the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.


This was a bookshop.


This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)


This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.


When I was a child I found it absolutely thrilling to open the ‘number 24’ on my Advent calendar. That final window was bigger than the rest and it alone had two doors instead of one. Some years the tension got too much and I would cheat and take a peep several days early.

I’m not sure why I was so excited, since those two flaps always revealed the same thing: a little symmetrical tableau of the holy family, complete with well behaved ox and ass. Usually there was a halo of light emanating from the ‘manger’ – actually more like a cradle than something that animals would eat out of – and sometimes there were stars and angels in the sky, bathing the scene in a yellowy wash.

Many years later, I can see how this sanitised version of the nativity feeds the tyrannical view that Christmas is a time of perfection. Perhaps as a child that is what I wanted; as adults we need to be ruthless about confronting the fact that it is impossible.

We might laugh at these blatantly posed images but the same messages still bombard us today, whether it is from the endless parade of TV chefs doing Christmas specials, or the smug and slender models who smile out of the windows of every high street clothes store.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the primary sources suggest a radically different scene for the first Christmas. I do not think it was very neat and tidy in the outhouse where Jesus was born. It is unlikely that a teenager who had just given birth looked particularly glamorous. Not all of Mary’s relatives would have been thrilled that she’d conceived out of wedlock.

I hope everyone reading this has a brilliant Christmas, but if your turkey is dry or your children squabble, or if you’re secretly feeling really sad inside, just remember this: nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d made more effort to live like an advert.


Well, Advent is supposed to be a time of waiting and today was certainly an object lesson in patience for those of us who had opted to order our turkey from a particular local farm. It would have been easy to get cross about having to stand in the rain and freezing wind, but this being Christmas it is a bit easier to look on the bright side and I found myself really rather proud to be British today. I mean, is there anywhere else where people would queue in these conditions without a murmur of complaint? I would be interested to know.

On a more serious note, as someone who thinks buying local food is really important I was a bit frustrated that this farm hadn’t arranged things better. Sure, the converted among us will always suffer for the satisfaction of having a free range turkey that was raised yards from where we eventually paid for it, but I would have had trouble convincing a sceptical neighbour that this was better than being warm and dry in a supermarket. The staff kept saying ‘sorry about the weather’ as if there was nothing they could have done about it, but there was a large, almost empty barn where we could have waited.

I’m sure this little fellow wouldn’t have minded some company.


I chose all these pictures for the way they bring out the sunlight. For today is, at last, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. From tomorrow, bit by tiny bit, the days will be getting lighter. Hooray!



Little-known fact of the day: most craters on Mercury are named after famous writers and artists.

This one, for example, is known as ‘Dickens’, after Charles Dickens.

Since Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, it seems like an appropriate shot for an Advent calendar.

The picture comes from NASA’s amazing photostream on Flickr and was taken from the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury.

And while we are on the subject of NASA and Christmas, here’s an awesome shot of a kind of celestial snow angel.

Taken on 14 December, it shows ‘a bipolar star-forming region, called Sharpless 2-106’. It is nearly 2,000 light years away from Earth and the ‘wings’ of the nebula are several light years across. More mind-blowing information here.


I’m a bit alarmed by the length of my to-do list today. So here’s a short and sweet post with a time-saving tip for mince pies.

Most years I make our mincemeat using this excellent recipe from Delia Smith. This year I made the mistake of thinking I didn’t have time and buying some instead. Even though it was quite posh stuff from an upmarket store, it was still revoltingly sweet. If you are in the same boat, be reassured that you can rescue it. Here’s what I did, roughly following a suggestion in one of Nigella Lawson’s books. I tipped the contents of two jars into a mixing bowl and grated in the zest of about half an orange and half a lemon, together with about half a peeled cooking apple. Then I added about four tablespoons of brandy and a generous handful of flaked almonds. Not quite as good as the real thing, but almost.



After one of the warmest and driest Novembers on record, December in Sheffield has been the kind of month that makes you wonder how come we haven’t evolved into a species that hibernates. But on Sunday the sun broke through and as I walked up my beloved Porter Valley I realised that the weeks of sleet and freezing rain had been worth it.

This waterfall, one of my favourite stopping places, has been a trickle since the spring

Similarly, higher up the valley the stream that feeds it has been almost dry. No more!

The sun shone, there was a sprinkling of snow and for a few glorious hours the gloom of winter seemed to have passed. As the shortest day approaches, it was a good reminder that though winter comes, spring is not far behind.


Julian and I have been in our current house longer than any other since we were married. One of its main advantages is that it is within walking distance of a beautiful valley that is criss-crossed with footpaths. Regularly walking these paths has been a great way of reconnecting with the natural world, something we really missed when we lived in London.

Every season has its landmarks in this valley, whether it is the wild garlic that sprouts all along the riverbanks in spring, or the way the horse chestnuts gradually shift from green to orange, the first heralds of autumn.

Not all the landmarks are entirely natural, though. If you take the path up the valley at this time of year, you come to a cherry tree that has mysteriously grown decorations. I have asked several people but still have not managed to find out who hangs these baubles. Some of them are quite high up: it is obviously a task requiring considerable effort.

Every year I enjoy the surprise I get as I round the curve in the valley and see the tree sparkling with baubles for the first time. I like to speculate that they are a way of remembering someone special, perhaps a friend or a family member who loved these paths as we do and whose memory lives on in the joyful spontaneity of a decorated tree that grows in the wild.


Today I bring you another Advent sonnet from Malcolm Guite. The title O Oriens translates as ‘O Dayspring’ and the line from Dante means ‘I saw light in the form of a river’. Malcolm writes movingly about the background to this sonnet on his blog here.

View across the Mawddach estuary, Snowdonia. Picture by Benjamin Dobson

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

Malcolm Guite

Cowbar Nab, north Yorkshire. Picture by Julian Dobson


Chill out my friends, there’s no need for trepidation / Got a message for the world and it’s elation information.*

Just loved this interpretation of the Nativity story from the vicar of a church in Devon.


* More usually translated: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2: 10)