Counting down to Christmas

On Sunday, the boys looked inside the first stocking on their Advent calendar line of ‘socks’ (as Andrew refers to it); they got a chocolate treat, and we decided that they can take it in turns to consume the contents of the day’s sock – odds for Andrew and evens for Joel. This is our way of counting down the days until Christmas, which will soon be here. I’ve always enjoyed Christmas, and since having children it has become exciting seeing it from a child’s perspective again. The boys love spending time with their grandparents, uncles and aunts, and they get to do a lot of this over Christmas. Of course presents feature quite a lot over the days that we spend with family, and it is lovely to see the genuine joy expressed as a toddler rips the paper off and excitedly looks to see what’s inside.

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Although all the celebrations are exciting in themselves, I also hope that my boys will come to understand the reason why we celebrate Christmas. Advent (from the Latin ‘adventus’ meaning ‘coming’) is a time when we as Christians often reflect on how Jesus, God’s son, came into this world as a baby. It was a very low-key event in earthly terms – his teenage mum from Nazereth (a small unassuming village back then) travelled heavily pregnant to Bethlehem to comply with the ruling Roman orders, and gave birth there in a shed of animals; only a few shepherds (who were fairly low in social status back then) heard about the birth immediately and visited soon after. Yet the reason why Jesus came meant that his birth was extraordinary, and certainly something that deserves a huge celebration over 2000 years later.

So why did Jesus come to Earth? The short answer is: because God loves us. Every week at our church, the kids all gather at the front before they go to their groups and we sing an action song together. This Sunday, the first in Advent, the song was a fantastic reminder of God’s love for everyone He’s made – here are the lyrics, and, if you can stand the slight cheesiness, a video of the tune and actions…

Some of us are big and tall
Some of us are very small
Some of us like pink and some like blue
Some of us like reading books
Some of us like feeding ducks
That’s because we’re different, me and you

But God loves everyone he’s made
God loves each of us, in a special way…

That’s you and you and you and you
And you and you and you and you
God loves you! God loves you!
That’s you and you and you and you
And you and you and you and you
We’re part of the big family of God!

Some of us have curly hair
Some of us have specs to wear
All of us have different families
Some of us are very loud
Some of us don’t make a sound
That’s because we’re different, you and me

But God loves everyone he’s made
God loves each of us, in a special way…

[© 2007 Song Solutions Daybreak, www.songsolutions.org, CCLI# 5100093]

…One of the points of this song is a very important one for children to pick up – to know they are loved no matter what they look like or what they enjoy doing, because in a world of bullying and peer pressure to conform to what is socially desirable, it’s easy to feel different and left out. And the point in this song that GOD loves everyone no matter who they are is the link back to the reason why Jesus came that first Christmas.

All the bad things, big or little, that we do, think and say in our lives separate us from God who is perfect. But God is not at all happy with that situation, because He loves us so much, and wants us to know Him as our loving Father. So God sent His only son Jesus into this world as a baby, who grew up and showed the people living in the Middle East at the time some signs of what God and Heaven are like, and then was crucified in order to take the punishment for all those bad things WE do on HIMself. But because God is greater than death, Jesus came back to life and beat death. It is through His death and rising again that anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus can know God in a close relationship and ultimately have everlasting life with Him in Heaven. It is through God’s love for us, the fact that He doesn’t want to be separated from us by bad things, that Jesus came.

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I have to admit that I’d like to spend more time this Advent reflecting on what Christmas means to me, because with two active boys to look after (one of whom doesn’t sleep beyond 4.30am most days or nap for long at a time), going out and doing all sorts of other stuff, and being somewhere on a continuum of tired to exhausted most of the time recently, I have found it hard to take any opportunity I have each day to sit quietly and pray (and not fall asleep!) So the fact that I have an Advent calendar right in front of me when I sit on the sofa will hopefully serve as a reminder to share my thoughts with Jesus daily, because it really is amazing when I do 🙂

 

 

 

 

To us a child is born

It was the start of December last year that I started this blog – so it’s Happy 1st Birthday to Mixed Bag of All Sorts! I remember distinctly that one of my first posts was about Advent, and what this time of year means to me and to us as a young family as we start new traditions. Well, what a difference a year has made to us as a family – there are now four of us instead of three, and this is the first Christmas that Andrew really has much idea of what’s going on. He was 11 months old last Christmas, so although older than Joel is for his first Christmas, he didn’t really get the concepts of presents, parties and why we were spending time with family and friends.

