Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Christmas Surprises

(This post first appeared as my December/January column in the Tetbury Advertiser, out now.)

Although we put so much effort into planning our festive celebrations, I often find the highlights of my Christmas are the moments that take me by surprise.

Photo of young Laura playing with Playmobil figures at Christmas
From the archives – Laura, aged about 3, enjoying her Playmobil collection. Note Father Christmas is just arriving in his very tiny sleigh.

One such occasion occurred when I was a child, growing up in an outer suburb of London. When I  was  about 11, the age my daughter is now, I was for the first time considered old enough to go to the midnight church service on Christmas Eve. We weren’t a particularly religious family, but the small, plain church in our garden suburb had special significance for us. My parents had married there, we children had been christened, my grandfather was its choirmaster, and the small, rotund, gentle-manner vicar Mr Daniels, was a family friend.

The night was grey and drizzly as we entered the church, which seemed bright, warm and welcoming after our chilly walk from home.  Though battling to stay awake, I enjoyed his service. I was especially impressed by the colourful model crib, but the most memorable moment was yet to come. When Mr Daniels threw open the heavy porch door for the congregation to leave, the churchyard before us lay covered in a perfect blanket of snow. Illuminated by the orange glow of street lamps, big flakes fell steadily as we gazed in wonder, never having guessed that the weather could change so much during the church service.

Yes, I know it didn’t really snow in Bethlehem, but that snowfall felt like a special Christmas blessing: deep and crisp and even, snow on snow. You have to admire God’s timing.

After serendipitous delights like this, I’m happy to leave much of my Christmas preparation to chance. An incurable last-minute merchant in any case, I know that nothing I could plan would ever surpass the wonder of the snowy walk home from church all those years ago.

For Your Christmas Stocking

Cover of Stocking Fillers
My new collection of short stories for Christmas

My love of festive surprises influenced my latest book Stocking Fillers, a collection of twelve humorous short stories about the festive season.. Each tale follows a different character as they prepare for Christmas, from a small boy who tries to give Santa time management lessons, to an old lady celebrating what’s likely to be her last Christmas. Though not all the characters are loveable, I hope you’ll find them entertaining and memorable.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just before writing this column, I received a lovely surprise – the first official review of the book, which describes it as follows: “A delightful celebration of all things Christmas, Stocking Fillers features 12 funny, thoughtful, surprising and heartwarming tales that will get you in the festive spirit. Debbie Young’s writing is thoroughly engaging. If you’re looking to put some of the magic back into Christmas, and rediscover the reason for the season, start by treating yourself to this lovely read.” Well, that surprise has made my Christmas already.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and may it be filled with wonder and surprises of your own.

Stocking Fillers is now available to order as an ebook online and in paperback from good bookshops everywhere. 

Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

The Christmas Past and the Christmas Present

English: Gift ideas for men - wrapping paper e...
What’s inside – is it a Toblerone? (Photo: http://www.giftideasformen.com)

I must admit I am a lazy wrapper.

Not for me the creative approach of an old flame who tried one year to make Christmas extra interesting by disguising all his gifts as something else. A bit of a challenge when his present to me was an LP. (Yes, I am that old.)

His plan backfired. Presented with a box several inches deep, I was expecting much more than a record. Disappointed to find the only thing in the package apart from Wings’ “Band on the Run” was air, I kept the LP but ditched the relationship.

As for me, I keep gift-wrapping simple. The last few Christmases, I’ve mostly given books as presents – so easy to wrap!

The Best Way to Shop for Books

And if you buy print books, don’t just order them online – support your local independent bookshop, where you’ll be ably assisted by knowledgeable, well-informed shop assistants with brains, rather than dodgy Amazon algorithms. When searching on Amazon for travel books about Japan, its customer service robot once advised me “If you like this book, you might also like “Diary of a Wombat” and “Australian hat with corks”. Bizarre or what?!

But lately I’ve realised I’ve been missing a trick: give an e-book as a gift, and you don’t have to wrap it at all.

If the recipients don’t have e-readers. Provided they have a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or PC, they should be able to download an e-reader app. Better make sure they’re happy with that idea first, though, before making your purchase – either that or buy them an e-reader first!

Then by saving all that money and effort on wrapping paper, you’ll be able to afford an extra book for yourself, and have time to read it too – result! Merry Christmas!

PS I’ve just set up a group on Facebook where, not only at Christmas but all year round, I’ll be posting up news of free and cut-price e-books by my author friends. If you’re on Facebook and would like to join it, send me a request or a message via my website contact form.

(A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, December 2013.)

Baby Laura in Santa hat
Laura’s first Christmas

If you enjoyed this article you might like some of my other festive posts: 

Posted in Family, Personal life

Operation Zhu Zhu: It’s Surgery, But Not As We Know It

Christmas Zhu Zhus

My nine year old daughter Laura is renowned for the creativity of her games. She is quick to imbue inanimate objects, and not only toys, with names, voices and personalities. So I was not surprised that her favourite Christmas presents this year were the new additions to her Zhu Zhu collection.

