In praise of staycations – and the luxury of time

One of my Christmas presents was My Little Happy Book – a journal to record happy moments, happy scribbles, happy songs, quotes, meals – even dreams. Curiously there’s also a section called My Happy to-do List. While I am huge fan of lists, happiness over the Christmas holidays has been an absence of lists, deadlines and rushing. That’s the beauty of Christmas falling in the summer months – I’ve just about got used to hot, light, beach-y, seafood-y Australian Christmases, the sky an endless blue, the flowering gums alive with the squawking of Rainbow lorikeets, the jacarandas dropping purple confetti.

Like August in some European countries, the whole place slows down, the vibe shifts to something kinder and gentler allowing the days to blur into one another. It’s like slipping into a timeless zone and pressing pause. At one point last year I had thought of visiting America or heading to the coast for the Festive Season.  Neither plan materialised and, so, I have luxuriated in the simple pleasures afforded by a staycation.

I like to honour the Christmas rituals of my childhood, one of them being attending church. Whether you are a believer or not, Jesus’ birth is a magical story and presents an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Over the years I have been to a local church – one year with both my parents when visiting from England, and last year with my mother. While I escaped my usual Yuletide sense of geographic dislocation and depression this year, I didn’t want to push it by attending a church service so redolent of Mum and Dad. My father used to love belting out O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – I can see him, now, half singing, half conducting.

Attending a German Meetup Group before Christmas, I discovered that there was a service on Christmas Eve at the German Lutheran Church in East Melbourne at 7pm.

Here was an opportunity to embrace the Christmas spirit without any emotional triggers. I enjoyed listening to familiar readings from the Bible in German and tuning into the cadence of the language as well as singing well-known carols to German lyrics; it’s harder than you would think to get the phrasing and pacing right!

Just over the road is St Patrick’s Cathedral, and as our service concluded, theirs was just starting, the bells ringing out in great rippling peals. One of my favourite sounds, I could have been anywhere in ‘Mittel Europa’ what with the magnificent tree sparkling in the chancel. Only momentarily, though, as the heat – half the congregation were fanning themselves with the service sheet – brought me firmly back to the Southern Hemisphere.

After a delicious Christmas Day with my brother and his family of feasting, present-giving, snoozing, swimming in the pool and reading, I arm-chair-travelled back to Germany in the following days. Airbnb guests earlier in December recommended a German drama on SBS entitled Kurfürstendamm 56 and the second series Ku’Damm 59.  Set in Berlin in the 50s, it’s the story of a mother and her three daughters at a time of huge political and social change. They own a dance school along the Ku’Damm and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll – and the looser morals that went with it – are just one of the challenges to the old order of genteel waltzes and tea dances. What a joy it was to have time to watch six 90-minute episodes and to give it my full attention. Although the plot became a little contrived towards the end of the second series, I was transported back in time and found myself gripped.

I also went off to Oxford courtesy of a wonderful book called A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes. The author reminded me of me! I also used to live in Oxford and worked for a charity. I, too, sometimes struggle with the rigours of the workplace, the pressure, the ever-shifting KPIs (key performance indicators) and suffer from computer neck. Jukes takes up bee-keeping as a way of changing her way of sensing and seeing the world. Another highlight was listening to a reading on BBC Radio 4 of Italian classic The Leopard by Lampedusa. English actor Alex Jennings inhabited the world of the fading grandeur of the Sicilian aristocracy of the 1860s brilliantly, inserting just the right measure of pathos and humour. Nectar – forgive the bee pun.

I had a list of things I planned to do over the break and have ditched most of them in favour of rest, relaxation and a few refreshing swims in the sea with my dog Bertie. And the tasks I did accomplish had a quality of a spaciousness and didn’t have to be rushed, teeth gritted. Did I mention I managed to crack my dental splint towards the end of last year? The KPIs can wait till I start work again next week. I am hoping I don’t return to the scenario faced by Jukes after Christmas one year: “When I arrive there’s a new set of ‘key performance’ indicators on my desk – a New Year’s greeting from Head Office. Thirty fresh targets, divided into six neat categories, which we are now required to report on each quarter. Everyone’s fuming about it […] I want to throw the performance indicators in the dust bin.” I’m not saying anything.

Slowing Down to survive the Season

How was your December? Did you remain in one piece? By Christmas Eve I was bit done in.  I’d been through an intense month at work, flown to Singapore for a few nights to meet my 86-year-old mother who came in from England. On day two her viral aches flared up big time and I got gastro so there we were in our twin-bedded luxury hotel room, me rushing to the bathroom and my mother whimpering with pain, making the next day’s onward flight to Australia a bit of a challenge to say the least.

