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.

Mistletoe and no wine

I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.

There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.

The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.

Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.

Slowly easing towards the end of the year

Holy Trinity Church,Bradford on Avon taken by Simon Howell

Some Christmas traditions change; some remain.  But there will always be a craving to get outside, seek the light and to curl up later with some heat in Midwinter. This year there has been no trifle and no mince pie making, no holly and no huge get together with friends on Boxing Day. There has been a magnificent Christmas dinner, Monopoly and Cluedo, log fires, cake, crackers, homemade chutney and cheese and new books to enjoy.

Today we took ourselves off to Stourhead for a midwinter tramp around. Later I planted a new hellebore underneath the laburnum in the front garden at dusk, then scuttled back indoors for some heat in the form of cumin,paprika and chillies stirred through mashed sweet potatoes and steamed buttered kale for an easy supper.

 

Tradition

One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door .
One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door

On Advent Sunday, the fittest member of the family climbs up into the loft to retrieve the Advent calendars (we use the same ones every year), the Christmas CDs and DVDs and the decorations. The Christmas cake (made during the October Half Term) is fed with more brandy; the kitchen table candle changes from cream to red; the John Rutter Christmas CD is on repeat play in the kitchen and we prepare for the first of our December film nights curled up together on the sofa in front of a log fire. Christmas, like all festivals is a time for tradition, for doing things together as a family which ‘lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives’.

If tradition was a rock band, I’d be its number one fan. We have rituals and traditions in our house for all sorts of times of the year, not just Christmas. Traditions are important. They provide a sense of identity, strengthen bonds with family and friends, connect generations, teach values, offer comfort and security, pass on cultural and religious heritage, add to the rhythm and seasonality of life and create lasting memories. In other words, they’re uber-good for our health and wellbeing.

Some Christmas traditions are pretty universal. Most people decorate a Christmas tree, although this is a relatively ‘new’ tradition, not becoming popular in the UK until the early nineteenth century, whereas others are more personal. Most of us maintain some of the traditions from our own childhoods but some are new introductions which come about after we have our own children. And even these change as they get older. For years we did the whole ‘Stir up Sunday’ thing like a friend of ours who remembers the making of the Christmas pudding to an old family recipe. Everyone in the family from youngest to oldest had a stir, a taste and made a wish. The huge mixture was divided between a range of bowls for members of the family to take away. However, guess what? None of the five of us actually like Christmas pudding so we very quietly stopped this tradition. Now we have a homemade chocolate roulade (my recipe), which is made on Christmas Eve, whilst we listen to the Carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. What’s more, it has reduced the potential stress of how to steam it on the top of our hob, when there are so many other foods to cook on Christmas Day. We transferred the stirring ritual to the Christmas cake instead.  I like the idea of providing my children with a memory box of traditions, some of which have been in the family for generations, from which they can evolve their own when they have their own families.

I asked some friends about their Christmas traditions and rituals. Many Christmas traditions concern the preparing and eating of special foods. The making of the Christmas pudding, the recipe for Christmas cake, the journey with Dad to the butchers on Christmas Eve to collect the turkey, satsumas in stockings and making mince pies with mum whilst listening to special songs.

Others are to do with decorating the house – the ritual of choosing and bringing home the tree, making the wreath for the front door, putting up stockings and making or buying one new tree ornament every year for each of your children so that they have a beautiful collection for their own tree when they leave home.(I love this idea!)

Still more are about the giving of gifts, the sending of cards and the writing of letters. We have friends who remember having to book a Christmas Day telephone call to relatives overseas in September. Others phone friends in Australia, after returning from the midnight communion service on Christmas Eve. The whole ritual of giving out the gifts struck a chord with many too – when it happens, who does it and whether or not they wear a special hat to do it.

The modern day Christmas has evolved from centuries of tradition. Some elements have their origins in the pre-Christian pagan festival of Yule, celebrated around the winter solstice. The traditional yule log was ceremoniously brought in and burnt all through the winter festival. Decorating the house with evergreen boughs hails from here too, although in the fifteenth century the church adopted the tradition, recognising that evergreen boughs and red berries could symbolise the gift of a child from an ever-loving god, whose blood was to be shed on our behalf. The traditionally round Christmas door wreath symbolises the love of God which has no beginning and no end. The Roman festival of Saturnalia (beginning around December 17th) gives us the idea of exchanging gifts and the wearing of special hats (now made of paper). Christmas Carols, I believe, have their origins in the January wassailing ceremonies which took place in rural communities to awaken the spirits of the orchards to bless the trees and give a good harvest in the year to come.

The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has continually evolved over the years. In the middle ages it was more raucous and community based. In the nineteenth century it became a more peaceful family and child-centred festival. Much of the modern day ‘traditional’ Christmas is the invention of Charles Dickens and the Victorians. The shift from a church and community based celebration to a family-centred one with seasonal food, Christmas trees, Christmas cards, lights, tree decorations and a seasonal spirit of generosity only dates back a hundred and seventy years or so. In fact, even up to the 1950s families with modest means celebrated with a joint of beef on Christmas Day and a stocking with an apple, an orange and a few sweets for the children.

Traditions are important but they can change. Whether you are decorating your home with evergreens, lighting candles, trimming the tree in red, green and gold and looking forward to a family day of seasonal food made to traditional recipes, or having a barbeque on the beach with a few friends, it’s good to store up some special memories and establish some traditions for your own family.

I’d love to hear what you do.

 

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