What’s a Zhu Zhu?

Zhu Zhus are small, battery-powered toy hamsters on wheels who move around at random, making funny noises and bumping into things. When they hit an obstacle with their touch-sensitive noses (shouldn’t every pet should have one of those?), they execute a swift three-point turn and head off in a different direction. They’re sweet, funny, endearing and they don’t make a mess. That’s my kind of pet.

Zhu Zhu with its car
Have car, will travel

Another advantage of Zhu Zhus is that they are relatively cheap. When first on the market a few years ago, and in short supply, they sold for £30 each. Since  superseded by trendier toys, their price has dropped. Before Christmas, for a mere £8 I was able to buy not only a Zhu Zhu, but a Zhu Zhu with its own Morris Oxford car and surfboard, both of which it operates by itself when clicked into position.

Cover of "G-Force (Two Disc DVD + Digital...
Cover of G-Force DVD (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thus two new Zhu Zhus were welcomed into the fold on Christmas Day, and Laura’s been playing with them almost non-stop ever since. Out of old packaging, she’s built houses and car parks, hospitals and camp sites. They even have their own cinema, where the movie currently playing is, appropriately, “G-Force” , all about guinea pigs. (It’s actually a jigsaw puzzle of a still from the film). God bless the inventor of the cardboard box!

Why particularly did the Zhu Zhus need a hospital? Well, Laura’s oldest one was starting to show signs of ageing. Her wheels turned too slowly (I know how that feels) and the pitch of her once chirpy voice had ominously deepened. I replaced the batteries, hoping that would rejuvenate her, but it made no difference. I took a deep breath and gave Laura my prognosis.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but surgery. I’m going in.”

When changing the Zhu Zhu’s batteries, I’d noticed that her wheel mechanism was clogged with long dark hair which looked suspiciously like mine. Also entangled were tiny bits of paper and fluff, most likely picked up when traversing the living room carpet. I reckoned that by excising these materials, I could return the hamster to health. I might even restore her lost youth and energy. I felt a frisson of Frankenstein’s excitement.

Emergency surgery being performed on a Zhu Zhu pet hamster
Under the (Swiss Army) knife

In preparation, I assembled a motley collection of tiny tools: the set of miniature screwdrivers that had come in a Christmas cracker, the dainty Swiss Army knife  that I keep in my handbag for emergencies, and a pair of eyebrow tweezers.

I laid the Zhu Zhu on its back and removed the battery cover, plus a further piece of plastic casing that covered the wheel mechanism. The more parts I removed, the more nervous I became. Squinting into the delicate machinery, I carefully marshalled the growing collection of teensy screws that would be required later to bring the helpless round.

As I picked away at the tangled mess, for the first time I truly appreciated the skill of the surgeon.  What I really needed now was an operating table under a bank of bright overhead lights, with a bevy of scrub nurses to assist me, occasionally mopping my brow.

“Nurse, Swiss Army knife, please….. Nurse, glasses screwdriver.”

For some time, I tugged and tweaked at my patient, slowly extracting paper and fluff and hair. A surprisingly large pile of debris mounted up next to where the hamster lay on its back, poignantly prone. When at last I’d removed all that I could, I began to reassemble the creature.

Must make sure I don’t leave any instruments inside, I told myself, with a flash of professional fellow feeling for surgeons everywhere.

Eventually, exhausted by the intense concentration, I dropped the last screw into place and began tentatively to rouse my slumbering patient. I turned her over to rest gently on her wheels and pushed the start button on her back. It was the moment of truth.

The Zhu Zhu let out an alarmingly deep chirrup and trundled very slowly forward towards the pressed glass fruit bowl.  It tapped the dish with its nose and ground to a halt.

My painstaking operation had made absolutely no difference. Sighing deeply, I braced myself to break the bad news to the nervously waiting family.

“I’m afraid the operation was not a success, but at the patient survived.”

My admiration for surgeons and anaesthetists has never been so high.

Part of the town Laura has set up for her Zhu Zhus
The hamster metropolis

This post is a tribute to all those selfless medical professionals who have spent their Christmas attending to emergencies working to keep their patients alive and well, while the rest of us have been amusing ourselves with frivolities.

Posted in Family

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Christmas Memories

If, like me, you are worrying about whether you’ve got the right Christmas presents for your children, you should stop right now.  Because thinking back to my childhood, I’ve realised that all the best Christmas memories have nothing to do with the presents.  In fact, I can hardly remember what they were, though I’m sure I had my fair share.