On arrival in Australia, Mum got the gastro (which lasted two weeks) and I had to fly straight up to Brisbane for work the following morning at 7am. Still a bit of digestive disaster, I had stayed overnight in a pretty basic motel at Tullamarine and, distracted by worry about Mum,  managed to leave my laptop on the conveyor belt at Security. Inconvenient, but I did get it back the next day; as a dear friend quipped, security is a pretty safe place to leave your computer.

The previous week, rushing for a train, I had nearly fallen down the steps at Flinders Street and the Friday before  Christmas I was so caught up in thoughts that I threw the ball for my dog Bertie into the road rather than into the trees. Bertie has zero road sense and, but for the timely appearance of a Guardian Angel disguised as a fellow dog walker, he would have run out in front of the cars. Like so many of us I was galloping mindlessly towards the end of the year.

By Christmas Eve, although the gastro had gone, I had a touch of Bridget Jonesitis (the world can appear very smugly married at Christmas time with everything screaming happy families and TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY).  Remember Colin Firth’s reindeer jumper in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary?  To add to the heady mix, I had some personal life entanglements – the jolly season does tend to heighten emotions – and the night before Christmas I experienced a resurgence of grief for my father who died last December.  How I wished I could pick up the phone and chat to him. Dad loved Christmas and was always the life and soul of the party – I can remember him drinking a bit too much and playing catch with a bowl of Christmas pudding one year.

Never one to be defeated and wallow, I took a deep breath – well several – and spent the evening dipping into some inspirational texts, quotes, poems and other self-help bits and pieces which I have collected and curated over the year, treating myself to a philosophical and spiritual immersion.  One of the texts I returned to was by Henry Scott Holland, a piece that was read at my grandmother’s memorial service and at my father’s funeral in January. Here’s an excerpt.

“Death is nothing at all…I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the way in which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air or solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed.”  

My father and I enjoyed lots of in-jokes, references that only we understood, and we invented multiple silly languages that involved Mr Bean-type gesticulations. That humorous and playful thread still connects me to the essence of my father. Then I came across Mad Dogs and Englishmen (as in they who go out in the midday sun), the song written and sung by Noel Coward (although some attribute the words to Rudyard Kipling) in 1931. It satirises the failure of the British to adapt to foreign climates and starts like this:

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don’t care to
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to.
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
The Englishmen detest a siesta.”

While my father was not an embarrassing English man ‘abroad’, he was quintessentially English and always had dogs at his side. I can picture him now striding across heather-clad moors with his black Labradors. How these memories nurture me.

Then I dipped into a bit of Buddhist compassion – for self and others, remembering to slow down and simply be present to what is and to surrender to things and situations I can’t control and change; life doesn’t always deliver what we want.  I love the concept of coming back to the senses as a way of circuit-breaking the chatter of the mind. There’s a softness to kindness and compassion – it’s the opposite of achievement-driven rushing. And softness can twin with resilience; I remember an Ayurvedic retreat where we visualised a strong spine, our support system, while breathing in and out peace.  Just ten deep breaths can re-set an agitated system. Ahh…By Christmas Day I had undergone something of a 360-degree transformation. When I walked my dog in the morning, I felt my feet on the ground, listened to the rustling of the trees and the orange of the canna lilies and the purply blue of the agapanthus flowers jumped out at me. I spent a joyous day with my mother and my brother and his family celebrating in the traditional way.

A few days later, I heard a wonderful program on BBC Radio 4 about sloths and the benefits of taking life at a more leisurely pace. Slow-moving animals live longer – and even creatures associated with industriousness have some less active members among them – think un-busy bees and lazy ants. The only time that sloths speed up is when they have sex and that’s all about survival. As they normally keep a low profile to reduce their exposure to predators, raucous sex and lots of movement puts them at risk, making it sensible to get it over with quickly. Well, we don’t have to take too many leaves out of the sloth’s book, but a few maybe, and those that we do, we should digest slowly – they take a week to digest their food!

Happy New Year to all my readers! May it be evenly-paced, kind and mindful.

Deck the Halls

There was something incredibly endearing about the cow bells and yodelling echoing in stereo around the shuttle train at Zurich airport. With images seemingly lifted straight from the pages of Heidi flashing past the windows, it was a fitting farewell from Europe, and I loved it. I almost shed a tear in fact.

At Vienna airport it was all about the opera. The first thing I saw when walking towards the baggage collection area was a section of the libretto of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus stencilled (or copied – I am not sure of the medium) across the walls. Only in Vienna, I thought.

I’ve been back in Melbourne nearly three weeks now but my head is still full of Europe. I left Zurich on 18th November, just two days before the Christmas lights in the Bahnhofstrasse were officially switched on. How tantalising is that?! I could see long threads of lights hanging overhead and could only imagine how dazzling they would look on a cold winter’s night.

