You have all heard about Christmas in July, but have you heard about Christmas in September? Well, we are having one here and it is going to be fun! Author Tess Quinn, has just released a two volume set of books that are available at Amazon in paperback and the eBooks will soon be available . This two volume set revolves around the first Christmas and Twelveth Night for the newly married Darcy's and their families. Ms. Quinn has a lovely and extremely generous giveaway attached to this post. You will not want to miss out on this one. Please welcome back, Tess Quinn!
When I determined to write a novel set at Pemberley over the two (and a little) weeks of Christmastide, I knew that many of the holiday traditions we find so familiar today stem from the Victorian era and would not do for an occasion transpiring firmly in the years 1798-1799. But no matter, I thought; there is a wealth of holiday practices to draw upon – after all, I had long read of holiday revels from medieval times. Who needed Christmas trees and fancy greeting cards? (Though the former did exist, but very simply and occurring sparsely.) And so I began to research the common celebrations of the end of the 18th century.
And that’s when the first of my troubles with Christmas appeared. For amongst his other noted audacities, Cromwell can be attributed with a ban on celebrations of Christmas in the mid 17th century and, while many people continued to mark it in an underground fashion, it all but disappeared from noticeable society for some years. This led to the next bit of trouble. When it became acceptable once more openly to celebrate, just what traditions and customs came back in the same or altered form – and what new ones joined the old?
“I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”
Of course, this quotation from Pride and Prejudice relates to Elizabeth Bennet trying to make out Mr Darcy’s character as they dance together. But I could as easily apply it to the late Georgian and early Regency periods when seeking Christmas customs. The more references I consulted, the more contradictory evidence I found as to what was – or was not – observed. Would people hang mistletoe or kissing boughs? Yes. And No. Would they have had a Yule log? Yes. And No. And if they did have one, would they have gone out to collect it on Christmas eve day for immediate installation? Or would they go out on the day after Christmas and select one to store away for use the following year? Well... Yes. And No. And Yes. And No.
These few examples are illustrative of what I ran into at every turn. Refer to eight different social historians and you’ll get some common threads, but even amongst what they agree is custom, you’ll also get eight sets of qualifiers as to who would engage in it or to what degree.
I threw up my hands in frustration at one point, wondering if I should just abandon altogether my story – or move it to summer at the very least – when it suddenly occurred to me that what the conflicting accounts from social historians really allowed was an open field for me to pick and choose what customs the Darcy family of Pemberley would observe! I was being given creative license within some broad bounds of his family heritage, economic class and rank. How wonderful!
So rather than attempt to give you all a history of myriad ways Christmas might have been observed by Georgian families (which can be found easily in many posts and articles) I will offer you here a few of what I found lovely to write into the Darcy “family history” for my new novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy. (Available now in paperback via Amazon.com, and in early October in ebook format at amazon and smashwords.)
It is a custom universally acknowledged that a new-married man in possession of a good fortune must have a decorated house for Christmastide. And so, the Darcys follow custom. Common areas such as entry halls would be adorned with garlands (around pillars perhaps) as well as a few rooms of general use such as parlours or music rooms which would be similarly festooned in greenery, rosemary, bay, laurel, or mistletoe. These would have been set on Christmas eve and taken down the day after Epiphany. Here is a scene from A Fitzwilliam Legacy describing the north parlour at Pemberley as the Darcys and their guests make their way to it after dinner on Christmas eve:
Lizzy joined in the collective expressions of delight on entering the north parlour, Mrs Reynolds and her staff having outdone themselves in the room’s dressing. Evergreen boughs draped tables and mantle, filled window ledges, edged door openings – all accented here and there with ivy and mistletoe, cones and holly berries. Ribbons of velvet and striped satin intertwined amongst the branches of garlands to increase by their contrast the convivial setting. The room glowed softly from the flickering light of beeswax candles established at doorways and windows and in wall sconces, their flames mirrored in the polished silver sticks and candelabras and reflected, jewel-like, in crystal. The fireplace remained dark, but had been prepared and awaited only the master’s hand to set ablaze the massive log filling the hearth. But sensation redolent of yew, box, rosemary and bay, mingling with candles and warmed spiced ale, after being enclosed all the afternoon, was released upon the opening of the doors, and brought a sigh of contentment from Lizzy as she surveyed the scene.
