Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Child's Christmas in Canada; a guest blog by C.C. Benison

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: About C.C. Benison, I will say little, except that when I was offered the chance to read the first of his Father Christmas mysteries, I enthused, "The traditional British village cozy has never looked better." After you read his delightful essay, I suspect you'll all be as eager to meet Father Christmas as I was.
        When I was a lad – many, many, oh, many years ago – in the days when Canada had but a single television channel, two items were staples of Christmas morning programming: the Queen’s Christmas message and a short film, On the Twelfth Day, featuring a young Edwardian man on a penny-farthing bicycle visiting his lady love at her snow-covered terraced London house and bringing her gifts, starting with a partridge in a pear tree. 

It’s significant that he starts with the partridge in a pear tree – not with twelve drummers drumming as I do in the Father Christmas mystery series – because each time he brings his true love another gift – six geese a’laying, say – he also (to conform to the repeating verses of the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) brings another set of his earlier gifts. 

Thus, by the end of the film, the woman’s home is stuffed with 22 pipers piping, 30 lords a’leaping, 36 ladies dancing, 40 maids a’milking, an appalling number of birds, and not a few cattle, such that the only escape from this mad house is from the roof, by hot-air balloon, conveniently supplied by the young man, whose plan it likely was all along to secure his true love to himself.

Unlike Her Majesty and her Christmas message, On the Twelfth Day – designed by cartoonist Ronald Searle – disappeared from Christmas morning viewing by the Sixties (though it has since reappeared on YouTube:

  But I never quite forgot its madcap energy. Any time the song was sung ever after, the images from the film would slip into my head. 

Skip ahead several decades, and I am in a bookshop devoted to mystery novels, in Winnipeg, where I live, trawling with the shop owners through the computer, admiring all the clever concepts for mystery series, whether letters (A is for Alibi) or numbers (One for the Money) or kings (Bertie and the Seven Bodies) or queens (Death at Buckingham Palace). It is Christmas time. Snow is everywhere. Seasonal music pours from every shop speaker, including one that features gift giving on a grand scale. I am reminded of Ronald Searle’s film. Has anyone framed a mystery series around the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, I ask, presuming the computer to immediately spit out a list? No one had. 
And so the holiday that inspired a carol that inspired a film inspired me, and the Father Christmas series was born. The protagonist is Tom Christmas, an Anglican priest living in small village in rural England. He’s a widower, a single father, a reluctant detective, and he suffers more than endorses the droll pairing of his profession and his surname. He – and the villagers, too – are seemingly oblivious to the strange pairing of the crimes in their community and a certain Christmas song. A young woman is found dead in a taiko drum in Twelve Drummers Drumming. A member of a Scottish pipe band dies mysteriously in ElevenPipers Piping. A peer of the realm dies at a stately country home in Ten Lords A-Leaping. And yet, for all this Christmasness, none of these three novels are set at Christmas time. Twelve is set in May, Eleven in January, Ten in August. This may disappoint some potential readers, those who are avid for crime novels set at Yuletide. But I agree with Jerry Herman who wrote a song for his musical Mame called “We Need A Little Christmas”. We need a little Christmas. Not a lot.
*          *          *
Meanwhile, as I noted, above[DW1] , the other staple of Christmas TV has not disappeared. Every December 25 since 1957, the Queen has popped up on television in the U.K. and in some of the other fifteen countries of which is Head of State (including Canada) to do a ten-minute show-and-tell about the year’s significant events, particularly ones that touched her personally, often illustrated with footage of some royal tour or some event in her family’s life – royal wedding and such. It’s one of the few times she speaks publicly without the advice of her government, to whom she is constitutionally beholden, but those of you who live in republics and, until recently (thanks to YouTube, etc.), had no access to this annual television rite, needn’t worry that, unleashed, Elizabeth Windsor goes off on some wacky tangent. Her Majesty, as Paul McCartney’s song says, is a pretty nice girl. Really. And she really doesn’t have a lot to say – certainly anything that’s seriously controversial. But at Christmas, amid the noise and haste and astonishing seasonal vulgarity, what she does say I always find welcomingly refreshing.

(Or perhaps it’s just that is she saying it.)

As a very young child, seeing the Queen on television Christmas morning was, to use the hackneyed word of our present day, awesome. But in later youth, mockery trumped wonder. Part of the Christmas dinner hilarity was to lampoon some aspect of her presentation – the cut-glass accent, the wobbly parting smile, the unremarkable views – to vex our old aunties and prove our street-cred as the bright young revolutionaries we thought we were. Well, that got old, we got old, and eventually regard trumped mockery. (And eventually, I wrote of series of crime novels in which the Queen, respectfully portrayed, plays detective.)
Today, watching the Queen’s broadcast on Christmas Day is the last ritual link to the Christmases of my childhood. Everything else has moved or changed, come or gone ­– the people, the places, me. Her Majesty’s only contribution to change is that she has visibly aged (to watch successive YouTube videos of her Christmas broadcasts is to watch a sort of film flip-card of the softening and greying human form). Otherwise, she seems to remain at heart ever the same, which I find – however briefly – a source of comfort in a corrosive and uncertain world. This feeling is fundamentally irrational, but irrationality is addictive, powerfully so at this time of year when the northern hemisphere is turned from the clarifying sun and the days are short, dark and cold. Christmas is irrational. Monarchy is irrational. But they are harmless irrationalities, and managing our hopeless human irrationality – separating the harmful from the harmless variants – is every day’s civilizing task for each one of us.
But more. What startles me each time the Queen speaks from Buckingham Palace or Sandringham House, Christmas tree lit behind her, is that she, a public figure, a highly placed bureaucrat, if you will, does not offer just the usual anodyne expressions of presidents and prime ministers, the vague references to the “holidays” and “the season.” If you don’t enter a church at this time of year – and in the post-Christian West of the 21st century you may be among the many who do not – then you’d be hardly aware that Christmas is not a season invented to encourage pathological shopping in the service of buttressing consumer capitalism. Without timidity or hedging, the Queen gets to the point of the holiday/holy day – the birth of Jesus Christ.

