Monday, 9 December 2013

The Thirteen Days of Christmas

It was time for a refresh so I pared the blog 'design' down a little. Design is in inverted commas because really that's a rather inflated word for what happens when I play around in a slightly panicky way with the blogger default settings and backdrops. I dunno. Font choices are HARD.

This is mostly a post about 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' by Jenny Overton but it's also a small paeon of praise to the precious, precious treasure that is an independent local bookshop. A bookshop which knows you by name and knows your taste and knows what to put into your hands and say 'here, read this, you'll like it.' I might not have found 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' without mine doing just that and that would have been very sad indeed. Because I DO like it. Bookshops are not just for Christmas but they are especially nice at this time of year. Go and spend money in one yourself. It'll make you and them both happy.

So. 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' (illustrated, small drumroll, by a certain Shirley Hughes) was originally published in 1972 but has just been reissued. It's essentially a creation story for that ever-favourite-if-a-bit-interminable-when-sung-by-your-otherwise-obviously-delightful-children-in-a-loop-at-full-volume carol 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. Set in the eighteenth century, it's the story of overly-romantic Annaple Kitson being well and truly petard-hoisted by her younger siblings: Desperate to see her married off so they can escape her inedible cooking they provide helpful inspiration to her apparently staid suitor Francis. But Francis, it soon transpires, has plenty of inspiration of his own and a seemingly bottomless purse. Will there be a wedding on the thirteenth day? Well what do you think?

The great conceit/joke of the book is that Francis not only provides the named gift for the day, he also provides the chorus duplicates daily. Thus on the fifth day, Annaple not only receives 5 gold rings, she also gets another 4 calling birds, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and pear-tree roosting partridge. And so on. Requiring the construction of ever more elaborate livestock containment and the consumption of massive quantities of eggs and milk; in the end used for bathing and shaving as well as drinking. Funny.

The other pleasure is the education it provides in some long forgotten Christmas traditions. The twelve days of Christmas each presented with their own name and associated rituals: St Thomas of Canterbury's Day (day 5) for instance where all keys are brought to church for blessing and sparrows are fed or Eve's Day (day 11) bringing treats for all the women of the house. I'm re-establishing that one forthwith. The book is peppered with contemporary carols and verses that must have once have been folk knowledge. It's got to be the Most Christmas book I've ever read.

'The procession turned into Ship Street. The choir-boys ran ahead, banging on the doors of all the houses where there were young children and shouting, "Ransom your brats, ransom your brats, a penny a piece for your babies." The pennies showered from the windows. Will dipped his hand into his sack and threw handfuls of nuts and little bags of sugar plums to each ransomed child, and the choirboys stuck sprigs of holly through each door knocker to mark the fact that the price had been paid.'

There's lots of this sort of stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might rather reduce the charm for the child reader though. They'll need a taste for the sophisticated and historic or an ability to skim the slower pleasures. This is a book for reading aloud I reckon; a family fireside appreciation with something for everybody. A chapter a day when the actual twelve days arrive? That's what I'm planning. Lovely. Thanks 'The Children's Bookshop'.

'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' by Jenny Overton, illustrated by Shirley Hughes, pub. OUP, isbn 978-0-19-273543-0

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