Speaking of festivities, this time around we recall holidays past, so put on your party hat, pull your chair closer and read on.
My childhood recollections of the holiday are, like all my memories, hazy. That's probably a good thing for a writer as it keeps me from trying to endlessly rehash my past rather than making up more interesting stories. I do however recall conducting the milk and cookies experiment which proved beyond doubt that Santa existed because, after all, when I awoke on Christmas morning, he'd eaten the snacks set out the night before. This was right after the launching of Sputnik, when, like every halfway intelligent American child, I was going to become a scientist but that was before I tried to cope with long division.
It's certainly not traditional but for me Christmas also involved cats and alligators -- specifically the instrument-playing feline figurines and the alligator leaning against a lamp post which highlighted the Christmas yard under the tree at my grandparents' house. Speaking of trees, they were real in those days though not necessarily purchased at one of those stands that pop up in December. Some years my grandfather simply cut the crown off one of the big firs lining the edge of his garden.
Model train layouts around Christmas trees were more natural in those days too. My brother and I covered our train tunnel with moss and ferns gathered in the woods behind our house. We had a couple of plastic railroad adventurers a cat and a penguin. Sometimes they even got on the train (despite not having a ticket) but more often they rode the rails, directly in the path of the train, creating spectacular crashes. Despite any amount of nagging, they had a terrible tendency to cross the tracks in front of the tunnel and bore the scars of their foolishness to prove it.
Even more exciting was opening a new window in the Advent calendar every day to reveal another picture advancing the Nativity tale. In retrospect, I wonder if using the unfolding story of Christ's birth as a countdown to the coming of Santa was somehow sacrilegious.
As a kid I was enthralled by all the fantastical lies about Santa and flying reindeer and rightly or wrongly I carried on the tradition by telling my children the same tall tales. By then of course I knew better. It still makes me feel tired to recall the year Santa assembled the kids' new bicycles after their bedtime on Christmas Eve. A very long night that turned out to be, too, but luckily the pedals, wheels and handlebars somehow stayed attached while in use. Now the kids are grown, those bicycles are long gone and the danger of injury has passed and so I'm much relieved. But I still enjoyed their wonderment vicariously. For me, Christmas really slipped away when my kids grew up, when I no longer sat at their bedsides and read The Night Before Christmas to them before tucking them in.
Now there was a tradition.
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But as with most families, our Christmas Day had its own order, a traditional progression of events unwinding from our first forays into lumpy Christmas stockings at the foot of our bunk bed in the grey light before dawn to getting up to the steamy, fruity smell of the Christmas pudding boiling merrily in the kitchen to the last goodnight before the light was put out and Boxing Day crept towards us on the twirling sails of the windmill clock hanging on our attic bedroom wall.
As a child, early Christmas evening was my favourite time of the day. By then we had presented our gifts -- usually home-made calendars liberally sprinkled with glitter after secret assembly up in the attic or perhaps boxes of matching handkerchiefs, or a diary, or a huge bottle of lavender perfume from the local Woolworths, things small in themselves but for which we had saved our pocket money for some time, sacrificing even that extra tube of fruit gums in order to get a few pennies more towards the cost of the fancier wrapping paper. And of course we had ourselves long since unwrapped our own new treasures -- always a book, usually a selection box containing six or eight different sorts of chocolate bars, and two or three other small parcels that had been stuffed into our Christmas stockings (being a pair of my father's much darned wool socks) along with the customary silver foil wrapped tangerine plus a handful of walnuts in the shell and a few toffees tucked into their toes.
After the Queen's speech broadcast at 3 pm and having toasted her health with a glass of sherry or a cup of tea as appropriate to age, about an hour later it was time to sit down for our tea. We kids would gleefully pull red and green Christmas crackers, reading their mottoes and silly jokes aloud for everyone's delight. We'd put on the silly hats and divvy up the geegaw trinkets from the crackers and then pass around slices of the rich, solid dark cake my mother had made weeks before. The British Christmas cake is basically all sorts of dried fruit held together with spices, eggs, flour, butter and a dash of something that in our day might have been rum though we never dared ask, the whole being covered in marzipan and tooth-cracking Royal icing on which, at our house at least, was displayed a small, much battered miniature sled that so far as we could tell was made of painted chalk.
There would be hot mince pies (muffin sized in England) and perhaps a sandwich, all downed with big china cups of strong, black, heavily sugared tea. Afterwards we'd linger at the kitchen table to demolish some of the aforementioned nuts and citrus fruit as well as passing around a once a year purchase -- a frilly-edged box of sticky, dark dates that came with a little plastic fork for fishing out its contents and brough forth stern maternal warnings to mind out for the stones or we would break our teeth. The l944 film This Happy Breed, which tells the story of a set of working class neighbours over a span of twenty years, has an essentially similar scene (much to my delight the first time I saw it) although under blackout wartime conditions and presumably without dates or tangerines, which would have cost a fortune even if any could have been found on sale.
But when the washing-up was done, the tea towel hung up to dry in the scullery and a fresh scuttle of coal brought up from the back yard, then came the best part of all. As darkness pressed against steamed-up windows behind cosily drawn curtains and adults listened to the radio while consuming yet more cups of tea, we kids lay on the hearth rug in front of the popping, glowing fire, eating chocolate and reading our new books. Could childhood memories be any better?
It all sounds very simple and ordinary and somewhat quaint, I suppose, but it was our Christmas and so remains close to our hearts -- and especially now that we are all scattered to the winds. So wherever you are and however you celebrate the many festivals falling at this time, may they give you an equal stock of happy memories -- and may the new year bring you all you wish yourselves.
Being nothing of not cautious, therefore, the powers-that-be ensure that the throne remains safe by clipping the Tower ravens' wings so that while they can hop a fair step, they cannot fly away. Being intelligent birds, however, we suspect that they realize which side their bird seed is buttered on and are happy to stay on the Tower grounds, unlike some of its past residents.
However, not all of them are as grateful as they should be. When Major General Sir Digby Raeburn, Governor of the Tower, died a few days ago, his obituary noted in passing that he was once chased and bitten by Hector, one of the Tower ravens. The irony of this episode did not escape us in that (a) according to the rhyme one bird of black plumage is for sorrow (as indeed those seeking to steal the Maltese Falcon found out to their cost) and (b) a minor (in both senses of the word) character in the novels is an unpleasant young man called Hektor. Regrettably, while the avian Hector was promptly sent to live at the London Zoo (where we trust he became better behaved) his fictional namesake has yet to be reformed.
Better behaved or reformed we may never be but there are two things you may expect to come to pass (well, three if you count relying on lots of ketchup when you shake the bottle too vigorously). The first is that we don't bite and the second is that the next Orphan Scrivener will wing over to your in-box on February l5th. See you then!
Mary and Eric
whose home page hangs out at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/
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