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Christmas Past - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Christmas Past

morkeleb_black has rashly asked for Christmas reminiscence, and I find myself unable not to answer.

For me, as, I imagine, for many of us, Christmas was always dependent on Where, When, and With Whom. Christmases varied.

My mother was, all her life long, a fundamentally, a resolutely, urban person (which made for some interesting situations, as she married into a family that most assuredly was not), and of course very much involved with the musical and artistic world that had been hers before her marriage. When I was quite small, in the Swinging Sixties, she threw marvellous parties for that milieu, and that meant at the smallish town place on T––––––– Street, just off Long Acre. Usually, these were summer dos, but on occasion she would throw herself into holding such a rout during the run-up to Christmas. These were always very loud, crowded, screamingly fashionable and fashionably screaming affairs that left one’s ears ringing for days, in which no one ever seemed to sit down and everything came off a sideboard and was eaten standing. At one point, I recall, there was a vogue for renaming all the dishes something clever, on about the order of the TLS crossword, and making people guess what was what based on those clever clues, which I thought appallingly unfair. (You might so easily end up with something you loathed.) Amidst all the glittering artsy types, mostly dressed to the Carnaby Street nines and squealing at one another, my father would stand patiently by the fire, leaning negligently against the chimneypiece, in bespoke subfusc and his regimental tie, with a whisky in one hand and his pipe in the other, being remotely polite to everyone. A splendid writer – far better than his son – and an elegant draughtsman – although he left painting and drawing to his mother, as hobbies – he never cared for music (oh, he’d listen to George Shearing), dancing, and socialising at all. In after years, I asked him, What was he thinking of whilst all this highly-coloured swirl spun about him, and he answered that he found it too depressing to think of golf (his handicap consisted of his mother and his wife) and too dangerous to think of shooting – it tempted him to imagine peppering the more stridently artistic guests – so that in the end he took to dwelling on the sale prices for finished cattle and what bulbs to plant for the next Spring’s herbaceous border. (His father’s idea of amusement, after all, was a good bull-and-steer auction.)

Then, of course, there were the Christmas Eves at my mad godmother’s. On such years, the evening would begin with our arriving at my godparents’s place and trying to see what new motorcar my godmother had got for Christmas (she got a new one each year, I think she felt that if they needed refuelling it was time for a new one). The rest of the evening would consist of my godfather steadily pushing more and more whisky and claret and brandy at people, my godmother’s increasingly hilarious comments – in tones that would have done credit to a laying peahen – magistrates and magnates singing increasingly bawdy carols, various children devilling the dog, and dinner being pushed back. And back. And back. Quite often, those still ambulatory would make it to midnight service and back before anyone got ’round to eating.

Such frivolity, of course, was not a part of Christmas at my grandparents’s place. (I refer of course to my father’s parents, as my mother’s mother died well before I was born and my mother’s father died when I was quite small.) There, Christmas and Christmas dinner proceeded in awful majesty, invariable and inevitable (my great-grandparents on either side would have been perfectly at home), course by stately course, with the spirit of Mrs Beeton perceptibly hovering over the chaste and marmoreal festive board. (Their vicar, a jovial man, once twitted my grandmother, at a Summer luncheon, for having a kitchen that put the viscosity back in vichyssoise. To her eternal credit, my grandmother found this hilarious – I can hear her eldritch laughter even now – and ever after, there was a standing joke about the specific gravity of the soups she had served.) The conversation was equally traditional: my father and my uncle George telling embarrassing anecdotes on one another, my mother vague and rather bored, and my grandmother acidly witty, usually at the expense of George’s wife Caroline, or Absent Kin such as my father’s cousins David and Margery. I and my stair-step cousins – there was a four year gap between my birth and cousin Anne’s, who is David Cameron’s age, between Anne’s and Mary’s, between Mary’s and James’s, and then an eight year gap between James’s and Richard’s – kept still tongues and merely got stuck in as dish after dish passed in review. Caroline wisely said little, and my grandfather sat silent and attentive, eating sparingly, waiting for what he considered the point of the exercise: pudding, followed by a loyal listen to the annual broadcast from the only woman he thought more highly of than he did my grandmother, and then an escape, with as many of the grandchildren as could walk, and weather be damned, to the stables and the kennels, where he would hide with us until forcibly dragged back to human habitation. (My grandfather’s obsession with horse and hound may be best exemplified by the summer hols in which he had me put through my Latin paces whilst I put the equus through its paces. There’s nothing quite like coming up with Classical equivalents for the horseman’s vocabulary whilst putting a horse through its gaits, which may be why, when I went up to university, wild (wait for it) horses could not have dragged me into reading Greats.)

The only breaches in this immemorial custom – breaches my grandfather was absolutely certain were planned expressly to disarrange his schedule of spending Christmas-in-the-manger and Boxing Day making the rounds of the tenants – occurred when my grandmother and her siblings elected to have a clan gathering. These happened every few years, generally in the Summer, but on occasion, they would decide that Christmas was to be so spent, and that, given my grandmother’s iron rule, was that. Not for her, either, a gathering on the strand, near civilisation, in urbanity by the grey-drab sea: the motto was, instead, rather like Reepicheep’s in The Last Battle, further up and further in, that is, further North and further East, into the wild. (This was the more odd in that my grandmother was in fact born near Overton, and I don’t mean the one by Aberdeen, although there is no truth to the rumour that she was born in the kennels of the Vine Hunt; how peripatetic were the Victorians, and their children were perpetually finding as adults that the house, belonging to distant connexions or old family friends, where they now found themselves at a ball or a dinner, had a cloakroom in which they’d been born at the height of some festivity.)