BABYCHAM DAYS

My fondest recollections are mostly about special events with my family. There was the year that my cousins Jackie and Fred came to us for Christmas dinner.  As the youngest in a crowded house, the three of us, aged about four to eight, were given our Christmas dinner around the coffee table, along with a miniscule bottle of Babycham and three liqueur glasses – unthinkable now, but a pretty good strategy on my parents’ part to guarantee a quiet Christmas afternoon.  Not long after, my cousins emigrated to Canada, making this one-off event an extra-special memory.

AVON GIFTS FOR GIRLS

Then there were the predictable annual visits from other less adventurous relatives. Auntie Shelagh and Uncle Alan, with their brood of four, would come to deliver an assortment of Avon products – for the girls, a peach-shaped soap on a rope or a bottle of cologne with a peach-shaped plastic stopper that I’d try to make last all year.

SEEING THE LIGHTS

Journeys to and from relatives were fun when there were Christmas trees to count in the windows of the houses we’d pass, walking Scout’s page (ten steps walking, ten steps running) to keep us warm.  This was another smart strategy on my parents’ behalf to stop us clamouring to get the 51 bus instead, though our family fare would have been just 1/2d (“two fours and three twos, please”).

But there were bigger trees to admire.  One special night each December, we’d catch the train from Sidcup to London Charing Cross, half an hour’s ride away.  We’d stroll through the West End, admiring the lights put up to decorate Oxford Street and Regent Street.  These days they are a disappointment, with the same pattern echoed along each road, but in those days, every string was different.  We were dazzled by simple 1960s technology: coloured light bulbs on a wire. After that, we’d head to Trafalgar Square, a stone’s throw from our train home, and admire Norway’s annual gift to our country: a huge Christmas tree that seemed nearly as big as Nelson’s Column.  We never tired of joining in the community carols around it.

SCHOOL CELEBRATIONS

Then there were school festivities to enjoy.  For one infant school Christmas party, we were excited to be allowed to make a hat on a theme of our choice out of crêpe paper.  I remember being incredulous that the teacher did not recognise the inadequacy of yellow paper for my requested nurse’s hat.  Presumably all the white had been used up for the inevitable scissored paper snowflakes that adorned the school hall.

It was also at infant school that I first became aware of the power of Christmas carols to move an audience.  As I stood on the stage with my friend Patrick, both of us chosen as soloists for “In the Bleak Midwinter”, I found it odd that the grown-ups could look so tearful when I sang what seemed to me  a happy song.  It’s still my favourite carol today, though I struggle to suppress the purist objection that it never snows in Bethlehem.

THAT SPECIAL SNOWMAN

When I was in the juniors, I was thrilled when my grandparents were persuaded to stay at our house one Christmas Eve.  There really was no need, as we lived within walking distance of each other.  Perhaps they came because the previous year we’d been living the other side of the world, in California, and they wanted to make up for lost time. They slept on the sofa bed in the lounge by the tree and must have loved being woken up by us at the crack of dawn (well, maybe!)

Better still, that afternoon, my grandmother volunteered to come outside into the garden to play with me in the snow.  Together we made a real, proper snowman, a little smaller than me, and we dressed it in the pink plastic mac that I’d just grown out of.

BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

But best of all was the first Christmas that I’d been deemed old enough to go to midnight mass.  This was not because I was religious (I’d got over my holy stage by then, fostered by the evangelical church we attended in California), but because I wanted to be allowed to do the same as my big brother and sister, and didn’t want to miss out on this grown-up privilege.

I forced myself to stay awake to trudge the mile or so to the Church of the Holy Redeemer.  This was the plain grey, low (in every sense) church in which my parents were married, we children were christened, and my grandfather was choirmaster. The evening was drizzly, chill and grim as we entered the church, which was bright and warm and welcoming.  We all took the time to admire the colourful crib scene lit up by the altar. The vicar, Mr Daniels, was a family friend, small, rotund and gentle, and it felt more like going round to his house to hear him talk rather than anything religious.

The service came to an end quite quickly (maybe I’d nodded off for a bit), and soon we were all heading for the exit – a black arched door half way down the side of the church.  Mr Daniels had already sprinted round from the vestry to bid us all goodbye there, shaking the grown-ups’ hands and kissing children like me on the forehead, seizing our young heads in both hands to secure his target.

As we’d sat in the middle of the church, we were near the front of the departing queue and stood back as Mr Daniels threw open the heavy door for the first to leave. And then came a moment of wonder that surpassed anything mentioned in the service.  For the churchyard was covered in the most perfect blanket of snow. We all gasped in delight, transfixed by the big flakes still falling steadily against the orange glow of sodium street lamps.  We’d never guessed that the weather could be so transformed in such a short space of time.  You had to admire God’s timing, for there it was – the real evidence of Christmas.  Deep and crisp and even, snow on snow.  The best Christmas present ever.

May your Christmas this year be just as blessed.

(What are your favourite Christmas memories?  I’d love to know!)