 This is the time of year,” she said last Christmas, “when we remember that God sent His only son to serve, not to be served. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas day that His example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.”

This public expression feels almost like an act of nerve. Granted, she is the Head of the Church of England and you might think it part of her job description. But her position in life is secular and her expression of faith is, I’m sure, genuine – and touching because it is. Elizabeth doesn’t do “fake”. She’s not actressy. Her simple message is refreshing in a world of jockeying, elbowing politicians and public figures who stick their fingers in the air to see which way the wind blows before they say anything. Long may she reign.

A further memory of monarchial messages: My maternal grandmother, widowed on the eve of the great Depression with four young daughters, kept these words in a frame by her bedside all the years that I knew her:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.
They’re from another Christmas broadcast, this one given on radio, by the Queen’s father, George VI, on December 25, 1939, as the citizens of the British Empire faced another world war.
In closing, as a certain monarch would say today, I wish you all a very happy Christmas.
And as a certain monarch wouldn’t say (but I rather wish she would!), Ten Lords A-Leaping is in shops now. I hope you enjoy it.

 [DW1]Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she hasn’t got a lot to say.

Except, perhaps (and despite Paul McCartney’s lyric, above), at Christmas.

You can find out more about C.C. Benison, and read excerpts from the Father Christmas series, at his website.


  1. There’s much to be said for any tradition that ties us to our growing-up years. It’s wonderful that your one remaining “staple of Christmas TV” should represent the point of the holiday so well. As for Father Christmas, despite the fact that my stack of to-be-read books already closely resemble a towering mountain, I’m off to find his stories . . . .

  2. Ok, I'm hooked. Going to look up these books right now!

    This is a marvelous blog post! Thank you for joining Jungle Reds today,C.C. I truly enjoyed reading this.

    Now off to search...

  3. So delighted a new Father Christmas book is out! (You know what I'll be reading as soon as I finish my copyedits!) And now, after this blog post, I may have to reread all the Jane Bee novels as well…. : )

  4. Oh! That twigged an old old memory. Watching that 12 Days of Christmas on TV a whole bunch of years ago. Thanks, C.C.

  5. I think the Queen would jockey and elbow with the best of them if she had to be re-elected.

  6. What a fun concept for a series, and I like that you are counting backwards, and that you resisted the temptation to use the Christmas season in the books.

    Hilarious to think that the locals are oblivious to the connection to the song!

    I've heard of the Queen's Christmas message before--I have a Welsh brother-in-law--but had never really read or heard a description of what she talks about. Thank you for the enlightenment, C.C.

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  8. Oh, so wonderful. Thank you! And thank you for joining us today..perfect.

    Reading A Childs Christmas in Wales was one of my family's annual traditions!

    (And yes, maybe it is the way The Queen says it..)

  9. Thank you for opening up new Christmas opportunities for me!! I will be on You Tube when I am not reading Father Christmas!!!

  10. I love the covers -- that poor dead 12th drummer, 11th piper, and 1oth lord! They're making me smile, which tells you something about my macabre self.

  11. I had embedded the You Tube video of ON THE TWELFTH DAY but evidently it didn't take. I just re-edited the post using the old embed code, and now you all can see it!

    I watched it last night; it's in two parts, about 20 minutes long all told. It's quite silly and charming, and I don't understand why it's not in regular rotation on TV at Christmas time.

  12. CC, I love your books as much as I loved today's post! And now must hie myself out to buy Ten Lords a Leaping--a Christmas present for ME!

    I've listened to the Queen's Speech many times, often still wearing my paper hat from my Christmas cracker.

    And like Hank, one of my Christmas traditions is to read A Child's Christmas in Wales on Christmas Eve.

    Do you think you will eventually set one of the books at Christmas?

  13. Oh good! I've been waiting for your next Father Christmas book. I really enjoyed the first two. There seem to be a lot of Anglicans/Episcopalians involved in sleuthing these days. Why do you suppose that is? Other than the fact that we're cool. . .

  14. I look forward to reading these!

  15. Deb,

    If I'm counting down correctly, C.C. will reach December with A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE. Which poses the question: what is he going to do if the series becomes wildly popular and the publishers want a thirteenth book? Maybe Thornford Regis should have Rabbi Hanukkah and Guru Diwali set up shop!

    Pat D, there are a lot of Anglican/Episcopalian sleuths around. A few more authors and we can have our own convention. We'll call it "Cake or Death."

  16. Enjoyed the first 2 books; looking forward to the newest.

  17. Julia, definitely a convention. We Episcopalians love food at all gatherings.

  18. Intrigued -- looking forward to reading 12 Lords . . . and loved the video! Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  19. Wonderful comments, everyone. Thanks. As for Deb's question, will I set one of them at Christmas? Yes, one of them. But I'm not telling which one!

  20. Sometimes I think that this blog reads my mind and offers up posts that respond to what I'm thinking. In this case, I just recently came across the Father Christmas series and put it on my TBR list. Now, the Jungle Red Blog presents this amazing post from C.C. Benison, the author of the series. If I wanted to read the books before, now I have to read them. Thanks!

  21. I saw "On the Twelfth" in the 1960s on a local TV station in Madison Wisconsin. I have been trying to find it again. Thanks for the post!