Did you notice that it is almost that time of year again? Christmas can be insane and draining, and if you are like me, the shopping might just send you into a decline. But there are ways to make it meaningful and pleasant. Firstly, have a conversation with family about present giving. Let's face it, most of us don't need more stuff. Most of us who aren't children might enjoy a minimal present Christmas. I must admit I am peculiar in that presents aren't a big thing with me. If someone were to bring me a cup of tea in bed, a magazine and a chocolate-based comestible and say, "There's your Christmas," I would be well pleased. We need to talk about Christmas and stuff with each other and with our kids. Let's find out what is really special to them about Christmas. Maybe we just think it is presents. Maybe they would be happy with less, as long as there is still family and friends and food. Maybe they like our funny Christmas traditions best, or visiting the Christmas lights or Christmas stockings. Who knows until we ask?
One of the best ways to make Christmas meaningful is to think about how we can give to people who really don't have all the stuff they need. I feel like I need to make this more a priority in my own life this year, so I will be chatting to the girls about how we might include this as part of our Christmas preparations.
Still, presents are part of Christmas, so here are some of my favourite Christmas gifts and shops:
Second hand bookshop/op shop: Two categories - books that look new. An awful lot of people get rid of books they never even read. Can you imagine? And vintage books - my favourites are classics, and vintage non-fiction in an area of the giftee's interest. Vintage gardening, DIY and cooking books are wonderful.
Gifts of service: Last year the girls and I gave my mum (who is not an enthusiastic baker) the gift of a cake each month. To be honest, I think we have missed a couple of months, and owe her more cake. It's a reminder to know yourself when planning gifts.. One of my friends hired Rosy to dust the house each week for his wife's Christmas present (she hates dusting..). The gift that keeps on giving!
Oxfam: Shops that exist to bring beautiful craft from fair trade co-operatives all over the world. They also stock fair trade chocolate and spices. What's not to love? Oxfam Unwrapped and the TEAR catalogue of Really Useful Gifts also provide brilliant un-gifts - chickens, pigs, education, water, you name it, you can give it to someone who really needs it..
Practical gifts: Yes, the ones you would have bought them anyway. I love to have a non-consumer Christmas, but my children like to open lots of presents so I buy them underwear, pyjamas and clothes and wrap them all up separately:) Underwear can be local or fair trade. I have also bought some lovely scarves, clothes and jewellery from op shops.
Magazine subscriptions: Rosy has asked again for me to renew her favourite magazine subscription for Christmas. Oh yes, I can do that:) Here are some magazines that either I or my friends subscribe to and we all share:
Single issues are also brilliant in the Christmas stocking, along with fair trade chocolate. Because who doesn't want to spend Christmas morning reading and eating chocolate??
Tools: Actual old, vintage tools from second hand shops which are beautiful and will last forever, including kitchen tools like rotary egg beaters and those exciting mincing machines which clamp onto the table top (my granny used to mince up the Sunday roast leftovers to make into sausage rolls with one of these). Last year my gift to The Girl, who was leaving home, was a collection of wonderful vintage kitchen ware to take with her. I had collected it over the course of the year in second hand shops and had such fun..
Camping Shops and Cool Gadgets: Choose an independently owned shop and buy useful tools for camping and saving power at home - wind up or solar charged torches, head torches (nothing is more useful for collecting wood from the woodshed in the dead of winter - no hands!), pocket knives, stainless steel drink bottles, solar lanterns. I have my eye on one of these kettles for picnics, camping and outdoor cooking in the backyard. I have also just bought myself a thermal cooker which I am hoping will reduce our gas stove top usage over summer, keeping us cool and saving fuel.
Local Artists and Artisans: One of my favourite things about art by local artists is that they enable us to re-envision the place in which we live. I bought a painting from a friend many years ago which is an abstract of a local waterfall. It just evokes a Tasmanian forest for me and makes me happy every day. Local artisans are sometimes hard to find, but also sometimes make extraordinary useful and beautiful things. This year I have discovered the recycled metal knives of John Houndslow Robinson. One day, after much saving, I plan to own one of these knives. I am also coveting a copper saucepan and one of these leather handbags. None of them are cheap, but all of them will last a lifetime and beyond.
