Home & Shop Companion #0099
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
“Are you ready for Christmas?” – That was the opening gambit, and a forgivable one considering the situation, from Louise after I had got myself comfortable in her chair, gown around my shoulders ready for my hair to be cut last week. It was the first time I had had my hair cut in town since before the Covid pandemic started 20 months ago. Meanwhile I have not gone long-haired and hippy-like; instead, Liz has been doing the honours. Unaccustomed to the task, she did well; I still have all of both ears fully intact, and to give the tally, one haircut was quite adequate but needed a little subsequent pruning, and the rest were all good. Last time, however, she said that I could go back to the hairdressers. I took the hint, so I got to chat with Louise for a pleasant fifteen minutes, and when it was all done and I got to see the double reflection, I refrained from suggesting that the lack of thickness on top might be her responsibility! Some jokes, like my head covering, tend to wear thin over time.
As to whether I am ready for Christmas, not by a long chalk, there are still too many useful days in between, and I do like to have things in some semblance of order before taking a break, and a week is still time to make a difference. Luckily, and it is little more than luck, the instrument I have been making in the workshop will come to a natural point of repose, with the body all glued together before any festivities begin, and outside, a visually important part of the overdue work got sorted out yesterday when the man with the flail mower came to cut the hedges. Last year, he only did the roadside because the land was already too wet to travel upon, so inside the field, especially the hedge on the west side, was well overdue for a haircut because it has been a few years since it was last cut. So despite the mud, I set him on to cut it back, a rather brutal affair when the flails of the hedge trimmer hit thicker wood, but with a high hedge it is either that or cutting it right down and laying it. This would probably be a better solution, but I don’t think my neighbours would want to forego the shelter and privacy until the hedge thickened up again. So it is done, the hedge looks much more tidy, but in places the tractor’s wheels left ruts too deep to be filled in with a single-horse drawn harrow or roller, so I have started to level it up with a spade before the wet soil sets or freezes, work to make the heart pump.
The question about being ready for Christmas is one that crops up every year, and I am still surprised by it, how can anyone be ready for it? It’s a bit of a stupid question; it reminds me of another often asked when I was a child – what was I getting for Christmas? What a dumb question, I always thought, didn’t everyone know it was a surprise? Grownups can be a bit thick sometimes, just like the well-meaning adult who asked a little kid how old she was.
“Three,” she replied.
“And when are you going to be four?”
The girl took a moment, frowned in disbelief at the foolishness of the question, before answering, “on my birthday!”
Another silly question I remember being asked as a kid was, “are you looking forward to Christmas?” As my children would have said ten years ago – “du-urr!?”
But really, the dumb part was building up childish excitement to a pitch where the reality was bound to be a disappointment. When I think back, that was how it often was, and I guess my parents’ approach didn’t help. For me and my brothers, and most children, I expect, Christmas was all about the presents, and except for the sock at the end of the bed, we had to wait until the afternoon. Even the Father Christmas thing was already a bit of a let-down, a satsuma [huh, there are some downstairs], an apple [it looks just the same as the ones in the bowl], a small Santa made of chocolate [yeah, that’s worth waking up for at 5.30 in the morning], and six pencils with my name on, [well OK], and a rubber, or, as you might refer to it, an eraser. Still, whoever woke first wasted no time in waking the other brothers and then rushing in to tell my parents, who were still sleepy, but surprisingly to us, were not especially surprised.
Once the whole family was up, we pressured our parents to open presents, and one year they relented and let us open just one in the morning. I am sure they regretted it very quickly, because one child chose what turned out to be a great new toy, but another got a game requiring four people who were not available, and the first child was certainly not willing, and the third would open something boring like a worthy book or a fountain pen, so the pressure just increased because it was not fair, only so-and-so had got a good present. So we went back to no presents until the afternoon, the afternoon was the right time because there was stuff to do in the morning, going to church and, for us, the long wait for the Christmas meal, cooked and served immaculately, all by my mum, who most of the morning had been in self-proclaimed isolation [don’t come into my cooking area] tending to the timing and perfection of the forthcoming meal. After church, or mid-morning if we didn’t go, my dad would light the fire in the front room which we didn’t use much, it was for sedate adult company, visitors and special occasions. He was always very systematic and in no hurry to do this, first carrying a basket of logs in from the shed, then kneeling in front of the hearth and twisting screws of newspaper, first round his left thumb and then ringing them like a wet tea towel before piling them up on the grate and putting sticks around like a tepee, along with a few lumps of coal. Once lit, he would go to the corner cabinet, also seldom used, and pour a glass of sherry for himself and one for my mum, though in her hectic activity, she usually forgot to drink hers after the first sip. Sometimes my dad let us smell the sherry, or even have a sip, which was enough to put anyone off drink forever, and then, when I was small he would light a cigar. My dad didn’t smoke really; these cigars, either one or two at Christmas were a seasonal treat. He had smoked cigarettes in the past, but gave up, I think, when my mum did, when she found she was pregnant with my elder brother. So this big fat cigar business was a novel entertainment for us little ones, “why do you do that Daddy? They smell funny! When did you stop smoking? Did you smoke in Ghana? Did Mummy smoke too? Why are you doing it now?” – Questions, some for which there were no good answers, and others that taught us a little of our family history.
