The Beast of Exmoor


One of my favourite places in the world is Exmoor. I love the wildness, the untamed views, the weather-deformed plants, the wildlife struggling to exist in an austere landscape. I love that people have had so little impact, and that wild ponies wander over areas of toughened grass and wiry heather. So, when we were in Devon, and Husband suggested a walk on the moors rather than another beach walk, I was very keen. 

I dressed in my new bobble hat and gloves and thick coat—because whatever the weather when you leave the house, the moors can catch you out with harsh winds that push through layers of clothes and freeze your bones. We drove to one of the roads that meanders through the moor, crossed the cattle grid, and looked for somewhere to park. There are several areas along the road where cars can pull off and stop.  There were various cars parked on areas of rock, and we were in a 4-wheel drive, so it was easy. I’m not sure how the Fiesta would manage. (But then, our Fiesta has moss growing on it, so I’m never sure it will even make it to the shops and back!)

The moor is covered with tracks, and we followed one towards a triangulation point (a small tower of concrete used in mapping). The earth was black, sodden from the rain, rivulets of water running between the granite stones. The wind snatched at our hats, tangling hair and tugging at our clothes, the heather whispered beside us as we walked up the hill. Kia had to be kept on the extending lead, because I didn’t trust her not to chase sheep or deer, but actually we didn’t see any animals at all, only their tracks.

We saw lots of footprints, and Exmoor is home to sheep, wild ponies, and deer–as well as possibly a panther.
We didn’t see any of them while we were walking.

The water was seeping through the peat soil, meeting a layer of granite and trickling down in a mini waterfall. Kia used it as a drinking fountain!

I was also looking out for signs of the Exmoor Beast—a probably mystical animal that has been sighted for decades on Exmoor. Apparently at one time, after a farmer had a flock of his sheep killed, the government based the Marine Commandoes on Exmoor, in hides, to try to confirm whether the animal existed. They didn’t see anything. Most people think that probably a panther was released there in the 1970’s, when the law changed so it was illegal to keep them as pets—but who knows? Unless it eats some people, it’s unlikely to be discovered.

We didn’t have a compass, and Husband worried that we might get lost if we wandered too far from the sight of the triangulation post. I thought we’d be fine, and marched off into the wilderness. It was surprisingly hard to find the same route back. If the mist had come down, I think you could wander for hours.

As we drove away from the moor, we saw a herd of deer, the males standing tall against the horizon—beautiful.

There is something about Exmoor that reminds us how small we are, how vulnerable we are when immersed in a wilderness, whether there are panthers or not, which is a good thing to be reminded of occasionally. A long walk in the wind also makes you feel a tea with scones and cream is completely justified—which is the part of Devon that should be enshrined in law.

There are triangulation posts scattered over Exmoor, which make helpful markers for not getting lost. Other places have standing stones: large slabs of granite standing up like soldiers.

I hope you have a wonderfully wild time this week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Snappy Lids Are Very Loud!


Snappy lids are very loud!

 

It’s that time of year when all the ‘vouchers’ my family gave me for Christmas are being used up, and I am having lots of nice treats (much nicer than another pair of socks!) Last week I used my ‘afternoon tea’ voucher.

To be honest, when I suggested a voucher for afternoon tea, I had been thinking about a trip to London, to one of the big posh hotels. I have already been fortunate enough to have been invited to a tea at The Ritz (which is sort of the ‘ultimate’ traditional English afternoon tea venue) but I have heard that Claridge’s does a very good tea too. (At £70 per person, it jolly well ought to be good! The Ritz is a bargain at only £60 per person—though don’t be tempted to pay another £50 for a birthday cake, as the cake which arrives is the size of a cupcake and looks rather dry, in my opinion. I have rather strong opinions when it comes to cake).

However, my gift was not for tea in London, it was for afternoon tea at the Watersmeet Hotel in Devon—where you might remember we had an exceptionally lovely tea last year. We were staying in Instow, Devon, for a few days (Husband tends to take me there every January so I can recover from Christmas—I tend to be not very nice and exceptionally explosive when I’m over-tired, so it’s probably a good idea). I packed some smart clothes (ie, clothes not covered in dog/cat hairs or mud) and we drove to the hotel on Sunday afternoon. The drive was a pretty one, through lanes bordered with high hedges, past tiny streams meandering through valleys, and through towns with old churches and stone cottages and lanes only just wide enough for a car.

 The Watersmeet Hotel has a dining room with big windows overlooking the cove. It looks very nice on their website, but last year when we arrived for our tea, we were seated in the lounge—still nice, but not quite as nice. Last year I had commented, and tried to show them my voucher, with photos of the dining room. Husband whispered that actually he had made the voucher himself, by stealing photos from their website, so perhaps my position wasn’t as strong as I thought it was! This year though, Husband had specifically asked if we could sit in the dining room when he booked the tea. We were shown to a seat, in the window, looking down on the cove. It was perfect.

