Mary Tant's Christmas 2012

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This is especially Tirn's day this year. My elderly collie is fifteen and a half now, but he recovered some of his youthful excitement when the presents were put under the Christmas tree. He remembered that presents meant biscuits. But he didn't remember that biscuits only appeared (palmed from his usual tin by everyone in turn) when the presents were unwrapped. So he was discovered several times pretending to be a truffle dog, rooting around among the presents, nudging them gently aside to see what was hidden beneath them.

In between forays under the tree he trotted out to the kitchen to see what progress was being made with the turkey. He kept vigil there for a while, watching the cook closely to make sure things were being done properly.

At the end of the day he was still bright-eyed and alert. He didn't indicate that the evening should end at ten by staring around and then climbing deliberately into his bed to go to sleep, as he usually does now. Instead he lay in front of the fire, watching the last game of charades with intense interest.

All in all, he had a good Christmas. And so did I, with a lovely memento in a small enamelled music box, featuring a collie among farm animals on the outside and playing Old MacDonald had a Farm.

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Classic-crime novelist Mary Tant says, 'I've always loved Christmas, choosing presents, making mince pies and cakes, decorating the tree. And there are so many Christmas markets to visit, candlelit celebrations to enjoy and opportunities to sing carols. The month flies by until we're finally lighting the fire, switching on the tree lights and sitting down to a turkey dinner.'

'So this year I'm writing a special page, posting an account every day of just some of the Christmas things that I enjoy. I hope that Tirn, my elderly collie, will feature too in what will be his sixteenth Christmas with me.'

If you would like the regular home page, please use the link.



West Green Christmas Fayre – Hartley Wintney, Hampshire

The greenhouses full of Christmas goodies sit in the apple orchard at the side of West Green's red-brick Georgian house. Candle-lit lanterns light the way to the greenhouse doors, while faint glimpses of colour show through the panes. Inside it's a wonderland of rich crimsons and golds that first catches the eye. Pine wreaths wind sinuously around felt reindeer, woven hazel deer and albino hedgehogs. The wonderlandA Christmas tree is laden with feathered birds in turquoise and blue, their colours reflected in the bejewelled silver sprays around them. Candles glint everywhere, buried in greenery or standing proud as a focal point.

A wooden barrow stands at the back, casually displaying a huge wreath of greenery, studded with scarlet berries. It's an artful reminder that the fayre is held chiefly here in the working greenhouses, where plants line the side shelves and red-veined vine leaves still hang above the temporary pine ceiling.

Light lunches and teas are served in the old wood store where I sat among more Christmas decorations, absorbing ideas and looking through the windows into the courtyard. Its Alice in Wonderland theme couldn't be more appropriate. The old wood storeAn ancient wisteria here half conceals the door into the walled garden, the beginning of the wonders that lie within West Green all year. There's another door from the garden into the tiny parkland, complete with its own lake and Chinese bridge, with lots of surprises added by Marylyn Abbott. Water is frequently a theme, from the fountains of the tranquil Persian garden, or passing through the moon gate to a water stairway. This leads to the top of the garden, near the corner were Monkey, a beloved spaniel, is remembered in a little timber and flint folly. Never mind Christmas. This is one of my most favourite places to visit at any time.

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The kitchen has been full of great bowlfuls of dried fruit and spices, mixed with vegetable suet and different spirits, and covered with colourful tea towels. As the mixtures macerate the room becomes heady with the scent of mincemeat. It is such a satisfying thing to make, with so many possible varieties. I generally use Sara Paston-Williams' recipes from The National Trust Book of the Country Kitchen Store Cupboard.

My favourite mincemeat is walnut and cherry, which I mainly keep for my own use. But I make apricot and hazelnut, as well as pear and fig too. With patterned covers tied over the lids and personalised labels (done mainly on the computer these days), I have token presents ready to give to friends over the festive season.

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Dartmouth lantern procession

Lights shone like strings of diamonds along the bank on the far side of the river Dart. On this side, Dartmouth was lit too, with glittering strands draped across the fronts of the old many-storeyed timber buildings that edge the inner harbour.

Inner harbour

Here on the dark water boats floated silently, their masts bobbing gently, occasionally reflecting a glimmer of brightness. A single swan shone white against the black water, moving with eerie quiet among the hulls of the boats.

The town side of the little harbour and the gardens on the far side were full of brightness and movement. People moved between the Christmas market stalls, sampling the goods. Laughter and chatter filled the air, The Cherubthick with the scent of mulled wine and hot chocolate.

In the network of streets above there was another string of lights, but this one moved, the sparks of light bobbing up and down, weaving round the houses, in and out of sight. The constant sound of drums was loud then quiet, near then far, as the procession of lantern bearers marched up and down the lanes, now in the town, now close to the river.

