Yo! Season’s Greetings – what’s your feast?

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 (due out early next year I hope) 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.

The Case of the Black Tulips 99p/99c from 24th – 30th December in the UK/US only.

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!

Copyright: Words by Paula Harmon 2020. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Glimmers

I sometime imagine myself dragging my spirit through mire in the last few weeks towards Christmas, whispering encouragingly ‘nearly there, nearly there’.

It’s not about Christmas itself, which I enjoy and try to make as laid back as possible. It’s about the increasing darkness beforehand.

I’m not entirely sure when this really kicked in. As a child, I recall not really liking winter. The highlights were Christmas plays, carol concerts and the massive family dinner put on by my great aunt. Winter as a teenager is a bit more of a blur because duh – hormones warp your priorities. I have two main midwinter memories. One is being in the school choir with the music teacher coaching us in a new arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and trying forlornly to get us to pronounce ‘choir’ à la Queen’s English (e.g. to rhyme with ‘hire’) rather than in the local South Welsh accent (in which it rhymed – just about – with lawyer). The other is about turning up at the fifth form Christmas disco to find my best friend more or less wearing the same outfit and the boy of my dreams not noticing me yet again. 

At some point in adulthood however, I realised that going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and – given the nature of some of the offices I’ve worked in (same career – lots of roles) – working in the dark wasn’t doing a lot for my mental health. As the days grow shorter, so does my attention span, my enthusiasm, my mood and my desire to be awake. They improve as Christmas nears and multi-coloured lights start to brighten houses that hitherto seem shuttered as firmly against winter as they would be against wolves.

At some point of course, I realised that I probably suffer from low level seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Moving to the equator or hibernating aren’t options. Recognising how I feel, looking it in the face and knowing that around Christmas I’ll start to feel better has helped me focus on the finishing line rather than the race. However imperceptible, I know that as the last Christmas leftovers are being eaten up and I’m starting to get annoyed with the decorations, the days will be getting longer and I’ll be starting to feel better. 

It’s not been quite so bad this year because my November, which is usually when I start to feel low, was supremely busy. I was heavily involved in the first literary festival in my town. I also had Murder Durnovaria to get out. I’m not sure I had time to even notice the change in light until I was on the other side of the festival and found myself heading to my day job in the pitch dark. Then I was starting to droop, staring blankly at editing I need to do on a novel and wincing at my total lack of preparation for Christmas. 

Christmas itself isn’t an issue. I grew up in a family which enjoyed Christmas but was never excessive about it. There weren’t many presents, but we ate well and spent several days being creative or reading without anyone expecting anyone to do something else instead. I’ve tried to continue that relaxed tradition with my own children. And after the year when I had to buy the entire Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and the world didn’t end and I realised no-one would have cared if we’d had spaghetti bolognese instead, I’ve been able to go with the flow about the food too.

Not every Christmas has been happy of course. Several have been clouded with a broken heart or a death or the shadow of serious illness and the mood has been less about a dizzying blaze of multi-coloured light and more about standing fast in a darkness illuminated by one defiant lantern – which for many is the whole point of the season. This year for me, the certainty that I’d got over the worst of SAD and simply needed to order food and persuade my slightly Bah Humbug husband to put decorations up and everything would be fine was knocked sideways by news I wasn’t expecting and which is currently still hanging over everything.

If like me, you find the last dark days of the year hard to bear, or if for you this Christmas or Christmas in general is difficult because of other people’s expectations, or you don’t buy into the hype or you’re alone and/or grieving, I’ve put some links below which you might find useful – some for support, some for ideas.

But I’d just like to finish on a note that’s not doom and gloom. 

I finally persuaded old Bah Humbug to help put up the decorations on Saturday. Naturally, no sooner was I ready to go than he decided to put up a new curtain rail in our daughter’s room instead – a job which had been waiting since September. 

Long story short, I threw up my hands in irritation and stormed off to assemble fake Christmas trees on my own.

I got Christmas trees 1 & 2 up (different rooms) and extracted the lights for Christmas tree 2 from their box. Half way out of the box, like sneaky serpents they spiralled into a hyper-granny-knot.

Having finished fitting the new curtain rail, my husband came to see what I’d been up to while he’d been ‘slogging away’ making a boil out of a pimple.

He tutted.

‘Now you see these lights,’ he said sagely. ‘What’s gone wrong here, the reason they’re tangled, is that you, being an impatient woman, pulled them out of the box the wrong way. As a patient man, I shall untangle them and put them on the tree. Stand back and watch the master at work.’

