Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ashley Sterne I Remember I Remember

The Christmas season was always a bountiful source of ideas for Ashley Sterne.  He had great fun with the topics of Christmas puddings, Good King Wenceslas, and Father Christmas.

Yesterday, the newspaper digitizing crew at the National Library of Australia tipped me off to his newly posted Christmas article that was republished in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) on December 18th 1920.  The article deals, in burlesque fashion, with the making of Christmas pudding and the other family Christmas customs celebrated in Victorian England.

I Remember  I Remember

By Ashley Sterne

Christmas is essentially a children's festival; for though we, as adults, are frequently able to participate in the revels of Yuletide, so far as a shattered digestion and a big toe swathed in a complicated surgical bandage will permit, we can never entirely forget that by a strange irony Christmas Day happens to be Quarter Day, too. [when quarterly rents are due]

Hence we realise the truth of the poet's assertion that "all our joy is touched with pain" — a point that even the youngest child, rendered thoughtful by four consecutive helpings of Christmas pudding, can not fail fully to appreciate.

The words "Christmas pudding" call up some of my earliest and tenderest memories. The making of this substance was, in our household, not so much a culinary operation as a solemn and hallowed rite, and when I say that it invariably caused something of a stir in the house I speak quite literally. I recall one memorable occasion with extraordinary vividness.

The various ingredients of the pudding had been duly assembled and deftly mingled by the cook in a large basin the size of a bath tub, when we were all paraded in the kitchen for the ceremony of stirring. My father, who in his younger days had been a noted oarsman, stirred first, and his prowess with the sculls was eloquently demonstrated by the manner in which he manipulated the pudding spoon. I can still see my mother and the housemaids flying round the kitchen with such receptacles as they could lay their hands on, retrieving from distant corners masses of pudding which my energetic sire dissipated with the vigor of his stirring.

My little brother Herbert, aged one, was the last to stir, and for this purpose had been lifted on to the table, when he unfortunately over-balanced and fell into the mixture which at once engulfed him. Frantically we rushed to the basin, and with spoons, forks, and ladles began hastily to ransack the pudding. But nowhere could we find Herbert. We began to fear at last that we should have to leave him in instead of putting in a lucky sixpence.

"Be patient," observed my father, hopefully. '''Herbert is bound to come up three times before he finally sinks. Let us wait."

But almost as he spoke, the cook, seizing what she imagined to be a piece of unchopped candied peel, discovered that she had grasped Herbert's ear, and my unhappy brother was speedily extricated, dried, scraped, and returned to the nursery little the worse for his immersion.

Another feature of our Christmas puddings was the lucky sixpence (referred to above), which was always put in the very last thing before the pudding-cloth was finally tied up. At our Christmas dinner, competition was always keen to secure this coveted trophy. One year, however, the whole family was prostrated with dyspepsia for a fortnight, consequently upon our united efforts to eat our way to a sixpence which the cook, in a moment of absentmindedness, had placed in her missionary box instead of in the pudding.

On yet another occasion, this search for hidden wealth ended almost disastrously for my poor Uncle Peter, who had the misfortune to swallow the coin before he could remove it from his mouth. What might otherwise have been a festive evening was rendered a night of gloom, for a number of eminent surgeons who had been hastily summoned spent several anxious hours ransacking Uncle Peter's works, and it was not until they were going through him for the eighth time that the sixpence was found adhering to his right lung.

I gratefully recall, too, how the gloom of that evening was partially relieved by the efforts of the village choir, who, during a critical moment of the operation, rendered a tasteful and pleasing selection of Christmas carols, which enabled us to bear Uncle Peter's sufferings with a patience for fortitude which, I fear, had hitherto been lacking.

Yet another eagerly-anticipated Christmas [... custom?] was the distribution of presents from a Christmas tree. Regularly each Christmas Eve, Wilcox, the gardener, might be seen staggering into the house beneath the weight of a colossal Christmas tree. The tree was then taken in hand by my mother, who, with the aid of a step-ladder, Providence, and several panting domestics to hold her ankles, decorated it with candles and crackers, and loaded its branches with fair gifts all neatly labelled with the name of the designed recipient.

The distribution of the presents from the tree on Christmas night was attended by everyone in the house, servants and all. The candles having been lit, we were all permitted to walk round the tree and admire it, while my father laboriously rendered upon a piano a one-finger version of "Here we go round the mulberry bush."

I remember one occasion, when my grandfather, who was very old and nearsighted, got rather too close to the illuminations. We were all excitedly admiring the tree, when a faintly pungent odor began to assail our nostrils, and a soft, sizzling sound caught our ears. We turned to find that the poor old gentleman, absorbed in examining a jewelled cracker, had inadvertently caught fire. .Already half his beard and one complete whisker had perished in the flames, while his left ear was well ablaze and burning lustily. We, of course, blew him out at once, and drew his attention to the risk he had run, whereupon he thanked us all most warmly for our prompt action, and tipped us youngsters with more than his customary generosity.

It was on another occasion that an error in labelling the presents caused a slight contretemps, of which Uncle Peter was again the victim. My mother (who, I might add, always selected the presents herself, and made a point of making those to the adults articles of strict utility) was poised upon the step-ladder cutting on the presents with the garden scissors, and handed one parcel to Honoria, the under-housemaid, with a few kindly words, and another similarly to Uncle Peter.  As it was a point of honor amongst us to unwrap a present immediately upon receipt of it, we children hovered round Uncle Peter, who, with commendable eagerness, stripped off the paper wrapping, to find himself the embarrassed possessor of a piece of intimate lingerie which one usually only alludes to in whispers. At the same time a piercing shriek from Honoria drew our attention to her, to find that she had become the scared and bewildered recipient of a complete set of false teeth for the upper jaw.

The presents had, of course, become reversed. The denture, I should explain, was a tactful thought of my mother's, prompted by the fact that a few days previously Uncle Peter's only set of teeth had become transfixed in the rind of a slice of melon which he was consuming. All efforts to dislodge the teeth had failed, and Uncle Peter had reluctantly to part with them as an alternative to passing the remainder of his life gagged with melon-rind.

Of the games we used to play when the presents had all been distributed I have many pleasant recollections, and I regret that space does not permit my mentioning more than one of them. This consisted of a number of us sitting on either side of a table, placing a feather in the centre, and, by means of violent exhalations, endeavoring to blow it over the heads of those seated opposite, thereby scoring a goal. This game was exceedingly popular with us; we found it renewed our waning appetites.

Frequently, too, the grown-ups joined in, especially Aunt Louisa, who was a very keen player, and was the first to denude her bolster when a feather was required. By assiduous practice at the game Aunt Louisa had developed a marvellous strength of lung, which once enabled her {when trying her skill upon one of those fascinating blowing machines on the pier at Blackpool) to procure the return of her penny.

One Christmas, however, an unfortunate mishap occurred. She was seated on one side of the table and my father on the other. The latter, by masterly strategy had succeeded in getting the feather within a few inches of Aunt Louisa's face. Aunt Louisa, realising the danger that threatened her side, opened her mouth to its widest capacity, with the object of ejecting a forceful defensive puff, when, at that instant, my father blew again — with the result that he blew the feather straight down Aunt Louisa's throat.

Poor Aunt Louisa choked and coughed violently; but though we all slapped her back, and took turns in attempting to retrieve the feather with a pair of glove-stretchers, we dismally failed to recapture it.

I am happy to record that Aunt Louisa suffered from no alarming after-effects, though we noticed that for a few days after the catastrophe, whenever she attempted to speak, she made a queer-clucking noise somewhat reminiscent of a hen.

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