We had almost given up on winter. The heavy artillery of chesty coughs had begun its offence. Sore throat patrols left no tonsil untouched; runny nose gangs rampaged in their wake. The eldest was dosed up on Calpol and the baby's chest smeared with snuffle-balm. It took a ninja's speed and a pianist's dexterity to wipe the snot streaming from the little noses. "No, Mummy. No wiping. Put it back." After a few indoor days to recover, it was time to emerge into the world again.
Leaving the house with two tots is challenging enough, but by winter, the effort is near-impossible. It takes a whole morning of ebullient positivity, chattering about all the fun things to do in the cold; precision timing to ensure the baby is fed, changed and layered up; expert persuasion to will the toddler into woolly layers and waterproofs; a scout's preparation to have pockets stuffed with snacks, drinks, tissues, gloves and keys... where are the keys..?! And then I've missed the narrow 'get out the door' window: baby needs feeding/changing again and playgroup will be finishing soon anyway.
Hibernation seems like a better idea, curled up and snuggled down for weeks on end: safe, warm and cosy. The depressing daily news and shaky political climate make indoor time a more attractive option anyway. The world seems hostile and I gather my little ones into the warmth of the sofa-den. The elder echoes my mood: "stay at home, stay at home," his rosy nose glistening in the electric light. We're lucky to have a warm home to enjoy, I think, with food, toys, books, TV. I'm feeling so tired too, yawning just on cue. Okay: maybe just one more day at home. One more.
Then Advent begins and with it a renewed duty to my family to get out the house. Having failed to get an Advent calendar, I need to think on my feet. We've got a little Christmas tree but it's fairly bare, awaiting hand-me-down decorations. I imagine that pine cones might look ok, so I scribble a note behind a big number 1, cut from an old Christmas card: collect and decorate pine cones. Sealed in an envelope and dropped on the doormat, he discovers it the next day- in spectacularly dazzling sunshine, fit for this magical month: "look Mummy!" And then the miracle happens, he gets his boots and his coat and his hat and his gloves and with our little baby bundled to my chest, fed, changed and layered-up, we set off on the hunt.
Each step on the crunchy frozen grass shakes off our lethargy. We look up at the various trees, peeping above the rooftops and try to find some green amongst the spidery barren branches. After a morning of cheerful marching, my boy attempting random conversations with any passer-by and pine tree spotting, we locate our bounty and spend the afternoon with PVA glue, glitter and ribbon. Inspired, I scribble another note for day two: find some holly and we become arborists, locating the spiky trees, laden with toxic-red berries. We even make a wreath from a coat hanger, to display proudly on the door. Day three receives a special visit from Granny and Granddad who give our Advent quest to find a donkey more energy than a double caffeine shot, braying and singing all the way to the zoo. Day four's draw a robin forces us out again for red cheeks and stomping, singing and searching. By day five, we've become an outdoor family, living in muddied boots and chunky knitwear, with permanently rosy cheeks and wild woolly hat hair.
And then it's day six, find sticks to make a star, and disaster looms: "No mummy. No more numbers". We just about manage a little stroll in the fog: a mini miracle that we left the house at all. I end up having to carry my two year old on my back with the younger in a carrier on my chest. Just enough twigs are harvested in a desperate act of determination to make this count. A few hours and tantrums later and I'm sat at the kitchen table, still struggling to tie the dank crusty sticks into a star shape. The baby's getting bored in the Jumparoo while the older one finishes off yet another 'Andy's Dinosaur Adventure', having lost interest ages ago. This wasn't the plan. I momentarily rest my head in my hands and can hear my toddler rummaging in the cupboard. I look up as he leans on my leg, to see that he's put the yellow cone part of a lemon squeezer on his nose: "I'm a pelican. More numbers on the door mat?" By bedtime, he's gone off to look for more envelopes four more times.
I'm glad I forgot the Advent calendars, otherwise we wouldn't have a chain of festive numbers ascending along the fireplace, the vacant string promising more: outdoor treasure hunts, crafting and random acts of kindness. Advent has ushered us out into the world again. A little blast of fresh air in the morning makes our cosy afternoons more relaxing, albeit making, baking, being a pelican or bingeing on CBeebies. The runny noses seem to have magically cleared up too, a white flag in the face of Christmas: the season of possibility and joy.