In the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I reminisced about one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmases.
One of my favourite childhood Christmas memories is walking home in the dark after dinner at my maternal grandmother’s house. Even on the coldest night, counting the Christmas trees in people’s front windows gave us an inner glow as we passed by.
In those days, the Christmas tree was the only thing we’d decorate with fairy lights. Many homes in our London suburb had pay-as-you-go electricity meters, which had to be fed with shillings to maintain the supply, so adding to the electrical load was not a great idea.
It was a more frugal age in other ways too. These days I think nothing of buying new fairy lights each Christmas. Back then, if your string of lights stopped working, you just went to Woolworths to buy a new bulb. That is, after you’d worked out which bulb was the dud causing the string to short.
This laborious task required taking out each bulb in turn and turning the mains power switch off and again every time, until you’d solved the mystery. (We may not have been great at recycling in those days, but we knew how to make do and mend – if your electric kettle packed up, you just replaced the element.)
There were also stricter rules about when to put up your decorations: 1st December at the earliest. In any case, you’d be unlikely to find them in the shops until after Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5th November. Now I switch on the fairy lights in my front garden immediately after Armistice Day (11th November).
As the nights get longer and winter chills set in, lighting up the darkness lifts my spirits.
This year, we can’t gather in Hawkesbury High Street for our annual community switching-on ceremony – a tradition I love so much that I’ve borrowed it in my festive novel, Murder in the Manger. (You can read that extract at the end of this post.) So I hope that instead there’ll be more fairy lights than ever popping up around the village.
To me fairy lights feel like symbols of hope, with the same promise that rainbows offer the rest of the year. I like to think that if Noah had had fairy lights, he’d have lit up the ark as the flood waters began to subside.
Whatever you choose to do about fairy lights this December, I wish you a bright and cosy Christmas – and a New Year that can only be better than this one!
Extract from Murder in the Manger, the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery
Chapter 34 Lights!
As I stood outside The Bluebird in the dark, trying to spot Hector amongst the crowd, a stocky figure in a duffle coat sidled up to me. It wore a bobble hat covered with mistletoe, topped with an old bicycle lamp tied on with string. In its hand was a pint glass spilling over with mulled wine. Its growly voice startled me.
“Good evening, girlie.”
It was Billy. He pointed to his hat.
“Got a Christmas kiss for your old friend tonight?”
To my relief, at that precise moment Hector came jostling through the crowd, wearing an ancient deerstalker and a thick stripy scarf over a long overcoat. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d missed the notice for fancy dress to be worn.
“Do I detect unrest?” was his greeting to me.
“Nice hat, Sherlock.”
He touched it appreciatively.
“I’ve had it since I was a teenager. It came from my parents’ antique shop. It’s so battered that I only bring it out in the dark when you can’t see the moth holes. But I’m very attached to it.”
“Can I be your Dr Watson?”
“Wouldn’t you rather be Mrs Hudson? You do make a fine cup of tea.”
I batted his arm for teasing me, but before I could protest further, a slight figure dressed entirely in black bowled up to join us, a sinister balaclava covering all of its face but the eyes. Alarmed, I took a step back, but Hector was not worried.
Tommy pulled off the balaclava and stuffed it crossly into his pocket.
“How did you know it was me?”
Hector tapped his deerstalker. “Sherlock Holmes says you can never disguise a back.”
“But this is my front.”
Tommy stomped off, pulling his video camera out of his other pocket as he went. I surveyed the crowd as it absorbed him.
“Gosh, I’d forgotten quite how many people live here.”
I reached into my coat pocket to pull out the pile of invitations to the Wendlebury Writers’ book launch. The lighting-up ceremony provided the perfect opportunity to distribute them to villagers without having to go door-to-door. I wondered where to start.
“I suppose these are all villagers.”
“Most of them, as far as I can tell, although I suspect a few usually come up from Slate Green to get their hands on some free mulled wine. Word gets around about such things.” He pulled his scarf a little closer around his neck, and I looped my arm through his to snuggle closer.
“I’m surprised how many villagers I know now. And it’s nice to no longer be the newest person in town. I can see at least one person who wasn’t even born when I moved into my cottage.”
