Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I'm Dreaming of.....

RHYS BOWEN: This week as well as celebrating Red Julia’s new book, I am also celebrating the release of the paperback edition of my last year’s hardcover, The Twelve Clues of Christmas ( New York Times bestseller).  If you bought this book, you’ll know that it took place at a country house in England and I tried to create exactly the kind of Christmas I longed for—uncommercial , simple, good food, good friends, good fun..

I suppose like many of us,  I have a deep yearning for the old-fashioned Christmas of long ago. I want the yule log burning merrily while the family sits around the fire. I want the carol singers at the front door. Crackers. Mince pies. The holly and the ivy. God rest ye merry gentlemen.  I've tried to recreate it from time to time, but it never quite works. Maybe that is because we have so much year round these days that it's hard to make magic at the holidays. When I was growing up Christmas at my grandmother's house was simple in the extreme. My own kids and grandkids would probably find it boring. 

We would drive to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, bringing with us the Christmas tree (trees were smaller in those days). 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 the local church. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to join them. It was magic sitting in the old church, 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.  The day itself was simple—highlighted by the turkey 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.
I suppose it was so special because it was the only time in the year we ate turkey, or dates or saw tangerines in the stores. We rarely had presents apart from birthday and Christmas. 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.

                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 carved angels do you need to see?”

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?

And if I'm allowed a sliver of BSP for once, may I point out that the paperback of Twelve Clues is at a special price right now and makes a terrific stocking stuffer! You can find it at your favorite indie store, or at Barnes and Noble or online at Barnes and Noble or Amazon
But wait==there's more. I'll give away a copy of the book to the best comment of the day!



  1. My most vivid childhood holiday memory is going to the traditional family Christmas Eve party . . . it was always at the same aunt’s house; all the relatives came, and I remember it as being incredibly spectacular. Today, most of the relatives from that wonderful time are gone, family is scattered far and wide, and mostly we’re not together at Christmas any more. Can’t recreate the magic of that memory . . . .

    And so, over the years our little family has created a few of our own traditions. We always go to Christmas Eve midnight candlelight service . . . somehow it’s not Christmas until we’re singing “Silent Night” by candlelight . . . .

    It was always turkey and all the trimmings for dinner when I was a child; but somewhere along the way our little family departed from that tradition, leaving turkey for the Thanksgiving feast . . . we always have a rib roast for Christmas.

    Last year the Christmas tree and all the decorations stayed up until March when the youngest, deployed with the Navy, finally got home. Christmas isn’t necessarily about the day; rather, it’s all about family . . . .

  2. I do long for them, but cannot seem to recreate them here in Arizona. It isn't the same as home. But that might have more to do with the fact that the children are all grown up and most live far away. Auntie-Mom makes a beautiful Christmas, and whenever we are able we join her, Uncle Michael, and cousins.

    Rhys, sorry I posted my response to your question about the chop suey sandwich the other day.
    NaNoWriMo, you know! Yes, we get our sandwiches and walk down to the little beach (where I took my first little baby swim) and eat there if the tide allows. Sometimes we eat on the grass, but it's often crowded there. I'm afraid to ask if you enjoyed it!

  3. I do long for the Christmas celebrations of the past. With both parents, all my sisters and their little girls. Now that the nieces are married with girls of their own it's so hard to get everyone together.

    Some of my earliest memories involve Christmas. One year my sister and I both had scarlet fever (I was 5.) I still remember the little 45rpm record player we got for a present that year. I remember my father with his brand new movie camera with an enormous bank of lights. He made us wait at the top of the stairs so he could film our first impressions of the tree and the gifts.

    I would ALWAYS wake up first. Even after I got married and returned to my parents' home with all the family, I managed to wake up my then 3-year old niece so we could start the day. (My sister was not too happy.)

    Now that the family has moved to different states and countries it's hard to re-create those early holidays. My husband and I have established our own tradition of going to a country inn for a few days for Christmas. This year, my niece is getting married the Saturday after Christmas and, surprisingly, everyone will be there! My 93 year old mother is looking forward to it, as are we all.

    I would love to join Georgie for her country Christmas.