The tea, when it arrived, was enough for at least four people. I had remembered this from the previous year, and had come prepared. Smuggled into my smart blue bag, were tiny plastic containers with snappy lids, all ready to store any leftover food.

We sat and drank tea (proper, strong, made with tea-leaves, tea). We admired the food, and ate the sandwiches and some of the cakes and one of the scones. I then, very stealthily, drew the first container from my bag. It was small—the perfect size for a fat scone. Husband laughed at me, and commented that his nan* would be proud of me. All was going well, no one else noticed, until I came to close the lid. Snappy lids are very loud. The sound echoed around the empty dining room, and the family sitting in the lounge looked up, surprised. Husband laughed. I looked at the remaining cakes, and glanced at the row of small containers sitting deceptively quietly in my bag. Dare I use them to store the leftover cakes and cause a whole series of loud pops?

 Yep, I dared. It was loud, and the waitress popped in to find out what was happening, but the cakes weren’t wasted.

Actually, we were offered boxes to take home the leftovers, but the cakes were delicate tarts and soft sponges and last year we arrived home to find a mangled mess of unidentifiable flavours, so snappy-lid containers are much better. If somewhat louder.

We enjoyed the view, which is so much more spectacular than any London hotel could offer.

When we arrived back at the cottage, the cakes were still perfect in their containers, and we enjoyed them over the next few days.

I hope you have some things to enjoy too. Thanks for reading. Take care.

Love, Anne

PS. Afternoon Tea at Watersmeet Hotel is £22 per person, and with an incomparable view—but remember to ask to be seated in the dining area when you book. And don’t forget to take some containers for the left-overs.

 

 

*When I first met Husband’s family, way back in the 80’s when we were teenagers, his family were still eating the sugar which his nan had stockpiled during the sugar shortage of the 70’s! I am never sure whether being compared to her is necessarily a compliment. . .

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Little Women


Little Women

When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. We owned or borrowed from the library all the books by Alcott, though Little Women was our favourite, possibly because at one time there was also a dramatization of the book on television. It tells the story of four sisters and their mother, and the boy who lives in the big house next door. It’s set in America, and is based on the author’s own life (though I’m not sure how closely). There is something wholesome about the stories, and the characters have flaws and strengths, and are easy to relate to. I guess I was about ten years old when I first read the books for myself.

When I was very young, once a week, we caught the bus to visit my grandad. We would walk up to his house, and he would give us sweets, and then we would escape upstairs to play while my mother chatted and did jobs for Grandad. My aunt and cousin would often visit at the same time, and when my cousin was there, we would often ‘play’ Little Women (this must have been based on the telly series and my mum reading us the stories). Grandad’s house had two spare bedrooms, smelling of mothballs and dust and lavender. There were wardrobes, still filled with discarded clothes from my mother and her sisters, and we used these as our costumes, pulling the dresses—long on our child bodies—over our clothes, and swooshing around the room in them. They felt very grand and we felt beautiful (luckily, no one had phone cameras in those days!) We acted variations of the plot. Every week there was an argument/discussion about who would be which character. My cousin and sister were 3 years older than me, so I had very little influence, and they would only let me play if I was Beth—which meant that I had to spend the whole game in bed, not speaking, because I was too ill. I seem to remember that on one occasion, they told me they were starting the story after Beth had died, so I wasn’t allowed to move or speak. For some reason, this felt completely reasonable at the time.

So, last week, when Bea suggested that I joined her and my mother and went to see the new film of Little Women, I was very keen. We collected Mum, and drove to the cinema, and I worried about whether there would be an easy parking space, and whether our tickets (which were on my phone and unprintable) would work, and if the film would irritate me by shattering my childhood memories.

I wasn’t disappointed, it was fabulous.

Now, it’s a long time since I read the books (now on my ‘to do’ list) but I vaguely remember the story. The film is brilliantly cast, with the characters depicted exactly as I imagined them. However, the plot varies from the books slightly. I once watched a John LeCarre interview, and he said that a film is a very different medium to a book, and something that works for a book might not work as well for a film, therefore a film should be left to the script writers and not be constrained by the original version. I think these are wise words. The essence of the books remains constant, even if the plot has slight differences. As a film, it works brilliantly (I think). I won’t tell you how it differs, because you might go to see it and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

One aspect of the film, which will strike a chord with any aspiring author, is the difficulty that the character Jo has when trying to get her work published. She is depicted as being just as unsure and nervous as every author who I know today, and you see her motivated by encouragement and wilt when criticised. Clearly writing, whichever age we live in, makes the author feel vulnerable.

