Thrifty Gift Swap

I hope you are all having a wonderful break. I have had a whole week off, and also have Monday off. I’ ve been shamelessly lazy. The house is still a bit of a mess, but I feel rested for the first time in absolutely ages. I don’t expect it to last for long, so I’m enjoying it while I can. Can you believe it’s already New Year’s Eve?

In the run-up to Christmas, I shared that one of my happy things was the Thrifty Gift Swap, arranged by Janet. That’s mostly because I love buying presents so much, but it does also have the bonus of getting presents, too. This year my giver was Hannah McIntosh Burke, who makes gorgeous creatures, and also happens to be pretty good at giving gifts!

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It was really lovely to get some chocolates from the U.S.! I also really liked these tiny earrings, which I’ve already worn. The highlight, though, is this alpaca yarn, which Hannah said comes from the alpaca in her village. How lovely! It’s so soft. I’ve spent ages looking at patterns, and am wondering if I might try designing my own at last. The 200 grams she sent is enough to do something cozy with, but not quite enough for a sweater. Hm. I won’t be rushing into picking a project, but I admit I’m very keen to start using this!

On the other side of the Thrifty Gift Swap, I can now reveal that I had the delight of picking presents for Alex. I won’t share most of what I got, but I did want to share the main present as I’d hinted at it on here previously. It was these fingerless mittens, another Kate Davies design. You may recognise this yarn from one of my yarnalongs. I was really happy with them, so I hope they keep her hands very toasty.

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5 happy things – another necessary one

This has been another hard week, as 2016 apparently decided that one lot of grief isn’t enough for me. On Tuesday, my German grandmother died. I never really knew her growing up, as we couldn’t afford family trips to Germany. But she did fly out for some of my major life events – college graduation, my wedding – and since I moved to England, I’ve tried to go visit once a year. Sadly, I didn’t make it out there this year. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 2 years ago, and I was planning a trip in January. If only I hadn’t decided to wait. 😦 I am very sad to not have her around any more, but at the same time she has been a lot of pain, so in a sense there is a release now. But it’s still hard, especially at this time of the year.

The same day, I also found out a friend is pregnant for the second time. Obviously I am really happy for her, but I must admit the timing did make me feel really sorry for myself. I’m pretty much over that now, though, thank goodness.

However, I am making the most of the festive season by metaphorically wrapping myself in fairy lights. I’m doing as much festive stuff as I can, and really trying to distract myself with happy things while I grieve again. So here are my happy things for this week. What are yours?

  • This Polish Christmas advert

It is beautiful, and I saw it for the first time on Wednesday. It was like watching Oma. It made me cry an awful lot, but in a happy way. I hope you love it, too.

  • This color combination

Pretty stunning, isn’t it? It really does make me happy.

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The Victoria & Albert Museum is one of my favourite places in the world, so getting to visit is always a treat. Opus Anglicanum is about medieval English embroidery, and was absolutely stunning. The level of detail was phenomenal! It was also fun to look at the recurring motifs – Trees of Jesse, peacocks, the nativity, and saints (with a high proportion of female saints, actually) were ones that I noticed, though no doubt there were many more. There was also a video of someone using the techniques that would have been used at the time (primarily split stitch and underside couching) which was strangely hypnotic. I also went with a friend from near home, and had lunch with a different friend I haven’t seen in about 5 years. She taught me to knit & also inspired me to take up dressmaking, so it was great to catch up & discuss our current projects. We both left inspired to make stuff, which I think is the ideal outcome.

I’ve never been to the V & A at Christmas, either, and I loved the stars they projected in the atrium.

  • New wall decor

p1070541I know, slightly inappropriate, but it did make me laugh a lot! R got this several years ago when he had an online business selling film memorabilia. He just found it again last week. So up it went!

  • A candlelight carol service

I love carol services! They always make me really emotional. There’s something really magical about Christmas carols, isn’t there? I’ve been wanting to go to the candlelight service at the church in the city centre for years, but never managed it until this year, when I asked a friend to go with me. It was excellent, though there were several I didn’t know. I also heard “Jesulein süß” in English for the first time, and learned that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was set to music by Gustav Holst, which makes it a local carol as well as one of my favorite wintry poems.

