Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Humbug

… the hamster, that is – not my attitude to Christmas. In fact, I loved Christmas this year, and there are moments of the past three days that I intend to relish for a very long time. Like settling on the sofa to read The Night Before Christmas to discover that Ilse has learned the poem by heart, or she and Seb adding their own secretly homemade presents to the pile under the twinkling tree. The children all climbing into bed with us on Christmas morning – even Fliss, even Ben – to unwrap the books and socks and stationery that Father Christmas had so carefully chosen for each of them, and seeing that he’d got it right. Or watching their faces as they unwrapped surprises on Christmas afternoon.

It really is better to give than to receive, and I saw the children watching as their gifts to us and one another were opened and admired. From Ilse: coloured card cut into paper stars to hang upon the tree. Sweets from Ben and Fliss, which I can only assume they made in Mother’s kitchen as I’ve not been out of ours for days. And last minute whittling from Seb: birds and paper knives and other little things. They were lovely presents, carefully dreamed up and executed with muted excitement behind closed doors. I love that our children all love making things.

The presents I received were all about making, too. Sock wool in just the right shade of muted green; a length of tweed from Abram Moon in the colours of the late September moors; piano books full of Chopin and Deubussy to master; a new pattern book to pore over and unpick. There’ll be no shortage of projects on my list next year.

On a Boxing Day, though, we left all the gifts at home after a late and lazy breakfast, and headed out for a walk under a bright and wind-scoured sky. It was freezing and sunlit and a million miles away from the small excesses of the day before, and it whet our appetites for the leftover pie at home. With the end of Boxing Day comes the end of Christmas proper, to my mind, although the lights and other decorations will stay up until Twelfth Night. Sitting by the tree on Christmas evening I looked across to see Ben, paper crown shining in the firelight, with a look of utter contentment on his face. From within his folded arms poked an inquisitive little nose, happy to snuggle now that the excitement of meeting one another was done. Dark brown with a white stripe around his middle, Humbug is easily as sweet as his name suggests, and a not a bit of a Christmas Scrooge. Despite all the gadgets and gizmos available in 1931, we knew that a soft and furry friend was just what our boy needed to take him through this final year of exams and upheaval and change. I was, by that point, too tired to get up and find the camera and snap the two of them together, and I don’t think I needed to, anyway. Of all the moments from this very happy Christmas, that’s  the image that’ll stay in my mind’s eye forever.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.

That’s better

Well, we finally made it. The children broke up on Friday, John has taken two weeks off work, and the holidays have begun. It took us until Sunday for the truth of it to sink in, and until today for me to begin losing track of time, which is always the mark of a good break. But it was yesterday morning, walking across Hob Moor as the sun broke through the mist, that I stopped to pay attention. The children travel  this way every single school day, cycling over this little nature reserve on the edge of the city, with John or I in attendance more often than not. At the start of each new term we marvel at its beauty, or stop for  an impromptu picnic tea, but as the weeks wear on I stop looking and simply pedal, head down, into the wind or the rain.

To me, enjoying the little pleasures that winter affords is one of the joys of the Christmas holidays. When we are all at home, sharing out the daily tasks, there’s time to lie on the rug in front of the fire and savour a fat satsuma. There’s time to visit Mother and Father for mulled wine and her delectable mince slices: shortbread with an apple mincemeat topping. And time for parties, of course, fuelled by a fridge full of fizz. When else would I get to settle down and listen to whole of The Box of Delights with the little ones, or take all four of them to the flicks? And yes, there are cards to be written and homemade presents to complete, and there’s lots and lots of wrapping to be done. But with a spicy drink and some carols in the background, it’s no trouble at all.

Yet the nicest thing of all about the Christmas holidays is that almost everyone I know is having a little rest. It’s the one time of year when holidays across the country coincide so that bankers and teachers and schoolchildren and shopkeepers can collectively look forward to a few days off. Even the farmers and the doctors strip their tasks back to the essentials. And beyond these shores, in many other countries, more people than I can picture are celebrating the same feast in more ways than I can imagine. I like that thought very much: a collective sigh of peace and goodwill from all over the globe.

