December is finally here and the countdown to Christmas begun. I love the season of Advent and the invitation to reorient our hearts towards the things of faith. Alex and I have been reading to each other from the "Celtic Advent" devotional and it's a beautiful collection of stories, scriptures and reflections around this season of waiting. I don't know about you but I get to this time of year and my body begins to unravel in tiredness and over-stimulation and the accumulation of another wonderful, messy, curious twelve months of life. I feel slow and limited and achey even though I'm not sick with anything in particular. Recently I've begun to simplify my festive plans and pack away (figuratively and physically) projects for the new year. I crave solitude and silence and stillness, however fleeting. I lean towards the simple goodness around me: listening to the beautiful birds singing in the trees around our house, reading familiar (and loved) Christmas stories to my children, eating a ripe mango for dessert and stretching my legs in the early summer sunshine. My prayer is to notice and cherish the gifts so abundantly given to me //
Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more–a grateful heart:
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose Pulse may be
December is a blur of endings and illness and sunshine and the garden bursting with colour and growth, the flap of birds and the buzz of bees. We pick spent poppy heads for the door wreath and eat the last of the snow peas and shell the first of the broad beans (which the boys call "exploding rocket beans!"). Our dwelling, Fiddler's Cottage, undergoes much needed repairs to the wood cladding and is also given a lick of fresh paint which is glorious to behold.. We observe the four weeks of advent with our calendar of boxes filled with love notes and sweets, we read storybooks and Christmas fables and scriptures and poems, on Sundays we light the candles on our wreath and reflect on the gifts of hope, peace, joy and love Jesus brings...
So many things made Christmas feel special this year: waking up with my sister and a dear friend to celebrate with us // Filling the house with flowers from the garden: feverfew, smoke bush, hydrangeas, valerian, lavender, dahlias and nasturtiums // Feasting on so many delicious things like ricotta pancakes for breakfast, trout gravlax Alex prepared, creamy potato salad with homegrown dill, rosemary crackers the boys helped me make with the best local pate, pavlova adorned with fresh fruit, cherries and roasted peanuts in their shells // Spending the afternoon outside in the mild summer air napping, playing games and reading books // Watching the house grow dark and quiet after all the excitement and intensity of the day // Lighting all the advent candles and saying a payer of thanksgiving for the Christchild and all the gifts He brings...
May all God wants
to bless you with
come to be, and may
your inner mangers,
fresh with hope,
hold wonders of His love,
and splendors of His world,
and wisdoms of His word
May peace surround you,
behind and before you,
your words and work,
your hearth and kin,
and all the friends
you haven't seen,
in your heart speak:
the prince of peace
And as the trees of the field
clap their hands,
may you sing joy -
marvel in the clouds
bees and sprouting seeds
full plates and grubby chins,
it all begins with love.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb
If I were a wise man I would do my part, -
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart
~ Christina Rossetti
Today marks the fourth and final week of Advent where we consider the gift of love. How wonderful it is to be able to bed loved and to love others! Do you know it is because “God first loved us”: his immense love for us that is the reason Jesus came to the world at all? It is from this place of great love that God desires relationship and connection with each one of us and Jesus makes possible through his birth, death and resurrection. Jesus said: “Let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (John 1:4-7).
Look for opportunities to show love to others this week: love that is patient and kind, that does not envy or boast or keep a record of all the wrongs. Love without expecting anything in return, love born of compassion and grace.
Let us pray as we light the fourth candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of Love:
Thank you for the great love you have
for every one of us. Thank you for our
capacity to feel love and be loved by
those around us. Give us opportunities
to show your love to others: love that is
patient and kind, that does not envy or
boast or keep a record of all the wrongs -
love without reciprocity: love borne
of sacrifice and grace. Thank you for being
above all else a God of LOVE. Amen.
Baking festive cookies to share with family and friends fills me with joy! Here are five of my favourite recipes which I have tinkered and adapted to be gluten free and coeliac friendly...
* “Bunsli” Swiss Chocolate Spice Cookies *
The favourite. Hands down the best Christmas cookie! I like using ground hazelnuts instead of almonds in my Brunsli but you can use either or a combination of both. Nice dark chocolate and that hint of cinnamon and cloves makes them so special.
You will need:
3/4 cups white crystallised sugar 1 pinch of salt
250g ground hazelnuts (you can also use almonds or a mix of both)
1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoons of ground cloves
2 tablespoons flour (I use rice flour)
2 fresh egg whites (70g), lightly beaten until frothy
100g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa
1/2 cup white sugar for rolling/dusting
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl beat egg whites with a fork until frothy but not stiff (you can also just shake them up in a jar with a lid until frothy) Add egg whites to dry ingredients and mix. Next melt dark chocolate and pour over other ingredients and mix well. Using clean hands knead dough into a ball.