  4. I, too, would love to join Georgie for her country Christmas. It sounds absolutely perfect to me — I have little patience for all the commercialism of the holiday.

    That said, we're lucky that our son is still young enough to believe in Santa, which leads to lots of fun — making cookies for him and Mrs. Claus, leaving out carrots for the reindeer. I think this may be the last year of believing, so it's a very special Christmas for us.....

  5. These posts have stirred more memories of my own.
    I'd forgotten the one Christmas I got measles. I was really sick. They gave me my presents to cheer me up but afterward they burned them all. Still mad about that!

    And Reine--no I wasn't too fond of the Chinese food in a sandwich. Odd combination! But the setting was lovely.

    Joan, I'd love a candlelight service. We did once go to a service in Austria, which was beautiful, but so cold in church!

  6. Georgie's country Christmas sounds lovely. I love the holidays but we're the one house on our block without candles in the windows and a lit up tree. We drive around and enjoy everyone else's lights, visit our friends who do it up big.

  7. I loved Christmas as a child. My Grandmother and my aunt always came to us and I loved going to the train station with my Dad to pick them up. We always had a white Christmas in Montreal and my Dad always fought with the Christmas tree stand and the coloured lights. I miss those days and those people. Now Christmas Day is a rather lonely affair and not at all the way I imagined it would be when I was that child.

  8. LOVE your store-bought gifts story! SO funny.

    We did the same thing--one year decided to draw names, each person gives one person a gift, no more excess.

    NOT ONE PERSON in my family stuck to it!

  9. Susan, there was an unspoken agreement in my family that we would keep celebrating Santa, long after I was old enough to know that Mom and Dad filled the stockings and put the presents under the tree. We did the same for our daughter. Now I do my grown daughter's stocking and she does mine.

    We never had "Lexus under the tree" Christmases in my family when I was growing up, nor for my own daughter. It's the rituals I love, not big presents. The tree, the packages, the pretty lights. Oh, and food! When I was a child my mom and grandmother hosted Christmas dinner. After my grandmother died it passed to one of my aunt's, who still does a wonderful Christmas dinner. (It will be different this year, as my uncle passed away last month...) We, too, have switched to rib roast the last few years, as turkey twice in a month seems a bit much.

    Anyway, my point was that I see no reason to give up the magic just because you reach a certain age.

    And Rhys's Georgie book is a very good place to add a little new/old fashioned magic to your celebration! It's going in stockings for all my friends--or at least the ones who didn't get the hardcover last year:-)

  10. Hi Rhys,

    I read Twelve Days last year and loved it. :-)

    When it comes to Christmas, I'm going through a longing-for-simplicity phase. In fact, we have simplified the holiday because of my mom's dementia. No big tree anymore. Just a few token gifts. Simple food. It's such a relief.

    I look forward to get togethers with my friends. Holiday cocktails, nice meals, good conversation. I don't need much else.

    Only one thing I long for that I don't have the energy to do right now: the giant Christmas tree a la my childhood. One thousand lights! Hundreds of ornaments. Always a masterpiece of an art installation. I'm sentimental about my ornament collection--will never get rid of it.

  11. Congratulations on the paperback version of Twelve Days, Rhys! I know just the person to give it to this year.

    I used to really do up Christmas when my kids were small and my house was the center of the holidays for both extended families. Now, my younger sister has taken over that role, and I'm perfectly happy with it.

    Sometimes, though, I get so tired of the commercialism and need for bigger and better gifts that I want to take a trip somewhere, just Ben and me, over the holidays and miss it all.

    I used to make all kinds of handmade gifts out of luxury fibers for the family, but it became apparent that few appreciated them, so I only do that for the few who do now. It was funny with the handmade and embellished art quilt for my brother-in-law and sister-in-law that he bragged in front of me of tossing into a bin in the basement. They visited some expensive art galleries and saw pieces like that going for thousands of dollars one year, and after years of languishing in that basement bin that quilt was hanging on their living room wall when we next visited.

  12. I grew up in New England with plenty of snow for Christmas. My father would buy a tree two weeks before Christmas and keep it outside for a week, then we'd bring it in and trim it with lots of tinsel, large colored lights, ornaments, bubble lights (before they were declared fire hazards), all sorts of ornments, and Angie -- our well-worn angel on top.