Guarding the Advent calendar from early morning predators - you never know who might want to get at your mini socks!

Last year I wrote about the Peanuts (Snoopy and co.) Advent calendar that tells the story of the first Christmas line by line each day as you open a door, all in rhyming verse. It has survived many Christmas-times from my childhood to the present. My parents gave it to us last year so that we could carry on the family tradition of opening it with Andrew, not that he had much clue what it was then, but this year he’s definitely more interested in listening to stories. Next year Joel will also be more in to this kind of thing.

It's a bit fiddly to get at the contents of these socks, but I'm determined to do it without help, and that's part of the fun of it!

In addition to this calendar, my parents have bought the boys another Advent calendar this year. It’s one that you can fill with your own treats again and again each year. It came with little chocolates for this year, but in future we could put various things in like little toys or pieces of paper telling a story a bit like the Peanuts calendar. The design is quite simple but lovely and effective – a string of 24 mini stockings that you hang up between two hooks on the wall. Ours is hung at Andrew height across our living room window so that he can help us discover what’s in each day’s stocking. When he first saw it he was very interested in it and kept saying ‘socks, socks’! This morning he took out the first chocolates – two mini chocolate Father Christmas figures, and he proceeded to say ‘Father Christmas’ after me with not bad accuracy. We think he understands that it’s only one sock per day, now that we’ve explained to him after Tom caught him fiddling with another stocking after we’d emptied number 1!

Wow! There's shiny stuff in these socks - cool!

In the build up to Christmas, which we are marking as a family with our calendars, I am personally thinking about the first ever Christmas, when Jesus was born into this world. During Advent each year I’m often reminded of a couple of verses from the Bible, from the book of Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 6-7. Isaiah was a Prophet who told of Jesus’ birth many years before it actually happened – Jesus is the child referred to by Isaiah in these verses:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

Although I have read and heard this passage many times, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that it really took on a new meaning for me. This Advent, a child has recently been born to us, a son has been given to us; last Advent, the memory of our first child having been born to us was still fresh in my mind, 11 months after the event; and the Advent before that we were anticipating the birth of our first chid in about a month’s time. The experience of our own children being born to us brought it home to me that Jesus was a real person who was born to a real mum and a real dad, just like us. As I sit here feeding Joel, I think of Mary feeding Jesus, and changing his nappies (no Pampers or Huggies around in those days!) – or maybe Joseph helped out with that? I think of Joseph finding a place for them to stay just before the birth and supporting Mary through it, and how that’s similar to Tom’s role of getting me to hospital and being with me for the birth of both our children.

The difference between this family in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago and our family is that Jesus, as well as being fully human, was also fully God, just as it says in the Isaiah verses above. And not only is He Mighty God, but also Wonderful Counsellor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – the person I turn to for help in the most difficult of life’s situations, who is always there for me and always will be, giving me His peace which goes beyond all human understanding.

Baby Jesus didn’t stay a baby, he grew up; as a man He went on to do what He was born into this world to do – to die on a cross in order to make up for all the wrong things that we do which separate us from God, and if we believe that He did this for us, we can have everlasting life beyond our lives in this world. The ‘us’ referred to in Isaiah’s verse doesn’t just mean Mary and Joseph in a literal sense; it means anyone, at any time and in any place on Earth – Jesus was given as a present to everyone, it’s just up to each and every one of us whether we accept the present.

In all the busyness of Advent – the shopping, the parties, the chocolate eating – why not take some time to think about why this time of year involves all these things. Advent is the anticipation of celebrating Jesus coming into our world many years ago. Have you accepted the present that He came to be? If you’d like to find out more, there’s a great course called Alpha that runs across the country – you can find one near you here.

Now there are only 24 days left to celebrating Jesus’ birthday this year. Can’t wait!

Ha ha, I have chocolate.... not sure I should share it with Mummy, Daddy and Joel....!

Lebkuchen – a taste of Christmas

One of my favourite foods at Christmas is Lebkuchen [pronounced something like layb-koo-chuhn (ch as in Scottish ‘loch’) for those who don’t sprechen any Deutsch]. These soft and chewy biscuits spiced with flavours like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg remind me of Christmas as a child, as Mum would always buy a few bags for us to eat over the Christmas period. It wasn’t until I went to Germany just before Christmas as an adult that I realised that the small Lebkuchen bought from supermarkets here in England were not the same as the much bigger, flatter and (let’s face it) better ones found over there, where they originated. Ever since I tasted the real German ones, I’ve wanted to have a go at baking my own, but I’ve only just got round to it this year, probably because I came across a recipe in a chocolate recipe book that I’ve used a lot recently.

As usual, I adapted the recipe slightly (I don’t think I ever follow a recipe exactly!): raisins instead of candied fruit peel (which I don’t really like), and I halved the chocolate glaze, because the biscuits were quite fragile even when cool, so I didn’t think they would ‘dip’ well to coat them as the recipe said, and I made a thicker glaze to ice just one side as they lay on a flat surface. Anyway, that’s enough of an intro…. on with the important stuff!

Ingredients

Biscuits

  • 100g unsalted almonds (brown skins left on)
  • 25g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 large egg whites (I used 3 medium)
  • 115g icing sugar

Glaze

  • 50g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 50g icing sugar

Method

  1. Finely grind the almonds and chocolate in a food processor, then mix with the raisins and spices.
  2. Put the egg whites in a spotlessly clean, greasefree bowl and beat with an electric hand mixer until soft peaks form.

    Egg whites at the stiff peak stage
  3. Gradually beat in the icing sugar to make a thick, glossy meringue.
  4. Add the chocolate mixture and carefully fold in with a large metal spoon.

    Lebkuchen mixture
  5. Put tablespoon-sized mounds of the mixture on several baking trays lined with non-stick greaseproof paper, setting them well apart, then spread each into a circle about 3 inches in diameter.

    Trays with blobs of biscuit mixture, ready for the oven
  6. Bake in a preheated oven at 160°c for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are pale gold. Let cool, then peel off the greaseproof paper.

    Close up of a biscuit just out of the oven - a lovely pale golden colour
  7. To make the chocolate glaze, melt the chocolate gently (I use these cool microwaveable pans and do it in short bursts at a time so the chocolate doesn’t burn). Then let it cool.
  8. Mix the icing sugar with 2 tablespoons of hot water to make a smooth glaze, then stir in the chocolate to make a fairly runny mixture – if necessary, stir in a little more warm water (I ended up putting in a few more splashes from the kettle).
  9. Ice each biscuit with the glaze – I found that they were fragile, so I iced them on the bottom where they had come away from the greaseproof paper, as this helped to keep them together. This isn’t quite as traditional as dipping in a thin glaze, but it tastes the same and it meant I didn’t risk ending up with a chocolatey broken biscuit mess!
    Waiting for the iced lebkuchen to set

    A plate of lebkuchen good enough to eat

As an aside, I decided to whip up a quick sponge mixture with the egg yolks, because I can’t stand wasting the other half of the eggs when a recipe calls for only whites or yolks. It’s basically 110g of plain flour, 110g of butter, 110g of sugar and 2 eggs (but I used 3 egg yolks and a generous splash of milk instead). You beat the sugar and butter together, then add the eggs (and in this case the milk) and then the flour.

