You might or might not be familiar with the Christmas carol Past Three A Clock (and a cold frosty morning…) If you are, apologies for the earworm. If not, here’s a video. The tune and the chorus are traditional. The verses, however, were added on at a later date by G. R. Woodward and, while they’re a lovely bit of poetry, I’m not sure that I’d have put some of them quite in the following order.
Hinds o’er the pearly
dewy lawn early
seek the high stranger
laid in the manger.
(Past three a clock, etc)
Cheese from the dairy
bring they for Mary,
And, not for money,
butter and honey…
I assume that the ‘they’ is meant to refer to the dairy workers, perhaps before they get caught up in the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the way it’s written it does look rather like it’s the hinds.
Which when we copped onto this last year meant two things. Firstly, stealing the deer from the royal ice skating Playmobil scene and ordering some Playmobil cheese for them. And secondly, a bred lik poem:
I don’t know who these ladies are. They might be two of Henry VIII’s wives; they look rather Tudor, with their stand-up collars and what might be meant to be French hoods. It doesn’t matter. The galleries are full of portraits of unknown ladies; why shouldn’t I have a couple on my Christmas tree, too?
The reason that I don’t know who they are is that I bought them in Oxfam, so they had no labels. They came together with the King of Hearts. Or it might have been the Knave of Hearts. I can’t remember. I bought them last year, in Ely Oxfam. But how could I have bought them last year? All the shops were shut last year. Or I didn’t go to any shops last year. Then maybe it was the year before. Did we go to Oxfam when we were househunting? No. It was last year. I know that really.
It’s just that my mind wants to shuffle all occasions involving shops out of 2020. It’s already refusing to believe that I was only in the office on one day between 13 March 2020 and 16 August 2021: four months of the London commute have overwritten all of that. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be convinced I bought these ladies in 2021, and I’ll be reading back through this blog and learn that no, this year they came out of the Christmas box, and surprise myself.
That used to happen a lot before pandemic times; it’s even more the case now, with so many points of reference disappeared or eroded. I’m glad I got a lot down on paper or pixels, whether in public here or in private elsewhere on the internet or offline; it’s been good to be able to check my internal memory against my external memory, to see where I’ve stretched out one nice week into a glorious month, where I’ve moved an event from April to August, where I was massively excited about something I’ve since forgotten, or the first signs of what turned out to be the next major enthusiasm.
Sometimes I read something and think it could have been written by a different person, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s right there in my own handwriting. Sometimes I discover a revelation written down that I’d swear I’d only just had, but no, apparently this is something I’ve discovered before, and thought was important enough to record. Sometimes it’s plain reassuring, to see that I’ve been here before and found a way out again. That I’ve been here before several times and get better at finding my way out every time. I’m glad I record things.
Mind you, if I didn’t, would I ever know how wrong I can be about my own life?
This is the oldest ornament that I can show you, the one that’s been in my life the longest. Oh, back in the family Christmas boxes you might find a paper roundel decorated with gummed coloured shapes by me, or the white apples we always fought each other to put on the tree, but this is the earliest one that belonged to me and only me.
It was given to me by one of the residents in the care home in Malvern where my great aunt Silvia spent the last several years of her life. I don’t remember the name of the lady who gave it to me (note to parents: no, it wasn’t Miss Plain), or what she looked like, and I’ve no idea why she wanted to do that (it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas, I don’t think), beyond, I suppose, the fact that she thought I might like it.
I did. For a long time I didn’t think of it as a Christmas ornament; it sat on a shelf with all the resin hedgehogs and snowstorms that you accumulated if you were a small girl in the nineties. It’s suffered a little over the years. I think that once upon a time there might have been a hanging loop on top. Joseph came loose and had to be glued down again, and now Mary has come off and there isn’t quite room to put her back where she should be. And baby Jesus’s straw is ever so dusty and I’m not sure I can clean it.
None of that matters. What I see when I look at it is the kindness.
And so I’m thinking today about all those tiny kindnesses, the sort that might be forgotten, or half-remembered, whether by the giver or the receiver, the sort of which you could fit thousands and thousands into a lifetime.
If you’re celebrating today, a very merry Christmas to you. If not, I hope you’re enjoying a nice peaceful Saturday.
I learned how to make stars like this from someone at school. I suspect many people did. You cut a long thin strip of paper, tie an overhand knot at one end and, very carefully, flatten it into a pentagon. Then you wind the tail of the paper around it again and again, and when you get to the end you tuck the end under the last but one layer. Then you pinch a fold into each of the five sides, so that it puffs up into a star.
(And then, if you’re doing what I was doing eleven or twelve years ago, you repeat that over and over and then string the results together on red thread.)
These were just scrap paper. One of the stars is unwinding; it says Wednesday on the back. I don’t recognise the handwriting. Goodness knows what was important about that Wednesday all those years ago; it certainly isn’t now. And it clearly wasn’t important for long then, either, or I wouldn’t have cut it up. Although this could make rather a nice mystery plot: a low-stakes Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, for example.