Another tradition I chose to give to Darcy is that of the Yule log. A Scandinavian pre-Christmas ritual later adopted by Christianity – a large oak log decorated with sprigs of holly or yew –this would signify a return to light and life. A piece of the burned log would be saved to protect the home in the coming year. It would also be used to light the next year’s fire. Various traditions grew in England as to how and when Yule logs were used, but commonly they were lit on Christmas eve (with a glass of wine poured over it first if following French custom) and kept burning straight through Twelfth Night, being extinguished on Epiphany. Here is my take on the Darcy ritual:
At Georgiana’s earlier direction, a pianoforte had been installed in one corner of the parlour, chairs arranged about it and a large spray of rich, red hothouse roses mixed with greenery adorning its surface. But before their entertainments began, Darcy tradition would be observed. Naismith stood to one side of the dark fireplace, his tall form so straight and still that in his green livery he could have been mistaken for one of Pemberley’s firs himself in this muted ‘grove.’ In his hands he cradled a silver card tray. As the party stood in anticipation, Darcy turned to Lizzy.
“Have I your leave, madam?” He bowed low.
“You have, sir,” she replied with an answering curtsey.
He crossed to his footman, removed from the tray the small piece of charred wood from last year’s fire, and brought it to his wife. Smiling, Lizzy held it over a nearby candle, then returned the lighted shard to her husband who placed it in the hearth to light the Yule log. As flames took hold in the kindling and the massive log began to shift and singe in the heat of the rising fire, she noted a momentary clouding over of Darcy’s eyes and his glance at Georgiana. Lizzy surmised that she was not the only person whose thoughts had strayed on this night to Christmastides past and absent family.
As we are on the subject of Yule logs, my Darcy family traditionally goes out for a walk round the property on Christmas day, to find a suitable log for the next year.
As they walked along, of a sudden Bingley was struck from behind in the shoulder with a ball of snow. He looked around in surprise, scooped and packed a clump of snow from the ground and then, being unsure of the source of his own insult, let fly at a startled Colonel Fitzwilliam. There followed an impromptu skirmish, every one throwing snow at one another amidst feigned resentment, until all were covered liberally in white and were laughing too hard to continue.
The commencement of this battle was afterwards attributed to Kitty amidst her protestations of innocence, while Lizzy smirked behind her muff. They spent a moment brushing themselves and each other off, and then fanned out into the woods for their original purpose in the outing – to seek a Yule log for the next year. After only a short search, a fallen trunk of ash was espied by Fitzwilliam and pronounced by all as perfect for the honour; it would require little trimming and, properly tended, was surely large enough to burn through twelve nights. Every one pulled on the log – for good luck more than in expectation of dislodging it – with Jane and Lizzy each taking an extra tug on behalf of their children. Their labour of the day now complete, the Darcys and their guests left the trunk then to the ropes and farm horses of their grounds-men for transport back to the stables to reside and dry out until the eve of Christmas the following year. They returned in the fading afternoon light to the comfort of their present Christmas fire, to warm their limbs and their constitutions with chocolate before adjourning to their rooms.
Christmas day itself is most often characterised as a day of family and of quiet reflection; starting, of course, with attendance at service in the morning and the giving of charity to the poor in the clay box. This outing would be followed by a sumptuous dinner at about three or four with family and perhaps close friends, and then an evening of parlour games, perhaps a little dancing, and general converse. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth wrote to her Aunt Gardiner, “You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas.” In A Fitzwilliam Legacy, taking place a year after Elizabeth and Darcy marry, their party on Christmas day consists of family – Jane and Bingley, Kitty Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam – and a few unexpected relations as well. But Mr and Mrs Gardiner, spending their traditional Christmas at Longbourn, are due to arrive in only a few days to pass the New Year and Twelfth Night at Pemberley with their favourite nieces; as are several of Darcy’s friends from his school years. There is also a new friend introduced, a young widow invited by special request of Darcy’s cousin. The plots will thicken and, as the volume one tag line indicates, “For Lizzy and Darcy, it seems the difference between peaceful Christmastide celebration and most unharmonious discord is all... relatives.”