Craft Fairs: We have a Christmas market on in town next weekend - all local artists and crafters displaying their wares. Brilliant, and you can hardly get a more local present than that, except:
Home made: OK, I am not the best person to talk about this. Home made for me is very hard work. That is why I go to the craft fair. But I do make jam and home made cleaners in nice jars, especially the bathroom cleaner paste. I am considering knitting dishcloths as well, knitting squares being something I can do. Good old-fashioned baking gifts for neighbours are a great way to keep up the goodwill on your street as well (even better if you get the children to do the baking).
Gifts for Making Things: For her birthday I bought Posy a book on making lip balms, lotions and hand creams, plus the beeswax, shea butter, essential oils etc to make them. This has been a huge hit with her, and the bonus is enough lip balm and hand cream to last us for the next decade. I know what I will be getting from her for Christmas! One of Rosy's favourite gifts as a cheese-loving 12yo a few years ago, was a cheese making kit from a good friend. You can buy all sorts of kits from this home-based business in Melbourne (we have bought candle making equipment from them).
Food: This is generally the easiest local product to buy. Making up hampers of local plus home made food in baskets bought from the op-shop actually sounds like a fun thing to do..
Wrapping: Wrapping paper is terribly wasteful. Over the last few years I have been collecting gift bags from op-shops, and fabric drawstring bags as well. Our Christmas is heading towards waste-free, with the bonus of mess-free as well:)
Christmas is always about gifts for those we love, and let's take care of that in a way that works with our values of taking care of each other in our local communities, and taking care of the planet. And then, let's spend some time thinking about taking care of those who really don't have enough this Christmas, or at any other time, and put them on our Christmas list as well.
Tell me about your plans for a Christmas that makes you happy..
God knows I've tried to be an excellent housekeeper over the years, but it just never sticks. I get distracted very, very easily because the world is full of such marvellous things. So I have decided to cease striving for excellence in housekeeping (actually, the people who live with me would deny that 'striving' is ever what I do in relation to housework) and accept that a C average is all I am ever going to achieve, and learn to happily live with that.
Practical Tips for the Average Housekeeper: Simplify, simplify, simplify: Less stuff, less mess, less cleaning, more time to follow delightful distractions wherever they lead..
If it isn't broke, don't fix it: Some people adore interior decorating and faffing about with table decorations and moving furniture about. One of my friends rearranges her furniture and accessories every season. My grandmother, on the other hand, never moved anything in her house throughout my whole childhood. Even when she moved house she arranged everything in the new house exactly the same as the old. I am with her. (Almost) everything in my house has a place, and it can just stay there now for the next decade or two. It means I don't lose things (well, except my glasses and keys, and even they have a place now. If only I could put them there on a more regular basis) and can clean and tidy on autopilot.
Important note: buying useless decorative crap always creates more mess, clutter and cleaning. Just don't do it. It won't make your house look better unless you are an excellent housekeeper who likes to dust. Having less stuff and less mess will make your house look better.
If your living areas are tidy, your house will look clean: Five minutes tidying in every room after dinner. Kitchen, dining room, living room, hallway. Shoes, papers, toys, clothes, all go away. The jury is out on books. Are they mess or vital life support? I have a lamp table with a lamp and all our current reads. No knick-knacks, just pure, unadulterated books. This is useful as we can always find our current book there. I also have a shelf on the bookcase in my bedroom dedicated to library books, so I can always find them when it is library day.
If the kitchen is tidy you will feel calm and happy (well, maybe calmer and happier than if it isn't): Do the dishes after dinner every night. Straight after dinner. Every night. I manage this about six nights out of seven. It is not always me doing the dishes, but I have to be foreman. Doing the dishes also implicitly includes wiping down the benches and the stovetop and sweeping the floor. Cleaning the kitchen every night is boring and tedious, but joy comes in the morning..
Strategy: Clean and tidy smarter, not harder. What are your areas of greatest mess and annoyance? How can you make this area much easier to keep clean and tidy? For instance, my girls do endless craft. I used to have an art and craft room which was always a hideous eyesore. Now the craft 'room' is the dining room table and the craft drawers right next to it so that it all has to be tidied up by the next meal, back into the drawers right next to the table. It may as well be as easy as possible. Maybe if you sew you could have a sewing cupboard next to the dining room table to store your sewing things. Anyone who regularly does any kind of project could benefit from keeping an empty cupboard space right next to the dining table so that there is a quick tidying solution that doesn't involve traipsing all over the house to put things away.
