Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
I can recite the whole book, well almost, word for word, and the pictures still make me feel a calm and a peace I cannot describe.
Over the next few days, hundreds of families will be hunkering down for the Christmas break. For many it will be a scaled up version of Whacky Races, driving around the country with the car groaning under the weight of gifts to give or gifts received, visiting friends and relatives, spending hours sitting in traffic only to be gleefully handed yet another mince pie or sausage roll on arrival at their destination – and having to muster up the rictus smile as you not-quite-so-gleefully polish it off before being ushered in to the twinkly grotto that was once their sitting room.
Love it or hate it – it’s here and it’s here to stay, and thank God for that. I love the smell of the real tree that I insist we buy, and cover at least 30 miles to identify as MY tree. My poor husband has to suffer this every year we spend at home for Christmas, driving me miles from pile to pile of miserable trees, wincing as I make the nice man undo the netting again, shaking it out as I prowl around it rather like a sergeant major inspecting his troops, and with an equally critical and dissatisfied face. “Nope, that’s not my tree”, I say and, after two or three further scrawny or deformed specimens stand shuddering in front of me, I will jump back into the car and onwards to the next unsuspecting victim until I end up with the tree that calls to me, and the tree that ultimately is just the right one for this year. Some people visit relatives, I visit trees! I love it.
But more than this, I love the memories that my parents left me of all our Christmas Pasts. I remember hand-bell ringers coming to our home in Somerset when I was barely a toddler; I remember carollers coming to the door to sing their little socks off in the infamous snowfall of 1962-63, when we were snowed in for days and the whole of the Mendips were covered with snow so deep that you couldn’t tell field from hedge, nor hedge from road. I remember the 12ft snowman I built with my father on the lawn. I remember Jack Frost on the inside of my bedroom windows the smell of the long, slow smoulder coming from peat slabs in the huge fireplaces in the dining and sitting rooms.
I spent my first few baby/toddler years in Somerset but I grew up in Cornwall and we were lucky enough to have hundreds of huge pine trees on our land. We were able to organise the annual ascent to lop off a suitable candidate year on year, dragging it homewards for the laying out of the (inevitable) non-functioning tree lights and the excitement of dragging the huge metal trunk, bursting at the seams with three generations’ worth of fragile and whisper-thin baubles, bells, icicles and figurines all made of glass. My mother would put Kings College Cambridge Choir on on the Radio in the kitchen and ban us from coming in for at least four hours, leaving my gently simmering father to keep us entertained with the dressing of the tree whilst she created a work of art with royal icing peaks, minature trees, skiers, snowmen and other such characters on a huge square Christmas cake she had made earlier in the year; we were never allowed to see it ’til Christmas Day.
Away in a Manger, O! Come All Ye Faithful, O! Little Town of Bethlehem … “oh why won’t these frikin’ light WORK!”, mumbles my father as we giggle and run around him, covered in wreathes of tinsel.
Several hours later and well into his 3rd exasperated G&T of the evening, the switch is thrown and the lights leap into a rainbow of light, up and up and up through the branches reaching all the way up the 15 foot stairwell. A resounding round of applause from my mother, cheers of delight from myself and my two brothers and a sigh of relief from my father as he heads off to the sitting room, his mission completed.
Box after box of trinkets are laid out on the dining table as we scrabble to find our personal favourites and start gently placing them on the eagerly awaiting and rather needly branches.
The tree almost completed (and almost certainly going to be tidied up once we have gone to bed) Mum brings through home made sausage rolls, the first of many, which we hoover up between bouts of artistic flare. A low humming and harmonious sound resonates through from the large front door. “Once in Royal David’s City ….”. We run in our slippered feet and throw open the door to find our lovely Cornish Carollers lined up and giving it their all. We invite them all in and give everyone a glass of mulled wine or a beer, some sausage rolls, mince pies or a mini Cornish Pasty and they sing and sing and sing. Carols at the beginning, Cornish pub songs towards the end of the evening and the end of the wine! As a tip-of-the cap to my elderly grandmother, they’d always sing “I love the White Rose in its Splendor”, and for me “Little Eyes, I Love You”, and I would blush and hide behind my mother.
At 9pm they would weave their way back up the drive, singing into the trees until we could hear them no more. We went scampering eagerly into the sitting room. Installed by a roaring log fire, looking sweet (doubtless!) in our little PJs and dressing gowns, we are seated in a little row with pen and paper to write our letters to Father Christmas. After penning a pack of lies about how good we have been all year and the gentle reasoning by my mother that Father Christmas probably won’t be able to fit a real white horse down the chimney, nor a real flying saucer for my little brother, nor a James Bond Aston Martin for my older brother, the letters are folded and one by one popped into the flames, wathing the letters fly up the chimney in flakes to be collected at the top by the Cornish Elves. My father wore a special red waistcoat and (don’t ask me why!) a red fez complete with a tassle for this particular ceremony.
We snuggle down in one or other of our beds, red faced and excited about the morning to come. My mother slides in next to us and out comes the book.
In a low and lilting voice that I will hear in my heart every Christmas Eve for the rest of my life, she began:
“T’was the Night Before Christmas, when all through the house”…
So, for all of you mums and dads out there who are just starting out your lives as parents; don’t underestimate how much of your Christmas tradtion will go into that nestled head on Christmas Eve. That heavy breather who paddles through to your room at 4am tomorrow morning, again at 5am and 6am until you are dragged from your slumber and downstairs to the excitement of the stocking, that little stage-left whisper into your dreams, “ARE YOU AWAKE? MUMMMEEEEE?”, is a very excited little person indeed – and you are the memory makers!
So, here is the book – and I can hear my mother saying this as she kissed me goodnight every Christmas Eve until her last Christmas.
The Christmas when she handed the book over to me.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all few like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night