Monday, December 22, 2014

A Victorian Christmas

Christmas at Hollytree House

An excerpt from King’s Raven
by Maggie Secara

London 1854

For a loosely associated household such as Miss Pickering’s in Albany Road, Christmas might have been a melancholy season. The residents either had no families in easy reach of London, and no time off to visit them, or no family any longer to share the season with. But, they chose to hang up sorrow and care, and make each other very merry, instead. Much secrecy was involved in the matter of presents, and for days the house smelled of cinnamon and ginger.

The Saturday before Christmas, Mr Donovan having a rare free afternoon, had taken Peter, a long ladder, and his clasp knife into the wood to cut white-berried boughs of mistletoe from an oak tree. Miss Pickering graciously permitted a branch to be hung over the parlour door, and sprigs on every window sash. Peter had furthermore scoured the neighborhood for lengths of ivy, which now adorned the mantels; and by happy chance, the two thick holly hedges flanking the front walk, from which the house took its name, were bright with red berries. Judicious snips were made for the gentlemen’s buttonholes and hatbands.

The next day directly after church, Miss Pickering’s younger residents all went out to scour the wood for a suitable Christmas tree. Their bit of the ancient Norwood was not much of a place for fir trees, and it took some searching, and some throwing of snowballs, but at last a small stand of them was discovered, including one just exactly the size Miss Pickering had indicated. Mr Swindon held the little tree steady while Mr Horsley wielded the hatchet, and Miss Kennedy kissed each of them in the excitement, which made everyone just slightly uncomfortable, but they got over it.

They hauled it back in triumph singing Adeste Fideles at the tops of their lungs, unwittingly doing exactly what is required when taking a tree from a faerie-haunted wood. As they raised it on a table in the drawing room, Mr Horsley cheerfully noted that a very large one had been put up in the Great Transept of the Crystal Palace. The exhibitors had all contributed miniature toys and tinsel for its decoration. Mr Swindon, Mr Horsley, and Miss Kennedy were content to assemble paper chains and gilt paper stars. Ellen the maid found a box of old beads and paste jewelry in one of the closed up rooms to add to the spectacle. And Mrs Knox sent Daisy in with in hot punch and a basket of gingerbread men, sticky with molasses and almonds.

“Is it not wonderful,” said old Miss Dean, letting the seasonal cheer conquer her customary
disapproval. “Is it not wonderful,” she repeated over the hubbub, “how his Royal Highness Prince Albert introduced this tradition of his homeland only a few years ago and yet, thanks in part to Mr Dickens and his Christmas stories, it has quickly taken root in the hearts of all English men and women. Almost as if it were not foreign at all.”

Miss Kennedy, ever bubbly in bouncing black ringlets, gave a giddy laugh. “Oh, Miss Dean, will you ever play some carols for us?”

Though she suspected that no one was listening to her, as usual, Miss Dean nevertheless seated herself at the spinet and began a lugubrious O Come, O Come Immanuel.

Looking up from her sketchbook, Susan felt the smile bloom across her cheeks, warming to the energy and general gaiety in her house. There hadn’t been a proper Christmas in this house since her parents’ death. Her mourning period had forbidden it, and Uncle Lovejoy simply ignored it. After that… well, this one was nearly perfect… 

Yuletide drew on its finery, drawing in everyone at Hollytree House with the exception of  Professor Lovejoy and Ambrose Cray, who would never notice the lack. 

For more Victorian Christmas, check out the BBC's lovely page.

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