'Fear not,' said the Angel...

It was a beautiful night with a New Moon in South Tawton, Devon, England. And the world was about to change forever…

An angel stood outside the magnificent 15th century granite and thatch, Church House, which has been at the heart of the South Tawton community for more than 500 years.

Okay, she was there a bit earlier than the moon because it's still daylight, but that was a lovely picture to start off with. And, anyway, she was deep in prayer before our story started, wondering exactly what words to use when she spoke to a young lady later that evening. Did you know that the most common phrase in the Bible is 'fear not?' There are 365 mentions of the phrase — one for every day of the year. So, the angel thought to herself, 'let's go with the flow. "Fear not" is as good as it gets.'

Now this was not just any old angel, it was the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger between God and humanity. Wisely, she went up the steps so she could be seen properly and checked her microphone before she delivered her message.

Below her, a young girl called Mary, was sweeping the porch together with two narrators. One was called Beth and the other was wearing reindeer horns. Those narrators got everywhere in those days.

Gabriel told Mary that she was very highly favoured and was going to have God's baby, whom she would call Jesus. Mary wasn't sure about that to start with because she wasn't married, but she was a brave girl and, let's face it, when an angel turns up, you tend to believe it. The 'fear not' bit certainly seemed to have worked.

There were lots of folks in Nazareth that evening so it's surprising they didn't see or hear the angel but God's good at keeping things secret when He needs to. The words 'secret' and 'sacred' come from the same root, which makes a lot of sense.

Ah! Hang on … all the people were there because the Emperor Augustus had turned up out of the blue. That's him in the lych gate in front of the church.

He told all the villagers that they would have to return to their home-towns in order for there to be a census so they could all be taxed correctly.  Emperor Augustus got a big boo and hiss from the crowd.

Mary's betrothed husband Joseph saw an angel too — in fact he saw at least two, one of whom was wearing tinsel — so he knew that it was all okay about Mary being pregnant. He saw some incredibly early Wise Men from the East too but he told them to go home because they'd got the timing wrong. But he said they'd be very welcome later, when the baby was born.

 Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, where Joseph's family came from for the census. Bethlehem was a long way away, and Mary was pregnant when they had to go, but luckily, there were some friendly shepherds nearby — and some friendly musicians too so people could sing along with the events as they unfolded — and the shepherds thought, 'She'll need a donkey to ride on!'

Incidentally, there's no mention of a donkey in the Nativity story in the Gospel of St. Luke. That bit, and the whole idea of the Nativity scene, complete with cattle and a donkey, was invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century. Way-to-go St. Francis! It's been fun ever since.

So some pretty fierce negotiations went on over purchasing the donkey for Mary (the donkey's name is Nazareth which is an amazing coincidence, when you think about it). But the shepherds got a good deal in the end.

But Mary was a bit of a softy so she didn't ride the donkey after all. In fact, she got a nice lady to lead Nazareth all the way to Bethlehem. But there's no truth in the rumour about their driving there in a  Peugeot…

If you look closely, you can see that Mary took her broom with her, which actually turned out to be a very good idea.

After a long, long walk, they arrived in Bethlehem. But it was even fuller of people than South Tawton/Nazareth and they couldn't find anywhere to stay.

Okay, there might have been a Peugeot outside the Inn, but it belonged to the Landlord, not to Mary and Joseph, honest. And although the landlord at the Inn in Bethlehem is usually a bit of a baddie and turns the Holy Couple away, this time, the landlord — whose name was Tony — had a good reason to be full. His Inn was stuffed with Syrian refugees.

Still, he said they could sleep in the stable and gave them the keys. So Mary and Joseph went to the stable, which looked a bit like the altar at St. Andrew's…although that's obviously only a coincidence. And Mary was very grateful that she'd brought her broom because she could make sure the stable was clean and tidy for the baby to be born in.

 It's a good thing that it was a very large stable because lots and lots of people came along to see them and to sing about them. And the whole church sorry! stable was full of Christmas trees from the Christmas tree festival earlier that day so it looked just lovely.