Because I know I’m not the only one to see an old route with new eyes at this time of year, or to look forward to renewing old traditions. Bit by bit, our house is filling with greenery and light. Touches of gold sparkle in dim corners. And every so often I catch myself taking a deep breath and thinking: ahh, that’s better.

Twinkle

Walking home from Mother and Father’s last night, we paused to admire the big trees twinkling in bay windows. There’s something so generous about a Christmas tree in a window, the curtains left open as night falls. From within, the inhabitants can enjoy its light and scent while they snuggle by the fire; from without passers-by can choose their favourites, which gets harder and harder as the walk goes on.

The very best display was in a tall Georgian home, where the window of each storey was involved. On the ground floor was the tree, decked out in coloured lights – pretty, but nothing extraordinary. Above it, though, was the nativity scene: the plain panes transformed into stained glass by coloured tissue paper. There was the stable, and the mother and father leaning dotingly over the crib. Three shepherds and three wise men had appeared in the distance. The whole picture was framed by the sort of flowing leaves and vines we might expect in a medieval illumination. And above it, in the little attic window of the top storey, all was dark apart from a yellow tissue star, silhouetted against the background.

In our house we don’t ‘trim up’, as Mrs East puts it, until Christmas Eve. The tree lives in a pot outside; the baubles and all those funny homemade decorations which would mean nothing to any other family stay firmly in their box until the very last minute. Then, while I’m icing the cake and stewing red cabbage, the children have the tree and house to keep them busy, and on Christmas Day it all feels fresh and new and fun.

It can be difficult to wait, though. I found them all in the sitting room making paper chains on Saturday, and more lights have been added to the ones that I strung up last week. A few branches of twisted willow have been cut and sparkle quietly in the corner. There’s a jug of eucalyptus in the hall, subtly scenting the house. And some silly twinkly teacups, bought at a jumble sale last year, have replaced my usual green and white set on the dresser.

We lit the pink gaudate candle at mass yesterday, and the excitement seems to be catching. Just a couple more presents to make, just a few more days of school. But before all that, before the season can really begin, we have the birthday of my own special boy to celebrate. Eleven! And such a fun and special birthday planned. I can see his eyes twinkling already.

Nesting

When I went out to the hens this morning I found that three of them, at least, had finally finished putting on their winter eiderdowns and were laying eggs again. After a few weeks of nothing, it was a pleasure to carry the still warm treasures through the frosty garden and place them in the bowl, straw and all.

I’ve been nesting, too, in this cold weather. The temperature dropped below freezing just in time for advent, and just in time for our new fireplace in the dining room to be lit for the first time. We decided to have the sitting room mantlepiece replaced too, so there was an awkward day last weekend when all the furniture was piled up in one end of our kitchen. John finished painting the dining room first, and we moved a couple of armchairs in there to have somewhere warm and clean to sit – a temporary measure, you understand. Except that it transpires that our dining room makes the cosiest sitting room imaginable.

I love these sorts of accidents. Who knew that a smaller sitting room was what we wanted, or that the bigger room would be so perfect for the dining table and all the making and designing that it hosts? That the piano would fit so perfectly into the space between the door and the start of the bay window, or that a big old leather settee was just what you needed to be able to flop onto when your algebra or sewing was too hard? And so the base of an old dresser has been pushed into an alcove to hold the coloured pens and school books, and the piles of sheet music found a space for in the big family bookcase. Armchairs and small tables have been moved. And cushions and throws and blankets have found new homes on old chairs around the house.

We haven’t bought anything, but the house feels completely different, which is my favourite kind of decorating. All our familiar things in unexpected places. There are two new-to-us items, however, which needed a reshuffle to find their places in the house. One is an old low rocking chair, which belonged to John’s grandmother. She used to sit and knit in it when he was a little boy. It’s been waiting for new covers for an embarrassing length of time, but now that there’s a space waiting for it by the fire, it’s the next job on my list. Much easier was the act of spreading a gorgeously warm Welsh blanket across the foot of our bed, to be pulled up on chilly nights. Passed on by John’s mother, it is just the thing to cosy up our room.

