Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On the Sameness of Christmas

My bro is getting at me for recommending an Advent Calendar on December 17th. He has a point I suppose. But I like to think you, gentle reader, are not some Jonny-come-lately darting around the internet in a panic last minute book recommendation spree but a Quiet Ponderer who may require a year to mull the pros and cons of a particular purchase. Christmas ain't going anywhere after all.

And that is very much the point of Christmas. We like it to be the Same please. The good bits and the less good bits. I like to have turkey with the Constance Spry almond sauce I have had since childhood and none of your goose-is-actually-nicer-and-you-know-strictly-speaking-more-traditional nonsense is going to sway me.

I'm the same with my Christmas books. There are some excellent new Christmas titles I know and I'm all for them and that but there are still only two titles I actually NEED for it to Be Christmas. The first is (no surprise) Shirley Hughes' 'Lucy and Tom's Christmas' , the second 'The Tailor of Gloucester' by Beatrix Potter.

This is also poor practice from me because 'Lucy and Tom' is out of print I'm afraid and only available second hand at inflated sums. But then we don't actually own a copy ourselves. One of my first Christmas jobs at the beginning of December is to go and stake out the local library until they bring out the Christmas stock and then pounce on their copy, hawk-like. Apologies are due to other North London residents who've been denied it for the last 6 years because it has been ours all ours (cue wicked laugh and hand rubbing).

I love it so because it is a perfect evocation of a perfect Christmas through child's eyes and because it encapsulates the importance of  Sameness. I read it and recognise my own childhood Christmas's and Bill and Eddie read it as a documentary list of How Things Should Be. It's a proper lump in the throat read for me. Shirley Hughes just gets it spot on right again sigh: From the list of elaborately chosen, wrapped, hidden and re-hidden gifts Lucy and Tom choose: "A comb in a case for Granny with 'A' for Alison on it (because that's Granny's name)...a rubber in the shape of a dog for Dad to take to his office" to the exposition of the day itself; "Imagine not wanting to wake up early on Christmas Day!" the genius of Shirley Hughes is to be able to write something that can be read as truth by both grown ups and children without either feeling patronised or excluded from insider knowledge.

I suppose it is a very middle class and ever-so-slightly sentimentalised version of The Day (there's even snow)- but phooey to that. It's my fave.

I am a bit too old to have got 'Lucy and Tom' on their original outing but we had a complete library of Beatrix Potter and 'The Tailor of Gloucester' was read to me every Christmas Eve for many years. Now most Potter I find either sickly or creepy ('Samuel Whiskers'! -nightmares reborn) but 'The Tailor of Gloucester' is still a Christmas treat.

Should you not know it; it's basically 'the Elves and the Shoemaker' with added mice and a certain amount of jeopardy. I was always a sucker for anyone lying around at death's door in books when I was a child too (see 'What Katy Did', 'Heidi' or 'The Secret Garden' for instance). I did a lot of pretending to be a nearly-dead Maid Marian or Batgirl. It may be more a girl thang, or just a me-thang: My boys, thankfully, are less interested in starving and consumptive-style swoons such as that which wracks the poor Tailor. They do like Bad Simpkin the cat though.

I hadn't realised until Playing By the Book did this amazing round up of museum artefacts in children's books that the waistcoat that the Tailor must complete in time for Christmas day is a real object viewable in the V and A. A post-Christmas pilgrimage must be made one day.

mouse at work

the real finished article
And after all this posting on the Sameness of Christmas's past, I have to confess that this Christmas is going to be rather different. We're all off to Australia at the end of the week to spend two weeks in the sun with family. The blog will be on a bit of a holiday until January and I am in a flurry of trying to locate put away sunglasses, hats and shorts (the problems some people have eh?). However although there may be a few prawns on a barbecue this year there will still be almond sauce. phew.

Happy Christmas and Happy 2013!

Sunday, 16 December 2012


This is not a religious household.
Aged around 5 Bill asked to go to church because he wanted to 'see what it was like'. I took him with me to the one across the road to their Festival of Nine lessons and Carols. About 10 minutes in he lean't across to me and whispered to me in a serious tone 'I wondered what it was like and now I know'. I asked him if he wanted to leave quietly but he said no. He was very pleased to get given a candle in an orange for his perseverance. We both enjoyed the experience but he has never asked to repeat it.

