have been quite fun. So I looked up the authors, did my research, purchased some books and put some questions together.

I sorted out childcare and turned up on Saturday afternoon fully prepared and intrigued. Only to be told it was the wrong day.

I wanted the floor to open up and pull me in.

I felt my face catch on fire, mumbled something about it being fine for me to come again tomorrow and hurried out of the shop.

I felt so pissed off with myself after that. I had been utterly convinced it was Saturday. But they were quite right. I checked all the emails later that night. 16th July. Sunday. How could I possibly have got it so wrong? Why on earth was I so convinced the 16th was a Saturday? Why did I not double check? What the hell is wrong with me?

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I really didn’t want to go back the next day, but I did. I didn’t see the shop girl I had blushed in front of the day before, so I decided to play it cool and pretend it never happened. The lady who organised the event introduced me to the authors, we all had a drink in the cafe and then I interviewed them while the organiser filmed us. Scary stuff, and totally new to me, but I did it. Plus, I’d developed a heavy cold overnight and was feeling terrible. I don’t think I want to watch it when it ends up on Twitter. But I did it.

That mistake was embarrassing, but there have been loads of instances like this lately and I think I have a good old fashioned case of ‘end of term brain fog’. I see the other mums in the morning on the school run, and I know from the brief snatches of conversation we get between shoving kids into school, that we are all running on empty, and counting the minutes down to the summer holiday.

Of course, entertaining kids for six weeks and juggling commitments brings its own anxieties, but at least there is less structure, less of a time scale to keep to. We can do stuff or we can laze about. We can book some busy days and we can have stay at home days. We don’t have to get up early or make lunch boxes or iron the school clothes. We can all take our time and just breathe…

Brain fog is horrible. Forgetting stuff and getting in a muddle is really frustrating, especially when you are trying so damn hard to look like you’ve got your shit together! All the mums I know work bloody hard. They all have jobs, many of them self-employed so they can work it around the kids, and they all do the bulk of the housework as well. They spend their days shaking kids out of bed, shovelling breakfast into them, dealing with fussiness and dragging feet, checking the time, finding the car keys, getting stuck in traffic, and all the time your mind is already on all the other things you’ve got to do that day…so much so that on some days you actually can’t wait for the day to be over.

These last few months have been pretty full on. I’ve been preparing The Tree Of Rebels for release (11th August!!!) and I was working for many weeks on a workshop I ran on living the Indie Life. (I ran this the weekend before last and managed NOT to screw anything up!!) I am also in the process of turning my Chasing Driftwood Writing Group into a Community Interest Company. This is taking up a lot of my time. And then have have been all the things I’ve said yes to…

Maybe I need a few months of slowing down…

Perhaps my brain is trying to tell me something. I’ve had so many ‘oh my god, what is wrong with me’ moments lately, I’ve genuinely started to worry if I’ve got some sort of early dementia.

Hopefully not. For now, I will blame it on that frazzled end-of-school-year feeling and look forward to a lovely six weeks with my kids!

Over to you! Do you suffer from brain fog? Is it worse at certain times of the year? Have you done anything really embarrassing lately? Do let me know and feel free to comment and share!

Life Is Story and Stories Are Everywhere

Just recently I penned a guest post for another blog, the topic of which was the reason I write. I know people write for many, many complex reasons, and I think there is more than one reason that compels me to make up stories, but certainly one of the biggest reasons is simply to live more lives. To become other people, to step into their shoes, to create them and control them, to live with them and die with them. It’s the same reason I read, I guess. So that I’m not just me, living this one life.

What I also notice, as I go through my one, short life, punctuated by the lives of the people and worlds I have lovingly created, is how stories are everywhere. How they make up our lives and our worlds, and our day to day existence. Maybe you don’t always notice them, but if you look, stories are everywhere. Everything is, in fact, a story. Or at least, the potential for one. The inspiration for one.

When you get an idea for a story, it’s because you asked a question. You asked, what if? You asked, why? You asked, what is going on here? And you wanted to know the answers to those questions, so you made some up.

Children are wonderful at doing this. Natural play in childhood is nothing but stories and make-believe. I find this utterly enchanting. How they lose themselves completely in made-up worlds. These worlds and stories might make no sense at all to us, the adults, but to them they do. They set them up and let them roll. They start them out of nothing, out of the thin blue air. And they carry them on, for weeks, sometimes years.

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Look at this Playmobil set up. My 3-year-old got given a box of the stuff this week but it was his 10-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister who set it all up like this. I walked past it while tidying up and found myself wondering what was going on. There is one fellow, an outlaw, tied to the roof of a wagon, for instance, and I wanted to know why. There are a lot of rifles placed on a table in the sheriff’s office, and this was also obviously part of the story. The kids had dinner and went back to the Playmobil. I had to do other things, but I would have loved to know what happened next to all these people! This might look like play, and it is, but it’s also a story in action, one that I am sure will develop over the next few days.

A few days ago my youngest sat down to do some drawings on his chalkboard. I wasn’t allowed to join in, I was only allowed to watch. He started drawing big circles and little circles with lines joining them, up. He chatted to himself and when I asked about it, he gave the circles all names like Hop and Plop and Poop and said they were all holding hands because they were friends. They didn’t have faces, but some did have bananas! He then drew a square around them all and said they had gone into a house. This went on for a while, with my son adding further layers to the story. It was a lovely moment, art and storytelling interlinked quite naturally!

Children are just natural storytellers, and we should notice and cherish and encourage this as much as possible. Tonight, one of my older sons early creations, came back to visit us, and I was once again reminded how naturally children construct stories and carry them on through their lives.

When he was almost three, my older son used to get scared at night and get into our bed. We would ask him about this and he would talk about odd little creatures he called the Muckoos. In the day, his sisters would question him, and he would describe them in ever greater detail. (They were small and spiky and multi-coloured and liked to steal biscuits) They also kept him awake at night with their noise and they did lots of naughty things around the house. As the story grew among us all, my son started blaming the Muckoos when things went wrong. I wrote a story about it at the time, which I still have, and may one day do something with!

I’ve never forgotten the Muckoos, and I quite often call my littlest son a Muckoo, as in my mind it sums up a small child, mucky and messy and troublesome and cheeky! I sometimes call him Muckoo Madness, and he will retort; I am not Muckoo Madness!

Anyway, sometimes we have trouble getting the littlest one to bed, and my older son has been helping out the last few nights, by pretending to be a creature called Gavin, who loves stories. This in itself, is just gorgeous. He insists on sitting on a pillow on one side of me, while his little brother sits on the other side. They both get toys to cuddle and we all choose one book to read. Then ‘Gavin’ has to go back to his cave, and my little son happily goes to bed. What a way to use storytelling to encourage a young child to sit still and listen to stories! Tonight, my older son remembered the Muckoos, and ‘Gavin’ told us he was a Muckoo, in fact, the last of his kind. Quite a poignant moment, I felt! It was magical to witness this ‘story’ resurfacing after so many years and I am quite convinced it will continue to develop further layers and complexities…

And for anyone wondering what the last Muckoo looks like, my oldest son agreed to draw one for you!

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