Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Book of Christmas by Jane Struthers

This charming little book was purchased from the V&A gift shop with mere minutes to spare before closing time.  Fear of a case of 'shopper's regret' forced me to be uncharacteristically decisive and forego the usual mental debate about the difference between 'want' and 'need'. 

At a quick glance I thought this book was a reissue by Jan Struther, the author of one of the cosiest books you will ever find, Mrs Miniver.  Turns out that it wasn't, and a couple of letters make a huge difference, but serendipity is a wonderful thing.  Quickly flipping through the pages I spied a piece about Sinterklaas, Belgium's version of Santa Claus.  It was during our train ride from Canterbury that one of The Heiress's friends educated me about the December 6 feast day and how naughty children in Belgium are threatened with being tied up in sacks.  Or perhaps it was just Sarah's family doing the threatening...but anyway, her story was extremely entertaining.

Filled with 280 pages of all sorts of tidbits about the traditions, superstitions, folklore and fact surrounding the Christmas season it makes for perfect light reading at this busy time of year.  Whether your advent season is about the Nativity, a Saint, a large man in a red suit or the winter solstice, there are loads of fun and interesting facts to educate and entertain.  You might want to give a recipe or two such as the Christmas Cake or Truffles or who knows, perhaps a Scottish Clootie dumpling is more to your liking?

There are also a few explanations as to why robins are so popular on Christmas cards.  One version is that the little bird was asked by Mary to fan the embers of a small fire in the manger.  'A spark jumped out of the fire and caught the bird on its chest, turning it red.'  Another interesting section is about games played during the festive season, one in the Regency era - in fact Jane Austen's niece, Fanny, described it in a letter...

You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek (peak) at top.  You must then lay a bullet (yes, a real bullet) at top and everybody cuts a slice of it (the pudding), and the person that is cutting it when it (the bullet) falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choke you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out.'

I can't imagine that the housekeeper or laundress would find these hijinks much fun at all considering the clean up afterwards and frankly, a mouth full of flour wouldn't appeal to me either!

A superstition regarding mince pies certainly does though.  Apparently, if you refuse a mince pie over Christmas you will be declining good fortune.  Not worth risking is it?

For the literary fans there are quotes from Samuel Pepys' diary all the way to Adrian Mole, remember Pandora's necklace from Woolworths and the rash it gave her?.  And Grossmith's Mr Pooter...December 24 I am a poor man but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.'  

A lovely book to buy for yourself or a friend.   


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  2. Now I feel better about eating my stash of mince pies ... it had to be done!

  3. Forget the flour, I'm not sure I would fancy a mouth full of bullet! But I know the mince pie tradition, and always quote it when eating them!