Sunday, 19 December 2010

Sleigh Bells and Sprouts.

The stockings are ready - not just ready but hand-quilted, and I sit here, knowing that Heathrow is closed for incoming flights, and very far-flung family and friends are possibly in departure-lounges half a world away. Those in the same country are snow-bound, ice-bound on dangerous road surfaces, so here I sit.
There's not a lot more I can do.
The one positive thought is that if no one else arrives I will not starve for a couple of years. I might weary of turkey and mince-pies, but I will not starve, except for the company of those keenly awaited.

It gives me more time to think about explaining a very traditional English Christmas to two guests from far away, one of whom doesn't speak English.

Stockings? Well, they are essential. You hang them up beside the fireplace, and during the night some portly old gentleman manages to squeeze himself down the chimney, out through the door of the wood-burning stove - yes, it is lit - and then he puts presents in your stocking.
The stove is hot, burning-hot because of the yule log, which is actually a great iron-hard hunk of the old gatepost and it will smoulder for days. The yule log must burn until Christmas morning, so he has to get past it with a load of liqueur chocolate. Tricky.
And by the way, he travels through the air, on a sleigh, with bells. With reindeer.
No one ever sees him, except in department stores and garden centres from late October onwards.

We have this vast turkey. No one is really all that keen on turkey, especially the red meat, but we have it, golden and glazed and stuffed with nuts and herbs and sausagemeat and apricots. The guest from far away who spent last Christmas with us was so enchanted by the stuffings that she ate them for breakfast, so this year there are even more exotic stuffings. Perhaps I should have replaced the turkey with roast beef or salmon, but now it's crouching there in the freezer. Biding its time. Like me.

What everyone seems to prefer is 'pigs-in-blankets'. We all like them, but we only have them at Christmas.

No one (but me) likes sprouts. We have sprouts, lots of them, and I'm not following the adventurous recipes for alternative cooking. Boiled sprouts and the attendant aroma is deeply traditional. So deeply that the smell lingers for days, despite the yule logs and the cinnamon candles.

One of us likes Christmas pudding, so we have a great big one and he can have it cold for breakfast on Boxing Day. We all have to have a bit though, with brandy butter (yuk!) and if all is going well I manage to set fire to it before serving. Sometimes it is possible to choke or break a tooth on the coins hidden inside. Flaming Christmas pud!

We have crackers and will explain the jokes to our guests, which may not be easy, cross-culturally and bilingually. It is also fairly obligatory to wear the flimsy paper hat and appreciate the plastic toy.

Mince-pies are as essential as tinsel and fairy lights, even though no mince is involved, and no fairies either, as far as I know.
The Christmas tree holds memories old and newer - glass ornaments several generations old, and cardboard angels made at Playgroup. We mustn't be without it, nor without the dangerous scramble in the depths of the attic to find the treasured ornaments in their unmarked, unidentifiable boxes.

And so we wait, the turkey and I, in our own private Advent.

Happy Christmas, everyone, and may all your journeys be possible.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone, and the solitary heron steps its cautious path across the deep-frozen lawn.
Always solitary, always cautious, creeping like a badly-furled umbrella away from the pond, knowing it to be yet another fruitless journey, yet another waste of precious energy.
On the far side of the lawn it heaves itself into the grey air, a metallic flopping bird against a cruelly metallic sky.

I have pangs of conscience.
We created a wildlife garden, deliberately attracting creatures to come and live near us. We created cosy little habitats, log piles for the wood lice, small woven roosts for the wrens, a pond for countless insects as well as fish and frogs. There are little houses for hedgehogs, nettles for butterflies, thick hedges for bird shelters, ivy on the walls, roses round the door.

I put out food, all the time, seeds and nuts and chunks of fat.
The heron came regularly to the pond to pick out a rudd or two. Stocking the pond with self-renewing native fish is the equivalent of putting other food on the bird-table.
Attracting birds to the bird-table creates the equivalent supply for buzzards and sparrow hawks.
You can't really pick and choose the visitors to a wild-life garden.
You supply bounty, free for all.

The garden becomes over-populated as a result.
Perhaps those who should have gone somewhere warmer have stayed around, seduced by the ready supply of food?
Perhaps too many have bred, reproduced themselves over-enthusiastically and unrealistically?
Do creatures become over-dependent on my generosity, and it is really generous or a form of self-indulgence?

Robins look good on Christmas cards, but are unpleasantly determined creatures in real life. If food runs short they will fight to the death for it.
The blue tits and great tits are still coming to the bird-table and the food holders, but I haven't seen a wren for days now, nor the long-tailed tits who daily came in a chattering, dipping family flock.

Have I created a false haven and lured them to a death of cold and starvation?

I pick up the ski poles and venture out to the shops.
I am going to buy sardines for the heron.

Right or wrong?