We made our own presents.

We made some of our own presents this year. This was possibly unwise as neither of us could be described as artistic or skilled at craft. Rudimentary knitting is as far as we get, and the results of our endeavours with wool and needles would scarcely bring a smile to someone’s face over the festive season. However, as part of our endeavour to be self-sufficient, and due to our abomination of waste, we wanted to use the sheep skins of our lambs after slaughter. So we thought learning to tan hides would be a way to kill two birds with one stone.We would use the skins and have no need to buy Christmas presents as we could give rugs and jackets to our friends and family. This plan only half-worked. Therefore, if you decide to follow the instructions which follow, then stop half-way through.

The first stage of tanning is to salt the skins.

salting
Salted skin

This means covering the whole area of the skin in a layer of salt about 0.5cm thick. Don’ try and do this with a salt cellar you are going to need about 1kg of salt per skin. Table salt or, if it is cheaper to buy, then dishwasher salt will suffice. This stage starts the preservation by drawing the moisture out of the skins as it drops on the floor. It is best to leave the skins for up to a week under the salt. Check them daily and renew the salt at any areas where pools of water have formed. The area you are working in will become wet and damp as the salt draws out all the water from the skin.

The following stage is scraping. You need sharp knives and any metal implements which

scraping
Tools and a wet floor

will allow you to scrape off any bits of meat of fat which are adhering to the skin. There are fleshing knives available at a cost, but kitchens knives, paint scrapers and a bee-hive tool work jus as well. This is very slow work but you have to persevere until a smooth, thin, white skin is all you have left. It should be about 1-2mm thick. Your hands will probably dry out during this process as the salt and the work will pull out all the natural oils in your skin. I found that, when I was doing this, if I went out in the rain, my hands looked as if they had been in a long hot bath as my finger tips went white and wrinkly very quickly.

The following stage is the actual tanning stage. You need to soak the skins in acid for a few days. There are many traditional

chemicals
Chemistry

 

ways of getting an acid for this procedure. Originally the brains of the animal would be smeared on the skins for the syringomyelic acid they contained, and in the middle ages there was some poor unfortunate whose job was to collect dog poo (as dog poo and urine are slightly acidic) for the tanning process. We decided against these strategies and went for oxalic acid which is quite easy to obtain as it is a common cleaning preparation (often used as a decking cleaner). We sent up three bins and the skins went through these over the next weeks. The first 4 days in the acid solution, then a day in

mixing
Mixing

 

a bicarbonate of soda wash (to neutralize the acid and start the cleaning) then a few days in a solution of soap flakes for simple cleaning. During each of these steps it is important to stir the mixture once or twice a day with a wooden stick.

Once you have completed these stages you are into the home run. The next stage is to dry the skins by hanging them on a line somewhere. Then daily pull and stretch the skins to make them pliable. This must be done multiple times and which considerable force and vigour as it breaks down the fibres in the leather and makes the leather supple.

drying
Drying

This, I have to confess is where we

dry
Cadi thinks we’ve skipped a step

made our fatal mistake. While we dried the fleeces well and did try and bend and pull them, we did not do this adequately and when the skins finally dried the leather was too hard and rigid. It was tanned but not, by any stretch of the imagination, supple. This part of the job can’t be skimped unless you are going to be happy with wall hangings or rugs, where flexibility is less important.

This unfortunately did not deter us. We had set our mind on Christmas presents and were not going to be so flexible as to let some stiff leather put us off. After some deft work with leather thongs and a needle we constructed a jacket.

rpt
Merry Christmas

Now the leather outside is indeed waterproof, and the inner wool lining is very warm,  but is does lack a little in finesse and fashion. It looks a little too Neolithic, or Game of Thrones, for day to day wear. I fear if we both wore matching jacked to the supermarket we might even be viewed as a little eccentric. But as proof of purpose it has shown it is possible to tan the skins and next year, after much more diligent work at the drying stage, we hope to have flexible, supple leather. Version 2 might even be wearable in public.

 

Charity presents ? I’d prefer nothing at all.

Charity presents ? I’d prefer nothing at all.

As it is December, and Christmas nears, I have been reminded by the incessant TV adverts that I should really get down to the serious task of present buying. It is, after all, the meaning of the season and the sooner we get down to buying and consuming the better.  I have written before that I won’t be joining this type of Christmas, in a post-scarcity world I have no desire to take part in this feast of over-indulgence. I would, however, be keen to try and rekindle an older sentiment of the season, that being the call for “Goodwill to all men” .

My initial thought was that I could change to issuing charity gifts for friends and family and, likewise, they could send these to me. However, on further deliberation I don’t think that this is a good idea. I fear that charity gifts never really benefit the sender or receiver and are not the most effective way of benefitting the charity either.

I want to be charitable, and to do so, I must take something of mine and decide to give it, without desiring any reward, to someone who needs it more than I. If I had decided to spend £20 on John’s Christmas present but instead made a £20 charity gift on his behalf then I have not really donated to charity. I did not forego anything to make the donation so I can hardly be thought of as having made a charitable act. In fact, it might be argued that I deprived John of his gift and stole the £20 from him to make my charitable donation.

Similarly John has not made a charitable act in receiving the gift. He did not forego anything nor did he make any conscious decision to make an act of charity. Indeed, had he chosen to act charitably he may not have concurred with my decision, he may not have felt that my donation to the “Campaign to save the Guinea Worm” was the most pressing of the world’s  concerns. So neither of us has managed to act charitably by the exchange of this gift. But there are further problems.

