A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Back in October, I mentioned to the other Bookfoxes my plan to write some kind of festive post, possibly about our childhood memories of Christmas. ‘What do you think?’ I asked in the den, hoping that at least one Bookfox would say yes. Say yes they did. ‘A few lines is fine,’ I said. ‘A paragraph or two if you like.’ Well, what I received were some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve seen on this site, so thank you fellow Bookfoxes, and without further ado, these are our most cherished memories of Christmas.
I’m ten years old. It’s Christmas Eve. We’re living in the beautiful – but at the moment unfashionable –village of Elie, in the East Neuk of Fife. At the centre of Elie there is an ancient Toll Green, and every year a Christmas tree is erected on it, around which the villagers gather on Christmas Eve to sing carols.
On this Christmas Eve, as we sing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, the snow starts to fall. There is no wind, and the snow falls gently and quietly into the pools of light cast by the lamps – settling on berets, overcoats and mittens. It continues falling as we sing – all the old favourites: Away in a Manger, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful – and very gradually, the grass starts to whiten around us.
Finally, the singing over, we wish each other a Merry Christmas and disperse to our homes. Mine is a tall, handsome house on the corner of Rankeillor Street, with panoramic views of the beach and harbour from the two top floors. As my mother tucks me up in bed, I ask her if the snow will lie on the beach. She tells me it’s not likely, because the sand is wet and salty, and snow and salt don’t like each other very much.
That night, I don’t sleep much – what child does on Christmas Eve? – so I’m wide awake on Christmas morning when my mother peers around the door. She sees I’m awake, and smiles. I can see that slightly mystical smile now, and her breath as she speaks, because the temperature has plunged outside overnight, and the fires and oven have not yet started to warm the building.
Without saying anything, she scoops me out of bed, still wrapped in my blankets, and carries me through the house to the drawing room where there is a big bow window looking out over the beach. The curtains are drawn back. The sun is rising over the sea.
And the whole beach is white.
Next to the music, decorations are what most conveys the Christmas feelings to me, so even though my family doesn’t celebrate with parties or big gatherings, I still like to “deck the halls”. Along with the wreaths and tinsel, that means the manger set and the Christmas tree.
Our Nativity set(crèche)is from Europe in the very late 1950’s. In fact, “Product of West Germany” is stamped on the bottom. It has actual straw, even in the trough for The Baby and plenty of realistic animals. The Wise Guys are three distinct nationalities, splendidly garbed and the shepherd has a lamb draped over his shoulder. Each year when I carefully set it up, I make sure all of the animals have a view of the Holy Family as clear as the humans, which usually means that the sheep get to crowd under the wooden roof next to Mary.
Though normally I’m a person surrounded by clutter, when I do the Christmas tree, I turn into Martha Stewart. My sister might disagree, having said I lean more towards Liberace with the tinsel. She also doesn’t approve of my multi-colored lights either, preferring the plain white ones, which I find boring. The ornaments are from as far back as the fifties, the kind that look like metal but are as delicate as spun glass. There’s lots of animals from the ’70’s Ecology movement and handmade ones from recent craft shows. The random ones I’ve collected as an adult range from a small nutcracker who looks as fierce as Genghis Khan to a dinosaur. Because there’s nothing that says “Happy Birthday Jesus” like a brontosaurus! There’s even a biplane looking just like the one in “The English Patient” which my mother surprised me with one year. All of them are hung on an artificial Scotch pine, as I cannot bear the idea of sacrificing a live tree.
So though my dysfunctional family remains isolated and argumentative over the holiday season, the corner with the tree and Nativity combats the gloom and often puts me into the much appreciated and appropriate festive mood.
My mother tried desperately to give me some semblance of family life, but neither of her marriages worked out.