Do try to find time to watch the film, I fully recommend it. Though if you’re tempted to re-enact scenes at home, try to ensure you’re not cast as Beth–I can assure you, it’s not a great role.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Christmas Mishaps


Hello and I hope you had a good Christmas. Ours was fabulous—but that probably doesn’t make for exciting reading, so instead I’ll tell you about the disasters (always much more fun to read about other people’s mishaps than their successes). They will help me to make some resolutions for 2020.

This year, Husband who has more time, offered to help write the Christmas cards. Great! I thought. Writing Christmas cards is one of those jobs which takes ages and is never fun but simply has to be done, and usually I write all the cards, for all our friends and family, on my own. I handed Husband the address book and cards, and made myself a cup of tea.

Several hours later, I was aware that the cards had not been touched. Husband had been designing a ‘system’. It was a complicated chart of names—the names of our joint friends, his family, and his friends. It was our new list, and he hadn’t included anyone who he didn’t know, on the assumption they were past friends from my childhood and no longer in contact with. The system was way more complicated than simply going through the address book. By the end of the evening, he had written seven cards. Seven.

The following day, I attempted to follow complicated system and write the rest of the cards. Apologies if you didn’t receive one this year. Next year I will do them all myself, using the address book.

The week before Christmas, my Christmas order from Waitrose arrived. I chose Waitrose because I was too late to get a slot with Ocado or Sainsburys. The only available slot with Waitrose was the 20th December, which was a bit too early, but I thought it would be okay. However, when the order arrived, many of the dates on the food were ‘use-by’ 22/23rd December. That’s rubbish! Waitrose knew it was a Christmas order, because it was listed as such on their website, and they informed me when I placed it that because it was a Christmas order, I wouldn’t be able to alter anything. I wrote them a snotty email, and went to Morrisons. Morrisons had lots of food dated 26th onwards (this was the same day:20th December). I sent photos to Waitrose.

Waitrose replied to apologise (excellent). They refunded me for the goods photographed (but didn’t check to find out if other products were out of date, which they were–I had only sent sample photos). They also explained that their policy is to send products with a ‘use-by’ date of a couple of days beyond the delivery date. In other words, if you have an early slot for your Christmas order, it is Waitrose policy to send food that may be out of date before Christmas Day! Gosh, I didn’t expect that!

I complained again on their online survey. They sent me a £10 gift card. Better than nothing. Next year, I will order my Christmas groceries on time, from a different shop.

I will also order less bread. (I have a freezer FULL of bread! What was I thinking?)

One of the very best things about my Christmas was Christmas Eve, when we always open our ‘stockings’. Everyone buys a few gifts for everyone else, often joke gifts, and we sit round and open them. This year there were socks with a girlfriend’s face on them, and I found some of those excellent Ladybird books of ‘Brexit’ and ‘The brother’, and there were bath ducks shaped like Donald Trump, and lots of chocolate and laughing. Bea has pottery classes, and so there were various pots in the stockings. Some had explanatory notes attached. It was lovely, my family at it’s rudest, funny, generous, best.

I hope your Christmas disasters were as tiny, and that you had a lovely time. Thank you for reading my blog, and have a very happy 2020.

Take care.
Love, Anne x

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How to Not Do Christmas!


How to NOT do Christmas

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by Anne E Thompson

Okay, so it’s that time of year again, when I look around and everyone seems terribly competent, with beautiful houses and cards sent on time. Or are you, like me, still struggling to clear up stray socks and find the floor under dog hairs? Here are some helpful hints for those of you who need to decorate the house, send cards to the correct people, produce a mound of wrapped gifts and cook that all important dinner; whilst also keeping the house clean, the animals alive, and do all the other jobs which fill your life and don’t disappear at Christmas. Hope it’s helpful.

The Tree

Everyone loves a Christmas tree. Here are some things to beware of:
If you take a man with you to buy a real tree, he will lose all sense of proportion. This is true. Crude jokes aside, it seems to be some strange male trait that they always want to buy a tree that is much too big for the space in your home. They always forget the bucket and top decoration adds extra height. And they always forget that you might want to live in the room where they plan to put it – and if it’s too wide everyone will have to scrabble through the branches to communicate. So my advice: do not involve a male of any age in choosing the tree.

You cannot however, avoid them being present for the annual family discussion on where the tree should go. Now, we have lived in our present house for many years and every Christmas we discuss (heatedly) where the tree should be placed. Every year it always goes in exactly the same place.

If you buy a tree in late December, your family will constantly tell you everyone else has theirs already. If you buy a tree in early December, it will probably be bald by New Year.

