The Northern Reader household can be slow to get into full Christmas mode. Not for us Michael Bublé on continuous loop from the end of October. In fact, there are votes to be had from us for the first politician brave enough to propose a complete ban on even using the C word until the first Sunday of Advent. Through most of December, we track a gentle course towards the great day aided only by an advent candle and our daughter’s now-twenty-something-year-old Advent calendar – a cardboard model of a school nativity play complete with figures to add each day accompanied by the reading (or, let’s face it, after all these years, recitation by heart and in unison) of a dramatic introduction of each character; along the lines of ‘Here is Billy, he’s a king/Let’s hope he doesn’t have to sing.’ The Christmas CDs – carols, Bach, Kate Rusby, Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band – play while the puddings, chutneys and mulling syrups are made. At last, with a week to go, the box of decorations comes out and the house can put on its Christmas clothes. I say ‘box’: over the years, this seems to have become a big wooden trunk in addition to the original container, which is, for reasons which are slightly lost in time, an ammunition box. An ammunition box which has been painted silver, I hasten to add, which of course makes it festive and Christmassy and not odd at all.
And, just before we go out to find a tree large enough to hold all the stars and angels, the bottom drawer of my great-great-great-grandfather’s desk is opened and the Christmas Books come out.
First out are the carols. Penguin – edited by Elizabeth Poston who wrote the gorgeous ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, Faber – good for translations of some less-known carols from elsewhere – and Oxford, vital for the words for all the verses of the carols we all think we know. Into the kitchen comes Elizabeth David’s Christmas and Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Christmas (we’re meat-eaters, as it happens, but Elliot’s book has the Christmas pudding and Christmas Eve cous-cous recipes that are hallowed tradition in this house). Bedside tables get copies of John Julius Norwich’s delectable Christmas Crackers.
And some good wholesome Christmassy crime, too: the Folio Society is the best anthology: although the insistence of so many crime-writers on the inevitability of murder breaking out when family and friends cluster under the same roof at Christmas might, I suppose, be thought to lack tact in a guest bedroom (sleep tight,dearest).
And now for the favourites. Christmas without re-reading these would be empty and hollow. Susan Hill’s Can It Be True, a magical prose-poem that seems to hold its breath as it approaches the stable, is a good companion for Thomas Hardy’s wistful poem, ‘The Oxen’. Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: better by far than Thomas’s own too-portly voice – can he always have sounded so middle-aged as in his recordings? – would be to persuade Anthony Hopkins to read it for us. And we have to have A Christmas Carol. Necessary though both the Alistair Sim and the Muppet film versions are to a properly enjoyable Christmas, go back and read the book again, and remind yourself how dry, and sparkling, and angry, Charles Dickens was.
The best of all Christmas compendia remains Enid Blyton’s (yes, her again) The Christmas Book. It was first published in 1944 and you really need to have an early hard-back copy so that the wonderful illustrations, by Treyer Evans, can seep into your memory-bank of What Makes Christmas. As we would expect from Ms B, the children are called Susan and Peter, Ann (who’s a bit wet – there’s always one) and the positively exotically-named Benny. They make their own cards and crackers and ask their father – sorry, make that Father – all sorts of probing questions about the origins of Christmas customs. Mother does get a look-in, too: she might be no use for rugged outdoor stuff like cutting holly and bringing in the Yule log (though guess who makes the cocoa and brings it out on a tray – I am clearly just not hacking it in the Good Mother stakes), but she can play the piano – you knew they’d gather round the piano to sing carols, didn’t you? And interestingly, it is Mother who gets allocated the God bits: and jolly good she is too. For many years and for several generations now, this has been the version of the Christmas story read aloud by the NorthernReader fireside.
On Tuesday night, as we put on our fourteen layers of clothes, our socks and gumboots, find our torches and candles and set out for Midnight Mass at the church at the top of the Fell, we will raise a glass to our dear family of NorthernReaders. We send you, whether known to us or not, our love and best wishes for peace and joy this Christmas. And when we squelch muddily back in in the wee small hours of Christmas morning, we shall read aloud Tyndale’s very English nativity:
And she brought forth her first begotten sonne. And wrapped him in swadlynge clothes, and layed him in a manger, because there was no roume for them within, in the hostrey.