Other strategic triumphs: My girls never used to put their shoes in their wardrobes, but kind of threw them near the wardrobe. Now they have big plastic shoe tubs, and can throw their shoes at them to their hearts' content. Rosy's dirty clothes basket was across the room, while all her dirty clothes piled up next to her bed. So I moved the clothes basket next to the bed.
I always pile up papers and mail on the bench right inside the kitchen door. Now I have a basket right there so at least it looks intentional, and when the basket overflows I know I have to sort out the paperwork.
It's all about zen. Don't fight the mess, understand the mess, and work with it..
Mess containers: There is always annoying detritus in a house, no matter how much you declutter. Give in, and just find something to put the mess in. I have a small basket in the kitchen for all the tiny things that don't have a home. It stops them cluttering up the windowsill. The mess in the bathroom is always bobby pins and hair bands belonging to the girls. I now have a tub in the vanity that I throw all stray pins and bands into.
Cleaning the bathroom: There is something about cleaning the bathroom that is more annoying than almost all other cleaning tasks. I haven't cleaned the bathroom for two weeks now, but I have cleaned the toilet and the basin, so it mostly looks and smells clean. In my new house I have discovered the great secret that is the shower curtain. If you pull it fully across you can't see that the tub hasn't been cleaned for two weeks..
Close the doors: No matter what I do, my children have appallingly untidy rooms. I expect yours do too. Just close the door.
Move to a smaller house: Best thing I ever did from a housekeeping point of view. At our old house we renovated to make our house almost twice as big. What were we thinking? Cleaning two bathrooms is definitely more than twice as awful as cleaning one. If you have a lot of children they can effortlessly mess up a large house in about the same amount of time as they can mess up a small one..
Are you also an average housekeeper? Are you resigned, or still fighting the good fight? Do you have strategies to stay sane and prevent chaos while pursuing other interests? Please share:)
The world I want to live in has markets instead of supermarkets, and little local stores and cafes where you can buy everything you need within walking distance of your house. I want to buy beautiful and interesting things made by artists and crafters. I want to be able to stop by and see the people building my furniture and making my bread. I want to have relationships with the people who make my food, and chat with the old ladies of the neighbourhood in the post office and meet friends at the greengrocers.
I am blessed to live in a neighbourhood where all these things are possible. I can and do shop locally and by the choices that I make about where to spend my dollars on a weekly basis, I am aiming to make my country great again, a place where neighbourhoods provide jobs that are also meaningful work and we all have safe, liveable communities.
I would like to be able to say that I never venture into the giant, ugly dens of iniquity that house the mega corporations of death, destruction and despair, but that would be a rank lie. Damn, those supermarkets are convenient! They stock everything under one enormous and extremely ugly roof. It's cheap. It's there. But it is evil incarnate. They look so innocuous. They will sell you wholesome things that you need like apples and bread and socks. But don't be fooled. They exist to make enormous profits for their owners and shareholders. That is their only mandate. And if you live in Australia it is very difficult indeed to avoid spending your dollars at one of the two major supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, or at one of their many subsidiaries - Target, Kmart, Myer, Big W, Bunnings, Dan Murphy's, Liquorland, Officeworks. In fact, there would be many Australians who rarely shop anywhere but at one of these stores.
So why is this a problem? Again, these major publicly listed companies exist to make a profit. They are not investing in local products, they are hunting out the cheapest products, and driving down prices at the farm gate to win more market share with cheaper prices for their customers. Farmers are being forced off the land because there comes a point where you can't produce an apple or a celery stick any cheaper.
There are numerous stories of nefarious deals when one of the big chains arrives in town - local hardware stores forced out of business when Bunnings signs exclusive agreements to prevent suppliers selling to the locals. "Brand bombing" when more big chain retail stores are opened than can be sustained by the local population - once the local opposition has closed its doors, the big retailer closes all but one of its stores as well, and that is the end of any alternative shopping experience in town..
And yes, there should be some serious government regulation to prevent this, but honestly, we have done it to ourselves. We have let Coles and Woolworths take over our country and turn it into a giant, dreary suburb where everything is the same. Where is the joy and interest of small family businesses? Where is the fun of tiny quirky shops with interesting jobs for our teenagers? Where are the fair prices that will keep farmers on the land? It's up to us to keep our local shops open and our farmers' markets running. An enormous diversity of small business gives millions of people a chance to live their own dream and make a dignified living with meaningful work. That is a really good place to start to make any country a great place to live..