You can't see it very well (because it was too dark for my camera) but the donkey's certainly there too on the right. And here's a bit of an innovation. The baby Jesus was born just as Mary and Joseph got to the altar sorry! STABLE and, instead of a manger, he's sleeping in a state-of-the-art baby stroller. Very sensible too because it's a genuine four-week-old baby in there and if Paul Seaton-Burn, the Rector, had tried to put him in a manger full of straw, you probably wouldn't have heard the congregation singing for the yelling of a baby covered in straw prickles.

Not all babies are as good as the baby Jesus. But then he did have swaddling bands so that would probably have protected him from the tickly straw.

Then lots more angels turned up — and a sheep. Which was fortunate because the shepherds came too, though I don't have a picture of that. And it was the very same shepherds who'd bought Mary the donkey so wasn't it nice that they got to see the baby? The Wise Men came back too with their lovely gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And don't forget the Christmas chickens. They're in a cage to the left. But there definitely would have been chickens. And very well-behaved chickens they were too.

So it all ended very happily, and the people sang a few more songs, accompanied by the minstrels, and then there was tea and cake and mulled wine and mince pies in Church House and we all went home happily.


"About as Much Use as a Chocolate Teapot" — Exeter Christmas Market no. 2

So realistic!
Being a chocoholic, I've never quite understood that phrase. It might not do as a teapot but it's still chocolate and that's always useful.

Of course, it's the time of year for chocolate Santas, snowmen and reindeer — although the latter look rather worryingly like ear-amputated leftover chocolate bunny rabbits at Easter with different wrapping. We're fairly used to chocolate in odd shapes and sizes by now.

But a chocolate monkey wrench? A chocolate paintbrush? A chocolate slice of mousetrap cheese? A chocolate salami? Why? Why? Why?

I don't know why, but I know this stall from The Amazing Chocolate Workshop  stopped me in my tracks at Exeter Christmas market. It was almost impossible to believe that they were selling chocolate. Luckily, one of them gave me a morsel to prove it and it was delicious chocolate. Gluten-free, 65% delicious chocolate.

Oh, and if you look carefully at the picture above, you'll see they actually do sell chocolate teapots. Dammit, if I'd just noticed that when I was there, I'd have bought a couple of those. What a fabulous Christmas present!

I'm not sure whether they were doing a roaring trade because the chocolate spanners were stealing the show and there was a part of a few people's psyches going 'you'll hurt your teeth on those.' Quite how that works out when our teeth are quite happy to sink into a chocolate Santa, I don't know, but the brain is weird in its wiring until it's used to stuff.

But I do know that now I've looked at the pictures and had a browse on their website, I want to go back and buy stuff.

Unfortunately, they don't sell online yet, but there's a form on the site that you can fill in and they'll tell you when they do.

But if you're near Exeter and you're looking for a genuinely unusual chocolate Christmas present (and one for you too), you simply have to visit this stall.


Exeter Christmas Market (1)

Exeter Cathedral behind the market.
I only went into Exeter to get a late Advent calendar and some Christmas cards from the cathedral. Shopping per se wasn't on my mind but hanging out in St. Peter's is one of my favourite pastimes and any excuse will do. I've always loved their Christmas cards.

Not this year, however. Three really dull designs and not one Advent calendar left by 3rd December. But there was St. Gabriel's chapel to sit and pray in, as well as the lovely lady chapel and no visit to the cathedral is ever other than a delight.

Even better, a school choir was rehearsing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day which, oddly, I'd never heard before and which took my breath away. You can listen to it here. Particularly apposite with the government's decision to bomb Syria.

And, all around the Cathedral, Exeter's Christmas Market glittered and assailed my senses. That was something else I'd not come across before, simply because we've only been here for three years and I managed to be sick at Christmas time for two of them. But oh, what a delight! I'm used to Birmingham's German Christmas Market but, frankly, this knocked that into a cocked hat.