    We never knew who to expect for Christmas. My grandparents, of course, and my great-grandmother (whom my father would have to carry up the front steps) would always be there. Plus any neighbors who might be alone, any college kid who couldn't go home for the holidays, and -- often --families who had just lost their husband/father that month. quite a crowd.

    The meal was standard. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, squash, turnip (our family was deeply divided between turnip eaters and squash eaters), creamed onions, and rolls. There was always a relish tray, nuts, candy, homemade cookies, plum pudding, and pies -- the proper ratio is one pie to one person, some years we reached that ratio, others not.

    During the afternoon, aunts, uncles, and cousins would come a-calling. Christmas night, my parents would travel to my widowed aunt's house with presents for the kids. Later, when one of my cousins died, they would also visit his wife and kids. Christmas has always been about family and friends when I was growing up.

    Christmas Eve meant a candlelight service at the local Baptist church and checking the local news on television which would always track Santa's movements from the North Pole. Later on it meant a trip to the aptly named Lantern Lane in town where all the residents lined the streets with candles.

    My brother, sister, and I were allowed to grab our Christmas stockings first thing in the morning. It was always stuffed with toys and candy and my mother would bulk up the stockings with an orange and some walnuts. Presents would always include clothes (especially underwear, which we always needed and never appreciated as Christmas gifts). Toys and books, for sure -- for years, every Christmas I would get a farm set (my favorite gift when I was just a young tad).

    The house was always decorated with outside lights. The local weekly newspaper would published pictures of decorated houses during the season and ours would always be included. I was very proud of that until I realized that every year they would show the same houses and perhaps the same photos.

    Nowadays Christmas is a laid-back holiday for my wife and me. Family and friends are spread out, the tree is usually artificial, and I'm way too old for a farm set. We kick back, relax, and enjoy each other's company. The New England Christmases of my childhood are long gone but thw warm memories remain.

  13. We got to open presents in the morning, but first my dad had to have a cup of coffee in his hand. It was the only time my sister got up first and attempted to make the coffee in the morning. I always checked to make sure Santa had eaten the cookies and drank the milk, if that was true I knew there would be presents under the tree. But my best memory was driving down to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City to pick up my mother after work, the lights on the Plaza were unbelievable, but then we would drive through some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city looking at all the decorated houses. And throughout this entire drive, my dad would sing Christmas carols to us. I think, without ever doing it consciously, I recreate this every year. Around Thanksgiving I take most of my Christmas CDs to my car and for a month, wherever I go, I listen to only Christmas music. I thought I did it because for years I spent a lot of time driving, but maybe I was just remembering those drives and my dad signing carols.
    My parents and my sister are gone now, I still enjoy time with friends around Christmas. I love buying gifts and will always love opening a few on Christmas morning. I try to reserve Christmas now for watching some classic holiday movies, a much simpler meal than we used to fix at home, and in the evening, I read and have a cup of hot chocolate with a little Bailey's added. And eat decorated sugar cookies, lots of them !!

  14. Oh Linda--I love getting hand-made and unusual gifts. I keep all the funny little items my kids made for me when they were little. I usually take my two granddaughters aside to make jewelry or bath stuff to give to their mom, aunts and other grandmother. I like the feeling that someone has given up time for me, rather than ordering through Amazon.

  15. Rhys, I love to make things from luxury fibers--alpaca, cashmere, quiviut, merino, kid mohair, silks and satins for crazy quilts. My sister and I are both fiber people. Not surprising since both of our grandmothers were incredible artisans. My youngest son is a knitter--knitted his way all through college and grad school. Also, my oldest son's fiance is a crafter, and Ben loves all these things, though he doesn't make any himself. So we make things for each other. But I don't waste that time on the others anymore. I just buy things. And no matter how much I spend, they're never really as nice. *sighs*

  16. It is not my childhood memories of Christmas I treasure most, but my adult ones. In our 26 years of marriage we have always attended “midnight” Mass on Christmas Eve (though in some communities it occurs as early as 10 p.m.) For the past 15 years or so, we have sung in the choir at that Mass, which gives the experience a different flavor.