After she and my father split up, she lived in an assortment of Canyons scattered around the outskirts of LA, with names like Horseshoe or Benedict or Laurel, but she was always hankering after Mountain Drive, Santa Barbara. Tom White had built the Castle there; he was strong, reliable and loaded. He offered her the stability she felt I so desperately needed, so she was more than happy to accept his proposal and married him on Christmas Day, 1956. It was in one of those heatwaves, despite a Xmas tree, and the guests were sweltering. I remember kicking off the dancing to Bill Hailey’s “Rock around the clock,” which was blaring out on our new hi-fi. Their wedding song had been Elvis’s “Love me Tender.” The party was off and running…
My bedroom was on the 2nd floor and there was no balustrade to stop anyone jumping off. Everything was open plan in those days. I remember in all the excitement of the moment and “Congratulations” and “Merry Xmas” and “Well dones”, some other boy joining me upstairs to play toy soldiers with me, and in the heat of the moment, for some inexplicable reason, he took a running jump over the edge. He landed flat on his face with a splat on the hard tiles below and the room went instantly quiet. Then everyone went running to his aid.
The general consensus, after what seemed an age of pulse taking and cold compresses, and talk of how we were going to get a doctor up the Drive on Xmas Day, was that he’d suffered a concussion. He’d have to spend the rest of it in bed, with all the grown-ups going round saying SSSSSHHHHHHHHHH the whole time, with eggnog and various bits of food in their hands.
Despite this boy’s fall nobody changed anything in the house until it finally burned down in the terminal fires of 2009, and after the immediate drama of it all, everybody, in truth, went back to the party. I guess I must have been extremely placid as a boy, or maybe having witnessed that fall I instinctively knew never to go to the edge. Naturally, I’ve been living on the edge ever since.
When I awoke the next morning, I was rubbing my eyes, looking bleary and confused, and I remember so well Tomcat running over and grabbing me and swinging me up high and giving me what he’d hoped would be the hug of a lifetime, because he really did love me, and he thought in his youthful way, that he was at least able to feel my pain and distress with the situation, and he wanted forever to comfort me and say he would do everything now to make things alright.
“Merry Xmas, Jay..”
He didn’t really know if that was possible, of course, nor did he really know if things really would be all right, but he knew it was important then that he should, at that time, appear to be omnipotent.
I looked around the Castle, which was to be my home for the best part of the following year. Tom had built it himself in classic Mountain Drive style with heavy timbers. The walls were of rough wood, and the living room rose 2 storeys, with a fireplace in which a short person or tall child could stand erect. I was in my ‘sleep’ pyjamas and I stood inside it and put my ear to the wall. I listened to the Santa Ana winds, marvelled at the flaming sunrise and shivered a little in the in the early morning fog. My cat, Muschi rubbed against my ankles, purring, and I waited for Gary Casey, who was to drop by for an early morning Boxing Day dip in our round swimming pool later that day.
This was the first Xmas I consciously remembered. Giant Santa stockings still hung either side of the fireplace and they were still full to the brim with presents. In all the excitement of Xmas and a wedding we’d forgotten to open them …
For this post I thought I would write something about the time I discovered Home Alone and the joys of slapstick humour, or the Christmas Eve that I convinced myself I’d actually heard and seen a sleigh, complete with flying reindeer and Father Christmas, but instead I am going to write about a stepladder. It was a small, mostly black, but paint-spattered stepladder, probably made of plastic. My dad must have been doing some pre-Christmas decorating, because it was still knocking around the house on Christmas Eve. My mum, full of Christmas spirit, had the great idea of us having an impromptu family carol service and after a few rounds of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, one of my parents suggested solos. This was probably due to the cute factor. The spectacle of a small child singing ‘Away in a Manger’ or ‘Little Donkey’ is not to be underestimated. Singing from the settee was clearly not good enough for such an occasion, so my dad went and fetched the stepladder and placed it in the middle of the front room. Soloists would sit there and sing. Eventually it was my turn to sing a carol and I climbed up onto the little stepladder and looked around. Outside it was dark and blowing a gale, but inside I saw dozens of shining pub Christmas decorations hanging down from drawing pins pushed into the ceiling, sparkling in the glow of our fairy lights. The windows were covered in black electrical tape squares and that weird-smelling fake snow that I can’t seem to find anywhere these days, but which looked so impressive when sprayed onto festive window stencils. And then when I’d gathered my nerve and the room had gone silent, I sang ‘Silent Night’, which I knew, because I’d had to learn it for my school choir’s Christmas carol concert. Of all the toys and games I received throughout my childhood Christmases, of all the snowmen built and Christmas stories told, nothing is more festive to me than the memory of sitting on that unlovely little stepladder.
