Those dear friends are the words of Charles Dickens, on his favourite time of year. Dickens was the most famous of the Dickensian writers. He invented Christmas, poverty, and the family. This despite the fact that he did not treat Mrs Dickens (who was married to him), very well.
Of course, we in Scotland did not have Christmas for many a year as it was considered too colourful and exciting and “might lead to dancing”, which was thought dangerous. Yes even a few bars of “Postie’s Jig,” could result in a “Wee Dock and Doris” behand the byre, ruination and a life on the parish. Of course, the great worry was a penny or two on the rates and that suggests extravagance. This was to be avoided at all costs. We all know that porridge with cream daily is unsustainable. Still even we Scots have come to realise that a wee celebration around the solstice is a good thing to do and helps to make the haberdashers’ and confectioners’ tills ring at the darkest time of the year. I do not know about you but I do love a healthy haberdasher.
I am not sure why I have been thinking about Victorian Christmases. Perhaps it has something to do with looking for my annotated card list in my bureau. I found one or two memories of Christmas past. These included some rather old cards and my great grandparents’ tickets for an evening with Charles Dickens at the Glasgow City Hall in the Autumn of 1858. He read from Christmas Carol and told the story of Mrs Gamp, the untrained drunken nurse who carried an umbrella with “particular ostentation.” To this day many Glaswegians refer to their umbrellas as “gamps.” The gamp is in much use in Glasgow.
What I should be doing is not rambling on about Charles Dickens, (as rambling and matters hysterical are generally left to Jasper who excels in the matter). I should be writing my promised piece for The Glasgow Herald. Their usual lady journalist is unwell after a staff party, having fallen off a buffet table at the Central Hotel during a rendition of Sailing Up the Clyde, while eating a mince pie and trying to undo the bow tie of the Sports Editor. She is expected to remain in the Royal Infirmary until after Christmas. Things might not have been so bad if she had not caught her high heels in the Provost’s chain of office and gone flying down the stairs into the station concourse where there was a bit of a queue for the last train to Paisley.
The editor telephoned me this morning and pleaded with me to do something for this evening’s deadline on producing an emergency Christmas. This, he said should be for the average Scottish Woman, having to deal with un-expected visitors from south of the border. “We must imagine they are expecting the full festive treatment, Mrs Wylie. Only you can pull it off at this late stage”. By way of assistance, his secretary (one of those blond thrusting types, with a shapeless coat and too much eye makeup) has just delivered a whole pile of letters which he would like me to answer, within the piece. “One will do one’s best,” I said, “but don’t go expecting the Pulitzer Prize, at this late stage in the day.” So you find me with a glass of Madeira in one hand and a letter opener in the other. I have after all just done my nails.
Oh no! Ho! Ho! Ho! Last Minute Guests (the sub-editor’s title, not mine) With our Guest Writer, the simply marvellous Mrs Muriel Wylie…..
Greetings Ladies. Now I can well imagine how you are feeling. It is Christmas week and many of you are panicking about unexpected guests. The Glasgow Herald has been inundated with pleas for help, I shall do my best to help. The following plea from Wishaw is typical.
Dear Women’s Matters,
Only this week I received the following note from people we met last year while on Holiday in Scarborough.
“Desperate to get out of that London for a few days, know you will not mind if we descend on you. Charlie, who the MOH confirms is over the worst now, says he’s been longing to come to Scotland. Please do not go to any trouble. Hope you do not think it an imposition we are bringing little Pagan, the Staffordshire bull terrier, as Mrs Wilson next door will not take him on account of that accident last time with her Readicut-Rug with the cottage and foxgloves her late mother had just finished before she crossed over. Train all booked, cannot wait. Seems so long since Yorkshire. We will bring the projector and slides. Charlie says there must be 500 so we can spread the fun across two nights.”
What I am I to do? My husband and I are Scottish so we do New Year. I know nothing about jellied eels, and we live in a wee four in a block.
That will teach you a) to holiday in Yorkshire and b) to exchange addresses. I think you have no alternative, but to contact the Council and ask for emergency accommodation in Hamilton.