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

And that’s the problem you see. It’s too light and warm over here for Christmas to feel like Christmas. It’s all wrong, upside down, topsy-turvy and back to front – at least, for those of us brought up in the Northern Hemisphere. When I first moved to Australia, I suffered acute homesickness at Christmas time. I struggled to adjust to fir trees and tinsel glittering in the sun (I was amused to see Christmas trees and mounds of look-alike snow in Federation Square this year) and days spent feasting on seafood or lying on the beach. Because I love the Christmas traditions, just as I love antique bone china cups. It’s the classicist in me.

My idea of listening to Christmas carols is not joining in a bun fight in the park with big screens beaming pictures of Dolly Parton-like singers blasting out American carols all about Santa and jingling bells. It’s about going to a church or cathedral and listening to an angelic-voiced choir boy leading in with the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, preferably by candle light. Last night I drove past my local park and the carol fest was in full swing complete with B-list celebrities, lots of hype and pizzazz, hordes of people, food stalls, and very noisy fireworks at the end. Baby Jesus didn’t get a look in…

I read something in Time Out suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t lean so much towards the European-inspired traditions (as in when in Rome…) and instead of fir trees have sand sculptures and other Aussie-centric decorations. Hmm, perhaps. Anything would be better than the pitiful and cheap-looking decorations installed by my local council this year. I thought it was perhaps just me with my snobbish European thing going on but, according to my local paper, ratepayers are up in arms at the cost of this year’s embarrassing effort. “The council has attempted to spruce up shopping strips with gold ribbon wrapped around trees and secured with cable ties, and stars stuck to fences and bins.”

From being in denial one year about Christmas – I simply edited it out and focused on the summer holidays instead – this year I am going all out to get into the Christmas spirit. I’ve collected up all my decorations old and new and added bits and bobs from two dollar shops, Target, Op Shops and my local park. Rather than a tree, I’m spraying twigs silver to arrange in a vase including a few gum leaves (my nod towards the ‘When in Rome’ thing). Then I’ve sprayed some fir cones to dot around my book shelves. I’ve got two traditional advent calendars and a Julelysspil, one of those delightful rotary candle holders that I purchased in Copenhagen (see photo), a few reindeer and lots of candles.


It’s easy to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – a time of peace, joy, celebration with family and friends, and an opportunity to rest and renew ourselves for the coming year. Whether it’s baking Christmas cakes and biscuits, singing carols, going to church or putting up the decorations, it’s about tapping into the wonder of the Christmas story and the aged-old Yuletide traditions. The origins of Christmas are actually something of a multi-layered mishmash of Pagan and Christian festivals. Yule was a Pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, an excuse for feasting and revelry to break up the long winter months. Whatever spiritual or religious tradition you belong to – or don’t belong to – it’s definitely the season to be jolly, to be thankful and to have a good knees-up. Go forth and deck the halls. Holly anyone?

‘Christmas… is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.’ Freya Stark

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Tapping into the magic of Christmas

Although many of us have turned away from conventional religion, doctrine and dogma, we still search for something beyond our increasingly materialist, me-me-me, I want it and I want it NOW consumerist world. Counting myself among the questers, I was interested to read an article entitled Divine Inspiration in the Melbourne Age before Christmas. The article looked at how the decline in the church-going population has gone hand in hand with an increase in the numbers of those seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives.

People find spirituality or a sense of otherness in different ways, whether it’s through meditation, ritual, prayer, solitude, art, poetry, time spent in nature or listening to music. The important thing is to take time out from the everyday, the rushing around, the doing and constant communicating with everything and everybody. Although, of course, you can choose to tune into Twitter for spiritual snippets and words of wisdom if you so choose…

That’s why I love going to church on Christmas Day. For me it’s about reclaiming a sense of ritual and sacredness at Christmas, surely one of the most hijacked religious festivals in the world. It’s about celebrating friends, family and being alive, about giving thanks for all the things we take for granted and about expressing joy through song and music. Whether or not we ‘believe’ in the Christmas story, it is a wonderful metaphor for the magical and mystical.
Even though I get ribbed by my brother and his family for what is often my only appearance of the year at church (I can’t seem to explain to them that it’s not about doing the right thing but about savouring an hour of peace and reflection away from presents, chatter and food) I persist in going on Christmas morning.

