Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Sugar and spice

This week I have been enjoying my last days of museum teaching until January. The Geffrye Museum is looking gorgeously festive and is heaving with visitors. They all want to see the best of Christmas past; its rooms adorned with the winter decorations of bygone Londoners. Despite the crowds, everyone seems to love it - my school groups included.

I haven't been able to take my two children this year, but that hasn't stopped us from trying out a few festive making and baking traditions from the olden days.

We made Victorian Christmas tree decorations - bonbon filled cornucopia - as pictured above. These were very simple to recreate: the children cut gold doilies in half and then we folded them into cone shapes. After securing with a piece of sticky tape we attached shiny ribbon so they would hang like little baskets from the branches of our tree. And then came the most popular part - filling the cones with fruit jellies and pastilles. Beautiful.

We stepped back another 300 years to the winter celebrations of Elizabethan England and tried our hand at making sweetmeats. Authentic recipes would have used vast amounts of sugar - a real luxury then - in almond paste, milk jelly and crystallised fruit. These delicacies were flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Many sweetmeats were beautifully crafted into novelty shapes, and Marchpane was also popular. This looked rather like a flat marzipan cake, and was usually decorated with gold leaf.

Using marzipan for the base of our sweetmeats, we dusted our boards and rolling pins with snowy icing sugar and then had huge amounts of fun making our own novelty shaped celebratory treats.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sam's Snowflake

I was back at the Geffrye Museum on Saturday leading the Christmas Nursery Rhyme Time sessions. The Museum is a perfect setting for festive fun as it currently tells the story of how London families have prepared for everything from Twelfth Night and New Year, to the winter solstice and Christmas over the last four centuries. The BBC has put up a slide show that gives a flavour of the Museum at this time of year: Celebrating the best of Christmas past.

In my sessions I adapted a children's story by Gillian Shields and retold it using props, actions, songs and craft. The children, aged between two and six, joined in enthusiastically and I was impressed with how their grown ups participated too.

In the story we helped Sam and his mother get ready for Christmas while they waited for his father to return from the forest with a surprise; he'd promised to get home before the snow.

Sam and his mother did their Christmas baking; making cakes, pies and biscuits flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg (we passed round spice samples for everyone to smell). They brought out their boxes of decorations and guessed what was within the packaging before revealing the contents (we used feely bags with vintage decorations from the handling collection for this).

All the while Sam kept wondering how long it would be before his father came home - and where was the snow? Sam's mother distracted him by showing him how to make a rainbow snowflake decoration using glittery pipe cleaners and pony beads (everyone used their twisting and threading skills here). The rainbow snowflake gave Sam an idea...

Maybe the snow had lost its way! He decided to make a glittery snowflake that would shine out of his bedroom window to guide his dad and the snow home in time for Christmas. He used a sheet of white paper, scissors to cut, fingers to fold and rip, and glue to cover it with sparkly glitter. Then he attached a little wooden stick to the back so he could prop it against his window pane. The children watched avidly as I showed them how Sam did all this.

The story ended with Sam's father returning from the forest with a Christmas tree, as it began to snow once more. Sam's snowflake landed magically at the top of the tree, where it shone and glittered like a star.

Everyone made a rainbow snowflake (candy canes, wreaths and even a spacecraft were created too), and then whole families sat on the floor together surrounded by paper, glitter and glue, making their own snowflakes on sticks; all unique - just like the real thing. It was magical.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Out in the cold

WOW, it was cold today. I eschewed my usual cycle ride to the British Museum and instead took the warm-by-comparison 73 bus. I enjoyed an uneventful journey, I even got a seat, and arrived in plenty time to set up for my sessions with children from a North London school. Then I waited. And waited. And waited...

An icy wind blew through the Great Court and down into the schools area where my temperature and spirits fell slowly but surely. A few schools called to say they would be late but eventually they all arrived. At 11.45 students from far-flung Brighton turned up, having started out at 6.00am. But not my school.

This was my last teaching session at the Museum this term and I felt deflated when they didn't show up; I wonder what happened. Their school secretary suspected they'd turned back, giving up on a difficult journey perhaps, but she didn't seem too worried about them. I know the location of the school, it's just about a mile from where I live. It just goes to show how much luck plays a part in travelling round London; my journey had been so easy. I hope they didn't get too cold or too dispirited during their abortive attempt to reach us and that they will reorganise their visit next term. I missed them today.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ice magic

Today I stayed at home with my five year old; he's been coughing and spluttering all over the place. He's accepted cuddles, warm drinks and listened to several audio books but I know how awful he's feeling because even the new snow hasn't tempted him outside. Instead we made these crystal icicles which I hung on a snowy branch in our garden. They've been spinning and glittering in the icy wind, catching the light and the attention of my poorly boy. 
You'll need:

transparent plastic food packaging
clear glue
granulated sugar
silver glitter
a hole punch
white cotton thread

1. Cut the plastic packaging into icicles and crystals
2. Punch a hole in the top of each shape
3. Use clear wet glue to make icy patterns just where you like
4. Sprinkle granulated sugar and silver glitter over the glue
5. Thread a doubled length of white cotton through its hole and pass the ends through the loop
6. Knot the ends of the thread and hang on a branch of a tree or bush

Of course, they are impossible to photograph, but I do recommend you make some. They have certainly added sparkle, movement and magic to our winter garden today.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

O Christmas tree

And so the countdown to Christmas begins...

We have an Advent candle, a calendar, and a beautiful mini wooden Christmas tree to decorate with little baubles, one for each day of Advent. I know this sounds like a lot, but the excitement of sorting out who is going to open the even numbered windows of the calendar, and who is to decorate the tree on odd numbered days has been fabulous; it doesn't seem over-the-top at all just now.

Daisy was inspired by the wooden Advent tree and decided to make her own. Using it as a template she drew round its outline on thin card and then used watercolour to paint it green. I helped with the cutting out after this.

Much glue and glitter later, the tree was resplendent, baubles and a star adorning its branches. We slotted the two sections together to give the 3d effect and added a small piece of toilet roll cardboard as a sturdy base.

We loved using our new glitter shakers again - you can just see them in the photos. Buddy and Daisy can sparkle-up all manner of items independently with these. Glitter is great any time of year but it's just about essential during the winter festivities. I expect to get much more use out those little shakers over the next month.