Gift giving as well might have occurred on Christmas, but for many families, they would proffer token or thoughtful gifts either on New Year’s or, as is custom for my Darcy family, on Twelfth Night.
“I agree. I could almost feel some remorse for the epithets I have hurled at your aunt these last weeks.”
“Mr Darcy, you can hardly expect more than one miracle to show itself in a day! And I should not wish to draw your attention too much from [Lady Catherine’s] astonishing good deed.”
“Then, madam, if that was your design, you should never have donned this gown!”
Smiling, [Elizabeth] crossed now to the settee where two parcels rested on a small side table.
“Come,” she said, “permit me to give you my Twelfth Night tokens while we have time still.”
He joined her, grabbing up two small parcels of his own from the mantel.
“Me first!” she said, thrusting the smaller of her gifts towards him. Setting his down, he took it and removed the protective linen covering to reveal a book bound in faded red leather. It was in superb condition and he turned it over to the front to see the title: An Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, in a first edition printing before Samuel Johnson’s name had been associated with the publication. The author here was ‘anonymous.’
“Wherever did you find this?” he asked in amazement. “I have been searching for a first!”
“Yes, I know. I wrote to all your book sellers some months ago and alerted them that if they found the title, they should come to me,” she laughed.
Before he could take it into his head to sit and begin reading the book, she offered him the second parcel. It was largely flat, about a foot on each side, and he removed the wrap to find two thin boards. Laughing at Lizzy’s expression of impatience, he slipped off the top of them to reveal beneath a series of simple drawings. There were four in all, hastily rendered but, given the landscape they represented, more potent for their simplicity. “This... this is the edge just northeast of Pemberley,” he said as he studied them closely.
“It is. That young artist you liked so well at the Royal Academy, Mr Constable? It seems he passed through the area to visit a friend in Yorkshire, and made these sketches. I was fortunate enough at the bookseller to recognise the location. I thought perhaps you might like to commission a painting on the strength of them. He does paint light so well.”
“Perhaps. But these are wondrous just on their own. I shall send to have them framed together for my study.”
“I am pleased you like them.”
Darcy felt it necessary as well to express his pleasure without words, such that it was some moments before he got round to offering Lizzy the first of her gifts.
Darcy felt it necessary as well to express his pleasure without words, such that it was some moments before he got round to offering Lizzy the first of her gifts.
You will have to read A Fitzwilliam Legacy to find out in what thoughtful manner Darcy reciprocated with gifts to his Elizabeth.
“Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (Mansfield Park, Ch 29)
“At Christmas everybody invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Emma, Vol I, Ch 13)
“[Catherine Morland] remembered that her eldest brother had lately formed an intimacy with a young man of his own college, or the name of Thorpe; and that he had spent the last week of the Christmas vacation with his family, near London.” (Northanger Abbey, Ch 4)
“We have had a very dull Christmas. Mr and Mrs Musgrove have not had one dinner party all the holidays. I do not reckon the Hayters as anybody. The holidays, however, are over at last...” (Persuasion, Vol II, Ch 6)
“I remember last Christmas at a little hop at the park, he danced from eight o’clock till four, without once sitting down.” (Sense and Sensibility, Ch 9)
“I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings...” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol I, Ch 21)
Jane Austen mentions Christmas seldom in her letters and when she does, it is idle reference to acknowledge her sister being away from home or some such. The conclusions sometimes drawn in conjecture from this are that the holiday was of little consequence to her. Yet these quotations just above – one from each of her published six novels – indeed suggest that Jane Austen would have known very well such gaieties as house parties, fancy dress balls, games and charades, festive dishes such as rice pudding (Christmas pudding was a relatively new concoction in her lifetime) and gift giving.