I'll do a separate blog on a few more stalls including the aptly-named Amazing Chocolate Shop but here are some market photos and a few highlights. If you're anywhere in the area and can get down there, go, go, go!

Yummy non-seafood paella from Jences. Inspired me to go home and make more.
Don't go and look for Jences Paella on the internet however; their website has been compromised and I've just had a fun ten minutes comforting and reassuring my browser. It's nothing actually dangerous but I'm not risking it and I can't find a page for them on Facebook. So, it's the market or nothing for these guys right now which is a shame because the website says 'recipes' in the tabs and I'd sure like some of those.

Bush Farm Bison Centre's website is perfectly safe but ridiculously out-of-date (makes mine look efficient) so I've linked to their Facebook page instead. Not that that has a lot on it either. But they raise organic bison and elk and other tasty stuff and look like a fabulous place to visit. They have annual pow wows as well. The guys on the stall were really friendly and the meat both looked and smelt delicious. Unfortunately, I was already stuffed with paella.

Now this stuff, not even I can eat but it's a terrific idea even if it's not entirely photogenic and it's also a lousy photograph and I've cut someone in half. Devon Reclaimed is a company that beautifully restores all kinds of old, salvaged goods — mostly wooden and electrical stuff — and sells them. As well as the Christmas market, you can find them at Dartmouth Market on Fridays and Taunton Market on Saturdays during the winter months. 

This is just a picture of a sweater shop for Christmas. I didn't go in and I don't want one, thank you. Please, please don't get me a Christmas jumper.

To my shame, I can't remember the name of this stall but it's a lovely angel and what looks like a Santa with a serious hangover.


Weirdest — and Sweetest — Car Park Ever.

There was a time, and not so long ago either, when, if you were a vegan, you couldn't have the treats that the rest of us take for granted. Maybe that's what made so many vegans so cross with the rest of the world?

It's always interested me why those who care so much for the planet and its creatures are often willing to psychologically attack humans who don't share their beliefs. Obviously, they believe that we are all wrong but there are good ways and means of educating us and blaming and shaming isn't one of them.

I once had a former student tell me I was the personification of evil and she was recycling all my books because she had found out that I ate meat. She added that she would have burnt them but she was a good woman and wasn't going to add that pollution to the planet.

She may well have been a good woman although I'm always suspicious of those who actually tell me that, just as I'm suspicious of those who say 'I'm coming from the heart' which is so often egoic passive aggression for 'and you're not.'

I know she's right in a way — at least in that it would be better for the world if we ate much more vegetarian food and much less meat and I hope I'll get there in my own time. But not when I'm exposed to hatred. She was full of the Biblical commandment 'thou shalt not kill,' but what she didn't realise was that the Hebrew commandment is actually  'thou shalt not commit murder' — it's nearly always mistranslated — and to the mystic that includes psychological murder: the attacking and shaming of another.

And the world is changing. I am delighted to see that. Chocola Tree in Sedona is a herald of the (I'm sure gratefully received) New Age belief that it's okay to have yummy stuff including chocolate if you're vegan and wear purple clothes with too many buttons. Or even if you're not.

It's a fascinating rabbit-warren of a shop with fabulous ginger, lemon and honey lemonade, fresh juices and a delicious menu that's all vegan, gluten-free, organic or locally-sourced, GM-free — and it has a whole counter of chocolate. Have a look at their fabulous range of treats here. They made my mouth water.

Lion, who's an archetypical bloke and into his Sunday roast and sausages wasn't all that keen but I know that if I lived in Sedona, this would be my (alternative) coffee shop of choice.

Chocola Tree is  the kind of thing that's going to inspire people to change — it is filled with good feelings, good food and friendly staff.

They also have a very amusing, weird and loving car park. Here are some of the signs in it.

And finally, they sell tee-shirts with lovely life-affirming messages such as this:

You change the world with love, not hatred. You promote peace by being peace. Chocola Tree rocks!

Time For Some Not Fake Food.