So this is my challenge to myself. Less convenience, more adventure, colour, interest and good conversation in my local shops. Which means I need to pop out now to walk the dog and buy some bacon before the butcher's shop shuts..
Spring is certainly springing around here, although it could be warmer down here in the chilly south. I have mustard greens growing madly. What does one even do with mustard greens? Anyone?
Baby peas with their tiny tendrils waving about as they twine around the pea sticks (apricot tree prunings).
While walking the dog on the river path the other day I found a huge patch of native river mint, so I brought some home in a doggy bag! While I was planting it (in a tub. Mint will take over the whole world if you let it..) I also took the opportunity to take my common mint, Moroccan mint and round leafed native mint out of their too small pots and pop them in the tub too, so they can all fight it out together. May the best mint win! I will keep the tub under the garden tap so it gets all the moisture that the mint family loves. In the garden I have also found woolly apple mint, so I think we have the
mint family nicely represented here at Chez Blueday.
Due to an exceptionally wet spring we have an exceptionally enthusiastic snail population this year, and I have been struggling to keep my direct seeded baby plants uneaten, so I have taken the drastic step of planting seeds indoors. Gasp! This is not something I normally do, due to its requirement of constant and consistent watering and maintenance, but needs must.
I have found that wooden clothes pegs make excellent seed markers. I have been doing my seed planting on the kitchen table, using a spoon to add soil to pots. This is much more convenient than crouching over seed trays in a windy garden. I can see why people build potting sheds.. but why bother when you have a perfectly serviceable kitchen table? I am sure hardly anyone has noticed the potting mixture all over the floor..
Made a trellis for cucumbers and melons out of tomato stakes, apricot tree prunings and string. Projects that involve string and sticks are absolutely my level of DIY. We will call it rustic upcycling shall we?
What are your spring (or autumn) garden projects? Or are you the type of person who feels that gardening is best left to Other People (much like me and DIY)..
Paneer is a fresh, white cheese that you can eat right away. It is particularly straight-forward to make, its only ingredients being milk and lemon juice. It is traditionally made in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and is often added to curries. It makes a great protein addition to vegetarian curries, having the advantage that it doesn't melt when heated, instead providing velvety nuggets of goodness in a curry sauce. I particularly like it in a vegetarian tikka masala...
Last month Kim from our Living Better With Less Group turned up in my kitchen to show a bevy of interested potential cheesemakers how to make paneer.
We started with two litres of whole milk, poured it into a saucepan and brought it to just under a boil, then added 4 teaspoons of lemon juice (2 teaspoons per litre of milk). A litre is more or less the same as a quart for the US imperialists out there..
Take the milk off the heat and wait for the milk to curdle. It will take a few minutes. What you are looking for is curds like this. If they are a little smaller, don't worry. This was the biggest curd we could find in three large saucepans of milk! If there are not many curds forming, add more lemon juice.
Now pour your curds and whey mixture through a colander or strainer lined with muslin set inside a large pot. And really, only muslin will do for this job. We also tried cheesecloth and a tea towel, but the weave on both was too fine, so we had to use the loose-weave muslin for all our batches of cheese.
The liquid that strains through the muslin is the whey, and it is useful to keep that for baking, preserving your paneer, or feeding to the dog to make his coat shiny.
Now make a Christmas pudding style bag with the cheese in the muslin, and squeeze out excess whey. My official photographer did not get a photo of this step, but I am sure you can imagine it. Pop the muslin bag in a small bowl or pot and pop a heavy object on top to squeeze out even more liquid. After half an hour or so, unwrap your Christmas pudding cheese parcel, and you will have a small but delicious amount of home made cheese!
You will feel very proud of yourself! You can eat it in a couple of days (store it covered in the fridge) or if you want to keep it for longer, up to a couple of weeks, add a little salt to the whey to make a brine, and cover the cheese with it, and refrigerate it. The cheese will be firmer after a couple of days in the fridge.
And here is an idea I have had - you know you see marked down milk at the shops that is near its use-by date? I have never been able to think what to do with that other than make large amounts of custard (not an unworthy scheme, of course), but now I can buy it up and make it into cheese. Hurrah! Waste not the unwanted milk at the back of the dairy case. Equally, the milk at the back of the fridge that may be about to go off..
Thanks Kim, and all the hilarious bunch of wonderful people that make Living Better With Less a joyous way to live xx
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (18) and Posy (14). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much.. and now extra frugal adventures with Partner Paul..