I pointed to a tiny baby in the arms of a slight lone female standing on the edge of the crowd. The mother, hood up, head bowed, was completely engrossed in her baby’s company, holding its hands and talking to it, as if there was no-one else around. I wondered whether she was as much a newcomer to the village as the baby. Perhaps she was painfully shy. There was no father in evidence, and of all the crowd, she seemed to be the only one not mingling with others.
“She looks a bit lonely and awkward,” I said. “I don’t know who she is, but there’s something familiar about her. Why does she remind me of Billy? No, hang on, she’s more like Carol, only a young, pretty version.”
Hector laughed. “Everyone looks the same on a dark night like this, all bundled up against the cold. It’s easier to recognise people in their Halloween outfits.”
He turned around to check her out, and gazed at the woman for so long that I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t think she was that good-looking.
“Actually I don’t know who she is either,” he said at last. “I wonder whether she’s a traveller? They congregate down on Slate Common now and again, until the council gets the police to move them on. I hadn’t heard they were back.”
I wanted him to return his attention to me.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“I’ll show you.”
He took my hand and led me through the crowd to a trestle table outside the pub, where Donald and his wife were busy ladling mulled wine into polystyrene cups.
“First, we all have some of this, on the house.” He picked up two full cups and handed one to me. “Then we all assemble round the Christmas tree on the green, where the youngest child in the school and the oldest person in the village do the ceremonial switching on of the tree lights. It’s a big honour.”
I thought about this for a moment.
“Has anyone ever hung around long enough to have done both?” I asked.
“Good question, Sophie. If you ask Bella, as the parish clerk, she’ll be able to look it up in the council archives and tell you.”
As they collected their mulled wine, people began to surge away from the pub towards the green. Nobody took the most direct route, but wove in and out as they talked to each other. The sight put me in mind of a murmuration of starlings at dusk.
“Has anyone ever been the oldest person in the village for more than a year?” I asked. “I don’t think I’d fancy being the chosen one. It would feel like stepping to the front of the queue for the village graveyard.”
Hector steered us expertly into a place at the inner edge of the throng, now arranging itself in a circle around the green. “I think the record was five times for one old lady when I was a child. I was starting to think she was immortal, some kind of witch. She even survived the lights fusing the fifth time she switched them on.”
“Maybe the power surge recharged her batteries.”
Wondering who would be the oldest and youngest this year, I was surprised when Billy stepped forward, along with a very small boy in a snowsuit and Thomas the Tank Engine wellies.
“I thought Joshua was older than Billy?” I said in a low voice to Hector as a hush fell over the crowd.
“Yes, but he’s not up to this kind of outing at night. Didn’t you read his message in the parish magazine delegating his duty to Billy?”
I chided myself for still not reading it from cover to cover, as it was the highest authority on village news.
The Reverend Murray stepped into the centre of the circle, with Mrs Murray, neat and smiling, at his side. Several people in the front row turned torches on him, during his brief speech of welcome, thanking The Bluebird for its hospitality and the team of dads who had put up the tree and the lights.
His words fell away in the cold night air, punctuated by puffs of vapour emanating from his mouth. When he stopped speaking, everyone clapped, and those who’d come early to the mulled wine whooped and cheered.
When the shouting died down to a respectful silence, the vicar pronounced a formal blessing on the ceremony and made a sign of the cross in the direction of the Christmas tree.
Finally, he beckoned to Billy and the little boy to step up to a large metal box at the foot of the tree. He lifted the lid to reveal a big red handle. I moved closer to Hector.
Billy reached first to the little boy, holding out his hand.
“Come along, Davy, you hold on to old Billy’s hand, and we’ll do this together.”
The little boy shook his head and backed away a step or two. Perhaps the sight of the red handle reminded him of the bomb detonator so often featured in cartoons.
Billy shrugged. “Suit yourself, then.” I heard his knees crack as he bent down to reach the handle. He grabbed it, then stood stock still, waiting, familiar with the drill after witnessing the process for scores of years.
“Torches off now, folks, please!” said Mr Murray. “Now let’s have the countdown. Five, four, three…”
At zero, there was a split second of expectant hush. Then BANG! But the Christmas tree lights remained dark.
Like to read the rest of the novel?
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Although this is the third in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, it can be read as a standalone novel and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the first two – but I hope you’ll want to, as well as the three books after this one! Now back to writing the seventh in the series, Murder Lost and Found…