Christmas 2021: In the Country

You can’t top a country Christmas. Somehow the values of the season – simple, slow living in the company of family and friends, hunkering down beside a crackling log fire, sharing hearty meals, long walks, good books and big skies are rooted in the country. Country folk are masters of upholding the family rituals of years gone by and the cost-effective creativity of homemade gifts at the expense of unrestrained commercialism.

I stumbled upon a series of programmes on catch-up – I suspect made by the Countryfile team – about Christmas in the country. It was a comforting watch in spite of the uber-styling. Nigella clad in a scarlet coat and pristine wellies walks an adorable dog through the woods then returns to her fairylight-festooned kitchen grotto. She quickly whips up chocolate and pistachio treats to be shared with impossibly attractive, jolly friends around the garden firepit as the snowflakes flutter down. My life is less styled, more homespun and mud-splattered and yet there have been a wealth of perfect country Christmas moments over the years.

Many of the pleasures of a country Christmas are in the preparations for the day itself of course: making a door wreath from foraged greenery; drying orange slices to hang on the tree or to adorn gifts; baking an enormous Christmas cake or popping a batch of mince pies in the oven to the strains of Carols from Kings; making chutneys, piccalilli, sloe gin or cherry brandy to give as presents. And whilst Christmas Day is a day for family, Christmas Eve and all the days between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night are full of delights to be had further afield. Some of my highlights over the years are documented here.

Nativity Plays Long before The Vicar of Dibley filmed the iconic pet service and the Netflix ‘Nativity’ loop existed, we held a nativity play in the stable of a local farm. Candle lanterns, straw and a range of farm animals are a health and safety nightmare obviously. Somehow we got away with it. This year’s nativity took place on the village green in the drizzle using the wooden shelter as a stable. Many children came dressed in their nativity costumes, joined in and it was all the better for it.

Carol singing – singing features significantly in any country Christmas. Whether standing around the tree on the green or wandering around the village with an accordion and charity buckets it’s good for the soul. A bag of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges to share is optional.

Candlelit Crib services and Midnight Mass – There’s something quite magical about little children singing Away in a Manger in candlelight on Christmas Eve, even if you are praying not for peace on earth but that your toddler doesn’t set light to the hair of the child next to them with their taper (hands protected by a cardboard square a few inches beneath the flame). As I recall this is the reason we have a large collection of sealed candle lanterns around the house. Gradually during the service the crib figures are set in place. I remember fondly the year when we were asked to deliver the baby Jesus to the crib as the parents of the youngest member of the regular church congregation. It proved a far more significant moment than many people would have realised as our infant son was much-longed for and arrived after a series of miscarriages that everyone we knew were completely oblivious to. Midnight Communion services also hold a special place in my heart. Heading to church after an evening of Monopoly to meet up with friends and neighbours and welcome in Christmas Day; then home to see if Santa has remembered where the contents of the childrens’ stockings have been secreted.

Boxing Day Boules – Whilst a sea swim is underway in my native Pembrokeshire, in our part of Wiltshire the village turns out for the annual boules tournament on the green. By 10am on 26th the green is marked up and cordoned off and teams of four challenge each other in a knock-out tournament. Gluwein flows, university students at home for the holidays reconnect, grandparents pass on tips to their grandchildren and teenagers take on their parents. Children are keen to show off new toys, bikes and scooters and then the whole village repairs to the pub for sausage rolls and a leisurely pint. Occasionally this lasts all day and includes choruses of Alouette led by one of the more merry village elders, perched atop a bar stool.

Morris men and mummers plays – the village morris men (and women) are always keen for an opportunity to jangle their bells energetically around the village on Boxing Day and work off the excesses of Christmas Day. There’s plenty of hospitality for them too from villagers who appear out of their houses with plates of Christmas cake, cheese straws and the odd nip of whisky to ward off the cold. This year there was a traditional mummers play too. I remember at least two village pantomimes after Christmas too and a vivid emerald green costume in which I created the role of Fairy Liquid. Happy Days!

New Year’s Eve safari suppers – a particular highlight for a number of years was the village safari supper on New Year’s Eve. Couples agreed to take on a starter, main course or pudding for six (four and themselves) and someone with more tact and organisational skill than me managed to achieve the impossible. The Russian roulette of not knowing either what you would be eating, where or with whom until minutes before was the perfect way to see out the old year and welcome in the new. Having spent the evening visiting a different house for each course by midnight we were all upstairs in the pub comparing culinary experiences, singing Auld Lang Syne and hugging each other. Of course there was the year when our main course hosts presented the first vegetarian option they’d ever cooked ( fish pie – no kidding!) with great ceremony and my co – conspirators produced Oscar-winning performances to keep our hosts out of the way whilst I fed my portion to the cat and the magical millennium eve when we’d just found out I was pregnant and couldn’t let on.

However you’ve spent Christmas this year, I hope you’ve been able to reflect on happy memories of years gone by and made a few new ones. This is our first year without any of our parents being alive and with three grown-up children in the house. Time moves on, ready for them to embrace some Christmas traditions of their own and what better place than the country?

Happy Twelve Days of Christmas.

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