On a lightly “sugared” (more white sugar) surface roll out dough to 1cm thickness and cut into desired shapes – if your cookie cutter gets too sticky, rinse in warm water - I keep a bowl next to me for this purpose. You will also need to re-sugar the work surface.
Arrange cookies on trays lined with baking paper and sprinkle with a little more sugar. Bake in a moderate oven (180’c) for 10 minutes (they will hardern as they cool down). Once cool, store cookies in an airtight container – they will last 3 weeks if stored like this.
**I find rolling out the dough on a piece of baking paper prevents sticky dough clean up, and you can use it for baking the final batch of shapes on**
* Raspberry Marshmallows *
Making your own marshmallows is fairly simple and satisfying: they are light and delicious! These ones include real raspberries which bring a gentle pink colour and flavour...
You will need:
1/2 cup frozen or fresh raspberries
2 cups white sugar
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons powdered grass-fed beef gelatine
1/2 cup water
Place raspberries, sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a small saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Stir every so often to make sure all the sugar dissolves and the raspberries break up.
Meanwhile let the gelatine powder “bloom” by sprinkling it on top of the 1/2 cup water - I do this in a deep cooking pot or large mixing bowl.
Once the raspberry sugar syrup is gently boiling pour slowly onto the gelatine - whole beginning to beat with an electric mixer on a low speed. Slowly increase speed to high and beat mixture until it becomes thick and glossy, the colour will lighten. It takes about 8-10 minutes. Spread marshmallow mixture into a baking paper lined tray and set in the fridge for an hour or two.
Using a cookie cutter of your choosing press shapes out of the marshmallows and dust lightly with icing sugar and tapioca starch or cornflour. I make a mixture of 1 tablespoon or each. You can also use dedicated coconut. Store in an airtight container...
You can use all the offcuts for homemade rocky road or chopped up in festive warm drinks
* Zimtsternes: Cinnamon Stars *
I love to make are these cinnamon stars or “zimtsternes" as they are called in German. These are especially lovely with the addition of citrus zest and juice and ground cinnamon. Delicate, fragrant and spicy. They are often covered with white royal icing or meringue but I prefer them adorned simply with a thin brushing of egg white and a sprinkle of raw sugar...
You will need:
250 grams or 2 cups ground almond meal
1 pinch sea salt
2 tablespoons rice flour + 2 tablespoons tapioca starch OR 4 tablespoons of GF plain flour
1 cup crystallised or raw sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons lemon or orange zest
2 tablespoons lemon or orange juice
2 fresh egg whites, beaten until frothy
1 egg white, beaten and frothy, for brushing on top
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl beat egg whites until frothy but not stiff. Add egg whites to dry ingredients and mix. Next stir in citrus zest and juice. Using clean hands knead dough into a ball. On a lightly floured surface (lightly sprinkled with crystallised sugar too) roll out dough to 1cm thickness and cut into desired shapes. Arrange cookies on trays lined with baking paper and air dry for 2-4 if possible before baking (I have skipped this step many times before and they have worked out fine). Preheat oven to 180'c, brush cookies with egg white and bake cookies for 10 - 15 minutes, careful not to brown them - they will harden as they cool. Store in an airtight container for up to a month.
* Gingerbread Angels *
It’s no secret that I love gingerbread. I share this recipe every year for your gluten free gingerbread needs! The psyllium husks is an unusual addition I know, but it really helps bring a little elasticity to the dough without drying it out. For added zing stir in a teaspoon of freshly grated ginger into the dough.
You will need:
3/4 cup of honey or golden syrup 2 cups of GF plain flour (or 1/2 cup rice flour, 1/2 cup buckwheat flour + 1 cup tapioca starch)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 tablespoon of ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ground cloves + ground cardamon
1 teaspoon of cocoa powder
1 tablespoon psyllium husks
1 small egg
Melt butter over low heat in medium sized saucepan, add honey or golden syrup and bring to a gentle boil, remove from heat and cool for 10 minutes. Add sifted dry ingredients, psyllium husks, spices and a small egg, stir with a wooden spoon until smooth. Cover pot and stand at room temperature for 1 hour. It will thicken considerably and become more “dough” like.
Turn mixture on to surface which has been dusted with extra flour. Knead lightly, working in only enough flour until mixture loses its stickiness. I find rolling and cutting the dough on a piece of baking parchment/paper helps reduce stickiness. Roll dough to about 1/2 inch thickness and cut out shapes as desired.
Decorate with dried fruit such as cherries, currants and citrus peel. Bake in moderate oven (180’c) for 8-10 minutes or until golden. They will harden as they cool. Recipe can be doubled.
* French Style Chocolate Hearts *
This recipe is adapted from a French Christmas biscuit magazine I bought while we lived there. It’s a simple shortbread that is sure to please chocolate loving friends and relatives - with both flecks of chocolate throughout the cookie and one side dipped in rich, dark chocolate.
