In the shop window, standing on strips of white cotton wool wimulating snow, were homely animals, pink sugar mice and pink pi9gs with curly tails of string, stout and familiar and satisfying in their sugar content. Their noses were pointed, their ears were pricked, all ready to be nibbled. They would doubtless appear in our stockings, but again we never noticed my mother's whispered conversations about them.
The newspaper man showed us a set of lead spoons fir for a doll, with a fringed napkin and knife and fork with embossed handles. The leaden blade of the knife would only cut butter, the spoons were the correct size for a dip into a basket of lemonkali*. (*These were lemonade crystals - I loved those too). They were irresistible, and we always wanted them to hang on the tree.
A doll's cup, also made of lead, was elegant in shape, with curving handle and narrow base. There was a teapot, slender and tall, and some plates, all set in a box for sixpence. They were arranged in a cardboard background, which set off their silver lustre and leaden charm, for lead was a metal that interested us extremely. It was mined in the ancient lead-workings of the hills, and we saw the pigs of lead carried in carts from the cupellows where they were smelted, to the canal boats where they were taken to some unknown destination. Lead was our own metal; it made our pipes for water, it made some of our kitchen spoons, and a garden ornament, and dishes. We could see the veins of shining metal in the stones of the rockery. So we welcomed the little lead cups and saucers, and much preferred them to china. We whispered to our mother, and she nodded and bought them, for she shared our love for small toys.
There were little boxes of chocolates, which held about eight tiny round creams not much bigger than peas, or a ring of plain chocolate drops. The lids had pictures of snow scenes, of hayfields, of animals over which we pored as if we were looking at picture books. The threepenny boxes were circular, the fourpenny boxes were oblong, and it was difficult to choose between them, when all were so charming. They were an attractive part of the tree's decoration, and the boxes when empty would hold jewellery from crackers, or treasures of seeds and dried flowers throughout the year.
Besides these toys and small presents, there were the more spectacular beauties of glass ornaments that came out of the Christmas drawer and were added to each year by new ones from the village shop. The obliging newspaper man opened one box after another and displayed his treasures at sixpence a dozen. He limped up and down, always in pain from a shrunken leg, but I thought he had an existence at Christmas next to an angel from heaven. He said the word, and all the beauties of Aladdin's Cave were spread out for us to see. 'Sesame', he whispered, and behold a cardboard box filled with silver, rose and sapphire bells with glass clappers which tinkled like a fairy's bell. Glass balls of gold and silver were there for the tree, and we fastened them to the garlands of ivy and yew which adorned the summits of high clocks and cupboards. Once we had a house of silver glass with red windows, which came from the market town, a silver bird with a spun glass tail to sing on the tree, and an angel with a star. These were breath-taking ornaments which winked in the candlelight, and carried minute reflections of the room in their rounded surfaces.
Candles had to be bought, small fluted candles for the little tree. They burned in hexagonal glass-sided lanterns whose red and green sides could be remove and washed. They hung on the outstretched branches, but their glow was warm and soft in the darkness of the room. Before the house candles were lighted they had a jewel-like effect of rubies and emerald, for coloured glass was something we secretly admired, whether in a door, or a window, a lamp or a lantern. These little lanterns were bought one memorable Christmas from the village shop, and they were used for many years. We had no method of lighting the tree, and there was always the fear of fire in an isolated house.
The Chinese lanterns that appeared each Christmas from the sacred locked drawer in the dining-room made a festival in the kitchen. They had been there before we were born, and my first memories were of these wavering lights swinging under the ceiling in their soft flower-like colours. Occasionally a new one was bought to replace a casualty when the north wind entered and set a lantern alight. We made our choice, hesitating between peonies and Chinese people, wide scenes of river and kite-flying. They were circular and cylindrical, and they waved with every breath of wind that came through the doors with the milking-cans. That they had originated in China was a sufficient reason for admiration, and their concertina folds which allowed them to be packed flat as a penny, their delicate and elusive paintings, the rice-paper transparency lighted by the candles within, gave a poetical feeling, a dreamlike air of unreality and wonder to the children who stared up at them.
They were suspended on the clothes-line which passed through great hooks in the ceiling, and each night until after New Year they were lighted at dusk before the big lamp. We gazed at them in delight, and watched the fanciful pictures swing in the firelight, and the yellow circles move on the ceiling above.
This lighting of the lanterns was a Christmas ritual, something inherited from the past. It was before the days of the Christmas tree, and perhaps it was part of the old Kissing Bunch tradition, to give illumination that the globe of holly, apples, and oranges lacked.