I was also thrilled to see Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite authors, was in the program. Someone read this poem:

Into the Darkest Hour

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

I think it’s a beautiful poem, and couldn’t be more fitting for this year. I’m so glad I’ve heard it.

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O Tannenbaum

 

 

Happy Christmas, everyone! Every year the Worcester branch of the Daisychain Benevolent Fund puts together a festival of Christmas trees at Worcester Cathedral. Local schools, charities, and businesses are invited to decorate a tree. All the trees are then displayed in the cathedral cloisters. I had a nice long look  last Saturday morning, around 8:30 in the morning, and it was beautiful and quiet (though I’m sure it picked up later in the day!). As R & I don’t have any Christmas decorations up this year, I thought I’d share some of my favourite snaps today. If you happen to live nearby, I’d really recommend it – it’s up until 4 January.

I hope you all have a peaceful day with those you love.

 

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Christmas spirit

P1030814.JPGI’ve been late to Christmas cheer this year. Life has been crazy, meaning I’ve also been exhausted & poorly. Things are starting to settle, though, and I’ve also been making a conscious effort to surround myself with happy things. Last week, for example I read Close Encounters of the Furred Kind, which made me laugh.

Feeling more lighthearted in general has finally let me feel festive. Wrapping up my gift for the Thrifty Christmas Gift Swap definitely helped. This weekend has also been devoted to making Christmas presents, namely knitted dinosaurs! While I cleaned and baked my vanilla kipferl this morning, I put on Sufjan Stevens and as I write this post I’m watching Serendipity. It may be the cheesiest Christmas romcom ever, but I’m a sucker for John Cusack and have no shame. Also, how can you go wrong with a film whose title is inspired by a chocolate restaurant?

I am also feeling pretty smug about the Secret Santa present I bought yesterday. Work’s doing an anonymous gift exchange (i.e. bring a gift, take a gift) this year and I found this lovely copy of The Body in the Library. How can it go wrong in a swap for librarians?

Are you feeling Christmassy yet? Has it been a struggle for you this year, too, or is it just me?

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Christmas makes…

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday, whether it’s Christmas you celebrate or something else. Did you all get to spend time with family?

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Advent candle. We have one every year, and it’s my favourite Christmas tradition now.

Marie over at A Stitching Odyssey recently wrote about being a gift-making Scrooge, which got me thinking about what kind of gifts I give at Christmas. I would love to make all my gifts, but I definitely don’t! There are always lots of books, CDs and DVDs purchased, as well as random things. This year the gift I was most excited about giving is a rather gorgeous Clarice Cliff vase, which is for my mother-in-law. Though I obviously didn’t make it, it is handpainted, so it’s in keeping with my gift ethos, which has 3 parts and really is all about personalisation:

  • gifts should always make me think of the recipient
  • whenever possible, gifts should be handmade
  • whenever possible, they should be meant to be used, not just looked at! (I am all about practicality.)

I must admit, though, that fewer of my gifts were handmade by me. Another gift I was looking forward to giving was purchased at Arcade Artisans, a shop that provides a place for Gloucestershire artists/makers to sell their work. I bought an adorable cushion with a fire truck for a friend’s baby & I think the whole family loved it!

 

Things I did make (or am making) included an ornament for R (I make him an ornament every year because I’m a sentimental fool), handkerchiefs for my father-in-law, and a shawl for Oma (haven’t finished this yet).

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Handmade embroidered handkerchiefs.

 

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This is probably the tidiest embroidery I’ve ever done.

 

Christmas also meant that I finally had a bit of down time, so I have done a bit of sewing. I am pleased to say I have basically completed the bodice of my dress, hooray! Now I just need to work on the skirt. Though it involves time-consuming gathering, I am cautiously optimistic I will be done with it soon. In the end I used herringbone stitch to sew down the lining; it worked particularly well as I’d forgotten to zigzag the edges before sewing them down.

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Sewn down lining. Maybe not the tidiest ever, but no complaints from me.

 

I also got to sew a baby vest, which was quick and adorable. Can’t wait to see him wear it!