Last but not least were the advent calendars, unfurled and hung in a row in the hall, each little pocket stuffed with a chocolate for the start of every day. And I couldn’t resist a string of fairy lights around the kitchen dresser, where the first of the Christmas cards stands. It’s advent, you know. Time to get nesting. I hear a special baby’s on the way.

Winter stitching

In between the decorating and the cooking, the wrapping and the tidying, there has been a flurry of sewing in this house. It had been a slow start to the season, with nothing but a woollen skirt completed until the day Ilse and I sorted the fabrics, but since then I have not stopped.

We finished her quilt first, then mine. There was a rush of pre-Christmas sewing: dolls’ dresses, a hat, an armful of bags, a quilted table runner – all squeezed into odd moments between the festivities. Sometimes I cut the fabric in the evenings and left it out ready for a morning burst, and like the shoemaker I was amazed to see so much come together.

Since Christmas day there has been more rhythm to it. I work at my machine all afternoon until evening comes, then finish each piece, by hand, close to the fire.

I’ve not been alone. Ilse and Seb are by my side more often than not, also stitching. A cross-stitch kit, received on Christmas day. Pouches for treasures old and new. A flag, ready to fly in an island camp for the latest game of let’s pretend.

I love sewing with children. They make whatever their world demands, with confidence and considerable skill, and with none of the doubt of adults. When things don’t go to plan, the plan changes. And no matter how much help they receive, they have always made it all by themselves.

So while they sewed flags and pouches, I worked my way through a pile of offcuts, making shoppers and potholders, pencil cases and peg bags. Even the tiniest scraps were made into bookmarks and little pockets, just waiting to be filled with next summer’s lavender. And despite the odd thing being claimed by someone or other – and who could deny their littlest girl a mummy-made pencil case? – I have a shelf full of presents and empty of remnants.

We are getting back into the swing of it, my machine and I. We are ready now to tackle the next round of sewing: a summer frock for each of the girls and myself, and new shirts for Seb. I have a dress, passed on to me by my friend Miss Stevens, waiting patiently for alterations. There’s a new-to-me chair which needs upholstering. Bigger projects for when the children are back at school, to fill the quiet of the house.

Because this is the time for sewing. For emptying the shelves, ready for new fabrics in the new year. For ensuring that we are all ready for spring, with something fresh and light and floral. I have until April, when the weeds start to overtake my seedlings. When my machine will go to rest in the cupboard for the whole long summer. When the only sewing I might do is by hand on a garden bench, in odd moments of slanting northern sunshine. There are so many other places to be in summer, so many other things to do.

I fastened the last thread on the last gift yesterday evening, and found that I needed to pause. To pause, but not to stop. I took up the seed catalogue instead. I think I’ll spend the day in the garden, today. But I won’t stay out there too long. I’ll be back soon, at my machine, not too far from the warmth of the fire and the explorers’ camp behind the settee. I have sewing to do.

[whohit]winterstitching[/whohit]

Comfort and joy

All around the house, people are busy with new games and projects. Ilse skips up and down the lawn, getting a little further each time before the rope catches on her ankles or her swinging coat. There is a beetle drive in the front room, between Mother and Father, John and Ben. Long rows of dominoes are set up then knocked over by tin soldiers in the heat of battle. Wood shavings litter the corner of the kitchen, when a new pen knife has been whittling all sorts of experimental objects. And beside each bed there is a little stack of fresh books, enticing us into our pyjamas and another early night.

This has been a Christmas of great comfort, and for that we are very blessed. John kept the fire roaring all day long. Ben helped me cook my first Christmas dinner on the aga, which proved so much easier than the old range. He peeled and scrubbed in the scullery, and I rolled and basted, and by the time we were finished the table was filled with everyone’s favourites. There was bread sauce for Father, pigs in blankets for Ilse and Seb, sweet parsnips for Mother and Fliss, balls of sage stuffing for John and Ben and a capon, juicy and hot. Paper crowns adorned heads, new wool socks kept feet cosy, and we ate so well that a game of charades was deemed necessary before anyone could face pudding.

