Christmas Gifts for Culture Lovers: Micro Hobbies Edition
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It’s at this time of year that bloggers across the world publish their lists of Christmas presents that are in line with their values. December 2021 marks my blog’s first birthday, so this feels like a particularly celebratory post.
For my first Christmas presents post, I thought I’d suggest some things that have been important to me over the past 2 years.
Beautiful art murals by art collective Luxmuralis, projected onto Oxford's Natural History Museum at Christmas time. Read about here.
Every single thing on this list is the same or similar to something that I’ve either bought for myself, has been given to me as a gift or that I’ve gifted to someone else. I really hope that you can find something in this list that will enrich your life and the lives of people you love for the coming year.
With my very best wishes for your health and happiness.
If it feels like all you do is work when everyone around you is doing fun things, then perhaps getting into micro-hobbies may be the way to go.
Micro-hobbies are exactly what they sound like - doing something fun and interesting for a few minutes, a few times a week. I have a lot of micro-hobbies – some, like calligraphy or origami, I do only in winter – when it gets dark and I want to do something nice at home that doesn’t involve a screen.
Some I do only when I feel like it, usually 2 or 3 times a week, like piano practice, and some I do every day – like my 5 minutes study each of Japanese and French over coffee in the morning.
It’s surprising how much you can achieve with a few, very concentrated minutes of attention. Here are the supplies I use for some of my favourite winter micro-hobbies.
I try and do some sort of language study every day – even if it’s only a few minutes. I used to do my study quite sporadically but when my usual morning news reading session became an utterly horrendous way to start the day, I swapped that with a dedicated 10 minutes language study session. It felt like a much more positive way to start the day.
Easy French is a wonderful YouTube channel to supplement your DuoLingo study of French.
While I don’t think you can get fluent with only 5 minutes a day you can definitely progress and build a great foundation for those times when you want to make a bit more effort – you won’t be starting from scratch.
Ask Japanese is a fantastic YouTube channel that lets you hear real, life spoken Japanese - which is particularly helpful with trying to keep up with current slang. For intermediate learners.
I build my study around a paid subscription to the language learning app Duolingo – which was given to me as a birthday present and is a truly brilliant way to study languages if you're very busy. You can use it free with ads (which is what I used to do) or you can subscribe for yourself or someone else here.
I supplement my DuoLingo study with YouTube videos, as well as with books, films and magazines.
The free DuoLingo podcasts are excellent, genuinely interesting and fantastic for improving your language. You can find them here.
Calligraphy is a brilliant way to relax and unwind. You can do something meaningful in calligraphy in 10 minutes - which includes the setting up and putting away.
I’ve always loved calligraphy, but during the worst times in the pandemic, I learned modern calligraphy – which is fun and more freeing than traditional Western calligraphy. Last year, I would take out my dip pens, ink and my haiku book and copy out a haiku, in modern calligraphy, into my Rhodia notebook – it was a mini meditation, an exercise in mindfulness and something satisfying to do. Here are the supplies I use.
Modern Calligraphy – Lucy Edmonds
This is lovely book to help you or your loved ones get started with modern calligraphy.
I think these are the best nibs to get started with - they're great quality, last absolutely ages and aren't expensive. Just remember to run them through a flame (lighter or match) before you use, to burn off the protective film - and wash and dry them thoroughly after each use.
Zebra G nibs from Japan are the best nibs to get started with.
I don't think it really matters what type of nib holder you get when you first start out. Here's a nice one, that's not too expensive, that will see you through from beginner to expert level.
My favourite ink for practicing calligraphy is, once again, from Japan. One 60ml bottle will last you from complete beginner to confident learner.
My favourite practice paper is Rhodia paper - it's reasonably priced so encourages you to practice as much as you want. Here's what I use.
Reading classic literature can sometime seem like a chore to a busy and frazzled mind – something you feel you should do, but there’s never a moment when it’s a priority. Let’s be clear. You don’t ever have to read classic literature if you don’t want to – there’s no moral or superiority imperative.
If you're buying this from another seller, then do buy the Edward Seidensticker translation rather than the Royall Tyler translation, which doesn't bear much connection to the original text.
If you are exhausted to the point that your brain will only cope with an airport thriller, then that’s what you should read. But, if you’d like to get that deeply quiet contentment that comes from reading a classic piece of literature that has been loved throughout the ages, then perhaps doing it as a micro-hobby may be the way to go.
Emily Wilson's translation makes this a much more fun read - great as a whole family bedtime stories for those who love Stephen Fry's Mythos, Heroes and Troy.
Reading the classics as a micro-hobby means reading one chapter of something at a time – either on your own, or out loud with family or friends. Perhaps you read one chapter a week. Make it a special event for yourself.
I’ve read many classics this way – either on my own or as “reading parties” with family or friends. At university – a friend and I read two chapters of Wu Cheng en’s Monkey out loud to each other, every week. It wasn’t a text that either of us needed to read for our studies and it became something I really looked forward to.
Classics are also one of the few things I think justifies a hard copy, hard cover purchase. They become heirlooms and are very beautiful to wrap and open at Christmas time.
This is a beautiful book of classical haiku for when you or your loved ones can only cope with 10 seconds of culture. Think of it as a little mental oasis of calm. Good for those, like me, who don't have the patience for meditation.
I’ve always loved painting but I’d never had a go at watercolours. The techniques looked too difficult. Last Christmas, a loved one gave me this type of small watercolour painting set and the painting guide book pictured below. The book is fantastic – it takes you step by step through each technique in a very simple way to understand. All exercises but one worked so well that it builds up confidence. The little set is neat, doesn’t take much space and is easy to clean.
Most exercises in the book take between 10-15 minutes, so perfect for a micro-hobby. It’s been such a joy and I think it’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. Anyone who loves art or craft will love this gift.
This year, I’ve learned to pull a proper espresso. I’ve also learned a lot about coffee beans and how, what and when to buy them. I did this while I was sick in bed with a short attention span by watching the incredibly informative videos of James Hoffman – World Barista Champion 2007, entrepreneur and YouTuber. If you love coffee and want to learn more about it – you can find James’ YouTube channel here.
Coffee related gifts are fantastic – they can be as simple as a great bag of beans or as complex as a beautiful machine. My kit is quite basic – but it’s brilliant and works really well. Each one would work well as a gift.
I have very similar cups for my espressos - they make such a nice gift. They're also fantastic for serving hot, Christmassy-shots - like my Black Forest Gateaux liqueur (sadly, not available at M&S this year) - which only ever comes out for a few days in December!
Coffee Hand Grinder
Good electric burr coffee grinders are very expensive and range from around £150 - £3000 (yes, that's right). However, if making a single espresso is a micro-hobby, then it's not too onerous to grind your beans by hand. Hand coffee grinders generally use a ceramic burr to crush the beans instead of the more expensive metal burrs - but they do the job! Perfect for a micro-hobby. This is the one I use.
Neo Flair - Espresso Maker
The Neo Flair is a fantastic way to pull a single espresso. It's fun, quite dramatic and a talking point. I love making friends an espresso with this - it's fun to chat while I put everything together. It's also been a nice way to start a conversation with people I haven't seen in real life for a while - making an espresso while chatting brings a bit of fun to catch up conversations that include some serious issues. Here's James Hoffman's fantastic video on how to use it.
*I've done my best to list sellers with good reviews, that I've used before or are known reputable companies. However, I can't promise that you'll have a good experience with any of the sellers that I've listed using my links - so please make your own decision.