You will need:
2 cups GF plain flour (or 1 cup each rice flour and tapioca starch)
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup chocolate sprinkles or chopped chocolate
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
pinch of salt
70g dark chocolate (70%) for melting
In a large bowl combine the above ingredients (except dark chocolate for melting) and shape with your hands into a ball. You can use a food processor on a low speed if you rather. Wrap dough in foil or plastic-wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Meanwhile preheat oven to 180'c. Roll dough out on a lightly floured surface to 1/2 cm thickness and cut into hearts - arrange on baking-paper lined trays bake until golden for 10-15 minutes. Cool. Melt dark chocolate and taking each heart dip one side into the chocolate, letting any excess chocolate drip off - before placing back onto the baking-paper lined tray to dry. It should take about 1 hour or two for the chocolate to set.
This is a Christmassy twist on classic play-dough which includes cocoa, cinnamon and essential oils. You can even mix in a little gold or silver glitter. It makes a lovely, creative gift for young children in a container with a few cookie cutters, interesting rocks and gum nuts to play with. See instructions below for how to make baked salt-dough decorations with it which you can hang on your tree.
Festive Salt Dough
You will need:
- 1 3/4 cups plain flour + 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup fine salt
- 2 tbsp oil
- 4 tbs cream of tartar
- 2 cups water
optional: add a few drops of essential oils such as sweet orange and clove
Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan and stir over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, until the mixture thickens and comes away from the sides of the pan. Tip out onto a clean plate and roll dough into a ball and let it cool before playing with it.
** You can make decorations with your salt dough by rolling it out flat, cutting out your desired shapes. Gentle poke a hole near the top of each shape (the end of a pen or pencil works well) - this hole will be what you can thread ribbon or string through so it can be hung up. Arrange your shapes on an oven tray, and bake for 15 minutes in a moderate oven at 180’c. They will harder as they cool. Once cold you can paint your decorations or brush with glue and glitter etc. Thread ribbon or strings through the holes and hang on your tree **
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing, and all
the trees of the field shall clap their hands."
Today is the third Sunday of Advent where we consider the gift of joy! Joy is that deep down sense of contentment regardless of what’s going right or wrong in our lives. Jesus said that He came so that “our joy may be full”, that our wellbeing and flourishing is at the heart of God’s desire for all of us.
Like the gift of hope, joy is not dependant on what we do but rather it is a state of being. We know life will bring unexpected blows and losses, many of us have felt them this year with increased illness, isolation and uncertainty. Joy is not saying that our hardships and suffering don’t matter, it is acknowledging them whilst also turning our focus to God and trusting that he sees, loves and cares for us at all times. There is joy in speaking to babies who can’t form their words yet smile and understand us, there is joy in giving to others not expecting them to give anything back, there is joy in laughter and cheerfulness, there is joy in rest and a slower pace, there can even be a joy in letting-go of things and thoughts that no longer serve us.
Let us light the third candle on our Advent Wreath, the candle of Joy:
Thank you for the gift of joy:
that deep down sense of being well,
in spite of what’s going wrong in our lives.
Joy that lasts so much longer
than fleeting “happiness”
Thank you for saying that you
have come SO that “our joy may be full”
that our wellbeing and flourishing
is at the heart of your desire for every one of us.
Let us feel JOY afresh this season. Amen.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace:
Thank you that we can know peace in our hearts
that transcends understanding; that brings comfort
amidst life’s struggles and blows.
Thank you for the challenge to be a peacemaker
not just a keeper of the peace -
to actively participate in the bringing
about of peace in our turbulent world.
Thank you for being the Prince of Peace. Amen.
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of peace to you
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
I keep thinking about this poem by Emily Dickinson and that image of hope living in us like a bird, singing continually in the soul.
I've come to realise that the beautiful thing about hope is that doesn’t require us to do anything; rather it is a state of being. The hope that Jesus gifts us is born out of love, trust and connection.
We hope for our children and grandchildren’s futures; we hope for a restored, healthy environment that flourishes; we hope for inequalities and injustices to be righted, we hope for unity and peace in a divided people, we hope for lives with purpose and meaning.
Living with hope is living with knowledge that we have a loving creator, an advocate - God - who is working all things together for good - that what we see right now isn’t all there is, that the best is yet to come, and that we all have a part to play in our shared future.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13)
Let's pray as we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of Hope:
thank you for the hope we have in you:
the hope that does not disappoint.
Hope that is born out of love,
trust and intimate relationship.
Hope not only in what we see
but what we don’t see as well.
Help us to provide HOPE for our family,
neighbours and strangers this
Advent season through words
and acts of kindness, generosity
and love. Amen.
ABOUT the author
Emily Clare Sims is a farmer and mama to three young boys. Each day she looks for ways to notice beauty, contemplate her faith and savour the seasons...