Old Dartmouth streetsWhen at last they came into sight by the harbour, heralded by the torches of the dancers, the paper lanterns became shapes as well as lights. The town's bonds with the river and sea were celebrated with fish and dolphins, ships and stars, lit by golden lights or bound with sparkling silver. And past they went, moving to the beat of the drums that sounded like a steady throbbing of the heart.

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Christmas puddings

The kitchen has been full of more wonderful scents. Tirn, my elderly collie, has taken up his old position under the kitchen table to keep an eye on proceedings. He doesn't much favour his bed here these days, but has been unable to resist the smell of Christmas pudding. He lies quiet still on his bed, but whenever I glance down he hasn't dozed off as he normally does now. His eyes are bright and watchful. He can't hear the hiss of the pressure cooker, but he can notice the smell of the puddings as they cook. It's as if he remembers the pattern of preparations before Christmas and is perhaps already anticipating the arrival of the turkey.

The pressure cooker has been active for a whole day, steaming a series of Christmas puddings. I don't much like heavy fruit mixtures, so these are made to another Sara Paston-Williams recipe, this time from The National Trust Book of Christmas and Festive Days Recipes. The puddings come in a variety of sizes, from the large one for Christmas day, down through smaller ones to the very tiny ones. Again, attractively tied up with ribbon, the pots make good presents for friends.

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Apple trees cling to the slope of Lustleigh Community Orchard below the slopes of Dartmoor. Their gnarled trunks and branches are silvered with lichen, and many support huge lime-green balls of mistletoe, Lustleigh church towermostly the female plant with waxy white berries.

Below, the slope runs down to the brook, its falling water making the only sound in the still air. Heavily mossed boulders litter one end of the orchard; at the other the village church tower stands solidly above the cottage roofs, its crenelated roofline cutting into the distant view of trees.

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Tea shop Christmas

Red carpet, white walls, black-beamed ceiling, lights sparking colours from the baubles on the Christmas Lighted windowtree in the corner, this room is ideal for a festive tea. The wide-paned window is virtually the width of the room, looking out over a small square that has the Dart bookshop conveniently at the other end. One of the houses that edge the square is a beautifully restored timber framed building, its upper storeys progressively leaning out over the pavement, resembling one of the galleons that once used the harbour below.

The Singing Kettle in Dartmouth is also an ancient building, perhaps once a shop that catered to the needs of the people of the square. InteriorNow it provides a superb tea, a moist carrot cake, a fruitcake almost as rich as a Christmas cake and a lemon drizzle cake. And they're all served with slices of fresh fruit.

You can sit at the wooden tables with black and white table runners to match the huge bows tied onto the lathback chairs, listening to the locals chatting, and admiring the tall glass vases on the table, which each hold a single scented lily. Tea comes in a silver-plated set on a tray, with a tea strainer. Coffee potsIt was served with impeccable courtesy by the waiter, who was patience itself, collecting in turn my hat, gloves and bag from the floor as I tried to position all my shopping before sitting down.

It's an old-fashioned setting, with old-fashioned manners, and an ideal modern menu.

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Christmas baubles

The wooden door in the old sexton's cottage was fringed with a fir rope Front doorstudded with dried oranges and sticks of cinnamon. Now it's Widecombe's tiny National Trust shop, and inside it was warm and inviting. I lingered over chocolates from The Chocolate Orchard at Ermington, before a basket of glass baubles caught my eye. Plain glass in a variety of sizes, some were topped and bottomed in shades of blue, green, red and gold. Designed by a Devon woman, all were circled by swirling strands of gold or silver, like stylised flowers and leaves. They were from the Treasuretree collection, two of whose exquisite reindeer will shortly be gracing my sitting room mantelpiece.

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Carols with the donkeys

little donkey Donkeys gathered in large numbers in the yard for their equivalent of mulled wine and mince pies. They lined the metal troughs, munching their way through their feed before they came thronging into their half of the barn.

Some kept their distance from the people in the other half, eyeing them cautiously. Some foraged in the mangers beside the straw bale seats that divided the space. donkey & strawThe feeding donkeys thrust their heads right down under the hay, searching out the seeds that had fallen to the bottom. When they emerged their heads were crowned with golden chaff.

Feeding pretty much stopped once the carol singing started with Little Donkey. The donkeys were unsettled by the sudden unexpected noise, then curious about what was going on, ears twitching towards the crowd.

crib donkeyBy the time we got half way through the programme, several had come close to stare, quite calm and almost soothed by the sound of singing.

It was the loveliest carol service I've ever been to. It seems more than appropriate that a final verse had been added to Little Donkey by Dr Elizabeth Svendsen, founder of this place, the Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth in Devon.

