Tuesday, November 25, 2014

John Clare's Poem December - Jane Odiwe

This is one of my favourite Christmas poems - I hope you enjoy it!

December - from The Shepherd’s Calendar - John Clare 1793-1864

GLAD Christmas comes, and every hearth
Makes room to give him welcome now,
E’en want will dry its tears in mirth,
And crown him with a holly bough;
Though tramping ’neath a winter sky,
O’er snowy paths and rimy stiles,
The housewife sets her spinning by
 To bid him welcome with her smiles.

Each house is swept the day before,
And windows stuck with ever-greens,                                   
The snow is besom’d from the door,
   And comfort crowns the cottage scenes.

Gilt holly, with its thorny pricks,
And yew and box, with berries small,
These deck the unused candlesticks,
And pictures hanging by the wall.

Neighbours resume their annual cheer,
Wishing, with smiles and spirits high,
Glad Christmas and a happy year,
To every morning passer-by;                                                 
Milkmaids their Christmas journeys go,
Accompanied with favour’d swain;
And children pace the crumping snow,
To taste their granny’s cake again.

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of misletoe
That ’neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;                                       
The shadow still of what hath been,          
Which fashion yearly fades away.

The singing wates, a merry throng,
At early morn, with simple skill,
Yet imitate the angels song,
 And chant their Christmas ditty still;
And, ’mid the storm that dies and swells
By fits—in hummings softly steals
The music of the village bells,
Ringing round their merry peals.                                            

When this is past, a merry crew,
Bedeck’d in masks and ribbons gay,
The “Morris-dance,” their sports renew,
And act their winter evening play.
The clown turn’d king, for penny-praise,
Storms with the actor’s strut and swell;
And Harlequin, a laugh to raise,
Wears his hunch-back and tinkling bell.

And oft for pence and spicy ale,
 With winter nosegays pinn’d before,
The wassail-singer tells her tale,            
And drawls her Christmas carols o’er.

While ’prentice boy, with ruddy face,
 And rime-bepowder’d, dancing locks,
From door to door with happy pace,
 Runs round to claim his “Christmas box.”

The block upon the fire is put,
 To sanction custom’s old desires;
And many a fagot's bands are cut,
 For the old farmers’ Christmas fires;                                      
Where loud-tongued Gladness joins the throng,
 And Winter meets the warmth of May,
Till feeling soon the heat too strong,
 He rubs his shins, and draws away.

While snows the window-panes bedim,
 The fire curls up a sunny charm,
Where, creaming o’er the pitcher’s rim,
 The flowering ale is set to warm;
Mirth, full of joy as summer bees,
 Sits there, its pleasures to impart,                                          
And children, ’tween their parent’s knees,           
Sing scraps of carols o’er by heart.

And some, to view the winter weathers,

Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
 In Fancy’s infant ecstasy;
Laughing, with superstitious love,
O’er visions wild that youth supplies,
Of people pulling geese above,
 And keeping Christmas in the skies.                                       

As tho’ the homestead trees were drest,
 In lieu of snow, with dancing leaves;
As tho’ the sun-dried martin’s nest,
 Instead of i’cles hung the eaves;
The children hail the happy day—
 As if the snow were April’s grass,
And pleas’d, as ’neath the warmth of May,
 Sport o’er the water froze to glass.

Thou day of happy sound and mirth,
 That long with childish memory stays,                                    
How blest around the cottage hearth            
I met thee in my younger days!

Harping, with rapture’s dreaming joys,
On presents which thy coming found,
The welcome sight of little toys,
 The Christmas gift of cousins round.

The wooden horse with arching head,
 Drawn upon wheels around the room;
The gilded coach of gingerbread,
 And many-colour’d sugar plum;                                            
Gilt cover’d books for pictures sought,
 Or stories childhood loves to tell,
With many an urgent promise bought,
 To get to-morrow’s lesson well.

And many a thing, a minute’s sport,
 Left broken on the sanded floor,
When we would leave our play, and court
 Our parents’ promises for more.
Tho’ manhood bids such raptures die,
 And throws such toys aside as vain,                                      
Yet memory loves to turn her eye,            
And count past pleasures o’er again.

Around the glowing hearth at night,
 The harmless laugh and winter tale
Go round, while parting friends delight
 To toast each other o’er their ale;
The cotter oft with quiet zeal
 Will musing o’er his Bible lean;
While in the dark the lovers steal
   To kiss and toy behind the screen.                                         

Old customs! Oh! I love the sound,
 However simple they may be:
Whate’er with time hath sanction found,
 Is welcome, and is dear to me.
Pride grows above simplicity,
 And spurns them from her haughty mind,
And soon the poet’s song will be            
The only refuge they can find.

I hope that's got you all in the Christmas spirit! Here's a link to the John Clare Society who are celebrating the 150th anniversary of his death this year.
Illustrations by Jane Odiwe, Hugh Thomson, and Arthur A. Dixon

Jane Odiwe - Mr Darcy's Christmas Calendar - November 2014

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Choc Lit Christmases

Christmas has been celebrated in many different ways through the ages and today some of my fellow Choc Lit* authors are here with me to tell you a little bit about Christmas during the particular periods we write about.  As you will see, they are very diverse!

First, there’s Kirsty Ferry, who had this to say about her era:-

Part of my debut novel, SomeVeil Did Fall, is set in 1865. At that time in Britain, the Christmas Tree was still the preserve of the wealthy and the nobility, the custom having been introduced from Germany about twenty years earlier by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. The Carrick family, who inhabit the world of 1865 in Some Veil Did Fall, would most definitely have had a tree; decorated, perhaps with candles and sugar ornaments and evergreen garlands– Lydia Carrick was always one for trying anything new, hence the fact that she bought an expensive camera from America and ended up taking a very important photograph. And, I also think, for many children in 1865, one of their most treasured Christmas gifts would have been a First Edition of the incredible Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland - first published in July 1865 and still a much-loved book and Christmas gift today.

Staying in Victorian times, but moving across the ocean to the US, here is Liz Harris’s account of a Christmas in Wyoming in the 1800s, as it would have been celebrated by the characters in her novel ABargain Struck  and her novella A Western Heart:-

In the mid 1800s, folk in the American West - pioneers, cowboys, homesteaders - celebrated Christmas very differently from those in the civilised East. For them, a homemade Christmas was the order of the day.  Picture a wooden cabin surrounded by deep snow. Welcoming holly and berries hang from the front door. There’s heat from the potbelly stove and the spicy aroma of foods cooked on Christmas Eve - cinnamon rolls, sweet pastries, and dark breads such as rye. The room is a mass of colour-rich natural materials: evergreens, pine cones, holly, nuts and berries. The tree in the corner is decorated with ribbons and berries, and homemade decorations made by the women, such as dolls made of straw or yarn, cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men.

Food items will have been set aside months ago and most of the dishes made in the weeks before, such as the dense fruit cake lavishly infused with alcohol, and the traditional Yule log, both decorated with the help of the whole family. Only the vegetables and main dish are left to be cooked on Christmas Day itself, and it might be the traditional beef roast or a turkey or goose, stuffed with onions, sage, day old bread, dried fruit, venison or sausage.

The family sings carols around the tree. As soon as the children have gone to bed, the gifts are put underneath – corn husk dolls and some sachets of seeds – and candies, small gifts, such as a new tin cup, cookies and fruit, are put into the stockings hung up by the children. They’ll be but a few of the homemade gifts exchanged the following day, such as carved wooden toys, pillows, footstools, embroidered hankies, knitted scarves, hats, mittens and socks.

Sounds lovely! Back in England, Linda Mitchelmore tells us how Emma Le Goff, the heroine of her novels – To Turn Full Circle and There’sNo Turning Back – would celebrate Christmas in 1909:-

Christmas morning, 1909. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it – my first as an orphan. I know I have a roof over my head – Nase Head House where I’m a servant;  nurse maid to Mr Smythe’s motherless children – and I’m grateful for it. But Christmas is for families and I haven’t got one any more.

Last night, at the staff supper, Mr Smythe surprised us all by getting cook to make a beef stew with red wine in it, instead of the usual Friday night cold cuts and boiled potatoes. Afterwards, he served us mince pies and a glass of port. While we were eating he put up a Christmas tree in the foyer, decorated with glass baubles and candles in little metal holders that don’t stand up properly. It looks lovely. 

I should get up in a minute. It’s six o’ clock already. But when I open my eyes I know there aren’t going to be any presents in the stocking I’ve hung from the mantelpiece over the fire. But there’s always hope. There aren’t going to be French pancakes – crêpes – my Breton Papa always made for Christmas morning breakfast either. Larger and thinner than English ones, Mama always saved a jar of her wild strawberry jam to put in the middle of each one. I can taste it now. And the fish baked in a pastry crust we always had for Christmas lunch, because Papa was a fisherman and he said fish was the food of the gods. And the tarte tatin Mama made with the last of the apples from the garden – I can taste that. 

This Christmas Day is already like no other I’ve ever experienced. But I carry my family traditions with me in my heart. And one day, I’ll have a home and a family of my own again, and I can take those traditions out and dust them off and Mama, Papa, and Johnnie will live again. They will … they will …

Intriguing!  Moving forward to a time of great hardship, here is Amanda James’s depiction of Christmas for the heroine of her novels Cross Stitch and A Stitch in Time:-

Sarah Yates/Needler goes back to many different time periods in her travels. I have selected just one of them to explain what would have happened at Christmas.

Sheffield, UK, 1940:  Christmas coming just ten days after one of the worst bombing raids of the Second World War would have been greeted with mixed emotions. People would have lost family members in the Blitz as well as homes and possessions.  My mother, at the time thirteen, remembers that there were only one or two presents on the day, but that she was very grateful to have a roof over her head and both parents to look after her. Many of their friends and neighbours were not so lucky.

Homeless people were given Christmas lunch in public centres and some even went back to their bombed out homes to eat Christmas dinner in the Anderson shelters. This was both a need to feel some sense of normality and as an act of defiance. Some people abandoned Christmas completely as it didn’t feel appropriate to celebrate under such tragic circumstances, others – for the same reasons as the people who ate in Anderson shelters – pulled crackers and decorated their homes as usual. 

It probably is inconceivable to most of us nowadays that people could survive all that and still carry on. There was no counselling for those who had seen terrible things or had lost loved ones – they were just supposed to get on with it. A very sobering thought.

Finally, I’m going back in time again to the year 1731, when my own hero and heroine in TradeWinds (the first book in my Kinross trilogy) are forced to spend Christmas in a cold Swedish manor house, deep in the forests of that country.

As they are snowed in, Jess and Killian can’t go to church by sleigh, the way they normally would, but they make the effort to walk instead wearing fur coats and as many clothes as they possibly can.  The snow is waist high in places and looks beautiful in the pale winter sunlight.  There was no such thing as a Christmas tree, but lots of home-made candles and branches of fir tree to stamp your feet on when you came through the front door (which would then give off a wonderful scent).  Christmas, or Yule, as they call it, is a time of sharing so what little food there is would be given to everyone, the servants as well as any poor people nearby.  The cook had been preparing special dishes for weeks – sausages, pickled herring, bread, cheese and much more – simple fare, but tasty and warming (something you appreciate when it’s up to minus 20 degrees outside and the windows of the house have frost on the inside!).  To further warm you up, the traditional snaps – almost pure alcohol and very strong – would be imbibed.  It had the added bonus of helping to break up all the fat contained in some of the rich dishes cooked with cream and butter.

Jess and Killian don’t give each other gifts, again because they are snowed in and have no access to any shops or materials for making anything.  People would traditionally give each other something though and each gift was usually accompanied by a rhyme to help the recipient guess what was inside.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these different traditions – the Choc Lit authors and I wish you a very Happy Christmas!

*Choc Lit is an award-winning independent UK publisher specialising in women’s fiction where the heroes are like chocolate - irresistible!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Why the classics?

Writing a series bringing the Roman gods to life in Georgian Britain has given me a few headaches, but on the whole the blend has been perfect. I can’t believe how well it’s going, and last week I was offered a contract for another, so I’m not the only one!
But once I looked into the period and the whole history of classical studies, it was such a good fit, I couldn’t resist. The Georgian era actually saw a huge revival in the study of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, culminating in the rejection of all things Roccocco in France after the Revolution and the Republic claiming the classical culture as its own.
The Classics had never been forgotten, of course. The story of Anthony and Cleopatra, for instance, had been repeated by playwrights. In the Florence of the fifteenth century, the Neoplatonist scholars had been enormously influential on their culture, and that spread to Rome and through Europe.
Probably the first important indication that classicism was returning was the building of St. Pauls’ Cathedral in the classic style, instead of the gothic church it replaced. Important because everybody could see it. It wasn’t a study stuck in a library somewhere, or passed around erudite circles. There it was—an instant landmark. Before that, Inigo Jones had made a mark in the sand with the Banqueting House, but classicism meant something very different then.
For most of the eighteenth century, Palladio’s vision ruled when new buildings were being constructed, especially the grander ones. He designed a gorgeous little villa just outside Rome that everyone aspired to. So the great country house was typically “Palladian.”
The Grand Tour encouraged young men of good family to travel abroad to further their education. Many went on a spending spree, and bought busts, and statues of varying quality and authenticity to send home. Some engaged in more scholarly pursuits (and some didn’t, but that’s an entirely different story!) And then, in the 1750’s, they discovered Pompeii.
What the first explorers did is enough to make a modern archaeologist spit blood. They were essentially treasure hunters. They stripped the paintings from the walls, took the artefacts and didn’t record where they found them, and didn’t fully explore an area before they went on to the next one. Karl Weber and Francesco la Vega both made extensive studies, with drawings, which they published. Information was disseminated, and the classic designs of Palladio were replaced by the “purer” vision of the Adam brothers. Plus the colours. Previously, classic statues and remains had been stripped of the colour that the ancient Romans and Greeks had put on them. People were used to marble statues with blank eyes, which were often copies of bronze originals. Bronze, being an expensive commodity, was often melted down and reused, while the marble copies were more permanent, if of lesser quality. And white. So white.
Pompeii revealed the vivid colours the ancients often used, the terracottas, blues and blacks, and it came as a distinct shock to the eighteenth century scholar. But not to the designers, particularly Robert Adam, who leaped on them and used them to great effect in places like Osterley Park in London.
Is it any surprise that when I put my gods and goddesses into London ballrooms, they felt completely at home?

Mad for Love,” the story of Bacchus and his Ariadne, is available for pre-order now, and will be released on November 18th from Samhain and all major ebook outlets. Print will follow.Here's the Amazon link.