It’s December 21st, nearing the end of a year for which the Oxford English Dictionary extended its Word of the Year to include ‘several unprecented words of the year’. I’m sure if each of us had a £1/$1/€1/etc for each time we’d uttered one of them, we’d all be rich.
Diwali and Hanukkah have not long passed, it will be Christmas on Friday, and in the northern hemisphere where I live, it’s Winter Solstice today and we’re all looking forward to the days growing longer again. So here I am wishing you season’s greetings!
I doubt I’m alone in finding my family traditions have been somewhat turned upside down more than once in 2020 and it’s more poignant than ever at Christmas. I won’t see friends or relations whom I’d usually see, I won’t have the in-laws here for Christmas (for the record, since there are in-laws and in-laws, this is a sad thing) and food shopping is more fraught than usual as collective madness has descended yet again.
But we do have our decorations up and we’ll have a nice meal and despite the various trials of this year, we’ll have a great deal to be thankful for as we raise a toast to absent loved ones (some of whom will only be absent by geography and/or covid restrictions so we’ll be able to toast them by video technology).
In a writers’ Facebook group, someone asked what our characters might be doing over the festive season. It’s an interesting thought, so here goes with a few of mine.
Let’s start in the 1890s/1910s.
Katherine and Margaret Demeray live comfortable lives (financially that is, their adventures may be less comfortable) in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century and therefore celebrate in the sort of way popularised by Dickens. Of course they (and also their cousin Albert Lamont) are of French Huguenot descent. The ancestors who fled France in the 17th Century would have been Calvinist protestants – puritans – although by the late 19th Century, both families are a great deal less strict and have defected to the Church of England.
While I did a tiny bit of research to find out whether French puritans were quite as strict as English ones and how Huguenots might have celebrated Christmas, I haven’t dug deep enough to find out much. But apparently the Huguenots scandalised English puritans by celebrating Noël at a time when English puritans were trying to ban Christmas and replace feasting with fasting. So, I’m going to stick my neck out and assume that the original Demerays and Lamonts full-heartedly enjoyed the season’s festivities without shame and brought some French specialities with them which three hundred years later, their descendants Katherine, Margaret (and perhaps Albert) included in their Christmas feasting: oysters (not hard at the time as they were cheap); duck and pork terrine or maybe even imported fois gras; marrons glacés (candied chestnuts); les treize desserts – thirteen desserts – a Christmas tradition from Provence including a sweet brioche called pompe à l’huile. Plus of course, by 1890 I’m sure they’d also be tucking into English traditional meal of goose or turkey, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes followed by plum pudding (to maybe make the thirteen desserts into fourteen).
In the days before anyone thought of choking hazards (which included my childhood in the later 20th century), Christmas puddings always included a sixpence. If you were lucky enough to find it in your portion (before you swallowed it), the money was yours and considered good luck. Other silver trinkets might be put in the pudding, each representing what the future held, such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour). Maybe the Demerays had a silver bean in theirs from a French tradition when the person finding it would be King for the Day or Bean King with similar traditions in Britain too.
Which links nicely to…
The third Murder Britannica book Murder Saturnalia is set in a particularly hard British midwinter in AD192 between the Roman festival Saturnalia on 17th December and the rather more ancient Winter Solstice on 21st December. (At the time, Christianity was illegal and no-one in any event had thought to connect the unspecified date of the birth of Christ with December. 25th December was a Mithraic festival and not reassigned for another two hundred years.)
There are all sorts of political shenanigans going on Rome in AD192 and Emperor Commodus is not only more bonkers than most, he’s also heading for an unexpected New Year’s Eve surprise, but no-one in my story is too bothered as Rome is a long way away. Nothing – not even the river freezing solid – stops anyone from eating, although Lucretia’s nephew Fabio (who’s undercover as a hired musician) is mainly living on stew and beer. Lucretia is happily prepared to gorge on all sorts of delights – stuffed chestnuts, spiced chickpeas, fried cubes of breaded cheese – but since the village where she comes from doesn’t really celebrate Saturnalia she’s rather horrified on arriving somewhere else to discover that for a day or so, she’ll have to cook for the slaves rather than the other way around.
I could get very carried away describing Roman food. The trade routes were fantastic, preservation skills high and you could live in Britain and eat foods from the other side of the Empire. I daresay they were expensive, but let’s be honest, in a Midwinter festival, everyone who can push the boat out usually does.
Pork was high on the list of feasting food (although probably not the way Lucretia cooks it), and to link to the Demerays, also mulled wine and a kind of thirteen desserts at the end. If you want to read about the sorts of things the Romans ate at Saturnalia, this is an interesting article. Pass The Flamingo: Io Saturnalia or even watch some of the dishes being prepared here Celebrating Saturnalia with Cato’s Globi.
A batch of globi was made for me on Saturnalia by a dear friend this week as a surprise! They were a bit like deep fried cheesecake balls! It cheered me up no end as it should have been publication day for the book, but you know – 2020 and all that. News in the New Year I hope.
However, I do have some book treats if you’re looking for something new to read:
The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime Katherine and Connie think it’s time to shut up the detective agency for Christmas and have a rest, but someone at the Merrymakers Music Hall has other ideas.
Wartime Christmas Tales. A collection of stories set during World War Two by a number of international writers including me.
Whatever your situation this December, whatever your beliefs and traditions, whether, whatever or however you celebrate, I hope that after everything this year has chucked at us, you have a refreshing time and that stepping into the New Year brings you light, hope, peace, respite and books!