I left him wrestling them into submission while I did an internet search to establish whether Vlad the Impaler ever deployed a fake Christmas tree and if so how.

History is mute on the subject. It may yet be rewritten.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some ideas for doing something entirely different at Christmas

Coping with Anxiety and Depression at Christmas

Depression at Christmas – a Survival Guide

The Samaritans (UK)

 

Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

branch lines

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

A Letter to Father Christmas

Susie never forgot the Christmas Eve when she was three and couldn’t sleep. Peeking over the bannister, she saw a plump man hiding something large and flat. The next day, under the tree was a large flat present for her and it was a big blackboard easel.

‘I saw Father Christmas put it in the cupboard under the stairs!’ said Susie. There was no doubt in her mind after that.

Sometimes Christmas presents were good, like the easel, and sometimes they were all right, like books and sometimes they were boring, like dresses, jumpers and dolls. When she was four, Susie’s mother told her that she now she could write, a good way to tell Father Christmas what you wanted was to put a letter up the chimney.

Luckily Susie had a good fireplace. She watched Mummy light the coals and when the flames were high, she popped her letter in and watched it fly up the chimney and off to the North Pole.

The only thing was, that it must have got lost on the way, because the one thing she wanted more than anything was a train set and Christmas Day came and Father Christmas left lovely presents but none of them was a train set.

In Spring, Susie and her family moved to another town. Now they had central heating so there was no chimney to send a note up. For two years Susie’s presents were nice, but never quite what she really really wanted. Then, one rainy Autumn when Susie was seven they moved a long way. The new house was rather dark and a tiny bit scary.
There were fireplaces in each room but every single one had been bricked up. The only fire was a rayburn in the sitting room, a kind of sealed metal box where you could see the coals trapped and burning behind glowing glass. Susie didn’t bother telling her little sister about putting notes up the chimney because Mum wouldn’t let them touch it.

One breakfast time in late December, Susie heard a horrible scrabbling, flapping sound behind the part of wall in the dining room which had once been a fireplace.

‘A bird’s fallen down the chimney.’ said Dad ‘It’ll die if we don’t get it out.’

Susie and her little sister watched anxiously until eventually Dad pulled out enough bricks so they could see into the dark hollow which had once been a hearth.

There was a lot of dust. Susie’s little sister held her hand tight as the scrabbling started again, louder now that the space was open. Suddenly a robin hopped out, something in his beak. He flew up to Susie, dropped a sooty piece of paper on her outstretched hand and then flew to sit chirping by the window until Susie’s Mum opened it for him to fly out.

Susie opened the piece of paper.

‘Look Mum!’ she exclaimed, ‘It’s that note I put up the chimney for Father Christmas when I was four!’

‘It can’t be!’ said her Mum coming to look, ‘that house is two hundred miles away!’

But it really was the letter she had written three years before.

‘Tell you what’ Mum suggested, ‘this time why don’t we just pop it in the post to the North Pole. It might be safer.’
So they did. And that Christmas, under the tree was a long thin package for Susie and inside was a train set at last.

After lunch while Dad was helping set up the train set on the dining table, Susie looked out of the window into the front garden.

There was the robin, hopping about on the front wall and chirping away. Then he stopped to look at her. And Susie could have sworn he gave her a little wink.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the barn,
The rafters were festooned with fine silken yarn.
The spiders had woven their intricate lace
And fireflies like fairy lights lit up the place.
Thus the barn looked so festive yet down in the hay
A girl dressed in nothing but rags and tears lay
Cast out in the cold with no friend to stand by
She wept without hope and waited to die.
Her warmth ebbed away as the source of her shame,
She clasped to her heart, a mere babe without name.
Her lover was false and her trust he’d betrayed
And her parents had spurned her, this poor desperate maid.
So in her last hours she’d trudged through the snow
And entered the barn with its welcoming glow.
And that’s where he found them, the farmer so old,
And carried them into the house from the cold.
And called to his wife to bring blankets and tea
And said, “Here’s the wonder we long wished to see,
“We yearned for a child as months turned into years
“Till time took our hope and wasted our tears
“And now in midwinter our dreams have come true
“Not one child we’re given, for here there are two!”

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Words copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. Picture copyright 2016 Michael Williams  All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission

I entered a competition to write a poem continuing the first line and this is the result. The prize was a poster made especially for the poem and “The Grubdale Chronicles” by Michael Williams). Much to my surprise, I won first prize !