If you decide to ‘plant’ your tree in soil, over time, as it is watered, the soil becomes unstable and the tree will gradually fall over. If you follow the shop’s instructions and “treat your tree like the living plant that it is” and stand it in water, then after a while, the warmth of your house will have turned the water stagnant and everyone will be asking you what the funny smell is. If, on realising this, you then add a drop of bleach to the water, the tree first gets very pale looking and then dies very quickly. A dead tree will droop and all the ornaments slide off the branches. Your lounge also smells like a public lavatory.

If you ever want a tasteful tree, you must NEVER allow the children to put on their home made ornaments. Every year I produce those faded photos in plastic frames, the robin that sheds paint. I even have the clay angels that my sister made one year, which look like they slept in a puddle after an especially hard night out. It is true, they bring back lots of special memories, but I can now never not put them on the tree, so my tree, whilst full of precious memories, is also incredibly tacky.

If you do not water your tree, do NOT leave the lights on it and go out for the evening or it might burn down your house. (This did not happen to us, but it did happen to a neighbour in the US. A dried pine is incredibly flammable.)

If you have an artificial tree, you can spend hours sorting out branches and colour codes. My advice is: tell someone else that they are in charge of putting up the tree because it is too hard for you (this works well if you have males in the family, who will actually believe that you are incapable of matching colours.) They will also be keen to supervise the taking down of the tree because they will know how impossible it is to put up if not stored carefully.

Decorations

Do NOT believe that everyone who helps decorate the house will also help tidy up after Christmas. Every year I say, “Only put out the ornaments that you will put away afterwards”. I may as well not bother. I know this is true because one year I was ill, and we had a Nativity scene on one window sill all year. I find family members are very keen to decorate all sorts of random places, and not at all keen to tidy them afterwards.

Gifts

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Do NOT buy gifts too early and if you do, do not forget where you have hidden them. It is annoying to find winter nightclothes for your daughter in June.

If posting gifts, do not forget to name each gift so the recipient knows who they are for (you would be surprised at what has happened in our family).

Do NOT assume you will know when your child stops believing in Father Christmas (sorry if this is a spoiler). When I asked one of my sons on his eighteenth birthday (okay, so he wasn’t quite that old) if he really still believed in Santa, he informed me that he had not believed for years but hadn’t liked to disappoint me by letting me know. This was a huge relief for the whole family, as we could now stop worrying he was completely thick, and it also meant that I could give the children their ‘stocking gifts’ the evening before Christmas. Which meant that we all slept much better Christmas Eve.

Do NOT forget to check that either your husband has bought his mother a gift, or you have bought one for her yourself. Really, I cannot stress enough how important this one is……

Food

Unless you are a very organised person, do NOT buy a large frozen turkey. They take days to defrost – and where will you put it during that time? If you leave it in the utility room, the cat eats it. If you put it in the garage, the mice eat it. If you leave it in the oven to defrost, you are sure to forget and turn on the oven to preheat – melting plastic over poultry is not a good smell, trust me. If you place it in a bucket of brine, as was suggested one year, what are you going to do with the salmonella-infected brine afterwards, and how will you stop the dog licking it? If you put it in the fridge, you cannot fit in any of the shelves, let alone other food. Trust me, big frozen turkeys are a bad idea.

Do NOT forget that supermarkets are open other than on the bank holidays. I always do this; I try to buy enough food for the whole holiday period, which is a military operation in an over flowing supermarket, with insufficient parking, and queues the length of the Nile . Then, soon after boxing day we always run out of something essential, like milk, and I go to a beautifully empty supermarket (which is now selling all the food that is decomposing in my fridge for half the price.) Being overly prepared is always a mistake I feel. Just buy enough for the Christmas Day dinner.

If, like me, you have a problem with chocolates, when you buy the family tub of chocolates, do NOT forget to also buy tape. Then, if by mistake you open them and eat lots before Christmas, you can buy a replacement, add the ones you don’t much like and reseal the tub. Your family will never know. Honestly, every year my husband tells me that there are a surprisingly large number of green triangles in our chocolate tin.

Important Things

Do NOT forget to go to a carol service. Actually, I do not especially like carols, unless they are sung by a choir. They are mostly really really long. A lot of them also have things in them that are very European and nothing to do with the actual account in the Bible. But I do like carol services, full of excited children, and people in thick coats that they don’t have anywhere to hang. One year at our church we even managed to set someone on fire. (It was an accident, I should add. She leant against a candle and she wasn’t at all hurt, just ruined her coat. The following year as a safety precaution the candles were suspended above us. Unfortunately, they weren’t the non drip variety and we all made polite conversation afterwards with white wax in our hair.)

