Traditions, Part Two: Christmas, my child, is love in action

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

'There's bloody crumbs all over my clean house and some joker's stuck a hunting horn down my stocking. Get me another gin. NOW.'

As children, we believed unswervingly in Santa. There was no doubt that the huge happy man in department stores was the same bloke who could see, and more worryingly, hear everything from about November 14th onwards. We wrote him letters which were posted up chimneys in cold countries and left outside to blow away to the North Pole in hot ones. Our behaviour became increasingly, cringingly Uriah-Heep-like; we made our beds and did our prep uncomplainingly; my collection of swear words was confined to airings under the bedclothes and I never once in that period pretended to be Death, moaning menacingly under my suggestible sister's bed.

Even now on Christmas Eve, children of all ages are prised from the telly, bundled up and taken for an airing while magical things happen. Usually involving a daddy, a screwdriver, some complicated instructions, a last-minute battery dash, much unseasonal swearing and then a mummy finishing the job off. Bots come back to a house lit by the tree and the sounds of Carols from King's College Cambridge ringing clearly through a cold afternoon or, in a hot place, bristling with static on the dodgy World Service reception. Either way, it's loud.

My mother, the unsung elf, will be warbling along, always doing the descant and making rack after rack of tiny perfect mince pies, dusted with a snowfall of icing sugar and juggled hotly in mittened hands before the molten sweetness cracks open to scald our mouths. It is the one day of the year when you may eat with a coat on and scatter crumbs on the kitchen floor.

In recent years, since the advent of grandchildren and the fact we now all live on the same continent, we all go to a Christmas Eve Carol service in a little 11th Century church in my parents' village. It is exquisitely lit by candles; small children may dress as angels and shepherds. Bar my niece, all ours are FAR too old and spohisticated for this, though my 10 year old nephew charged down the aisle a few years ago, head wrapped in my pashmina, announcing he'd come as a terrorist. My sister and I are always giggly, partly through sherry and partly because we are officially too old to be punished for laughing in church and we have years and years of stifled mirth, biting our cheeks and burning under the glare of my mother, to make up for. We also, pathetically, snigger when my mother does the descant ('Doesn't Gan-Gan know the right tune, Mummy?' 'No, it's very sad, darling.') and pinch each other at the phrase 'the Virgin's womb.' It's a big tradition, however many bodies are packed in the pew between us.

Last year, the Vicar had lost her (yup, the Northern Socialist cum part-time Misogynist had some trouble with this one) voice. The PA system was down and the thundering shepherds and angels invading the nativity like football fans drowned out everything. We just helpfully worked our way through the carol sheet, lying through our teeth that we could hear the service. It's C of E for God's sake, the order of service is hardly likely to change from one century to the next. Afterwards, we all get a traditional Biblical Quality Street and stream off for drinks at some friends' wonderful house packed with sparkly children, overexcited dogs, fantastic Dutch nibbles and a LOT of goodwill.

Later, children are bathed and sometimes my dad reads them The Shooting of Dan McGrew. (The Cremation of Sam McGee was dumped many moons ago because of the horrors it gave my scaredypants sister). Tinies are given a limp empty stocking to lay across the foot of their beds, the grown ups start theatrically at the imagined sound of sleigh bells and off the wee ones creep. We adults, plus friends and orphans will eat salmon and drink merrily until it is safe to go and retrieve the stockings.

Best draw a tinselly veil over the stuffing of the stockings by half-cut parent, hissing and stumbling, trying desperately to remember which bag is for which child. We three always do a stocking for my mother, with lovely bath treats, special chocolate and Improving Novels. A visiting friend from Germany one year didn't quite get the brief and fabulously added a plastic hat shaped like an umbrella and a hunting horn. Even my usually gracious and dignified Ma had trouble carrying that one off.

Then we sloppily kiss our flushed and sleeping babes and sleep till the cry goes up: 'He's BEEEEEEN!'


  1. Really, PLEASE continue your superb entertaining writing for ever. I wait everyday for your wonderfully turned humour. So British, so warming; It brings me back to Rhodesia (yes, way back then) where I lived for 2 year; My (French) father always loved listening to BBC World; even the sing alongs... loved it then, love it now. Thank you.

  2. Wow-- I remember that the harder we tried not to laugh, the more explosive the result. Nowadays I'm such a sap-- the Christmas carols make me cry. Great post!

  3. I whiz past the tens of blogs in my Google Reader just to open yours up. It's like a perfect dash of Angostura Bitters. Now just let me top up the gin and feel the sound of my ancestors like an ancient, well, yes, hunting horn, in my veins. In fact we were cheesemakers. But your writing lets me pretend. Does British Vogue need a columnist?

  4. What can I say? You make everything magical. Good question from LPC, does British Vogue -- or anyone else for that matter -- need a columnist?

    You sweep me away.


  5. Death under the bed? E your poor sister.Is your father a fan of Robert Service? I know that you may be tired of hearing it, but we'll never get tired of saying it. Please never stop!

  6. You've got me all Christmassy - I think I must go and learn the descants and try to make mince pies...oh my poor, poor children!

  7. While reading this post my laptop screen became one of those frosty, snow-sprinkled leaded windows found in Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and BBC period dramas... 'traditional Biblical Quality Street' made me laugh out loud and Death under the bed deserves it's own post...

  8. ....head wrapped in my pashmina, announcing he'd come as a terrorist.....

    GREAT! That was me.

  9. JADH - Goodness, your comments have brought a very seasonal glow to my day. Thank you!

    Kathy - awful, isn't it? I hear about two notes of Little Town of Bethlehem and I'm off like a Greek widow.

    LPC - that made my week - I have long stalked your writing, so your compliment is treasured. Wish I had cheese in my veins.

    Tish - if you know any, send them my way!!

    James - yes yes yes, I know. Have said sorry sooooo many times, don't you bloody start. Yes, Service and Kipling were the soundtrack to my childhood.

    Tattie - steady on girl...

    Anon - lovely lovely image. Will check with the Pretty One's therapist whether I am allowed to bring it up again...

    ADG - yes I know it was, and I imagine the belt round the lug my sister gave you is still ringing?

  10. Damn...I was wondering why my head hurts today.

  11. I've been reading through your archives and have concluded that you're the female version of AA Gill. I mean this as a compliment what with me (and ADG) being a moronic Yank and all.

  12. im trying to remember a funny incident involving a phonecall off of Carol from Kings.

    but i cant recall the detail

  13. Tintin - AA Gill?? scottish, check, curmudgeon, check, alcohol issues, check, smug erudite overeducated vocabulary public masturbatory tendencies, er - check. Looks like a fair call.

    Can't say you've ever struck me as moronic. ADG now, well, that boy's a whole other story...

    Guava, that you made? That I made? Does it matter, only the ice is melting in my


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth