Poppy turned 1 last week despite all of us muttering disbelief of how the time has flown by! Our little seedling has grown up and is blossoming into quite a feisty young flower! (Dear Reader, it would be quite unfair of you to even mutter quietly that perhaps she takes after her mother. A ridiculous notion! It is all down to her auburn locks)! With birthday festivities over, Jerry finally allowed me to open the doors to Christmas. Until now, it had been incredibly hard to resist eating mince pies and glugging back the mulled wine but with all the crumbs from the second birthday cake gone (carrot – and not too much of a disaster this time, although, I did burn my hand whilst pouring over the hot honey) we could turn our attentions to the most important job of all. The Tree! In celebration of our ‘better late than never’ embracing of Christmas, we all traipsed off to our greengrocer which doubles up as a provider of Nordman firs this time of year. I will confess, dear Reader, that I adore Christmas trees. The smell, the lights, the drinking of sloe gin whilst dressing it with decorations… What could be more festive than the smell of the dear old fir tree! Evergreens are part of the fabric of Christmas as we know it now but it wasn’t always so. Made fashionable by Queen Victoria, it was good old Albert who introduced the idea from his native Germany. The Germans had been decorating trees for years before we started! Our traditional English Christmas staple, the kissing bush, was the fir’s precursor and was created with mistletoe and decorated with lit candles. Of course, the ever faithful holly and ivy also adorned the balustrades of country homes long before the humble Christmas tree ever became a la mode. With this image of country house Christmases in mind, I set to work on creating the perfect Mr Tree! A darling little tree chosen, paved the way for the age old debate of the lights, which dear Reader, you may remember that I have already mentioned: flashing coloured lights (Jerry’s particular tacky penchant) or tasteful tiny white globes twinkling in the low level light of the cottage (Margot’s choice). Needless to say I actually won the battle this year! Ha! My success all came down to Primrose, who was desperate to take over the reins of the delicate art of tree dressing. I soon realised that there could only be one master of Mr Tree! I had to physically restrain myself as Primrose set about lavishing baubles and trinkets on the tree with no particular theme in mind, other than MORE is MORE. Usually, I decorate the tree with fascisti tendencies, approving the placement of each one. Not this year…Primrose bulldozed right through my control freak decoration placement and even added her own homemade touches so that Mr Tree was complete with a homemade bell made from a sawn off litre bottle (I struggled with the tastefulness of that one). I noticed, with some glee I might add, that my tree decorating fascism had definitely not skipped a generation as I listened to Primrose berating Poppy for moving one of her carefully placed birds! I love rediscovering all the boxes with neatly packed trinkets. 1 new decoration each year ensures that we have always have a story to impart about how it was found and that particular Christmas. Primrose and I love our Christmas quest. My old favourite is a little boy with a bobbled hat (press the bobble and he pokes out his tongue)! He belongs to a Christmas in the ’80s spent in Cologne and is on loan from my Mamma. This year’s additions are a rather wonderful couple, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Soldier doll from the Nutcracker. I found them hiding in a corner of the Royal Ballet’s shop when my lovely friend, Jasper, and I were at the Opera and I simply couldn’t resist!
The family tree dressing ceremony over, I set off to find some holly for the cottage staircase. Countryside tradition dictates that holly is hung in farmhouses and cowsheds alike to bring good luck. An age old tradition, the Romans used to give sprigs to signify lasting friendship and blessings for the year to come. You can just imagine the face of the Roman nobleman who received a prickly offering as his Secret Santa rather than an amphora of wine at the Forum’s annual Saturnalia shindig. One of the best countryside traditions I stumbled across this week, was indeed about the marriage of holly and ivy. Holly with its prickly edges and robust berries was thought to be a sign of masculinity and ivy with its ability to entwine other plants and cling to things was thought to represent femininity. Together they were brought into a farmhouse on Christmas Eve (and not before) to symbolise the coming together of kin and to ensure a happy family life for the new year. All the earlier talk of Sugar Plum fairies had given me an idea on how best to welcome in the good luck with touches of evergreen. Thumbing through some old culinary tomes, I found an excellent way to give those prickly leaves that snowy Christmas look for our Christmas cake! Ever resourceful Mrs Beeton (Book of Household Management, 1851) suggests that one ‘frosts’ the leaves: dry out any moisture, coat with ‘oiled butter’ (I used a smattering of melted butter for this one) and ‘coarse powdered sugar’ (granulated will do. Although caster did look better). Leave to dry by the fire.
Adding one last touch to our beautifully dressed fir, Primrose made me promise that I would leave a shoe under Mr Tree. She told me that Father Christmas will see my shoe, know I am a girl and leave the right presents behind. So…..never one to part with tradition, I followed her instructions to the letter and have placed a festive green velvet number from LK Bennett under the tree. Father Christmas will definitely make his judgement on what sort of girl I am with that one! That in mind, he may just leave me the keys to my very own Georgian rectory complete with holly adorned balustrades and a 12 ft Christmas tree in the Hall. Wishful thinking I know, dear Reader but I had had a large snip of sloe gin by that point and had been pouring over the glossy pages of this year’s Christmas double issue of Country Life. I may also have been just a wee bit tinky tonk too…..but don’t tell Father Christmas!