Then at last, the Christmas meal; the main course, turkey with all the trimmings. As he carved, my dad would invariably comment that it was ‘a beautiful bird,’ but I couldn’t see much beauty in it, not even compared with it when alive, with its pompous air-headed gait, ridiculous call and that funny droopy bit of skin that hangs down over the beak, the snood. And then there were the sprouts, I like sprouts, the necessary accompaniment to any English Christmas, and bread sauce, you can’t have Christmas without bread sauce. Bread sauce was the thing, it still is for me, and sprouts. Then came the Christmas pudding, cooked to perfection, though no-one really needed it, with a sprig of holly on top. Some people called it plum pudding even though it has no plums in it, that was dumb too, but still better than the reality of the pudding, brown and unappetising. Yuk! But as special dispensation because it was Christmas day, and only Christmas Day, mind you, I was allowed to have tinned pineapple, whilst the others oohed and aahed about the pudding, and perhaps more about the accompanying brandy butter. All done, everything had to be tidied away before my mum could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. So at long, long last, it was time to open the presents, a time of great excitement and disappointment, pleasure and envy, interrupted by the Queen [not in person, but on the TV] wittering on about things inconsequential to us kids, her family and the connections between peoples, especially the family of nations of the Commonwealth and wishing us all a very merry Christmas.
One year, however, it was all different; when I was about fifteen the whole family were sick and in bed, all except me. So I got up and let out Meg, my sheepdog, fed my pigs, all three, and let out and fed Charles’ and Matthew’s poultry, the geese, hens and Muscovy ducks, but no turkeys any more. After doing a compassion run upstairs; no-one wanted anything except water and to be left alone, I went out again. I don’t remember whether there were sheep handy to be checked or whether they were further away and being looked after by the farm men, but I took Meg anyway. I always took Meg, now three or four years old, who I had trained myself and she was getting pretty useful, and went through the fields, the ‘23 acres’ and ‘the Maske,’ down the track, over the wide railway sleeper bridge, through ‘ ‘tween the woods’, and back towards home, across the two-plank bridge over the beck, where Meg once caught her back leg between the boards. Then out of the wind, through the nearest plantation mostly of spruce and larch, being bold enough on this bitter winter’s day, the rain now coming at us at 45 degrees, to do the home stretch across our neighbour’s field which on any other day I would be too respectful to cross. Back at home, it was the dark of a dull dreary winter’s day, but there was no stress about getting the food ready, no eager anticipation of presents, it was all quiet, until I took my flute to the far end of the house to entertain myself, knelt down in front of the fire, twisted rolls of newspaper, added sticks and an odd lump of coal before cooking up some bacon and egg, and probably a few sprouts followed by a tin of pineapple.
Whether it was because of that day, I don’t know, but at Christmas I appreciate having family about, but I still like to get out in the morning, no matter what the weather, and do enough to feel my heart pumping, to spend some time alone and in the outdoors, which makes the together time more special.
So, however you spend the coming days, eating tinned pineapple, walking round sheep, forking hay to horses, or eating Carp or Christmas pudding with friends or family, I hope that you have a good one. Over time, my perspectives have changed, though I still forego the Christmas pudding, and am more inclined to the Queen’s point of view – it’s about connecting with friends, with family, about place and gemütlichkeit, tradition sometimes, and sometimes breaking with tradition. It’s about the threads that connect us, across interests and inclinations, across boundaries and blood ties, through our common humanity.
It isn’t really about presents; it’s about being present.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.