I used to write my university essays on scrap paper, on the backs of posters and service sheets. These days I work straight on the computer, or else use narrow-ruled exercise books. If I print things out it’s onto that greyish recycled paper, which doesn’t make for a nice bright star. Besides, I print double-sided. When it’s done with it gets shredded and goes into the compost. Still, I’m sure that if I wanted to make some more stars I’d find plenty of bright white paper somewhere…
There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.
I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.
Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.
I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!
More Playmobil – and possibly not the last I’ll share, either. These birds are an unofficial addition to the crib scene. They were a present from Anne a few years ago. Because she likes birds. And because Tony likes bad puns, possibly. (I mean, he does. I just don’t know whether the Holy Parakeet one was in play from the start.) I don’t know. Do we need a reason?
As is probably obvious, I don’t have anything terribly clever to say today. I seem to have used up most of my brain doing edits on a short story, and that’s perhaps more than I’d hoped. I had said to the editors that I was aiming to get it back to them before Christmas, but I thought that was optimistic at the time. Now it’s done – and so am I.
This morning the sitting room curtain rail fell down. That made me ten minutes later logging in to work than I could have been, and I was already a quarter of an hour later than I’d meant to be. This evening I logged out and went straight to bed. Now I’m sitting on the sofa in a room with an undecorated tree and a candle burning in the curtainless window. There’s always space for a little more chaos, particularly at this time of year.
I could claim that the tree is deliberately bare, and that wouldn’t be entirely untrue. Tradition in the Jowitt household used to be that there was one grand decorating session on Christmas Eve. And some years it’s been fairly crucial for my sanity to still be hanging on in Advent while everyone around me was three Secret Santas in. But it wouldn’t be entirely true, either, because I think the actual idea was to decorate it yesterday.
But there’s time. There’s time. The truth hidden in the (sacred and secular) admonitions to ‘Get ready!’ is that I’m not really expected to be ready yet.
There’s time. One of the first things I did after I finally logged in this morning was to request holiday for tomorrow. I had time just sitting there: granted, I could carry it over to next year, but why do that, when I’d really appreciate it now? I’ll use it to make mince pies. Or pierniczki. Or write. Or read. Or watch something. Or go for a walk. Or maybe just sleep. And perhaps we’ll decorate the tree – or perhaps we really will leave it for Christmas Eve.
The crib is out. Half the figures aren’t in it yet, of course: all the humans, and the donkey, camel, and sheep, are dispersed around the bookcases, making their way there at their own pace. The angel and the baby Jesus are still in the box.
Speaking of boxes, that’s a rather ignominious thing the stable is standing on. Normally it goes on top of the piano, but given the cat’s predilection for knocking small objects to the floor and chasing them, it seemed safer to have it in a place that’s harder for her to get at: on top of a box on top of a bookcase between the radio and some greetings cards that really ought to have been recycled by now. As it happens, that shoebox also contains instruments, but it’s small, obnoxious things like sleigh bells and the Otamatone.
There is, of course, an obvious point to be made about the placement of the crib. Not in pride of place, under the glare of the purple lamp, but set back, somewhere safer, more hidden. Somewhere you don’t see it, straight away. Somewhere you have to look for it.
I made this bauble. That is, I punched out hundreds of little leaf shapes from the previous year’s Christmas cards and pinned them onto a polystyrene ball and stuck an eyepin into the top of the ball and threaded string through the eyepin.
There is surely enough polystyrene in the world already. The punch is not what it once was. And three Christmas cards saved from the bin isn’t really going to make much of a difference.
Meanwhile, if I were going to pay myself minimum wage for making this it would be well into double digits of pounds.
It’s a failure in pretty much every dimension – except for one. It is pretty. No, two. I enjoyed doing it.
I think there’s something worth finding in the pleasure of making something, or growing something, or writing something. This year I’ve been writing to please myself. Nothing worthy. Nothing that’s going to make my fortune. Just what I want to write, because I want to write it. Maybe I’ll say more about that another day. And maybe I won’t.
This one came from an art shop in Cambridge. I think I’d just gone in to look at the art, with the intention of buying a card or two as the price of admission, but I saw this and I couldn’t not buy it. There was a whole street’s worth of houses, but I couldn’t really justify buying more than one. I bought this one. I love blue-and-white china (there’s more to come in this series), and the addition of gold makes it really lovely.
Of course, I was so terrified of breaking it that I wrapped it up very securely and tucked it away in my handbag and had forgotten all about it by the time I got home. I’m not sure that it actually made it onto the tree that year; if it did, it was at the very last minute.
I try to go and look at something once a week. (Blame Julia Cameron, probably.) Sometimes I manage it; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s an exhibition; sometimes it’s a show; sometimes it’s a concert or a film. Sometimes, as here, it’s a shop that sells particularly beautiful things. Sometimes it isn’t really looking at something: it’s trying something new (an interesting looking cake, a different kind of tea, a book of poetry). Often I bring something away with me. Usually it’s something that can be stuck in my diary: a flyer, a bookmark. Sometimes it’s something that will allow me to explore the subject further: a book. Sometimes it’s something more substantial, something that’s part of the the something itself. Even if it’s tiny.