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Christmas cake

One of the pre-Christmas ceremonies is the weekly unwrapping of the fruitcake, to sprinkle it with tiny quantities of brandy. I don't much like a heavy cake, so use another of Sara Paston-Williams's recipes. And I don't like spirits, but I do enjoy moistening the cake. By the time it's cut I can't taste the alcohol.

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Winchester Christmas market

Pass the front of Winchester cathedral, dive under the arch to the cloister and be stunned at the scene in front of you. Bright yellow pine sheds line the old cloisters, starting right under the high wall of the cathedral itself, whose tall windows glitter in the dull light. The Christmas stalls go round the far corner, skirting the small ice rink, edging towards the Bishop's Palace, and under the Prior's Hall, where I've danced at Christmas, looking out at the lighted stalls.

These are trimmed with lanterns and wreaths, and loaded with a variety of temptations, from traditional bright dried citrus fruit ropes and garlands, to German spiced sausages of all kinds, and jewellery, knitwear, and just about anything else that creators can create.

And over it all creeps the insidious tempting scent of mulled wine, hot chocolate and mince pies.

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Christmas shop

A large woven hazel reindeer stands guard in the window, glittery snow on his back as he gazes out over the street. Venturing into the cavernous room behind him, I was surrounded by colour and scent. Odds and Suds The long table in the centre is piled with soaps and bath truffles, which are studded with cinnamon and orange, or rolled in rose and cornflower petals. High shelves are loaded with candles, trays and boxes are stuffed with miniature soaps and topped with bear shapes and fir cones.

Odds and Suds in Ashburton is one of my favourite shops all through the year. At Christmas it's a magical place. For a woman it's like the adult version of being a child in a toyshop.

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Christmas gingerbread

The gingerbread cake is ready for icing. I'm always nervous when pouring the mixture onto the cake, and breath a sigh of relief if it glides over to a smooth finish. In my early days of doing this I had the icing congealing in a solid lump on the cake top, or slithering over to pool around its base.

Still, the decorating is what I enjoy most. And slices of stem ginger and cherries can disguise any blips in the icing, and a wide ribbon tied round the cake can hide any ragged drips.

And it's always been delicious to eat.

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Christmas pub

In a narrow street of brick houses there is a pair of discreet green double doors. Beyond them is a network of rooms, full of people. In the narrow front bar area they sit at paired old desks retired from the nearby college, while the wider bar beyond has a more eclectic selection of wooden tables.

A Christmas tree glitters by the door, a festive statement, but fires burn in the hearths all through the winter. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with old prints of buildings and people, and a collection of headgear. The ceiling is hung with tankards, the pewter ones glinting in the subdued light. And the conversations are subdued too, but fill the rooms with the hum of voices. A faint excitement and a more definite air of exhaustion mark out the shoppers from the nearby Christmas market as they sink into chairs. But many of the people who come here are local people, regular visitors. Part of my family lived in this area a hundred years ago, long before I was born. But these streets have always been familiar to me, and this, The Wykeham Arms in Winchester, is the first pub I ever entered as an adult.

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Mince pies

Orange zest goes into the pastry, cream cheese on top of the mincemeat before I put the pastry lids onto the pies. This is my most favourite Christmas food, apart from the turkey. I make dozens of these mince pies, storing the bulk of them in the freezer. If I left them in the larder I'd eat them all day. Not a good idea!

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Choosing the Christmas tree

It's a trek out over icy lanes, past frosted hedgerows and fields where the furrows are frozen solid to the isolated farm high on the downs. The air is full of the scent of wood smoke from the small stove near a large barn, and of pine. Freshly-cut local Christmas trees stand nearby, and a helpful man holds up my choices one by one, turning them this way and that until I make my decision.

While the tree's put through the wrapping machine I venture into the barn. Mistletoe hangs from beams and lies piled in an old metal bath. Long pine ropes and wreaths are studded with cones and drape every possible surface.

If my timing is right there's even mulled wine and mince pies. It always feels as though Christmas is actually just round the corner when I come here.

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Christmas house

The huge wooden door at the top of the wide steps opened quietly as I approached, passing the 1914 Austin coupé that stood on the drive. The man behind the door, smart in black and white Edwardian tie and tails, stood back to let me pass through to the great hall.

A huge fire burned in the hearth, the mantelpiece bore a swagged pine wreath, and the Christmas tree in the corner reached up to the ceiling. The wood-panelled walls were softly lit by lamps, and the crimson velvet chesterfield invited me to linger by the fireplace, sipping my mulled wine, listening to tunes on a hand-turned gramophone.

Although Jane Austen's brother, Edward Knight, lived here on occasion, and still looks down from his portrait in another room, the period that was recreated for Christmas was that of Edward's descendent Montagu. He was here during the Edwardian period, when he may have stood here in a similar scene, warming his coat tails in front of the fire.