And so on the occasional Christmas we would find ourselves perched upon a steep grade, surrounded by nothing but pines, swathed in tartan, glassily stared at by stuffed trophies, miles from the nearest Piscie church, in an atmosphere compounded of wool and whisky. We would set out, picking up collaterals on the way, Gunns, Duffs, Wemysses, Shaws, Hendersons, Henderson Shaws, Crawfords, and all, and take to the pines in the secret and hidden Northeast. I enjoyed the rail journeys that this involved, as I was after all travelling with my formidable grandmother. She was eternally and crisply dissatisfied with the slippage of standards since her youth; and a woman capable of making a breakfast of bureaucrats, having a trades union for luncheon, and polishing off a board of directors for tea, easily managed to put otherwise unheard-of starch into the service we got. I’m sure the rail lot, from porter to managing director, dreaded her appearance, but they damned well snapped-to, and I rather suspect canny travellers tried to make sure they were on the same train as she. My father, I think, preferred that these travels fall in Winter, when he could not have played golf in any case, as he did not then, as he did in Spring or Summer, look wistfully out at the links as we bowled past. My grandfather, of course, would have quite happily seen the Old Course itself grubbed up and made a wood for preserving, and all the caddies converted to beaters: he regarded golf as a puerile amusement, in that it involved neither horse nor hound nor dry-fly nor gunpowder. (My grandfather was notoriously a man who, if he had no choice but to go up to town for some reason, would try to stop somewhere on the way for a morning’s or a luncheon-hour’s shooting: on occasion, if pressed for time, taking his share of the day’s bag with him into a boardroom and handing it off to a secretary or a staffer to have the birds plucked and gutted.)

Off, then, we would go, to celebrate Christmas amongst those not fond of the feast, according to rites that they looked upon with dour suspicion. The menu consisted of – memory suggests, slyly, that it consisted exclusively of – fish, fowl, and venison, venison, fowl, and fish, with the only ashet-full of food that was not finned, flying, or four-legged game being some form of oats. Surely there were at least root veg. and kale boiled into submission, though I cannot recall them. There must have been, surely, or we should all have been appallingly bound or suffered clotted arteries, and the traditions of the country certainly did not contemplate port as a remedy, there where the whisky flowed like tea.

And yet all of these various Christmases live on in memory green, as times of great joy: gifts and gluttony, certainly, family and feasting, carolling and crackers, puppies and ponies and puddings, but most of all the joy and the wonder and the crisp air and nights full of stars searching for the One Star in the East. This, at least, abides.

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5 comments or Leave a comment
wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: December 14th, 2005 02:42 am (UTC) (Link)
*glomps!* Thankee, love. I find myself rather depressed that my Christmases have nothing droll about them--then again, I've been antisocial at nearly every one...

(And for you, and you alone, I do not change my icon. Because you like it when nobody else does.)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 31st, 2005 05:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank YOU, M'Dear.

And forgive my fic- and PC-virus related delays in answering.
avus From: avus Date: December 14th, 2005 05:08 am (UTC) (Link)
A delight! My wife & I enjoyed it enormously, giving us a peek into a world not unheardof, but certainly never lived or close to.

Your Christmases make mine seem so commonplace. Though I onnfess to like peaceful & family Christmases -- always have. Ours were more a teetotaler Yank version of A Child's Christmas in Wales Always at my father's mother's house, just 2 houses down from ours, and with acres of cousins & uncles (No one describes Uncles as well as Thomas) & aunts, and food my grandmother started preparing in summertime(I helped), and which she went into high gear preparing right after Thanksgiving (late November). Her house was a feast of smells a month before Christmas. If there was snow -- not usually -- we'd have snow forts & snowball fights. Normally, we'd run between houses and into the vacant wooded lots around, and out onto the river & the islands as we got a bit older. Now it's more the Christmas bird count, though I haven't spent a Christmas at home in over 10 years. We have our own traditions in the mountains.

Ah, wemyss, you've got me rambling -- your fault!

Hope you have a Christmas w/ all the people you want in it and w/ good choral music at the services. (Of that, I'm jealous.)

And may you see your Star which abides.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 31st, 2005 05:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thanks, Old Man.

Enjoy the grandson.

I know we enjoy his posts. Precocious little nipper, what?
avus From: avus Date: January 1st, 2006 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thanks, Old Man.

Oh yes. He's sure to pass up his Poppy soon, if he hasn't already.

Which is how it's supposed to be.

All the best to you & yours in the New Year. May you & your countryfolk find it a time of healing, peace, prosperity & coming together. For you certainly deserve it. We, on this side of The Pond, are so grateful to you, and so sad for and respectful of the burdens you cheerfully & valiantly shoulder. Yours are such an honorable people.
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