Do Not forget to build some family traditions of your own. On Christmas Eve, if my children are in the house, awake before noon and sober (I assume nothing these days) then they still like to help prepare the vegetables. We all sit round, peeling sprouts and remembering how we did it every year while watching ‘The Lost Toys,’ and the year that the youngest removed every leaf from his sprout and then declared, “Mine’s empty!”

Most importantly, do NOT forget what is important. Christmas is not about family or tradition or nice food. Actually, it’s about a God who thought you were special enough that he came to this dirty smelly earth as a baby. Even if you don’t believe in him, he believes in you. And he cared enough to come, so that you have a chance to change your mind if you want to. So spend a little time trying to remember what it’s all about. Look in Luke’s bit of the Bible, and read the account of what actually happened – no donkeys, no inn keepers with tea-towels on their heads, no fairies or snow. Just a simple story of something special.

xxxxxx

Thank you for reading.

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Trying to be ‘Normal’


Trying to be ‘normal’

Yesterday, Bea brought home a friend she wanted us to meet. I knew this was a fairly big deal for her, and so I was very keen that we shouldn’t embarrass her. Usually I consider that I have earned the right to be embarrassing to my children due to suffering through their teenage years when their clothes and hair and general attitudes were often not what I had hoped for when they were 5—but not this time. This time I was keen to be ‘normal’.

Now, I would say that housework is not my forte. Basically, I hate doing it, and although my kitchen is hygienic, you might find dog hairs on the floor and dust on the window sills, so my first task of the day was to tidy the house and wave a duster around a bit. Unfortunately, Husband (always to be relied upon in these situations) had helpfully decided that this was the day he was going to empty the loft of important papers from 20 years ago, and put them into bags ready to be recycled. The whole of his office resembled a rubbish tip. We had an argument (always a good start when guests are due).

I then began to wipe surfaces in the kitchen, when I noticed an unpleasant smell wafting under the utility room door. We have one of the outside cats in there, in a cage, because she has pulled the ligaments in her back legs (fell out of a tree) and the vet said she mustn’t climb or jump, and I have no idea how you stop a cat jumping, so I have put her into the old dog crate, which is big enough for her to walk around in, but has no opportunity for jumping. She is very cross, but the ligaments are healing, so all is good. Except yesterday, she had dirtied her bedding.

I attempt to open cage door and remove dirty bedding without cross cat escaping, and am about to shove dirty bedding into washing machine, when I hear a shout from the garden. Husband is yelling that the cockerels have been fighting.

I have several cockerels, hatched last year. Until now, they have lived fairly peacefully alongside each other. Cockerels will sometimes live for several years in the same flock without incident, provided they have sufficient space and females. However, sometimes you hatch an aggressive bunch, and then you can only keep one. I hurried into the garden.

One of the cockerels was clearly suffering, having been attacked by one of the bigger ones (his brother actually—chickens are pretty nasty creatures). The bird was obviously dying, and in pain, so I quickly killed him. When chickens are dead, the nerves in their bodies continue to function, making them twitch, so it can be hard to know they are completely dead. I didn’t want it to suffer, so to be sure I chopped off the head. (A chicken with no head is definitely dead, though bizarrely they can still run around!)

Looked at time: daughter due at house with friend at any moment. The cockerel had been a big bird, and it seemed wrong to simply throw him away (waste of a life) but there was no time to do anything with him. So, I tied up his legs, and hung him in garage, to deal with him later. Sent Bea a message: “If you give friend a tour of the house, don’t go in garage because there’s a dead chicken hanging from the ceiling!”

Bea replied: “What? You are meant to be trying to be normal! Dead chicken hanging in garage is not normal!”

I felt she had a point.

The rest of the visit went okay, and we liked her friend immensely. I have no idea what the friend thought of us, but hopefully we appeared to be relatively normal.

Thanks for reading. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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 I am excited to tell you that my new book, Sowing Promises, is now available. A sequel to Ploughing Through Rainbows, it is also a stand-alone book and my best one yet (though I always think that!) A family saga, set on a farm, it is all about a family coping with unexpected happenings. . . and trying to be normal.

Available from an Amazon near you, and if you buy a copy today it will still arrive in time for Christmas–it makes a great gift for someone who you want to make smile.

UK link HERE

US link HERE

Amazon Germany HERE

 

Mary’s Story (because it’s Christmas!)


Mary’s Story

by Anne E Thompson

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I travelled to Bethlehem in a small cart. Every bump (and there were many) was agony. As I was jolted along, I was racked with pain. The baby’s time was near, you see and the pain was almost unbearable. Later, they would sing songs about a cute donkey carrying me. Nice thought! I don’t think there’s any way you could have got me on a donkey. As each contraction cramped every muscle in my torso, I huddled up like an animal and prayed for it to be over.