Dear Women’s Matters
I am a gentlewoman of reduced means in a village in Perthshire. My better placed cousin has telephoned to say she is calling in on her way to her family estate. I have a small gift for her of my own spun, dyed and knitted fingerless mittens, but I cannot afford to buy new wrapping paper. Do you have any suggestions?
Alice Crawlie (Miss)
Dear Miss Crawlie,
While I have never fully understood the point of fingerless mittens, a homemade gift is ideal for relatives who are more socially superior. The gentry in Scotland do not generally speaking like a fuss or unnecessary expenditure; or indeed any expenditure. Your cousin will appreciate the effort, and anything made from sheep. I imagine that like many maiden Scottish ladies you have a supply of used wrapping paper in a kist for a rainy day. Well, Miss Crawlie, it is that rainy day and to remove any creases, pass it through the Acme Wringer.
Dear Women’s Matters,
In The Scotsman newspaper today the Co-operative has an advert saying, “It is never too early to start next year’s Christmas cupboard, buy tins.” I am not even organised for this Christmas. My cupboard is bare, and our Marie is due home tomorrow from her somewhat demanding, but well-paid personnel job in King’s Cross, something to do with meeting businessmen off trains. Help, what should I do to give her a happy Christmas?
Firstly, one must ask why as a reader of The Scotsman you are writing to The Glasgow Herald? I worry that you may need to seek professional advice from a medical practitioner. Being confused about whether one lives in Edinburgh or Glasgow is going to lead to trouble.
Secondly a bare cupboard at Christmas sounds like poor household management to me. Have you considered a ‘things to do list’ or T.T.D. as more marvellous people call them? Those of us who live in the country are generally well prepared for this time of year, with cupboards for everyday use, and others marked ‘Snow Emergencies’ and indeed a locked cupboard marked ‘In case of a Great Snow’. You will recall, Edna the great snow of 1947.
As to next year’s tins, while I applaud the sentiment, one step at a time my dear.
For the time being can I suggest you stop worrying. Your Marie sounds like the kind of young woman who not only has everything in hand, but probably likes to give rather than receive. An employment opportunity in King’s Cross tends to suggest a degree of organising ability. I imagine she has an important job in a charity which has her rushed off her feet. So, make a nice cup of tea sit down and do my ‘nice toes naughty toes’ routine. If you are having any difficulty, get Marie’s advice when she comes home. She sounds like she knows a thing or two.
Dear Women’s Matters,
I am a busy games mistress at an exceptionally good all girls Glasgow School. Time seems to have run away with me this year, what with reaching the netball final and my leisure class in decorative hot poker work. Unexpectedly an old friend from the Women’s Royal Army Corps, has sent me a little billet-doux saying she is coming for Christmas. My south side flat is fine for a single girl with outdoor interests, but hardly festive. I imagine a girl from Aldershot is going to have ‘Great Expectations’. I have a big lobby. Any advice?
A big lobby can be a dream or a nightmare. You, however, sound like the sort of girl who can tackle anything. Go for a walk in the countryside with your saw (including one for greenwood) and gather evergreens. Buy some bright crepe paper. Borrow some Hula-Hoops from the gym at your good school and decorate them with the crepe paper and the evergreens. Hang on the walls of your large lobby, they will look most festive when your friend arrives and if we have a wet boxing day you can take them down and hula together to Elvis.
Hope this helps
Dear Women’s Matters
I have unexpected guests for Christmas, I have no Christmas cake made and cannot afford a bought one. I am devastated. Can you help?
Dorothy from Dunfermline
Never fear Dorothy, Muriel is here.
Now take a few deep breaths, put on your good winter coat and walk nicely to your local grocer’s and purchase a swiss roll, some icing sugar and some marzipan along with a small bottle of cochineal. Come home and put some cheerful music on the wireless. Carols from Kings should help.
Now I cannot take the credit for this as it is the suggestion of Mrs Travers, my woman what does, who read it in a magazine and who I imagine could quite easily live in Dunfermline although, to be honest, I would struggle.