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Adorable, no? It’s actually a lot more blue than this, just making it even cuter.

 

Vanilla kipferl and a German start to Christmas

Nothing says Christmas quite like cookies. Every year shortly after Thanksgiving, my family & I would spend an entire day baking – lebkuchen, spekulatius, and whatever else happened to take our fancy that year. My favourite has always been vanilla kipferl, which takes its name from the crescent shape. There’s a variation on this almond cookie in most Germanic/Scandinavian countries, but I use my Mom’s recipe which is almost certainly from a German cookbook. It’s a very simple recipe, really similar to shortbread. Kipferl are dry, but that’s because like most German cookies & cakes, they’re meant to be eaten with a cup of coffee (or tea, in my case). Vanilla kipferl are easy & delicious; do try them! I promise you’ll never regret it.

Vanilla kipferl

300 g flour

125 g sugar

3 egg yolks

125 g ground almonds*

250 g butter/margarine

2 packets vanilla sugar**

* I like a lot of texture in my cookies, so I use a mixture of store-bought ground almonds and almonds that I’ve toasted and ground roughly in my mortar & pestle (I don’t have a food processor, alas).

** In England, I’ve found packets of vanilla sugar in Polish/Eastern European food shops. A packet usually contains a couple of tablespoons.But now I just make my own by sticking a vanilla pod in a pot of sugar.  It can be nice to use replace some of the plain sugar with vanilla sugar, though.

If you have a stand mixer, to be honest I think you could just put in all the ingredients (except 1 packet of vanilla sugar; leave that out for the cookies to be rolled in), butter cut into cubes, in the bowl and wait until it comes together as a smooth, thick ball of dough (again, think pastry).

Instructions for making by hand are as follows:

Make the flour into a pile with a well in the middle & put the sugar, 1 packet vanilla sugar, and egg yolks in the middle. Mix together. Add almonds and butter (in pieces) and knead until it’s a thick dough. Rest for 30-40 minutes; I recommend doing this in a refrigerator when possible.

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Cut or tear dough into small pieces; roll and shape into crescents. Bake at 180 C for 10-15 minutes, or until light golden. Put remaining vanilla sugar in a shallow bowl/dish.

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Remove from oven. While warm, remove the cookies from the baking sheet and roll in the vanilla sugar, or dust them using a spoon. I much prefer rolling them in sugar, personally.

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My kipferl baking session on Sunday was the first sign of my festive spirit. It’s taken a long time to get started this year for some reason. It probably helped that R spent the day wrapping presents, too! Maybe Christmas spirit comes to me late because by now I know Christmas is the day I am most homesick, so psychologically I want to delay it? Anyway, I was lucky enough to be able to visit some of my family in Germany last week. I never really got to know my mom’s side of the family very well (they all live in Germany now, though some used to live in Ireland) when I was growing up because travelling was so expensive/time consuming. Now that I live in England, I try to visit them more often. And what better time than December? Germany is lovely all the time, but it really is especially nice around Christmas.

My family are in Hannover & Hildesheim, so I got to go to two Christkindlmarkten!  I got a couple of truly beautiful things in Hannover to add to our Christmas collection. Pictures don’t really do them justice, but it can’t hurt to try:

 

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Ornament Wooden nativity scene, with gold-painted edges. Glass mushroom ornament. Both about 3 inches tall.

Sadly, it was raining when I was Hildesheim, so I only stayed in the market long enough to eat some Schmalzkuchen.  I still managed to enjoy myself during the rest of my stay, though; I found a wonderful little coffeehouse called Das Kleine Röstwerk, had a nice bowl of lentil soup and a cup of delicious fruit tea called wilde hilde. It was right next to Andreaskirche, one of the three gorgeous old churches that Hildesheim is famous for. I also got to see (okay, listen to – I could only get a Horplatz) the first half of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium in the Mariendom Hildesheim, built in 865.

Now that I’m back at home and have started the Christmas baking, I’m a bit more in the mood to do Christmassy stuff. I’ve still got a few bits to make – an ornament for R, some handkerchiefs for his dad, and a few knitted things for friends. Stay tuned to see how they turn out!