Darcy, given his “unsocial, taciturn” nature, might be quite content to pass all of the Christmas holiday in quiet family pursuits, but in deference to his lively wife we do find some parties in A Fitzwilliam Legacy as well. One in particular will bring in the New Year of 1799 with a celebrated soprano providing a concert for much of the invited neighbourhood. But long-time family tradition is still maintained as well, and perhaps a few new ones are established in a quiet alcove.
And so [Lizzy] had escaped to this alcove to take a breath before plunging into the fray again. She closed her eyes now, leaned against the wall and, indeed, took two or three deep breaths, just for the joy of being able to do so. And she imagined that, if she felt as she did now, her husband must be in a positive misery, having in general a lower tolerance for public spectacles and outpourings.
She opened her eyes when she became aware that some object had moved across the opening of the alcove, darkening the shadows further until it passed; and following she noted someone standing only a few feet away. Cautiously, she leaned forward to peer out and then, with a smile at seeing who it was, she reached and took hold of a coat tail.
Darcy jumped and swung around quickly at feeling his coat being tugged, prepared to defend himself from whatever assailed him. When Lizzy laughed, he relaxed his stance, then stepped into the alcove with her.
“Ah, so it is you! I did wonder where you had got to; I thought perhaps you had called upstairs again.”
“No.” She looked up at him sheepishly. “I simply needed a quiet moment.”
He barked a laugh but aborted it at the sound it produced, finishing instead with a soft chortle. “As did I, Mrs Darcy… as did I.”
He embraced her then, and she rested her head comfortably on his chest. For a moment they stood thus, simply enjoying the silence their temporary respite offered. Then they kissed – a long, satisfying kiss that served further to shut out the world – until voices nearby brought them from their interlude.
“There is no one here – though I was certain I saw him come out this way and heard his laugh,” came an unidentifiable disembodied voice.
“Well, no matter.” This was recognisable as Fitzwilliam, whose voice, though it remained easy, became measurably louder as he continued. “I am certain he will return shortly – he will not let the hour pass without observing custom.”
Darcy and Lizzy waited until they were sure the others had returned to the dining room before moving. Darcy removed his pocket watch and, holding it aloft such that he had light enough to read the dial, indicated that it was nearly a quarter before the hour of midnight.
“I suppose we must go back, then,” whispered Lizzy.
“In a moment.” He reached to take up a soft tendril of hair near her temple that had escaped its orderly confinement and he turned it round his finger slowly. “May I tell you first, Mrs Darcy, how very proud I am tonight?”
Lizzy chuckled. “Mr Darcy, may I remind you that you are always proud?”
Darcy smiled at the long-standing criticism. “Ah, but tonight… tonight I am proud not of myself, or at least I suppose not wholly of myself except in having the good sense to win you; but rather that I have heard nothing but compliments all the night long for my excellent wife!”
“You exaggerate, surely.”
“I assure you, I do not. You are the toast of Derbyshire tonight, my love – the most accomplished and affable mistress of Pemberley. What do you think of that?”
“I think Derbyshire is sadly lacking in entertainments!” They laughed, but then she cut it off to kiss him yet again.
“Are you feeling revived now?” he asked after another moment had passed.
“I am,” she replied coyly, and he imagined he saw a glint in her eye in their dim sanctuary. “What did you have in mind, Mr Darcy?”
“Nothing so enticing as the invitation in your eyes, Mrs Darcy. I shall happily ask you to offer it once more very soon.” He shook his head to rid himself of the bewitching distraction. “Come! I have a threshold to cross upon the hour; and with fortune at my side, soon after I shall take my wife to bed.”
“Lucky lady,” cooed she, causing his step to falter for the merest instant.
In fact, their luck held. Darcy and Lizzy returned to the dining room ten minutes before the hour and gathered everyone around for the toasts and speeches the night demanded. On the stroke of midnight, the family customs were observed, Darcy having gone outdoors only long enough to knock for admittance on the hour and be the first across his threshold, ensuring he would be master of his house for yet another year. Glasses were filled, well wishes traded, and only a short time after, their guests began to call for carriages to take them home to their own New Year observances. It was declared a wonderful evening by all.
