This year, I counted my trips to the attic. If I’d had to guess, I’d have put it at 20, but, in fact, it was only 12. It’s easier now that I have those shelves that look more at home in warehouses, the one advertised in the Weekend sections of the papers. I bought them for my collection of cribs, which take me a whole afternoon to get down from the attic and arrange throughout the house. I start out with carols from Winchester Cathedral and a mug of Darjeeling tea. By the time I’m nearly finished, I will have moved on to Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley and eggnog laced with Jim Beam bourbon.
This is the only time of the year I drink bourbon, which is a good thing, because, after a glass or two, my seasonal enchantment heads south towards martyrdom. Hot on the heels of the Christmas Martyr is the Christmas Melancholic, whose thoughts run along the lines of ‘Who will put these cribs up when I’m dead? Who will iron the wings of the mouse angels? Who will go out to the barn and get fresh hay for the stable for the créche made by French nuns?’.
My third eggnog is bourbon-free and I gaze in stupefied amazement at the Nativity scenes that have emerged. In the peaceful lull that follows, I unpack the boxes of Christmas books and, as Bing Crosby sings I’ll be Home for Christmas, I begin reading my old favourites. Predictably, I start with the sad ones: Nabokov’s moving story of a father’s grief in Christmas, followed by Chekhov’s Vanka. But ’tis the season to be jolly, so I look for Grace Paley’s story of the Jewish girl starring in a Christmas pageant in The Loudest Voice.
My collection of Christmas books (two trips to the attic) is impressive and, every year, I’m tempted to write on each box ‘Out-of-print treasures. Do not take to Oxfam!’. Instead, I console myself with a small masterpiece called Christmas with the Savages. Written by Lady Mary Clive half a century ago, it’s an account of Christmas in a large country house during the reign of Edward VII, observed by a privileged and precocious only child called Evelyn. The house is filled with her distant cousins-‘Savage by name, savage by nature’ who don’t share Evelyn’s desire to talk like a grown-up. Still in print, the novel has the same deft humour as Cold Comfort Farm.
Lady Mary, who died last year, aged 102, was one of a remarkable brood of writers, including her brother, the late Lord Longford. Her life was the story of a century. Her father was killed at Gallipoli when she was eight; her husband, Meysey Clive, a collateral descendant of Clive of India and a colonel in the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action in North Africa in 1943. But she wasn’t inclined towards melancholy and she picked up her sharp pen and wrote bio-graphies and memoirs, including Brought Up and Brought Out, her tale of being presented to George V in 1926, the year of the General Strike.
‘In my day all debutantes were dowdy… but the year I came out was a bumper dowdy year.’ Only the deb’s delights were worse. ‘They were practically deformed. Some were without chins. Some had no foreheads. Hardly any of them had backs to their heads.’ Christmas with the Savages is one of my ritual reads, the perfect example of Thurber’s belief that ‘humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity’. It captures what it’s like to be a child, the slender thread between happiness and bewilderment, between freedom and powerlessness. And there are lines in it that are enshrined in my memory. One always comes to mind as I lead my family on the tour of my cribs.
The fat little Betty Savage, with red cheeks and white hair, stumps in for nursery tea and announces: ‘What I’ve come for is tea and praise.’ Ah, tea and praise. It’s the secret to keeping the Christmas Martyr happy. It’s the formula for Christmas peace.