I was brought up more churchy with weekly trips to Sunday School to colour in pictures of Jesus and baskets of fish. Although I never chose to be confirmed it remains a part of my cultural heritage and in that spirit it is important to me that my children grow up with some sort of understanding of the stories of the Bible and the spiritual calendar of the year. They'll make their own choices in due course.

Apart from anything else they ARE pretty good stories, with a satisfying and unusual amount of violence and absolutism for small boy tastes. I remember Bill coming across the story of Adam and Eve for the first time and just boggling and boggling- "They were really never allowed back Mum?  what NEVER??"

In the same spirit the story of the Nativity is mainly fascinating to them because of King Herod; a bad guy to trump any of their Marvel or DC villains. We've got a few different nativity books around.
The first; 'The Very First Christmas' by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Elena Temporin is a tender and sweet (and Herod-free) retelling of Baby Jesus' arrival and his parade of visitors with unusual gifts. I like the simplicity of the text and the warmth and love that radiates from the illustrations.

Jan Pienkowski's 'The First Christmas' is a complete contrast. It's a small and tactile hardback of delicious beauty, exoticism and darkness. He illustrates the text from the St James bible with woodcuts of muscular angels, cavalcades of elephants, twining grapevines, climbing monkeys and creepy bats. There is detail, movement, joy and danger in every spread. There is also a lot of Herod. A book to savour and shiver with in equal measure.

But the boys most popular way to get their daily Nativity update would be our partworks-style Advent calendar with 24 installments in teeny tiny books. It's an irresistable treat each morning to read the latest news from Bethlehem: Eddie likes to intone it with Proper Gravity in between mouthfuls of minibix. This is its second year outing for us and it has already acquired Tradition Status. If it appeals to you, I highly recommend forking out for it, it is a nice thing.

'The Very First Christmas' by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Elena Temporin, pub. Usborne
 isbn 978074607705-4
'The First Christmas' illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, pub Puffin
isbn 978-0-141-50097-3
'The Story of Christmas: Story Book set and advent calendar' story retold by Mary Packard, illus. Carolyn Croll pub Workman isbn 978-0-7611-5250-7

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Bill turned 8 this weekend (must update the side of my blog). He had a Lego party.

It was...tiring.

5 minutes in -craft activity ('pimp your lego mini figure')(I didn't use the word pimp in front of my children I should clarify)(although would have complemented Bill's question of last week- 'What's a prostitute mum?') that I thought might take 20 mins completed

8 minutes in -first child says to me 'I'm BORED- can I go on the skateboard (round the kitchen)?'

45 minutes into 2 1/2 hour party ALL games and activities from my Lego list finished and I started to look extremely rabbit in headlightish.

Honour salvaged by a LOT of slightly manic musical bumps 'Dance like robots!' 'Dance like girls!' 'Now dance like poos!' and an excellent impromptu 'how to really walk like a zombie' workshop from my husband (it's all in the chest position apparently; sticking your arms out stiffly just doesn't cut it any more).

Only one child received a golf ball in the side which may or may not have cracked a rib- and given we had an internal pinata happening that's really quite good going.

I felt like I had lived so many lifetimes by the end of the afternoon that I might have attained immortality.
lego head cake colonised by pimped-up guys
Lego is big news in this house. Although frustratingly both my children are really in it just for the mini-figures- and as any parent knows they make you buy a mighty big box of bricks to get the mini figure you're after. Sometimes I look at the large tupperware box of Lego rubble we have accumulated from sets that were built and then broke and run my hands through it weeping softly  and whimpering "hundreds of pounds in there... hundreds of pounds..."


Lego and books. A newish departure for them but obviously doing well as they seem to be bringing more and more out. I note the Book People now has an entire Lego shop section on its site.

They are definitely Bill's favourite non fiction and I'm pleased but also slightly baffled by the geeky pleasure he derives from his Harry Potter Lego Enyclopaedias.

"Hey mum! MUM!!MUM!!!" ...I run down the stairs..."What is it Bill?" "LOOK how many different hairstyles the Ron Weasley mini-figure has had since 2001!" "mmm gosh yes! that is a lot mm."

