1 "Christmas At Fairacre" by Miss Read - a compendium edition which contains an extract from "Village School" and some of her other heart-warming Christmas stories "Village Christmas", "The Christmas Mouse" and "No Holly For Miss Quinn". A slightly different but similar edition to mine is available here. I've read and reread these stories, time and again, but their allure remains, partly because in different ways they all manage to evoke a sense of the possibility of quiet, contented serenity at the heart of all the bustle. One of my favourite snippets is in "The Christmas Mouse" when old Mrs Berry stands in the old-fashioned, white-painted kitchen of her small cottage, on Christmas Eve, looking at the rain pouring down outside, into which her daughter and two small granddaughters, have ventured, to catch a bus for a last minute Christmas shopping trip. Alone in the quiet, homely kitchen with its wooden armchair, cherry-red curtains and old, blue and white tiles, Mrs Berry puts her hand on the comforting teapot and finds it reassuringly still hot enough for her to pour another cup of tea, to drink in peace, by the fire, before she tackles the washing up. She muses on the past with its sadnesses, acknowledging them but not letting them take over; she is grateful for the present moment; she looks forward happily to all the joy of the coming day. There's just something so anchored about the little scene, so devoid of stress and hassle, so unambitious, contented and contained. Moments of quiet, homely solitude like this can be incredibly lovely sources of Christmas joy, especially when set among all the more sociable, crowded, noisy stuff. I think, anyway.
2 "A Country Christmas" edited by Johnny Coppin. I think this is now out of print but you can get secondhand copies here. This is a delightful compendium of Christmas-themed extracts from novels and stories, Christmas poems, carols, and an amazing collection of country Christmas traditions and folklore from the British Isles that you can dip into, whether you have five minutes or an hour. Many of the stories are very funny such as the anecdote told by June Smith in an extract from "A Devon Country Christmas" of the time "Granny" came for Christmas and the author had forgotten to ice the cake until on her way to bed on Christmas Eve. Conscious that "Granny" currently tucked up in bed with hot cocoa, would be disappointed not to be able to partake of a properly iced cake on the morrow, she goes back down to the kitchen and whips up a bit of icing for the "old cake" engagingly referred to in the masculine gender. "He" (the cake) needs something to decorate him but late on Christmas Eve, what is there? With inspiration born of necessity, "Father" goes out to the shed and comes back with a "baccy tin" full of ball bearings. Polished up, they do the job of silver dragees rather well! At teatime the following day the cake is much appreciated by "Granny" who has two large slices. The ball bearings do not, as you might think, break her teeth - she has none - but there are nonetheless unforeseen and humorous consequences! There is lots more, including part of Dylan Thomas's wonderful "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and a poignant but entertaining extract from Winifred Foley's "A Child In The Forest" about her longing for Father Christmas to bring her a doll that her family cannot afford.
3 "Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas" by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest. As previously indicated in these pages, this is one of my all-time favourite books. The unabridged version. Amazon has both the modern abridged edition and some secondhand, unabridged ones here. Atmospheric and utterly enchanting. The descriptions and images of old Mrs Hedgehog and Fuzzypeg, trudging home with their Christmas shopping in the snow, Hare catching snowflakes on his tongue and racing down the snowy hillside in moonlight on the new scarlet sledge, until his own shadow frightens him, are magical. Fuzzypeg getting rolled into a snowball, and emerging, still eating the slice of bread and jam he was consuming beforehand, makes me laugh as much in my forties as it did when I was four!
4 A slightly more recent acquisition is "Babushka" retold by Sandra Ann Horn with illustrations by Sophie Fatus. It's published by Barefoot Books who produce the most beautiful children's books - I did my best to keep them in business single-handed when H was small! The paperback version is available directly from Barefoot Books here. The story is a traditional Russian fairy tale that tells of the Russian Babushka or Granny who "kept busy all the time because there was an empty place in her heart and it made her sad to think about it".
She is so busy dusting and polishing and cleaning that the Christmas star which peeps in through her window, hides again behind a cloud in case it gets wiped away like the mark on the window pane and the Christmas angel who sings of good news, flies away again on being told she will have to wipe her feet if she wants to come in.