Once all the evening guests had gone, it took little time for the house guests to retire. The combined events of afternoon into evening, and the anxieties which some of these had produced, had served to exhaust everyone it seemed, and the gentlemen were reminded that they had an early call on the day if they planned to shoot. And so it was that only a little after half past one in the morning, Lizzy and Darcy climbed into their bed to resume what they had begun in the alcove the year before.
Another celebration that Darcy tolerates is the sponsoring of a Twelfth Night Ball in volume two of A Fitzwilliam Legacy. Although many such at the time were masquerades, however, the Darcys choose to stick with a formal dress ball.
“Do you regret that we did not keep to fancy dress tradition for our Twelfth Night ball?” she teased him.
“Good heavens, no!” he replied immediately. “You are perfection just as you are. And in any event, can you possibly imagine I should welcome the requirement to attire myself as Julius Caesar?” He laughed. “I prefer to cloak my tyranny in the form of a gentleman with a beautiful lady at my side. It is the only way I shall weather such an event as tonight.”
Still, if our Mr Darcy suffers the evening, it promises to be a momentous occasion for more than one young woman (and gentleman) of our acquaintance. Indeed, all of Pemberley and its surrounding villages have been bustling about to ready for it.
As suddenly as the cold snap had arrived two days past, it moved out again, bring mild air behind it. It bode well for guests who would journey from any distance to Pemberley for the festivities. Less auspicious was the cloud cover that accompanied the warmer temperatures. Even a waning half moon if the night were clear might have offered some welcome light to travellers; but it seemed they would have to rely heavily on their coach lamps.
Darcy had directed that lanterns be maintained on the drive from the gatehouse, but little could be done beyond the estate, where illumination would be most wanted. In an effort to ensure at least some measure of protection, he had engaged several men to ride in pairs along the main road from Lambton throughout the evening – locals who held intimate knowledge of the terrain and tenuous points along the road, they were glad of the employ in mid winter while their fields were fallow.
The mild clime, coupled with mounting anticipation of the night’s festivities, gave to everyone a restless vigour evident even at the breakfast table: heels tapping rapidly on the floor to match the rhythm of anxious fingers on the table; much to and fro for contemplating the prospect from the windows; an impatience with the news being reported in the papers. There was a bustle of activity throughout the house from the wee hours as staff and servants made ready. But the residents found themselves with several hours to pass before they could begin their own preparations and much which they might find to occupy their time would only put them in the way of maids and footmen and sundry others. The suggestion of a walk therefore was eagerly embraced, and those few who declined – Lady Catherine, Anne and her companion, the Gardiners – repaired to their own rooms.
While the residents took the air, the house was in the throes of being transformed. The ballroom had been opened the previous day and now every surface which had not been yet cleaned thrice received further attention. Chairs were set up around the perimeter; music stands erected in the upper-story niche for the musicians; fresh boughs installed for decoration and trimmed with cones, berries and ribbons; fireplaces at either end set, with large greenery sprays established on the mantles above; and chandeliers readied with six-hour candles. The full-length windows leading to the outer balcony were scrubbed and its terrace cleared of every trace of snow, ice, leaves or debris, in the event brave souls wished to venture out for air.
The North parlour was arranged for conversation groups or music for those who did not partake of dancing, Georgiana’s piano festooned in fresh greenery, the Christmas fire alight still though much reduced. As had been done for the musical evening early in the week, the dining room and its adjacent parlour had been opened to each other and set for supper use. Two additional parlours had been opened into one for use as a card room, set with tables and chairs, stocked with cards and chips and the occasional board for chess, backgammon or draughts. Three smaller rooms on the ground floor would provide dressing rooms for ladies and gentlemen to repair their appearance on arrival and storage for outer garments and shoe changes. They were fitted with long looking glasses and appropriate amenities. The smoking room was aired and stocked.
