Alison Uttley is a writer I have adored since I first discovered her, probably around age 10 or 11. (I think the first of her books I read was A Traveller in Time.) I collect her books when I see them and they bring great pleasure. She brings the countryside and her childhood alive with her descriptions. She was born in 1884 and died in 1976. Enjoy:
Every moment of the month of December something extraordinary occurred, even if it was only a mouse peeping out from under the blue frill of the settle, or a robin hopping to the kitchen table, or a little red squirrel running along the wall outside the window and peering in, with tail uplifted, as we sat at breakfast. So when my mother beckoned us, with one finger raised, her eyes bright with excitement, her lips pursed for silence, we followed her into the parlour with never a word. She had a secret for us, we knew, something not to be talked about.
The room was chilly, although a great fire burned in the wide fireplace throughout the winter months to keep it ready for visitors. It had an air of secrecy and expectation as if it shared in the surprises, an air it never lost, so that always, even after I was grown-up, I went through the door in readiness for something out of the common.
My mother unlocked the second big drawer of the tallboy chest, and our hearts beat more quickly, and we danced on tip-toe with excitement. The second drawer, called "Your Mother's Drawer" by my father, who never went near it, was the Cave of Aladdin.
The key was kept on a bunch of twenty keys in the drinking-horn in the tallboy cupboard. It was a smooth silvery key, with a character of its own; a large key, which turned softly in the lock, and all the other keys jingled sympathetically on the key-ring.
The drawer was deep and long, and it held an astonishing number of articles. The Sunday toys were there, concealed under a snowy pile of starched linen and damask tablecloths. There lay a clockwork swan, with concertina-folded paper wings, that trundled majestically across the floor when it was wound up; a folding panorama of a circus, with painted pictures of horses and dogs, of clowns and pigeons, and ballet girls and the frock-coated ringmaster with his whip; Mrs Beeton's Household Management, complete with coloured plates of fruits and puddings in pyramids of beauty, such as I imagined existed only in the Royal Palace; some volumes of Household Words bound in calf; my best doll with blue eyes and real hair and velvet plaid dress; and the big blue scrap-book which held the Christmas cards of my mother's girl-hood.
This delectable drawer was opened, and at once from its depths came a fragrance as if Mrs Beeton's jellies and trifles were really concealed there. This smell came from a casket of tiny dessert biscuits, a yearly Christmas present from our grocer, in return for our valued custom. Carmine sugared diamonds, ratafia balls with pink comfits, biscuits in the shape of walnuts, they were ready for Christmas Day. My mother shook her head at our eager hands held out, but she unlatched the clasp of the box and gave us each a delicious morsel. Then she drew the tablecloths over it. There was something else.
From out of the drawer she brought a plain white cardboard box. She carried it to the table and laid it on the tapestry cloth. We leapt forward as she lifted the lid, but we were sent to the kitchen to wash our hands. When we returned, damp and clean, the drawer was closed and my mother was already sitting at the table with her writing-desk and blotter.
The table had become a shop, with a gay assortment of Christmas cards spread out before us. It was truly an intoxicating sight! There they lay, in all the glory of painted picture, of tinsel ribbon, of frost that sparkled like the hoar-frost on the glittering fleece of snow on the lawn. We gazed entrance at robins with wide-open beaks, singing songs we could hear in imagination, at flowers whose cent seemed to pour into the air, at plum puddings we could almost taste. There were pictures of the Holy Family in the Stable, with Ox and Ass, and Wise Men offering gifts, and churches that lighted up when we held them to the window, and coaches driving up to inn doors. There were pictures of snow and icicles and holly. It was a heavenly box of delights, and we turned the cards over with cries of excitement.
To children who had few picture-books, who had never been to a picture gallery, who seldom even visit a shop, this was a feast of art. We were hungry for such things. We could never finish looking at them and pointing out their beauties to one another and to our mother. . .
In the cardboard box were a few special cards, some gilt-edged, others which stood upright. These were kept for very exalted people, certain benefactors, our canon, an our two godmothers. There were also a few little single cards with no luxury of sparkling frost, but an old-fashioned simplicity about them. One was slipped into the cup of the milk-churn for the milk-dealer; others went with Christmas presents of freshly shot rabbits and newly made brawns, with baskets of yellow apples and a few mince-pies when we went to see our friends in the villages.
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I came across one of my old scrap-books lately It held the choicest treasures of childhood, and as I turned the heavy pages, I felt again the emotions of rapture and exquisite delight I knew when I was seven or eight; as if those bespangled cards with their robins and snow had kept the essence of childhood in their folded leaves. The cards were so familiar after the long scrutiny to which I had subjected them in those early days that not only every detail appeared fresh, but I remembered the feelings I had once experienced when I looked at them.
Christmas cards with raised and embossed flowers - a clump of blue forget-me-nots growing at the foot of a silver birch tree, a bunch of red and white daisies tied with blue ribbons, pink an white dog-roses trailing round a text - were desired because they could be touched and outlined by small searching finger-tips. They were real as the flowers in the fields and woods in summer. They came at Christmas when the wild flowers were not there. They were perhaps stuck on my some magical means. They were something special, an every Christmas card with raised flower or figures was a treasure. . .
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How our senses are dulled these days. Yet even in my childhood Christmas was truly magical - exciting and exotic things (hah! Clementines and Dates!), Lemonade which was such a treat when through the year it was just orange squash (I still love fizzy drinks). On the sideboard was a box of Turkish Delight and another of Milk Tray (and no-one dived in for the dark chocolate in those days!) One of my best presents when I was small was a tin doll's house, brick with roses climbing up the walls. Another year it was a Compendium of Games, and mum and I used to play with that regularly - she was generous with her time. Always an avid reader, I loved to get books at Christmas and still have some of them - the Wonder World of Nature, and Malcolm Saville's Country Book, and all the pony books I was given down the years are still in a box in the attic.
We couldn't afford a "proper" tree, so mum and I would get a branch of gorse from the edge of our garden where there was a wild area, and make up a flour and water paste for it and whilst that was still drying, sprinkle the "tree" with glitter, so it sparkled like snow. We had those little tin candle holders which clipped onto the branches and held birthday-cake sized candles which were actually lit (oh goodness, today that would be considered such a fire hazard!) and small glass baubles which broke so readily, especially if one of our three cats had batted one off the tree!
Christmas was full of the excitement of the stories I read: Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, and The Little Tin Soldier who, after falling out of the window and Having Adventures, returns in the body of a fish to that same household and is restored to the Nursery, where the ungrateful children throw him into the fire and the little paper ballerina - the love of his life - is blown into the fire and burnt in an instant beside him. Dickens' Christmas Carol (which was on Christmas every year I am sure, along with the Wizard of Oz) with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and little Tiny Tim!
Anyway, I wish I could write more from the book as there is a whole chapter of this, and it's an absolute delight to read. Treat yourself to Country Things by Alison Uttley. You won't regret it.