Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, and I spent the last two hours of dusky daylight walking through a steadily falling snow.  Okay Winter, all is forgiven:  it was absolutely magical.

Snow causes havoc in England, and all day long I've heard stories of people being stranded in their cars, but we (safe at home) couldn't help but revel in the stuff.  My husband, father and I walked deep into the forest -- and every scene was like a Christmas card come to life.  I kept fumbling to get my gloves off so that I could take pictures . . . although I missed my favorite scene of the day, when a couple and their glossy dog bounded out of the woods, arms laden with pine boughs.

My father and I sang every song we could think of with "snow" in the lyrics.  Over the ground lies a mantle of white . . .

Years ago, (Christmas 1999, to be precise), we also got a big snow right before Christmas.  I have a treasured memory of walking down a dark lane, slipping and sliding in the treacherous snow, to arrive at our friends' house.  They had a huge open fire, and we sat around it -- drinking mulled wine and eating mince pies.  It seemed to encompass most of the wonderful elements of Christmas:  the warmth contrasting with the cold, the sharp smell of pine, and the rich taste of brandied fruit.  And friends and family, of course.  And laughter.  And the feeling that time was suspended just a bit, just long enough to enjoy it all.

Chestnuts roasting on a open fire.  Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Last night, in a piece of magical symmetry, these same friends came over for dinner.  (In the ensuing years, we moved to Texas for five years, and they've moved house, too; but by chance we have ended up in the same village once again.)  By dinner-time, the roads were impassable; we live at the bottom of the hill, and they live at the top.  They took a footpath that cuts through a farmer's fields, and arrived, bundled and booted and covered with snow.   We were waiting, with mulled wine and hot cider and candles lit all over the house.  Somehow, I think that I will remember the sight of them at the door -- all of us laughing -- forever.

Today is a quiet day between many days of seasonal socializing.  Everyone has retreated to his or her own corner, to read, or watch a film, or catch up with blogging!  I took another long snowy walk, this time by myself, and just enjoyed the silence of it all.

I couldn't decide if these boys were trying to build the biggest ball ever (in the deserted football field), or a base layer of a snowman. 

In the meadow we can build a snowman . . .

Last night, when I attempted to put my wired-up daughter to bed, I discovered that she was all tucked up under her blankets and quilts . . . and eating a rather large snowball!

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Still, still, still
One can hear the falling snow . . .

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Enduring the season

The Barn on a cold day in December

For weeks now, the world has been unrelentingly gray.
November set a record for rainiest ever, (as if normal English rainful wasn't sufficient enough to depress me).  I feel like the cold fog has seeped into my bones and smothered everything light and lively.

So many of you write about how much you love winter -- including the pleasures of slowing down and hibernating a bit.  But I find that there are excessive seasonal demands -- except, perhaps, in the garden -- and I just don't have the energy to do it all.  I am surrounded by lists (to do, to make, to buy), but I'm feeling awfully listless.  Maybe I'm just suffering from S.A.D?

I like a lazy afternoon just as much as the next person, but I want it to feel soothing and restful -- and not just some horrible malaise.  I've been reading a lot . . . but more for escapism than for entertainment or enlightenment.  I've seen films, I've gone to parties, I've baked dozens of cookies and mailed a stack of cards, but there is something missing.  My brain feels dull.  I'm always tired, and I feel, a bit, that I'm just going through the motions this year.  Is it just me? 

So many children have been struck down by viruses and flu-type illnesses that they had to cancel the Christmas concert at my youngest daughter's school.  For the first time ever.  It's so sad for my parents, really. They are visiting from Texas, and they never get to go to the children's concerts and programs.  I was counting on the candlelight and the carols and the unchanging ceremony of it all.

Yesterday, we took advantage of the last child-free day and went to London.  I had this notion that visiting the Charles Dickens Museum might help the Christmas spirit along.  Also, the Dickens Museum is only a couple of blocks from Persephone -- one of my favorite bookstores.  Surely, the combination of the two would kindle my gone-latent enthusiasms?

48 Doughty Street
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby here.

Somewhat miraculously, we were blessed by a few streaks of weak winter sunshine.  (Only an hour away, in West Berkshire, it was sleeting.)  Perhaps I would like winter if it were blue and white and crisp at the edges -- instead of gray, damp and muddy.  I suppose it is effective, though, for recreating the Victorian London atmosphere.

If you ever visit the museum in winter, make sure to dress warmly.  It was almost entirely unheated, which seemed a bit too authentic.  Anyway, I'm sure that the Dickens family made good use of the fireplaces which adorned every room.  In this century, they seem to be merely decorative.

The desk of Charles Dickens

I've been telling myself that I've been too busy to write, but reading about Dickens' work habits made me acknowledge that the problem has more to do with a lack of motivation.  Dickens was amazingly disciplined and prolific.  He wrote novels, short stories and journalism . . . not to mention keeping a daily journal and being an enthusiastic correspondent.  He managed to churn out A Christms Carol in just a couple of weeks, motivated, in this case, by the financial urgencies of his wife's fifth pregnancy.

He rarely edited his work -- or even plotted it out, to any great extent.  In the museum, you can see the original manuscripts with jotted ideas and "key points" listed.  And yet, all of those characters lived and breathed on the page.  Even without Jim Carrey's help, is there anyone who doesn't understand what it means to be a Scrooge?

One of Dickens' many writing projects was a magazine called Household Words, which ran from 1850 to 1859.  In one of the 1850 editions, Dickens wrote a piece describing a decorated Christmas tree -- as popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert two years before.  This tree, in the drawing room of the house, is decorated according to that description. 

Only your imagination, though, can provide the noise of raucous singing and laughter, the smell of mulled wine and pine, and the warmth of a crackling fire.

A 19th century illustration of the Christmas feast

There were so many illustrations of plum pudding . . . it made me feel bad that we won't be having one this Christmas.  For a truly authentic touch, boil yours up in dirty linen. 

Those Victorians who didn't possess ovens big enough for turkeys could collect a cooked Christmas dinner from the local bakery.  I assume, from the illustration, that they brought in their own plates?  It's not a bad idea; especially since I'm not at all sure that my oven is big enough to hold the turkey that I ordered.

We were practically light-headed when we reached Persephone Bookstore, and discovered -- to our great delight -- that we had lucked into an Open House.  (I did wonder at the crowds in this usually calm and quiet shop.)  There was mulled wine, and a plate of clementines, and the most delicious mince pies.  I asked where they got the pies, and one of the helpers steered us toward the best ones and shared that they were from Konditor & Cook.  I fancy myself as a mince pie connoisseur, or at least an enthusiast, and these were very, very good.  (Apparently they have been named Best Mince Pie in London by The Independent.)

Sipping mulled wine, and picking out a few new books -- you get a price break if you buy three -- really did do wonders for my mood.  I felt downright Christmassy, even.

I still can't wait for the dark days to lengthen again, though.

Still-Life at Persephone Bookstore

In cold, dark places . . . I dream of spring.  (k.d. lang)