I don’t know what happened to that stepladder. It wasn’t exactly made to last, so I imagine it soon broke and ended up on a rubbish heap – a thought that makes me unreasonably sad.
So many Christmases now, and they are all beginning to merge into one big memory lump. But here goes. I’m about to put our tree up, and have bought a new set of massed twinkly lights that shimmer and sparkle and do all sorts of clever electronic things. But that made me remember the trees we used to put up at home, with our pride and joy – a set of Mazda Jack Frost Fairylites (sic). They had the standard coloured conical bulbs (remember what a nuisance it was when one blew out? It would take the whole string down, and every one had to be checked) but all covered in glittery frosting. They lasted for decades, and disappeared between one year and the next, replaced by my parents with something new and modern. I did miss them. Would I have rescued them? Probably not, but now I see they can go for £20-30 on Ebay, so there is a following for them! They came in a box that gave almost as much pleasure as the lights themselves – a wonderful picture of Jack Frost on them. I haven’t been able to find an image that I can reproduce here, but kind Lady Wulfrun has a great photo of the box on her Flickr photo stream HERE. Isn’t Jack Frost wonderful, with his skates and his tights and his red frost-nipped nose?
I had another Christmas madeleine moment the other evening, at a local carol service. It was the now traditional Nine Lessons and Carols, and a young boy stepped up for the reading from Isaiah 9 that starts ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined‘. I’ve heard this read every year of my life, I think, on the radio and in church, by many people of different ages, but the fact that this reader was about 11 or 12 years old took me straight back to the first time I ever stood up in front of a building full of people and used my voice. It was a schools’ carol service in a neighbouring village, and I must have been no older than ten. I was given this reading, representing my school, I prepared it and prepared it (and every word is still etched in my brain) and in great trepidation I delivered it. For the first time in years I thought myself back to that country church and remembered my nerves, and standing up to read it, and the relief that it was over. I also remembered how much pleasure it gave me to learn and practice reading it. The passage (in the King James version) has wonderful rhythm and rhetorical flourishes, and splendid, polysyllabic words that I didn’t hear every day – Wonderful, Counsellor, Everlasting, Establish, Henceforth. I think this experience might be the first time I realised just how intoxicating words could be – so it was a beginning for me in my love of words and reading – and possibly of reading and grappling with words that were beyond my reach.
My childhood Christmas memories mostly revolve around being either too cold or too hot.
My brother was a cathedral chorister so we spent hours and hours in draughty freezing discomfort on numb-bum wicker chairs. But the music was transcendent. Soaring, uplifting and utterly sublime. You completely forgot that you couldn’t feel your fingers and toes.
All Christmas Days were spent in front of a roaring coal fire. The grown-ups full to the brim of food and Christmas cheer gently snored in the blast furnace heat of the front room. My brother and I jostled for prime position on the fireside rug, occasionally sniggering at a loud snort or a flung limb. The dog would lie panting between us and the flames until she could take no more.
It’s not Christmas for me until I recreate the low lights of the dancing orange flames and the feeling of being on the warm side of sweltering with the Messiah on the turntable.
Photo credits: The photo of Elie by Ernie Romer is shared under a Creative Commons license, and his photostream on Flickr can be found here. Jackie’s photos are family photos, as is the photo of Jay cutting a rug.