When we make acts of charity it is generally wise to keep these private. As the bible enjoined us But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”.  It is helpful not to “sound a trumpet” before us to publicise our actions. If we wish to give without thought of reward or recompense we should avoid this publicity, it is possible that the publicity and good regard we obtain could be thought of as a reward for our donation. These issues are not minor, as thoughts of how we might be viewed for our donation might influence which causes to which we donate. By not publicising our intentions it might free us to consider charitable causes which might be less popular but actually of more merit. So this publicising is not good for me, as the donor, and can only act as some virtue signalling to John who now gets a present which simply reminds him that I feel virtuous after giving his present to charity.

It would have been more honest and appropriate to put £20 pounds in an envelope and send it to John with a note suggesting he might want to donate the money to any charity he so desires. This would circumvent another problem. Charities are aware that  sometimes recipients feel these gifts are less festive and thus they bundle a gift  with them – in my case a lovely cuddly, fluffy guinea worm toy! The £10 that manufactured, packaged and posted this gift cut the charitable donation in half making this type of giving less efficient. Rather than giving gifts to each other, with a charitable component, we should give directly to those in need.

Christmas used to be powerfully special. It had the strength to stop the madness of World War I, for an all too brief few days. It gave a temporary respite to the hell and madness of the Western Front. The importance of Peace and Goodwill was what marked Christmas apart from those other winter festivals which we use to raise our spirits in the middle of these dark, cold days. Indeed, there are even new occasions, such as Black Friday, to give us an excuse to loose the reigns on our consumption  and counter any qualms we might have about over-indulgence.  Unfortunately, however, this tendency has begun to affect Christmas also. If you were to look at the paraphernalia surrounding Christmas  (the adverts, TV programs, shop windows, cards, craft fairs, grottos, etc) you would clearly see the theme of maximising our personal pleasures. With the emphasis on consumption and indulgence, and the loss of any sacred elements, Christmas has been hollowed out. It has no core nor substance, the traditional virtues of this season have been lost, but all is not lost, we can recover the situation.

This is what we need to do to reclaim Christmas. We must stop giving presents to those who already have, to those who we know, and start giving to those who have not, and to those we don’t yet know. We must start to show “goodwill to all men”  and start to spread the benefits that we enjoy so that they can be enjoyed by othersTherefore I want no presents, not even charity presents, and hope that with any money you save you may be able to use for your own charitable activities. I, for my part, pledge that I will keep my part of this bargain and ensure I do likewise. Between us we can start to recover some of Christmas’s significance and its power to make the world a better place, even if only temporarily. We may be clutching  at straws but if we do not act we might lose Christmas forever.

My final Christmas

new_year_03It is with a tinge of sadness that I have realised that this is the last time I will celebrate Christmas. The decision came to me while I sat in church having taken my father-in-law to the Christmas Eve service. We sat in a nearly empty church while a handful of elderly people tried to celebrate a central tenet of their faith. It was at odds with everything outside. Inside they spoke about love and charity while outside we had watched people rushing, as I had been, to buy last minute presents and prepare for a few days of festive, feasting and excess. As I watched this I realised I don’t want to participate in this any longer.

When I was a young man with children I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed the rituals and the traditions and enjoyed spending money so that I might see the pleasure on my childrens’ faces when they opened their presents. But over recent years I have found myself increasing estranged from the event. Little of the event now relates to the original Christian traditions; cards rarely mention it, songs likewise and there is little spoken about what it actually being celebrated. If anything at all is being celebrated.

Cast adrift from its roots in faith, Christmas now rides the waves of a sea of ennui and dyspepsia as we all try to maximise our pleasure by eating, drinking and buying. Like many others, I now live a reasonably comfortable life and any gifts I give or receive tend to be small luxuries as, thankfully, none of my friends or family live under hardship. Winter festivals, including those that predated Christmas,  were important in times of scarcity while we awaited spring. They were a chance to lighten our spirits, to kindle hope that the future will be positive and to allow ourselves a bit of comfort in a bleak period. In a post-scarcity world there is little need for this. The things we buy are are no longer important bridges to help us through to better times but simple luxuries, often completely useless items, we hope will temporarily heighten our pleasure. I am too old to believe in Santa Claus and  I am jumping off this treadmill of gift-giving.

I tried  purchasing charity gifts for all as a way to circumvent these problems but realised I had made an error. In doing so I had not enabled the gift receiver to give to charity. They had no choice and thus took no part in the decision to donate. I had not really given to charity either, as I had used money I was gifting to someone else for this. So, in essence, I had given nothing of my own to charity, someone else had not chosen to give to my charity freely, and I had advertised the fact that I had donated. These acts of virtue signalling allow everyone to lose a little of their dignity and I doubt engender much future charitable giving. In hindsight it seems a lose-lose scenario. (I will continue to give presents to my grandchildren at this time of year but simply because I love them and enjoy seeing their happiness.)

I hope my stopping celebrating Christmas will help me find something I fear I am loosing. I will still want and need a way to express the ideas of faith, hope and charity through the winter months. But this will be much easier if I don’t have to  participate in Christmas. I have faith that humanity is good. This faith may at times be tested by the actions of a miserable abnormal few, but there are more times when humanity impresses me with its benevolence. Because of this faith, I have hope that we will continue to make the world a better place for all who live in it and I personally hope that I will play my part in doing this.This leaves charity, the most important  aspect. I need to be more charitable and will use this time of the year to remind myself of this. I may be comfortable but some of my fellows are not, I need to do more to assist them. I can use the year’s bacchannalia as a paradoxical reminder to work harder in charitable actions.

via Daily Prompt: Festive