The kitchen had been active for some days in the preparation of light refreshments, supper dishes, beverages. As people were in some cases travelling a distance, the supper on offer would be substantial. Darcy had spent an hour or more at first light in the cellars with Naismith and Mrs Reynolds, directing the use and timing of wines, champagne, brandies, sherry and port. Negus and Wassail and ale-based nog were prepared. The aromas from all this activity reached even the main house now and again with the continual opening of doors between service and living areas.
Usually unseen in the execution of their duties, an astonishing number of servants were to be found everywhere from first light: polishing, buffing, dusting, setting fires in all the grates and stocking coal or wood; rearranging furniture, straightening draperies, rolling carpets for storage. Pemberley’s permanent staff had been augmented with day labourers for the occasion. Again, a ball for the gentry meant welcome winter income for a few days for the local populace. They would return the next morning to assist in restoring the house to its customary arrangements.
So, these are some of the Christmastide customs I gave to Fitzwilliam Darcy and his family. If you wish to know more of them, I hope you will be intrigued enough by this glimpse to read A Fitzwilliam Legacy. I offered you no real plot teasers in my quoted material, but can assure you that, in a house party of this size and duration, there are enough intrigues to satisfy and they are (nearly) all of them resolved by the end of the Twelfth Night Ball in volume two.
And – as this is a Christmas-related posting, and Christmas today (or whatever observance you celebrate around this time period) tends to be characterised by gift giving, we of course have gifts on offer for a few lucky readers. If I have whetted your appetite to read A Fitzwilliam Legacy, there are two copies on offer (a full pair of volumes I and II for each of two winners) either in paperback or ebook format. This is open worldwide.
But that’s not all! When our thoughts turn to Christmas, we imagine decorated trees, and we trim them with ornaments. For two lucky people, we have two very special ornaments to be won. My good friend Barbara has an etsy shop called ExLibris Purses (links at bottom) where she sells book-cover purses. And as an offshoot of that, to utilize the book innards she removed for the purses, she began to make wonderful Lizzy Bennet ornaments. I have commissioned more than I can count to date! Each one is unique and delightful. Barbara has made, expressly for this book launch, a Lizzy ornament, holding a complete copy of Darcy’s letter to her from Pride and Prejudice; and a Georgiana Darcy ornament, holding (what else) appropriate sheet music of the time. And one of these ornaments can be yours!
What do you have to do to win one of these giveaways? It’s very simple – just leave a comment below and share one of your own special family holiday traditions or memories, whether it be Christmas, Channukah, or any other year-end holiday you celebrate. Then make sure you leave your email address for contact purposes (e.g. janedoe at gmail dot com), and your name will go into a random drawing. One winner will be selected every day starting on Friday after midnight until the giveaways run out.
And speaking of gifts, late September/early October is none too early to begin holiday shopping for your own lucky friends and family. So if you have a few Janeites on your list, perhaps they might enjoy a Christmas read of A Fitzwilliam Legacy – or a Pride and Prejudice 2014 Calendar featuring artwork based on the 1995 and 2005 films – or a one-of-a-kind ornament of their favourite Austen character. Links to where you can purchase these and other great gifts are listed below.
JT Originals (2014 Calendar and other Jane Austen inspired merchandise)
ExLibris Purses (I have the link to the sold page where several of the dolls are shown. The home page shows all the purses.)
In the meantime, as you think about your own cherished family customs, here are a few traditions from Janet, Barbara and me:
When I was a child Christmas Eve get-togethers at my paternal grandparents’ house was a big tradition. All of my dad’s five brothers and one sister and their children would be there. We drew names earlier in the year for gift giving. My grandmother made new flannel pyjamas for all her granddaughters and we would put them on as soon as we opened them. I can remember the anticipation of getting those new pj’s. All the parents brought additional dishes of food and we had lots of good things to eat. After all the wonderful family time, we would then go home, get to bed and be wide awake listening for Santa to come. My sisters, brother and I would start asking around 5 a.m. if we could get up. Usually around 6 a.m. Mother and Daddy would say okay. Good memories!