The Three Kings and their camels drop by on their way to Bethlehem and invite Babushka to join them, in their quest for the newborn king, but Babushka hasn't "got time to go journeying about... What about the washing up?" And she flaps her duster at the camels who are leaving muddy footprints on her clean path, scaring them into disappearing, with the kings in pursuit.
After all her manic cleaning and tidying, Babushka (not surprisingly) is tired and falls asleep. In her dreams, the angel and the star return with the news of Jesus' birth in the stable. Struck by the baby's lack of amenities, Babushka packs a basket of presents and scurries out in search of him. She does not notice the angels singing, or the millions of bright stars in the sky as she travels, only the dust lying thick on the road. She meets various individuals in need, along the way, to whom, out of kindness, she gives the presents in her basket.
On reaching the stable Babushka realises she has nothing to give the baby. Sadly she begins to turn away but she hears Mary calling her name and she goes into the stable to find all the things she has given away en route, are in use, with and for the baby. Still afraid of confronting the empty place in her heart and because old habits die hard, Babushka thinks she will turn her attention to the cobwebs which clearly need sweeping out from the stable, but the baby holds out his arms to her and smiles. And the story ends like this:
"His eyes were like the deep starry night. In his smile was love itself. A strange feeling crept over Babushka. She forgot about tidying up.
Would you like to hold him?" asked Mary. Babushka took the baby in her arms.
All the animals crowded round. Babushka stroked the old grey donkey's nose. He nuzzled her ear.
The baby chuckled and so did Babushka. She held him close.
"Peace", sang the angels."
Text © 2002 Sandra Ann Horn
Pictures © 2002 Sophie Fatus
(used with permission)
(used with permission)
It's a dear, engaging tale, especially for all who, in trying to run themselves ragged to get everything done for everyone else, may feel they risk missing the boat of what Christmas is really about for themselves. I feel this is me sometimes, both from a professional and a domestic perspective, so the story echoes at more than a superficial level, especially as Mrs T can get a bit obsessive about cleaning and tidying on occasion. The happy ending fills me with hope that even if my efforts are awry or misdirected sometimes, all is not lost.
And along with reading the book this Advent, I have indulged myself in making the little Hooky Babushkas from Nicki Trench's book, "Cute and Easy Crochet".
A bit fiddly, but surprisingly quick, to make, they are cosy little reminders of the story. You may remember that Lucy of Attic 24 made some of these last year. Have a look at her more expert versions here. If you want to have a go, Lucy is right, you really do need to use stitch markers but as I say they were surprisingly quick to hook up. I have given them some plastic pellet, beanbag filling in their bases to give them a bit of stability, after reading of Lucy's trouble with Tiny Babushka's tendency to fall in the coal bucket, and can report that this really helps them to stay where you put them!
I made the babushkas using what I thought was the correct yarn recommended in the pattern only to discover that I had bought Aran weight Rooster yarn not DK weight. I used a larger hook size therefore to correspond with the thicker yarn and my babushkas have come out a bit bigger than the pattern envisages as a result. The faces were the tricksiest part. Embroidering a mouth that looks like a smile and not a grimace is not easy and I gave up trying to use French knots for the eyes and used small black glass beads instead. Even so, they are homely, rather than sophisticated, little people, but I love them!
They are currently sitting on a 1940s vintage wool blanket that belonged, appropriately enough for "babushkas", to my own grandmother. My mother passed this on to me because I was looking for a bit of wool blanket to cut up for a post-Christmas project but I just can't bring myself to cut into it! It's a bit old and faded, but beautifully light and warm and smells of my own "babushka's" home so I think I'll have to buy something else for cutting up. This is ridiculous, I know, but I also know, the moment I take my scissors to this, I'll regret it!
I hope you get a chance to curl up with a lovely, atmospheric bit of Christmas reading in the coming days and if you have any suggestions of your own favourites that you'd like to pass this way I'd love to hear them!
Linking into Floss hosting A Pause In Advent - do have a look at other pausers listed on Floss's blog here.
Wishing you all a very happy 3rd week of Advent!