Friday, 23 December 2016

Alison Uttley's Christmas Memories Part 1

The afternoon of Christmas Eve was dedicated to our shopping expedition, when we went on foot to the village to buy the rate and beautiful toys which cost a penny.  We walked with our mother, instead of driving, because this was part of the excitement, and the sensation of bliss was prolonged by the anticipation of the shopping with no horse waiting outside in the cold and no driver hurrying us away from all the allurements of the village shop.  In our pockets we had each our Christmas shilling, to be spent on as many small things as possible, and even sixpence would buy a great number by careful laying out.

We danced and skipped on the hard frosty road, we stamped on the cat-ice in the hollows, we slid on the glassy cart tracks, and we shouted to make an echo as we went under the railway bridge that spanned river and road.  It was imperative that everyone called under that fine bridge, which had ferns hanging from the roof in summer and icicles in winter, for the best echo was there.  I called to it only last summer, and it was just the same.

We stopped for a minute on the ancient stone bridge which carried the road over the river further on, and we stood tip-toe by the wall to see if any ice had formed, but the river was always too swift for ice to cover it.  The fourteenth century bridge was the division between our countryside and the village, and after passing over it we became decorous, and walked sedately.  When we arrived at the village of little stone houses which climbed up the long steep hill we went first to the post office to give in our parcels and letters.  We looked eagerly round at the velvet-framed views, and the Christmas cards for last-minute posting.  The bell tinkled and more people came into the tiny crowded space, so that we were packed like parcels ourselves.  Everyone talked, but we managed to spend a penny or two and to get change for our silver.  My brother bought a sheet of transfers with lions and tigers.  I proudly chose a penny packet of diminutive notepaper and envelopes, pale blue or pale pink, with a rose or a pansy in the corner, meaning Love or Thoughts in the grown-up Language of Flowers.  This was one of the most desirable possessions, to be used for poems of tales and letters that were never posted.

The newspaper shop was two doors away, and the newspaper man had a Christmas display in the parlour upstairs.  We always went up that wooden stair to see the toys and to buy jewels of glass and bells of silver from the boxes which lay on mahogany tables and spindly chairs, for the enjoyment of the village.

There were shining silver watches which cost a penny each, and Christmas magic transformed them into real watches that only measured celestial time, that made a minute last as long as an hour, that brought eternity to a second.

They had paper faces, and movable fingers which broke off unless we were careful, and a screw to wind up the works.  They hung on silver chains with bars for slipping through a buttonhole.  We paid our pence, and bought our watches and immediately we were grown-up.  We set them by the clock on the "Greyhound", and we could alter them to the grandfather-clock-time when we got home.  We could control time as we wished, and the fingers always stayed at the hour of happiness.  The watches told the time as reliably as the sun that travelled over the frosty sky, and the moon that peered icily through the window by night. We put our watches in our pockets, and then went on to the next best thing.

Besides those useful and important time-keepers, there were sugar watches, which were more fantastic and less enduring.  They disappeared completely before the Fifth Day of Christmass, when

My true love sent to me,
Five gold rings,
Four colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves and
A Partridge in a pear-tree.

Pink and white sugar made these delectable watches, and the sugar chains were so brittle we could eat a link at a time, like Hansel and Gretel who took a sugar tile from the roof and a gingerbread from from the walls of the witch's cottage.

The silver watches were kept for weeks, and sometimes they lasted until Easter, when the dandelion clocks soon came to take their place.  We brought them out of our watch-pockets, our sashes and belts, we gazed earnestly at them, we moved the fingers with tentative touch, as we heard the clock strike.  The sugar watches had only a short life, but a brilliant one.

The sugar watches came out of a tray of enchantment, such as only the newspaper man could produce.  A half-penny each, all spun from gossamer sugar in pink and white, the trifles lay for our choosing.,  There were lighthouses, the only kind of lighthouse we had ever seen, although we had heard stories of the Eddystone from my mother.  A lighthouse was a very romantic building, and these sugar models were tall and narrow, with green and red lights in the openwork sugar windows, and a picture of a lighthouse pasted in the front.  When we held them to the fire, a lamp seemed to burn within the frail structure.  They belonged to a world where:

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day, on Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

There were little flat churches, with towers and red paper windows  and porches, and we had no doubt that some kind of service was going on within them for on the scraps pasted over the walls were children in red and blue hastening through the snow to the doors.

There were sugar bells and sugar houses, and sugar castles with pink curling edges to the battlements.  There were trumpets and drums and fiddles, each with a small picture attached lest we should not understand the message of fairyland they conveyed.  We chose one or two from the medley of pretty objects, and my mother watched us and secretly made her own choice, although we were perfectly unconscious of this, and we wondered at the power of Father Christmas who put them in our stockings.

All these sugar toys gave an air of unreality and magic by their fragility, and of gaiety by the painted scraps which later on, when the ornaments were eaten, would fill a corner of our scrap books.

They had a foreign air, and we were told they came from Germany where the bears lived in the forests and the Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales, or from Switzerland where there was eternal snow on the mountains and edelweiss and chamois on the slopes.  They were the pure essence of fairyland.  It seemed impossible that such delicate objects could be made by human fingers.  Only people who had supernatural powers could construct these sugar toys.


From Plowmen's Clocks by Alison Uttley.

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