I could see Joseph, watching me as he walked alongside. He really didn’t have the first idea what to do. Oh, how I wanted my mother. I yearned for her to be there, holding my hand, telling me everything was all right and would be over soon.

When we arrived at Joseph’s uncle’s house, the women folk came and helped me inside. The room was crowded. All Joseph’s male relatives from miles around had come to the house for shelter and food. The women were busy cooking supper and the men were drinking wine and comparing stories. They all told Joseph how much he resembled his grandfather Matthan and laughed at old stories from years ago. The smell of fish and fresh bread was nauseating. I was so tired and so uncomfortable.

Joseph knew I was suffering and asked if there was somewhere quiet that I could go. There was no chance that we would get a place in the inn, they had filled up days ago. Somewhere quiet, in a little house packed with relatives?

There were some fraught discussions and then his aunt suggested that the animal shelter, down on the lower floor of the house, might be best. It wasn’t terribly clean, but it would be quiet and private and at least it wouldn’t smell of fish!

Joseph helped me to go down, and a couple of the women came too. One of them examined me and told me the baby was a long way off yet, first babies always take their time in coming. This was not great news but I felt better having her there. I felt that she knew what was happening, had seen this before and it took some of the fear away.
I was frightened you see. I was horribly afraid that somehow I would damage my baby. My baby and God’s. I knew he was going to be special, I knew I had a great task ahead of me but it all seemed to be going horribly wrong. I trusted that God was still in control but He felt so far away.

Could the baby not have been born in a palace, surrounded by comfort? Would these poor beginnings really be part of a plan? Could they really make this king accessible to the people? I had no idea.

I was a mere girl, I had no education and my memory of scriptures was often fuzzy. To be honest, at this present moment, I didn’t even care. I just wanted this baby OUT! Special or not, my body was tired of carrying him, tired of being stretched and pushed, of fitting something inside that was now too big to be there. I needed this baby to be born and I was too exhausted to wait much longer.

How I longed for sleep.

The pain in my back was terrible. Great waves of cramp that seared through my body, making me oblivious to everything else. I was vaguely aware that someone was sweeping the floor and moving the animals to a far corner. They had laid out a mattress and blankets for me to rest on but I couldn’t lie still for long. I felt better standing, rocking in time with the pain, trying to remember to breathe, in out, in out. Some one offered me water but I couldn’t drink. I wasn’t thirsty, I just wanted this baby to be born.

I could see Joseph with his big anxious eyes watching me. He didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested he should go into the house to eat and I nodded in agreement. There was nothing he could do and the poor man must have been tired too.

He had endured such an emotional time lately. First there was his fear and anger when he first heard about the baby (now that was a difficult conversation!) Then he had to endure the smirks of his friends when the pregnancy became public knowledge. He never complained, but I know he felt embarrassed, wished that God could have chosen a different girl.

We had been travelling for five days, with hardly any rest and the last couple of days had been more chilly. I know he felt the burden of caring for me, watching for bandits on the roads and wondering if we would make it to Bethlehem in time. If the baby had come early I don’t know what he’d have done – left me with strangers on the road somewhere I guess and come to register on his own. One didn’t mess with a Roman decree…..

The pain eventually became almost constant. Joseph had eaten and rested but I continued to sway in discomfort in the little cave of animals. Every so often one of them would poop and although the women with me cleaned it up quickly the smell pervaded the atmosphere.

I could hear the musicians gathering outside, someone must have told them the birth would be soon. That gave me hope, maybe soon the baby would arrive.

Then at last, in a final searing pain, the baby was born. I looked down at his blue waxy body as he wriggled on the blanket and I knew that he was mine.

One of the women wiped him down with oil and salt and I held him in my arms while they looked for the swaddling bands in our luggage.

How beautiful he was. His indigo eyes would soon turn brown and they gazed at me trustingly. I loved him with my whole being.

Outside, there was the sound of music and singing as the musicians heralded the arrival of a boy.

Joseph came and took the baby from me. He held the tiny baby in his giant carpenter’s hands, hands that spoke of hard work and safety.

Then the baby started to mouth for food and Joseph passed him back. The women showed me how to feed him, but he was soon asleep. Then we gently wrapped him in the swaddling bands, securing his tiny limbs so he would feel snug and secure and his bones would grow straight and true. He was so beautiful. It was hard to remember what the angel had told me, that this was God’s son too. I began to wonder if I had imagined it, if it were all a dream. This baby did not look like God, he was a baby. My baby.

“If it’s true God,” I thought, “Let there be another sign. He is so little and I love him so much. Remind me again…”

I too needed to sleep. Joseph fetched fresh hay and put it in the animal’s manger, covering it with a soft blanket. I didn’t want him to put the baby there, I wanted to keep him on the bed next to me, but Joseph was worried I might roll on him in my sleep. Then he laid the baby down and told me to sleep. He looked deep into my eyes and brushed my collar bone lightly with his fingers.

