Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Light and shadows: The forgotten festival of Candlemas

We're almost halfway there!

Halfway, that is, between the dark and the light.  Halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox.  Halfway through winter, and heading towards spring.

There has been a festival around this date since ancient times.  If you're in America (or remember the film) you might know February 2nd as Groundhog Day.  According to legend, if a groundhog (or bear, or badger) emerges from its burrow and can see its shadow in the sunlight, there will be six more weeks of winter weather.  If the day is cloudy, the forthcoming weather will be mild instead.

via Wikimedia Commons

On the Christian calendar, however, the 2nd of February is Candlemas.  It's a rather forgotten festival - we don't get a day off or anything - but I found out a little more about it recently.

Candlemas is forty days after Christmas and, technically, the end of the Christmas season.  The festival commemorates the baby Jesus being taken to the temple by his parents for a ceremony a little like a baptism.  Mary and Joseph, however, had to sacrifice a couple of pigeons - and I'm sure the Church of England is very glad they don't have to do that!

When Jesus was brought into the temple, a man named Simeon was there; righteous and devout, and looking forward to the consolation of Israel.  He came forward, took the month-old baby in his arms, and prayed, "Lord, let your servant now depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

That connection with the light has given Candlemas its name, and its main tradition: blessing the candles that will be used in the church for the year ahead. In my Bible study group this morning we prayed this prayer, taken from thisischurch.com:

A Prayer to Bless Candles.
God our Father, whose Son was revealed to Simeon as the light of the nations, and the glory of Israel, let these candles be to us a sign of his light and presence, that, guided by the Holy Spirit, we may live by the light of faith until we come to the light of glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen. Johann Arndt, 1555-1621

By Richard W.M. Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

But if you don't feel like blessing candles or looking for groundhogs, there are all manner of other traditions associated with Candlemas.  The Mexicans eat tamales, the French eat crepes or boat-shaped biscuits named navettes.  Catholics celebrate the purification of the Virgin Mary after Jesus' birth, which probably explains some vague references to a "Wives' Feast" on this day - a girls-only party.

Navettes by VĂ©ronique PAGNIER, via Wikimedia Commons

So, however you want to celebrate this Friday, go for it!  Light a candle, fry a crepe, and don't forget to watch out for small furry animals.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

All my writing is talking

I would not describe myself as a gifted public speaker.  Watching the 2017 Great British Bake Off, I empathised most with Steven, who went brick red at the slightest opportunity.  Me too, Steven, me too.  I prefer beavering away behind the scenes to bounding on to stage, and I have yet to master the art of the dramatic pause.

...

See?

Despite that, I somehow ended up delivering several talks during the autumn term.  Writing talks is a slightly different thing to crafting stories or blog posts, but it's all words.  So that's where my writing efforts have gone, these last few months.

The first was a cake decorating demonstration for a social group called Choices.  They have a different speaker at each meeting, and the lady who organises it had asked me months ago if I could explain the art of icing cakes.  I started off with a brief chat about the different types of icing and what you can do with them - which was a chance to show lots of photos of my creations - then got out a real live cake.


I'd never decorated a cake in front of an audience before, and wondered if my hands would be steady enough to pipe a straight line!  But the demonstration went well and was watched with keen interest, as far as I could tell.  My favourite comment afterwards was, "Your talk must have been good because S didn't go out for a smoke - and he always has a cigarette in the middle of the talk!"  It's an odd compliment, but I'll take it.

**************

The next opportunity was a Sunday morning slot at my "other church" about the cafe I am now managing there.  I'd been formally welcomed the previous month, but there hadn't been much of a chance to explain who I was and what I was doing there.  So I gave them a potted history of my catering career to date (starting with a chemistry degree, I explained, is not the recommended method!) and talked about a few changes that I'd made in the cafe so far.  I finished off with a short reflection on 1 Peter 4:
Practise hospitality ungrudgingly... that in everything God may be glorified.
It's pretty amazing to me that one of the things which glorifies God is simply this: practising hospitality.  But it's more than just inviting someone in for a cup of tea.  It's sharing all the gifts that the church has been given, not hanging on to them for ourselves.
There's that wonderful word "ungrudgingly" in there.  Ungrudgingly is hard.  Ungrudgingly means not getting upset when people make a mess of our clean building.  Or complain about something.  Or even come in just when we thought we could finally sit down for lunch ourselves!
 That's why we need God's love, to cover sins, and God's words in our mouths and God's strength which he supplies.
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Finally, I somehow talked myself into creating a nativity scene for the playgroup I help to run on Mondays, along with a short talk at the end of each session.  I tell you, if ever someone suggests you talk to a group of preschoolers, just don't.  Either they don't react at all to your cheerful questions and colourful pictures.  Or they have to tell you, right now and at great length, about something only vaguely relevant to what you've just said.  Meanwhile the mums are sitting there hoping you'll start Wheels on the Bus soon.


I have no idea whether anyone got anything out of my little talks about the Christmas story.  But we decorated the nativity characters every week, and they looked fantastic!  Either we have some very neat three-year-olds or the parents got more into it than the kids did.












My new career as a public speaker is seemingly not over yet: I've signed up to present a beginners' guide to blogging at the writing group I go to, in June.  That's one good incentive to actually do some blogging over the next few months, though!  And I'll keep practising my pauses.

[dramatic pause]

That's all for tonight, folks!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Blog Post

In theory it shouldn't be that hard to keep up with a weekly post on one blog.  In practice, these last few months, it just. did. not. happen.

So, new year, new resolution to do more writing.  I'm starting with Christmas.  Because it's easy.  And you're not all ready to forget about Christmas quite yet, are you?  If so, shut your eyes now, because here come lots of photos.

This Christmas....

...we had snow!  Well, not on the day itself, but in December, which is unusual enough.  And there was plenty of it - enough for a giant snowman.


Snowman and snowdog (or perhaps sheep)

...we went to the Christingle service at our local parish church (the proper dangerous kind with kids waving lighted candles at each other) and to see the lights at Calke Abbey (for the 4th year running - must count as a tradition by now).



...we had a real tree as a present from Graham's boss, which was thoroughly decorated and surrounded by gifts.



...we spent Christmas Day at home, which turned out to be a good thing when Graham woke up that morning feeling grotty.  He spent most of the day lying down trying to be enthusiastic when the boys got excited.  I called off Christmas dinner and defrosted some chicken casserole instead.  Nice and easy!

...it was the year of the board games.  Hungry Hungry Hippos, Minions Monopoly, Rebound, Kerplunk and Pieface all turned up underneath the Christmas tree.
Kerplunk

Rebound

and Pieface!


...this was Toby's big present.

It's a desk!

...and this was Theo's big present.

Yep, that really was his top request this year

...we made it to my parents' on Boxing Day, despite Graham not really being better yet. We had Christmas dinner with them a few days late, went for some cold walks, and met up with some friends to go bowling.



...I made my first ever Christmas pudding, complete with suet and hours of steaming, but no brandy butter.  I also made a chocolate Malteser Christmas pudding alternative.

Proper Christmas pudding

Chocolate Christmas pudding


...we finally ate our turkey on New Year's Eve.  Much better time to have a festive dinner, I think!


Happy 2018 to you all!