Such comfort lasts a few days longer. Having cooked such a dinner the day before, I had no intentions of making anything more complex than a Boxing Day pie. It’s only a Monday pie, really, but with extra trimmings. Christmas dinner in a pie? I didn’t bother asking, but rolled the pastry in the morning and left it in the cool pantry all day, while we played our games and read our books and enjoyed being at home together.

So there is comfort, and there is also joy. Joy in the Christmas mass, when we remember the best gift of all. Joy in the carols, sung by three hundred people with one voice. Joy in the children’s voices as they rip the string from their presents on Christmas afternoon. And in the faces of Ben and Fliss, watching their parents, grandparents and little siblings exclaim over the fudge and marzipan they had prepared and wrapped so secretly.

The joy lingers too, just like the leftovers and the full woodshed. It carries on in the hearts and minds of the children, engrossed in something new. It carries on in John and me, at home and at rest together for a few sweet days. It carries on in the lights, still shining in the green tree, and in the sprigs of fresh ivy which adorn this house, and in the Christmas candles, lit each suppertime until they are all burnt out.

There is so much comfort and joy here, now. There is plenty to share. With people who are lonely or exploited or suffering the consequences of the Wall Street Crash. With victims of war. With people we pass in the street, every day. Which is why John and the children and I are putting our heads together around those Christmas candles, to decide how we might share a little of what we have so much of: all that comfort, and all that joy.

[whohit]comfortandjoy[/whohit]

Deck the halls

Christmas Eve is the day when it all comes together. When the tree goes up and presents appear beneath it and the house is full of the scent of cloves and oranges and gammon.

Over the past few days the children have been making, merrily, and decorating their bedrooms. Christmas cards have been pinned to wardrobe doors in the shape of fir trees. Yards and yards of paper chains have materialised, made from coloured paper or stylish, monochrome newsprint. The floors are littered with tiny flecks of white as snowflakes are snipped away at, then opened with a flourish. They twist and turn in the warm air rising up the stairs. Pomanders have appeared, hung with a scrap of ribbon from the window fixings, or nestling in the fruit bowl. Each time I open my wardrobe I pause to sniff at the orange, studded with cloves, which Ben has hung from its handles.

So much has been done in advance, in bits and pieces, by one or two or three of us at a time. But this is the day when we all work together, and Christmas fills the house after its long advent journey. And it is just like having a baby: weeks and months are spent dreaming and planning, but nothing really happens until the day when everything happens, and a new light enters the world.

The cake was made in November, but today I will roll out the marzipan and spread a layer of snow white icing on top. Fliss will decorate it, with silver balls and a paper frill, or with tin animals taken from the toy box and dusted with a sieveful of icing sugar. I’ll chop the sage to mix into the stuffing, and stir the custard as it cooks, ever so slowly, on the cool end of the aga. Then I’ll roll and cut the pastry, for mince pies, and call a passing child to make a turnover with the scraps.

In the meantime, the others will have come in from the garden, red-cheeked and noisy, bearing armfuls of greenery. A slip of holly will adorn the top of every picture frame, and the ivy will be woven into willow wreaths, and a table centrepiece, and in and out of the bannisters.

A pause, then, for a quick luncheon of sandwiches and tea before we troop down the road to the crib service. Each year I wait to see which of our children will take part. Ben nearly sat it out last year but was persuaded, at the eleventh hour, to hold the heavy star aloft. Fliss might be Mary one last time. Or they might sit in the pews with us, and watch their younger siblings embrace their roles.

Afterwards, the tree will be waiting in the living room, unadorned. John will stir the fire back into life as I switch on the wireless. Silence, then a lone voice will fill the room. It will sing a story to us, in nine lessons and carols. I will sit with my love and watch our children hang their ornaments, old and new,  on its green branches. Somehow they will lend this living thing yet more life. Then Ben will lift Ilse to place the angel on top, just as John used to lift him, and Seb will switch on the lights, and we will bask in their soft glow until it is time for stories, and stockings, and bed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[whohit]deckthehalls[/whohit]

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/whohit]