Another tradition was for our family to take one night and drive around town looking at the Christmas lights and decorations. It was so much fun and accompanied with lots of ooh’s and aah’s. My family has continued to carry on that tradition. Johnson City, the home of Lyndon B. Johnson, is not too far from where I live. It is also the home of a big electric company. One year the small town, with its fabulous Christmas lights and displays, made CNN news. My son, his family and I made the trip to see the decorations and it was well worth the drive. I had never seen so many beautiful lights in all my life. I plan to go back again this year. (There is a great little restaurant along the way that has scrumptious pies! Now you know where my heart lies!)
Nostalgia for past traditions, the joy of keeping some old ones alive, and making new ones add to the warmth of the season. I cherish them all. – Janet B. Taylor
Christmas at the McNamara household is all about the stockings! Now don't get me wrong, we LOVE our presents under the tree (keep 'um comin' Santa!) - but the stockings hold the most fun and laughter. First of all Santa wraps EVERYTHING (lots of tape)...so the process is nice and slow (no zipping down to the orange at our house!). There are MANY traditional inclusions: chapstick, nail clippers, hot chocolate, a paperback book and a wind-up critter of some sort (there will be critter races later in the day). Then there are some additional silly surprises and 1 or 2 'just for you' special inclusions (just to show that Santa has been paying attention). Then it's finally down to that reassuring orange -- yep, it's Christmas. – Barbara McNamara
When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was a special time. Our tree, which we’d have cut or purchased a week or two before and had outside soaking in icy water, would be brought in and my dad would string the lights early in the morning. (That was a dreaded task to get them all evenly arrayed, and remains so to this day in my family.) Then, after all gathering for lunch, we would decorate the tree together. Each of us kids had a few special ornaments of our own that we added near the end and then the last ornament to go on would be the bird (a stork) for luck. Then we’d start with the tinsel and the inevitable arguments over how much was too much! Some of us liked to see green on our trees, others would have covered it completely in the silver stuff. (That’s one tradition I ended when I had family of my own – we don’t use tinsel anymore.) The lights would be left off (after being tested) and come to life when we got back from church in the small hours. We would also put up the crèche, but the baby Jesus in his manger would be put into the drawer of the table, not to appear until the next morning.
After dinner, we all had to crack open and eat a walnut. A healthy nut meant good fortune in the new year. Then the cookie platter would appear –yum! Sometimes then my folks would have close friends over for a drink, but mostly it was family time. Around ten, we would go dress for midnight mass. I loved those services, all the carols and greenery adorning the altar and such; the sense of a ritual as old as time to a child. When we got back, we were all allowed to select and open one present, before being marched up to bed. After brunch the next morning, we would gather at the tree to share the rest. The stockings would have been placed at the foot of our beds after we were asleep, and we were allowed to dive into those on our own to tide us over.
But in fact, my favourite Christmas Eve was one where I missed midnight mass. I was only five, but I remember it clearly. We were living in Germany at the time, and it had begun to snow early on Christmas eve. By nightfall it was very deep. The church was about a mile away, and it was decided that, rather than try to drive there, the family would walk to midnight mass. But it was also decided that I was too little to tromp through deep snow that far, so I was not to go. I was disappointed at first. But it meant that I would stay home with my dad. Now my dad was a loving man, but a very serious and quiet one (taciturn, one might say unsocial… sound familiar?) – and on top of that, he was a career Army officer, so there were several Christmases spent without him being home – and on this occasion, we turned on the Christmas tree lights (early) and he sat on the sofa with me. We read stories together, me cuddled into his side; we sang a few carols. It was quiet; it was intimate. I knew then that it was a special time and, as an adult looking back on it, realised it was magical. My mom reported later how magical it was for them as well, walking through the dark silence to the little stone church, footfalls muffled by the snow. But I wouldn’t have traded that night with my dad for anything. – Tess Quinn
Now, with these openers, please do share your own holiday memories and traditions – and get entered to win a lovely pre-holiday gift of book, ornament or calendar. We promise if you win, it will arrive before Christmas!