He also has the 'Lego Ideas' encyclopaedia. This is a nice coffee table type book even if you don't have kids featuring insights into the world of the professional Lego builder and inspiring photos of amazing constructions. Professional Lego builder was not, curiously, an occupation that featured heavily on the wall of careers choices at the nice all girls day school I attended and that's a shame I think. The book is fantasy though- when Bill and I go through it it's difficult to relate the spectacular images shown with things that we could have a go at ourselves. The 'You can build Anything' tag line should be accompanied by a caveat-' if you have a million plus bricks colour and shape sorted to hand'

Because what it doesn't do- and I rather wish it would- is provide some guidance on how to build the spectacular creations within its pages. The next Lego book I would like please is one that shows us how to sift through the rubble in a more meaningful way to make different chassis, aliens etc. Lego is so complicated and specific in its pieces now that once something has broken it can be very difficult to work out how to use it afresh.

Then the next Lego party I hold all I would need to do is give them the container and the book and they would happily construct quietly in a corner for the whole party....wouldn't they?

Monday, 3 December 2012


It's Christmas time! It's Christmas time! It's (almost nearly) Christmas time!!

I really like Christmas. Can you tell?

Would you like some Christmassy books then? Oh go'arn. You know you do really.

Bill and Eddie (and me to be honest- my stocking still gets filled) are all firm believers in the Man in the Red Suit. Insomniac Eddie is now officially on detail to see him arrive in the flesh following a triumphant sighting of the tooth fairy this weekend. For Bill, the messages he's received from the rather brilliant Personal North Pole are the clincher- if it's been on the computer it Must Be True (I fear for his future Wikipedia derived essays).

In future posts this month I'll pick out some of my old faithful Christmas stories. We're not efficient enough to wrap a book a day for Advent as others have suggested but we still have our supplies. Advent opening is complicated enough between our broad church selection of calendars representing Wheres Wally, Doctor Who, The Beano and Baby Jesus.

Today I am picking out a couple of new titles I've been sent.

'Dear Santa'  by Kathryn White and Polona Lovsin is a storybook complete with letter writing kit for sending off your own requests to Father Christmas old style if you're finding it difficult to Facetime/Skype with him.

Now I have to admit this is not my favourite- not being that keen on the anthropomorphised animals and the slightly cutesie illustrative style. This comes down to personal taste though- the boy's grandparents often choose them books with this kind of cosy aesthetic; I'm just an edgier kind girl. Also it commits the Cardinal Sin of having penguins at the North Pole which makes me suck breath in through my teeth in a tutting sort of way.


Eddie picked it up straight away, read it and then IMMEDIATELY RAIDED THE LETTER WRITING SET AND WROTE HIS OWN LETTER TO F.C.

Now that may not seem worth all the shouty capitals to you but if you knew Eddie's pen phobia then you would know that that is a very big deal indeed.

and Bill (not worth capitals but still) did the same too. It seems my sons are as much a sucker for a little stationery set with stickers as the next girl. Who'd a thunk it? Sometimes it seems all you want is a bear and rabbit in woolly hats off on an adventure.

Father Christmas may need some legibility help with Eddie's letter(he wants Jabba the Hutt Lego) but I'm sure the elves are good at that sort of thing.

Penguins notwithstanding I have to say thanks 'Dear Santa'.

More up my street to read aloud is 'On a Starry Night' a collection of Christmassy animal tales by authors including Michael Broad, Holly Webb and Penny Dolan. For those of us who haven't been efficient with the individual 24 wrapped calendar books this provides a handy get out in providing 10 days worth of Advent suitable reading matter in one volume.

The stories range from the domestic to the myth based and include narwhals and monkeys as well as the more wintry Arctic fox and reindeers and whilst there is a definite bias towards female protagonists this book does not feel too gender niched. There's a satisfying amount of snow and weather within them- and there's nothing nicer to read aloud when you are curled up warm by the fire at home. Personally I love nothing better than falling asleep to a really good Radio 5 phone in about poorly gritted roads and snow chaos.

As to the tooth fairy sighting? Eddie states that she was the size of a small apple, with short black sticky out hair, green fairy clothes, a grey wand and a sack full of coins. He provided a witness statement the next day. Keep your eyes peeled; we're worried she may have an untreated thyroid condition in urgent need of medical attention.

'Dear Santa' by Kathryn White and Polona Lovsin, pub. Little Tiger Press,isbn 978-1-84895-461-8
'On a Starry Night' pub. by Stripes isbn 978-1-84715-258-9

With thanks to the publishers for providing review copies. Our opinions are our own.