Make some icing which is not too thick. On a cake board up end the Swiss roll and secure it to a base (no I am not clear either, but I am sure we can come up with something). Drip the icing over the top and allow it to run down like melted candle wax. Take a small piece of marzipan. Colour with cochineal in a bowl and with a knife shape into a flame. This you place on the top. A cocktail stick should help secure it. Voilà – you have an emergency candle cake. I also enclose my recipe for little candle cakes which are somewhat legendary in these parts.
Dear Women’s Matters,
We have just moved into a new semi-detached in Bridge of Weir. His parents are coming unexpectedly on Boxing Day. What with the mortgage and one or two treats like the wrought iron magazine rack we bought in an interior design shop in Glasgow, there is not a lot of spare money. Can you suggest a festive store cupboard lunch. I am not a great cook. My mother-in- law is Gordon Blue.
Sensitive and Anxious from Bridge of Weir
Dear Sensitive and Anxious,
From what I hear most of Bridge of Weir is semi-detached one way or another. At least it’s not Kilmacolm or you really would be struggling. Never mind I am sure this is your first step on the ladder or do I mean ferry to the north of the river? I think it’s more likely you mean Le Cordon Bleu, though as you are in Bridge of Weir, who knows?
All you can hope for is that the Christmas Day lunch has been so heavy, no one is that hungry. Invite them early and so you are not flapping about have some strong coffee ready in flasks, instant will do with a pinch of salt (it’s what they do in Germany or is it India? I forget) and a few mince pies, warmed in the oven. Have a brisk country walk, to wear them out. On return sit them down with a glass of amontillado and a pack of cards. This should give you the opportunity to prepare a late lunch. Might I suggest grilled tinned ham with pineapple rings and a cherry for the hole, if your funds will stretch. Serve with a jacket potato (which you put on before the walk) and some baby tinned carrots. For pudding, might I suggest a trifle made from the left-over sponge of a candle cake which no one will have eaten, a tin of fruit cocktail, a jolly packet jelly and a dash of carnation milk, with a sliver of angelica. Your husband should see to the wine, nothing too heavy.
Follow with a quiz, present the whole thing as “Our Outdoor in-door picnic, with hot ham, it’s all the rage for Boxing Day in Surrey.” And remark on how dark it is getting. Picnics cover a multitude of sons, and sins. Older people hate driving in the dark or even the idea of the dark
Dear Woman’s Matters
We are a working class family who are having better off relatives on Christmas afternoon. Can you tell me a) what single modest purchase would give the feeling of Christmas? And b) My husband is in preserved meats and will have been working on Christmas morning. To be blunt when he comes home, he can be a little wiffy. What might disguise the smell? You see my cousin has just bought her own semi-detached in Bridge of Weir and is overly sensitive and anxious.
Yours Wee Margaret.
P.S. Would a stew be all right or should I consider something more elaborate like tinned ham with pineapple? I have cherries for the hole.
Dear Wee Margaret,
Your self-awareness is to be admired. Have you thought of bettering yourself with a twilight college course? I feel you might go far.
The answer to a) is a tin of sweets or nice biscuits. The colourful wrappers will, hopefully catch the rays from your “big light” creating a festive mood. As for b) place some orange peel in a pudding bowl, with a little water. Sprinkle the whole with some cloves and a spice such as cinnamon and place the bowl in front of your open fire. As the water heats and evaporates your “lounge” will smell Christmassy and hide the fact that your husband has spent the morning in the manufacture of haslet, corned beef or whatever he does.
A stew is fine. Best avoid the tinned ham and pineapple, even if your husband has smuggled it out of the factory in his wellies or under his oxters.
Well dear readers I hope that has helped everyone be prepared for an emergency Christmas and unexpected guests. You would do well to cut this out and retain it for the future, perhaps with your family allowance book or your husband’s betting slips or court summons. I provide here a glimpse here into my simply marvellous home for inspiration.
Do write with a S.A.E. if you think Women’s Matters can help with anything. We have a range of fact sheets. After Fire, Police and Ambulance, we are very much the fourth emergency service.
à bientôt and a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to one and all.
Muriel is having a wee rest next week with a face pack, a large box of chocolates and a decanter of Tio Pepe. See you in 1961.