And it’s not just my own family that find it surprising that I make my yuletide pilgrimage. Australia is even more secular than my native England and so I am very much in the minority. According to La Trobe-based researcher and writer on religion, Professor Tacey, “We are such radically secular culture, so materialist, that to talk about the transcendent is almost un-Australian.” Perhaps it’s just as well I have dual nationality…


This year, however, I got caught up in the pre-Christmas rush and managed to Google the wrong church in the wrong country. Call it tiredness, scattiness, middle age madness or what you will, but I looked up St Peters Church in Brighton, England rather than St Andrew’s Church in Brighton, Australia. I was a bit surprised by the copy on the website: We are delighted to welcome you to this great adventure, an Anglican church planted from Holy Trinity Brompton in 2009 (HTB being in central London) – and by the fact that there was only one service at 10.30 a.m. when I was sure I had seen something about 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. in my local paper…

OK so I missed some of my favourite carols, but I did arrive in time to hear the choir sing In the Bleak Midwinter. As the sun streamed through the modern stained glass windows and glinted on the red baubles surrounding wreaths of holly, I was geographically many miles away from the ‘frosty wind made moan’ and ‘the snow on snow’ of the Northern Hemisphere, and yet at the same time I was immersed in the story, tradition and rituals I grew up with. I was in time for communion, for O little town of Bethlehem, for a glorious Hosanna anthem by the choir, for Silent Night and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. And I loved every minute of it. I came out feeling peaceful, uplifted, grateful, happy and joyful. I had simply allowed the Christmas story (and, let’s face it, without it there would be no Jingle Bells, no ‘rocking around’ the Christmas tree, no huge meals, presents, family gatherings and no holiday), to work its magic.

‘Fairing’ well at Christmas

For those of us from the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas Down Under can be a bit of a challenge. It’s Christmas but not as we know it. Hot blue skies, gum trees, flaming red bottlebrush flowers, beach, barbecues and seafood platters are a far cry from short, wintry December days, mince pies and mulled wine, turkey and the ‘trimmings’.

But this year I had an unexpected Christmas fix. Last Friday night my choir sang at a Christmas Fair and Festival at Ripponlea House, an elaborate (think chandeliers, ornate fireplaces and plasterwork, stained glass, embossed wallpapers, Regency furniture and more) Victorian mansion in Melbourne’s South East. After our performance a few of us took the opportunity to look round the house. By this time it was about 8.30 p.m., the light was fading and there was a slight nip in the air; perfect conditions to appreciate the house in all its Christmas glory.

Evergreen branches and candles adorned window sills, stockings hung in the nursery fire place and half-wrapped boxes of gifts lay on the bed in the master bedroom. In the dining room a formally set table was decorated with gold crackers, silver candelabras with red and green candles and paper napkins shaped like crowns. As if that were not enough to stir up nostalgic, rose-tinted memories of the festive season back in Blighty, carols floated up from the terrace below where a more traditionally minded choir ours were singing all the old favourites. It felt like Christmas and I went home feeling warm, fuzzy, and, well, festive. Deck the halls indeed!

This time last year, I was on my way to Copenhagen where I spent three nights on my way back to England. Christmas has its origins in the mid-winter pagan festivals of Northern Europe – yule comes from the Norsk word Jul – and so mid-December in Copenhagen was the place to be. Leaving Melbourne on a sunny 30-degree day, I arrived to snow and temperatures well below zero. From start to finish it was like being in a Winter Wonderland with stalls selling roasted almonds and mulled wine (known as glog) dotted around, brass bands playing carols in the city’s cobbled streets and squares and lights and decorations adorning every available window and facade.

Christmas at the Royal Copenhagen shopfront

Shop Window at Royal Copenhagen

Although it’s hugely touristy and commercial, I went to the Christmas Market in the Tivoli Gardens. Here, there was no escape from Santa – even in the Ladies’ toilets a piped voice wished us Ho, Ho, Ho, Happy Christmas. It was all a bit twee with a token reindeer in a pen surrounded by gingerbread-style houses selling steaming mugs of mulled wine, fur-lined boots and woollen hats from Lappland, confectionery, candles and Christmas decorations galore, but you couldn’t fail to get into the festive spirit.
Rudolf looks a little lonely

Rudolf looks a little lonely

The Christmas Fair in Christiana, a squatter community that started in the 1970s on the site of an old military barrack was a complete contrast to the extravaganza in the Tivoli Gardens. Now a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood operating to a nine-rule Common Law, Christiana is scruffy, hip, New Age and eco-friendly with some edgier fringe dwellers into the mix. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In the grey hall, designers, artists and craftspeople from inside and outside the community were selling artisan products ranging from glassware, wicker, wood, ceramics and fabrics to chocolates and gourmet foods. Food Take-away snacks eaten at long refectory-style tables were suitably eclectic and included mulled cider, pancakes, baked potatoes, chilli con carne and Thai noodles.
My last stop in Copenhagen was a Christmas concert at the Helligaandskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) in the city. The choir sang a varied program (from German and Danish carols to the Messiah) a-capella-style and it was glorious. Sublime even. I was moved to tears by the beauty and simplicity of it all. I was genuinely touched by the Christmas spirit and it had nothing to do with Santa and presents!