I suppose like many of us, I think back with nostalgia to the Christmases of my childhood. They weren’t nearly as grand as the country house party that Lady Georgie attends in my other book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas, but they were extremely satisfying because of all the small traditions and expectations, repeated each year. The week before Christmas we’d go carol singing around the village and be invited in for drinks and goodies.
We would drive to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, bringing with us the Christmas tree (trees were smaller in those days and I suppose we must have strapped it onto the roof of the car). We’d decorate it while my grandmother served hot punch and mince pies. We’d string paper chains around the house. After supper we children would be put to bed, but of course we stayed awake, hoping for a glimpse of Father Christmas. At midnight the grown-ups went to midnight mass at Bath Abbey. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to join them. It was magic sitting in that beautiful building, listening to the choir singing those wonderful hymns and then walking home through the frosty night, our breath coming out like dragon-fire. At home we were greeted with more hot mince pies and sausage rolls.
Our presents appeared in pillow cases at the foot of our beds. We opened them at first light, sitting up in bed surrounded by wrapping paper. I suspect we ate the sugar mice right then. I’ve been longing for another sugar mouse ever since!
The presents in my childhood were nothing like today’s gifts: a sweater, a book, and in my teens a long playing record ( I guess that dates me horribly.) The day itself was simple—highlighted by the turkey and the Christmas pudding, brought flaming to the table at lunch. Snooze afterward then the magnificent Christmas cake, frosted to look like a snow scene with little porcelain figures on it. And small presents had miraculously appeared on the tree and were handed out after tea. We children were required to put on some kind of entertainment—a pantomime or charades. Then a cold turkey supper and bed.
It sounds almost boring now, but it was special because our lives were so much simpler the rest of the year. It was the only time in the year we ate turkey, or dates or saw tangerines in the stores. Today when everything is available all the time and we have so much more, it’s hard to create the thrill of treats. We try hard—that’s why stores start blaring Christmas music at us in October. We up the ante by requiring bigger and better presents—remember the ad to “put a Lexus under the tree?” Right. We want that feeling of a special occasion but we don’t know where to find it.
I’ve gone looking for it myself on several occasions—one year we rented a cabin in the snow with friends. We arrived to a picture perfect Christmas card scene. We awoke next morning to rain. It rained non-stop all week. No snow, no skiing, just bored children imprisoned in a cabin with no TV, playing endless games of cards and charades.
One year we took a Christmas market cruise down the Danube, going around the markets in each small town. It was quite magical with the booths and the lights and the smell of sausage and cinnamon and hand carved toys. I loved it. John complained “How many more angels does anyone need to look at?”
And one year we decided to do away with commercialism and make handmade gifts. I made dolls and quilts and others made candles and pillows and scarves. When we exchanged gifts on Christmas morning we tried to be thrilled and excited, realizing the supreme effort each one of us had made. But it’s really hard to get excited about a fleece pillow or a painted bottle. I was the first to crack. “Okay,” I said. “I did go to the store and bought these little extras.”
“So did I,” one daughter said. “I did too,” said another. And laughing we handed out real, store-bought gifts. I guess we’re not Little house on the Prairie after all.
So how about you? Do you still have nostalgia for long-ago holidays? Do you seek to recreate them?