    Christmas morning is always shared with my mother and sister who would otherwise be alone on the holiday. When our son was little, they stayed at our house. Now that my mother is 89 and frail, we go to them. Early on they tended to go overboard on gifts and there were some years of embarrassing excess. But as we have all aged, we have focused on reducing the gift giving. This year we have pledged just one gift each, though there have been broken pledges along these lines in the past.

    But our Christmas has one more chapter. When I married into my husband’s family, his mother was still working as the head nurse on a pediatric unit. She preferred to work the holiday so she could give as many younger nurses as possible the day off, so she established a tradition of holding their family Christmas the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s. She has eight grown children. Rarely do all eight make it home for the celebration, but even with a few missing, you add in the spouses and children and now grandchildren, and the numbers get quite large. My mother-in-law makes a huge pot of chili and puts out sandwich makings, and most of us bring additional treats to share. There is no sit-down meal, just a graze-as-you-please buffet. The adults make sure the children all have gifts to open, and the adults each draw names and buy for only one adult. It is truly a celebration where the gifts are secondary. The real focus is on visiting, eating, taking snapshots and playing games.

  17. Linda, are you like me? Since you are a craftswoman, no one ever makes anything for you? We are the very people who would appreciate the care and skill that goes into such gifts, too. Been there, done that with making exquisitely crafted gifts for people who treated them cavalierly.

    The first time I ever recall going to midnight Mass was when I was in fourth grade, in the late 50's. My mother had bought my sister and me matching (always) red velvet jumpers to wear over cotton sateen blouses with Peter Pan collars, and white tights. It was so incredibly cold, but we had to walk the three blocks from our aunt's house to church. Later on, Uncle Joe, testing a theory, threw a glass of water out on the sidewalk, and yes it did freeze as it hit the ground. I'll never forget that.

    My kids always thought we had a "tradition" of me making cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning, but that was wishful thinking. I really made a Hungarian coffeecake from my childhood, made from scratch with sour milk and cinnamon. However, ever since they've been old enough to help, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls it is. Not the same, let me tell you. Sigh.

  18. Actually, Karen, I'm lucky. My sister is a craftswoman and makes exquisite pieced quilts, so my house is full of those. (My quilts are crazy quilts and embellished art quilts, for display, not to snuggle with.) And my son and daughter-in-law-to-be make things for me. So sorry that there's no one to gift you with something lovely and handcrafted.

    And you're right that we are the ones to really appreciate the skill and time that goes into such gifts.

  19. I can count on two fingers the gifts friends have made for me. (Except food. But food is good, too!)

    The difference, though, is that your sister is also a highly skilled artist and craftswoman. I suspect low self-confidence in the case of my loved ones, even though there is no reason for it. I made a really big deal of the art my daughter made for me. It's still hanging on the wall, a dozen years later.

  20. Rhys, I've never read your book The Twelve Days of Christmas. I think that will be an excellent way to turn some of the spirit, and I look forward to it.

    We've decided to get a potted tree to plant after Christmas. I'm getting my old painted bulbs out of the garage. One son is planning to come for the day, maybe another, but the others will be out of the country. Maybe we'll have a skype Christmas.

    Our church in California had a series of classes in October and November titled How to Create New Holiday Rituals for Your Family. It was very popular with blended families and empty nesters. It was also very popular with some of the older members without families.

  21. "The Twelve Clues of Christmas" is like a romantic fairy tale of noël with murder mystery. Well, at least to me. Growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, I had much different kind of Christmas. Sure, just like many children in the world, I've written to Santa Clause (knowing I was really writing to my parents) what I wanted, and the present I desired was always delivered (coz I was reasonable! lol).

    Years passed, I've attended many Christmas parties at my in-laws in NJ, watched Tasha Tudor special on tv, read David Sedaris' funny essays, and so on, and experienced many different Christmas celebrations. But Georgie's Christmas story is, by far, the most interesting, and I enjoyed vicariously through her adventures. Yes, I'd join Georgie for Christmas in a heartbeat!