I freely admit that Christmas is a rather mad time. We all moan about how much it costs and how stressful it is and how commercialised it’s become and all that – but if you strip away the stresses that we give OURSELVES, it can be really rather lovely. And I say this after a few very black years where I did my best to block Christmas out completely and became an utter bah-humbug, so I do understand it is a difficult time if you aren’t filled with festive cheer. After one year in which I refused to have a tree, wanted to lock myself away from EVERYONE and came close to throttling an innocent stranger who said “Merry Christmas” to a sulky woman with a thundercloud on her forehead, I decided that being unhappy wasn’t fun and decided to try harder to enjoy what had once been my favourite time of year. The harder I worked at it, the easier it got. Perhaps this post will help if you need a bit of an injection of festive adrenalin. Perhaps it won’t. Let me know if it does; but don’t let me know if it doesn’t, you will be snuffing out my candle!
Off the top of my head, these are the things that light a little warm flame in my heart when I think about Christmas.
– The smell of the pomander I spend a good hour making every year. Shoving cloves into an orange is a rather sticky passtime (and cloves hurt!) but the resulting aroma is spicy and inviting. (I’d say “just like me” but it’s not true.)
– The excuse to play Christmas songs ad nauseum; not just the old favourites by Slade, Kate Bush and Chris Rhea (have any good ones come out, other than George Michael’s December song, since 1986?) but carols as well. I splashed out on a couple of carol CDs this year and, with my Angel chimes tinkling and sending little flickers like fairies around the room, it was the perfect excuse to sit and relax. I think I baked/ironed/wrapped presents/wrote cards/cleaned the gerbil tank/made that sodding pomander while listening to them rather than relaxing but the thought is what counts, and I THOUGHT about relaxing for a bit.
– The excuse to buy someone something nice and exciting. I’m not rich by any stretch but gone are the days that I frantically saved up for months to be able to afford my friends a candle, or when our parents set me and bruv a target to spend no more than £2.50 (!!!) each on them. I ask my friends and family what they’d like because I want to get them something they actually want, not something that will be promptly regifted to someone who doesn’t require much thought. And the joy of wrapping it and knowing that they will be happy to receive it is quite immense.
– Getting stuff back. But that doesn’t need saying really.
– When it gets cold. I don’t mean cold and grey and rainy – I’m looking at you, current weather! – but crisp bitter wind that bites chunks out of your face and turns your toes (fingers for feet) to icicles. The cold that makes the simplest thing – coming into a warm building – an unusual bliss. The frost turning spiderwebs into lace and trees into garlands. Your breath turning to smoke in the air. Cold nights when the stars are so close you could reach out and pluck one from the sky.
– Winter food. Not so much the vegetable soups that I’ve been blending for months on end in an attempt to make myself healthy and shift that bloody stone I said I was sure I’d shift 4 weeks ago, but allspice, cinammon, cloves. Mulled wine (or even punch – my blackberry-and-apple cordial served hot works just as well). Steaming stews and pies, roasts and crumbles. Nutmeg grated into hot milk.
– The Nativity. Polite warning: I’m going to ignore anyone who writes on here commenting about how, if it happened at all, it happened in March not December and it wasn’t necessarily a stable and blah; I believe in it, and I love it. The wonder of it all: such a huge thing to happen, and yet at the same time, so simple. When you think about it, the best things about Christmas are the simplest, really. Smells, foods, lights, giving, and being with the people you love.
With this in mind I’ve put together some of the old favourite books I dig out every year (if I have time inbetween baking, cooking, cleaning, and making pomanders). See if you can find an hour in the whole period to curl up in a chair, preferably with a glass of mulled wine, next to an open fire with your Angel Chimes spinning, to dive into one of these. And have a good one.
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The oldest and the best; a lot of the festivities and traditions we take for granted today were thought up by Dickens and A Christmas Carol, with wonderfully-written Scrooge and the host of ghosts (my favourite things!), should be read every Christmas Eve. His other Christmas tales are not so well known but also enjoyable. The edition I’ve linked to is from Waterstones and is a collection of them all. One of my favourite books of all time, I wrote a stage play of it complete with rapping Marley and an episode in which the entire cast did a routine to Stayin’ Alive; my friends and I performed it in our village hall. I was 15 and it was probably the happiest night of my life.
The Children of Green Knowe – L. M. Boston
Many moons ago the BBC did a fantastic adaptation of this book. I’d never heard of it but my mum bought it for me after the show (in fact I remember loving it so much that i dreamt about getting it from a book shop before I was actually given a copy). It’s a tale of true magic – a young boy, Tolly, goes to live with his grandmother in the huge house of Green Knowe and learns about the family who lived there centuries before – who haven’t quite left. An eerie yet heartwarming story, ghosts (again!), the supernatural and a lovely relationship between grandmother and grandson make this book an absolute treat. The Green Knowe series is on the whole a classic, though I’d recommend An Enemy At Green Knowe second (a lot scarier than The Children).
I was lucky enough to find a copy of the DVD on eBay and I try to watch it every Christmas.
The Box of Delights – John Masefield
Another book of magic, but one with a bit of a twist. Kay Harker, on his way home from school for the holidays, comes into contact with an old gentleman who gives him a very special box. The story of what happens when Kay fiddles with the box, and the characters he encounters, is chilling and entrancing. Again, the BBC did a dramatisation years ago which was truly magnificent though children nowadays would probably find it a little dated. I intend to give this to my godson when he is old enough to appreciate it.
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories – ed. Dennis Pepper
A reviewer called this “a lovely pudding of book” and that’s exactly what it is. Like a Christmas pudding it has many different ingredients all combining to make a very special collection. I bought it when I was about 11 and was perhaps a bit young to fully appreciate all the tales: you have stories of carol-singing by Laurie Lee, the story of the Nativity told from Mary’s perspective, some unsettling ghost tales including one by Philippa Pearce, Adrian Mole’s Christmas, Mr Pickwick on the ice, and many more. There are many compendiums of Christmas stories but this one is the star on top of the tree.
A Christmas Posy – ed. Celia Haddon
I was given this many years ago, and still open it every year. It’s a beautiful little collection of Christmas poems, most from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, illustrated with Victorian Christmas cards.
And for your Kindle:
Christmas Ghost Stories: Festive SkinCrawlers with a Twist – Stewart King
Stewart King writes in the tradition of the greats (M R James, Dickens, et al) some original tales to be told around a blazing fire.
I will undoubtedly come back to this post with more titles when I think of them. If you have any others to add to this, please do let me know: there’s no such thing as a full bookshelf.
So. Have a good one; and God bless us all, everyone!
(I’ve google-imaged Tiny Tim and didn’t get quite what I expected so it is probably best if you imagine him.)