“Soon you’ll be truly mine,” he whispered. I knew what he meant and felt myself blush.
I was so tired, I thought I would sleep for a week.

I actually slept for about two hours! I was abruptly woken by loud voices and a draft of cold air as the door was flung open. There, standing uncertainly in the doorway was a group of youths. Their clothes were dirty and exuded the strong smell of sheep. Joseph was with them.

“Mary? Are you awake?” he asked.
It would be hard not to be with all the noise from outside.

“These shepherds want to see the baby. They were told by angels where they could find him and they have come to look at him.”

I nodded and they trouped into the room. They seemed so big and clumsy in such a small space, I was worried they might hurt the baby.

But they didn’t try to touch him, they just stared for a while and then one of them knelt and they all followed suit, kneeling before the manger, staring at the baby.

Then they told me their story, how they had been in the fields and an angel had appeared. They had thought they were going to die, to be struck down right where they were.

The angel had reassured them, told them that a saviour had been born, the Christ who we’ve all been waiting for. They would find him lying in a manger. Then suddenly there were lots of angels, all praising God and saying he was pleased with people on earth.

After the angels had gone, finding they were still alive after all, the shepherds decided to come at once and see for themselves. It was as though they couldn’t quite believe what they had seen and heard, they needed to actually see the baby with their own eyes.

I felt so humbled and so cared for. God had heard my thoughts, He was reassuring me. It was all His plan, not some terrible mistake. We were meant to be here. He even knew about the manger!

I listened and smiled and treasured my thoughts.

The shepherds left as noisily as they came. I could hear them in the streets, shouting their news, telling everyone what had happened. They were so excited.

They had of course woken the baby who was now crying with a thin wail that jarred my nerves and was impossible to ignore. So I fed him some more and then we both slept. A tired, contented sleep borne from exhaustion and wonder.

After eight days, Joseph came and circumcised the baby. How he wailed! It felt cruel, though I knew it was the right thing to do, even in this strange place we must obey the Jewish laws. We also formally gave him the name Yeshua, the name we had been told to give him by the angel all those months ago.

I wondered if Joseph minded, people would know it wasn’t a family name. I also had no one called Yeshua in my own family, though I did know a boy from my childhood with the name.

After forty days, we had to travel to Jerusalem, to pay for redemption at the temple. As Joseph was from the tribe of Judah, we had to pay five shekels of silver. We couldn’t afford a lamb, so bought two pigeons to sacrifice.

It was nice to leave Bethlehem and to have some exercise at last, to see people and to take my baby into the world. I felt quite excited as I approached the temple, our holy place. I didn’t recognise anyone, but everyone could see we had a new baby and lots of the women came over to see him. I felt so happy!

We walked through the Beautiful Gate and up to the Gate of Nicanor.

Then something strange happened. As Joseph and I walked through the temple, a man approached us. He came to look at Yeshua and indicated that he wanted to hold him. That was a little unusual but there was something about him, something that made you sure he was a good man, someone you could trust.

When he looked at the baby, the old man got all emotional and prayed, thanking God and saying that now he could die in peace. He blessed me and Joseph too and then he leant towards me and said something which was very strange.

He said Yeshua would cause “the fall and rising of many in Israel” and would be “a sign that would be opposed so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

What does that mean? I know that he is God’s own son and that he is part of the plan to establish God’s reign on earth. Will he be opposed? Surely everyone will accept God’s annointed one, we have waited so long for him.

Then he said something that made me afraid. His face was very near, I could smell his breath.

He said that a sword would pierce my soul.

It made me very frightened, I practically snatched Yeshua away from him! I want my son to grow strong and be happy, will I suffer for this?

I knew I was tired, not getting enough sleep and it was hard to care for a new baby in a strange place without my mother to help me. I felt that I did not want to hear the man’s words, even if they were true.

The man left us and almost at once an old lady approached. She was ancient, her white hair showed under her mitpahath and she leant heavily on a stick. What I noticed most were her eyes. They almost sparkled! You could tell at once that she was a holy woman and also one who loved to laugh.

As soon as she saw Yeshua, the elderly woman started to pray loudly, thanking God and telling people nearby that if they wanted Jerusalem to be redeemed, they should look to the baby. I was glad that no Romans were allowed in the temple, we would have been in trouble!

We finished making the offerings and then went back to Bethlehem. I didn’t know whether to tell Joseph what the old man had told me. I kept thinking about his words, worrying about what they might mean. I was so tired, I decided I would wait and maybe tell him later.

The months passed and we settled into life in Bethlehem. We moved into a little house and Joseph worked on the many building projects that the Romans have introduced.

Yeshua continued to thrive. He grew into a sturdy toddler and would walk around the room holding onto the stools and baskets. I loved to feel his solid weight when I carried him on my hip. He started to sleep much better at night and Joseph and I were thinking about having another child. Then everything changed.

It was one evening, still quite early but we had filled the lamp with olive oil and lit the linen wick. Joseph put it on a bushel basket, so the room was well lit and we could talk about the day. Suddenly, there was a banging at the door.

Joseph went at once and there, in the road, was a group of Persian travellers. They had dismounted from their horses and were peering intently into the house. They told Joseph they had seen a star and had come to worship the king. I was so glad I hadn’t gone to bed yet!

We let them into the house and I went to get Yeshua. He was damp from sleep and his tired eyes looked blearily around him. I wondered if he would cry but he seemed fascinated by our strange visitors. They wore their hair in long curls and one had a band of gold on his head. It glinted in the lamp light and I could see Yeshua watching it intently. Their clothes were patterned with birds and flowers.

We offered them wine, it was clear they were tired from their journey. I was embarrassed that we only had two stools to offer them, but they didn’t seem to mind and in fact insisted that I should sit on one with Yeshua and they were happy to sit on the rush mat. They didn’t really sit anyway, they wanted to kneel before Yeshua.

Then they gave him gifts. They were beautiful to look at. They gave him gold, signifying that he is a king. They gave him frankincense. The strong aroma filled the house and I wondered if Yeshua was to be a priest, even though he is not descended from Levi. They also gave him myrrh. Myrrh is costly but is for embalming a body. It was a strange gift for a baby and I wondered what it meant.

They told us their story before they left. In their Persian home, they were magi, watching the stars and foretelling the future. Many months ago, at the time of Yeshua’s birth, they had seen a special star which they knew meant a powerful new king had been born and they determined they would find him and worship him. Unfortunately, following the star caused them to go to Jerusalem first (I always knew that star gazing was a misleading activity!) They went to Herod’s palace and asked where the new king was. This was scary, Herod had shown he was not a king to be trusted and his cruelty was well known. I would not have wanted to visit his palace.

However, it sounded as though he had decided to be helpful. He asked the scribes to research the early scriptures and they discovered that the promised king was to be born in Bethlehem. The king told the Easterners and asked them to find the king and then return and tell him the exact location, so that he too could worship.

I wondered what would happen next. Would Herod himself come to visit my precious baby or would we be summoned to the palace? This was not a comfortable thought.

I also wondered why the palace scribes had not come to visit us. Did they not believe the scriptures that they studied so diligently? Surely if they were truly expecting a redeemer they would also have come?

The men left. They planned to sleep in an inn and return to Jerusalem the next day. We could not offer them lodging in our tiny house and they seemed content to leave now they had seen Yeshua.

I returned Yeshua to bed and soon afterwards Joseph and I also went to sleep.

I had not been asleep for long when Joseph woke me. He shook me awake, then went to light the lamp. I could see his face was tense and instantly turned to check Yeshua was well. He was sleeping soundly.

Joseph told me I needed to get up at once, we needed to leave. He said that he had had a dream, like the dream when the angel told him that the baby inside me was God’s son. It was so intense and real that he could not ignore it. He said he had been told we must leave Israel, Yeshua was in danger, Herod planned to kill him.

I wondered why I too had not be warned and then I realised – God had told Joseph to take care of me and Yeshua. That was a hard task for a man, to care for a son that was not his own. So God was now telling Joseph alone what we needed to do, underlining his role, establishing him as head of our family. It was a kind act.

I began to pack our things but Joseph was hurrying me, telling me to only take what was essential.

We were to go to Egypt. Egypt! Could this be right? Was Yeshua not to be king of the Jews? I packed hurriedly and we left that very night.

What would the future hold? Would we ever return to our home town? The future was uncertain but I knew that something bigger than us was happening. Whatever happened, God had a plan and no one could alter the course of that.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————–

This account necessarily involves some imagination but I believe it is also as historically correct as possible (and more accurate than some of our Christmas carols!)
If you are aware of any historical errors, please tell me and I will modify it.
I used a variety of sources including:
The gospels of Matthew and Luke
Geoffrey Bromily (1995)
William Hendriksen
William Barclay
Joseph P Amar (university of Notre Dame)
Michael Marlowe
Tessa Afshar

Thank you for reading.

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A hilarious family saga set on a farm. Being a parent has no end-date, as Susan discovers when her adult sons begin to make unexpected choices in life.
A warm-hearted, feel good novel that will make you smile.

A great gift for Christmas. . . or be kind to yourself and buy a copy to keep.

Available from Amazon as a paperback or kindle book. The sequel, Sowing Promises, is now available too!

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link