I decided to use the sponge mixture to make cupcakes. I wasn’t sure whether the exchange of milk for egg whites would make a difference to how they turned out, but I’m always up for experimental baking, and most of the time it’s edible, even if slightly odd looking or a strange texture! In this case they came out quite crispy on top, softer inside, though slightly denser than the usual light sponge, and still yummy to taste.

After I tried one fresh from the oven (just to make sure it was worth icing them, you understand), I decided to add some simple melted chocolate on the top to finish them off.

Chocolate-topped cupcakes (note that only 5 made it to the chocolate stage - I had to try one to make sure they tasted good enough to keep 😉 )

So there you go, two recipes for the price of one! Both delicious as a snack with a cuppa, and one as a lovely taste of Christmas which reminds me of childhood.

Christmas is coming

It’s that time of year again. For several weeks now, especially after Hallowe’en was over, the shops have gradually been increasing the amount of red, gold and sparkly-packaged products they have on sale. Special foods adorn the aisles of supermarkets, whilst toy shops are crammed with the latest ‘in’ things for kids; in fact it seems there is no kind of shop which escapes a noticeable change in stock at this time of year. Decorations hang both inside and out, with twinkly lights illuminating even the most dull of concretised city centres (I know this, I was brought up in Coventry!) Of course, it’s the run-up to Christmas, or, as it’s more traditionally known, Advent.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the word ‘Advent’ is still used these days, but mainly in conjunction with ‘calendar’. An Advent calendar is a tradition which I believe started in Germany quite a while ago, and is obviously going strong in the UK today (just walk into any supermarket and you can’t fail to notice the offers like ‘3 for 2’ on the chocolate ones). In our family, we had a couple of traditions as my brother (Matt) and I were growing up – one pair of grandparents always bought us a chocolate Advent calendar each, and as a family we had a ‘Peanuts’ one (of Charlie Brown and Snoopy ilk), in which the story of the first Christmas was told a little bit each day, as we opened each door to reveal a short rhyming verse. The next generation of Advent fun has now begun, as Mum passed the remarkably resilient Peanuts calendar down to me, and Andrew can start being part of the tradition. Oh and I can’t forget the famous (in our family) video clip of Matt and I arguing about whether there were 17 or 18 doors open on the particular day in Advent that we were being filmed. (Incidentally I was right, but Matt was generally good at arguing that black was white… “18, see!” – this won’t mean much to most readers I’m sure.)

Snoopy dressed as a shepherd is getting ready to help tell the Christmas story
In days of old by royal decree, news was sent to Galilee....a message was sent to every home, to pay the taxes owed to Rome....Joseph and Mary were told that they, must go to Bethlehem far away....

So here comes a linguistic bit (2 paragraphs into the post isn’t bad going for me)…. Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. Christmas is what’s coming, right? Of course, but I like to think of it as Jesus is coming, because for me, that’s who Christmas is about. It’s a time of year that I (along with other Christians of course) prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus who was born over 2000 years ago. His wasn’t a grand entrance to the world – his mum gave birth in an animal shelter because all the accommodation in the town they were visiting was full, and she wasn’t a ‘celebrity’, so no 1st century equivalent of the paparazzi were clambering to scoop an exclusive story. But as he grew up, those who lived around him saw that he was an amazing person, who did some amazing things. I’ll go further into that in future posts; for now I’d like to stick with the topic of Advent. Opening a door on a calendar each day from 1st to 24th December (a 25th door seems to be a modern addition, at least since the time of Charlie Brown) helps me to remember why I’m looking forward to Christmas. It’ll be great to spend time with family and have some time off work, yes, but the most important part is doing all this whilst celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Writing this has made me realise just how close Christmas is now. Living in Cambridge, we’re already experiencing Christmas events that have been going on for the past week at least, as the undergrads go home soon so they squeeze these in at the end of November. I’ve just put up our Christmas tree (‘up’ being a common theme this year – up on a table, out of the reach of little hands), which will be a nice surprise for my boys when they get home. So, roll on 25th December!

Up on the table out of the way of little hands!