Chawton House is now a world-famous library, specialising in the work of early English women writers. The estate has generally been restored to reflect Jane Austen's own time, with the house and grounds looking much as she would have known them. I've been able to watch the transformation over the last ten years, but Christmas is still a special time here.

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Christmas hyacinths

I take some of my forced City of Haarlem cream and Pink Pearl hyacinths come out of their bulb vases now. They go into papier-mâché bowls of glowing gold and red and out into warm rooms. They are really for the period after Christmas and will survive into the New Year, adding scent and colour when the Christmas decorations have been taken down.

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Christmas church

It looks like the door to a small old timber-framed house, St Swithun's doorwaybut once it's opened a flight of wooden stairs are revealed, leading up to another heavy wooden door. And behind this is the ancient little church of St Swithun's in Winchester, with its whitewashed walls, arched windows and bare wooden roof beams.

Set above the arches of the Kingsgate, it's like being afloat on a ship above the noise and bustle of Winchester. It's a place of respite, somewhere to remember those I love, St Swithun's altarthe living and the dead, to count my blessings and hope for strength to face the difficulties of life. And here there is, for me at least, a strong sense of others who have done just the same down the centuries, some of whom may even have been my ancestors.

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Christmas wreath

My woven wood wreath is revamped most years. I replace worn fir cones, add new dried oranges and lemons, tie on fresh cinnamon sticks. It's meant to have a minimalist effect, showing to advantage against the green paint of the front door and the muted colours of the Victorian glass in the panels.

But I was unable to resist a lovely spruce wreath tied with scarlet hessian ribbons, studded with orange slices and whorled bark circles. So this surrounds my beautiful candle centrepiece, with vanilla pods and cinnamon sticks embedded in the white wax. The first comes from a lovely shop, appropriately called Garden Inn in Stockbridge. The second was an indulgence at the Winchester Christmas market, from the Whacky Shack candle stall.

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Christmas street

The street rises gently up from the canal bridge to the top of town. It's a wide street, typical of an old market town, and lined with period houses and cottages, with a cluster of shops in its lower half. All the way along the frontages small Christmas trees, sparkling with white lights, project slightly outwards from the first storeys. Understated and elegant, but very festive, with this display I felt that a Georgian resident in Hungerford fast-forwarding to today could have felt quite at home.

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Britten's Ceremony of Carols

My eyes were at first drawn to the splash of scarlet made by the robes of the choristers in front of the chancel screen. Then as I listened to the pure clear notes of their voices rising through Winchester cathedral my eyes rose with the sound, up and up the pale stone walls to the soaring tracery of the ceiling high above.

It's a very special place to listen to this collection of carols from centuries past. The earliest were written in Latin and in fourteenth century English with its interesting spellings. And so often the words relate to the natural world, with its roses, nightingales and April dews.

I especially enjoy the 'Spring Carol' by William Cornish, although it doesn't seem entirely seasonal. The singing is light and merry, interspersed by the rippling notes of the harp, played by Frances Kelly. It starts

Pleasure it is to hear iwis, the Birdes sing,

The deer in the dale, the sheep in the vale, the corn springing.
It always makes me feel that spring is just round the corner – which the current downpours of rain certainly don't.

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Decorating the Christmas tree

RobinThe tree graces my sitting room as I write, my mementos hanging from the branches, reminding me of so many scenes in my life. There's the fat red-breasted robin who eyes me so merrily above the bent flaxen head of the angel playing his scarlet trumpet, who were both there on the first tree I ever decorated. There are still the slender glass droplets tipped with gold that have survived for so many years to be hung out again, gently reflecting the lights on the tree. The tiny green Christmas tree, with its dangling red baubles, was the gift of a dear friend who died almost three years ago. Glass reindeerThe new glass reindeer are reminders of happy days in the New Forest with Tirn, my elderly collie.

Tirn has always loved the Christmas tree. This year his interest is less intense, he doesn't sit watching the sparkling colours, or peer intently up into it, searching for something I can't see. But he does lie nearby in his bed, head pushed under the lowest branches, nostrils drinking in the scent of pine. I can't believe how lucky I am to still have him. So many of this year's Christmas cards mentioned the deaths of his friends and contemporaries, the dogs he used to run and play with.

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Christmas Nativity

The dark shape of the ox was just visible beyond the pile of straw where the baby Jesus would soon lay. On either side Mary and Joseph knelt in patient anticipation. The whole scene was carefully encased in glass, protected from the weather, and Cribsat under the walls of the church of St Thomas & All Saints in Lymington.

I first saw these outdoor, life-size nativity scenes in villages in Madeira, where real animals were often part of the picture. There were sheep, until one year the nativity performers were stolen. I believe that afterwards, in that particular village, stuffed sheep were used instead. And there were donkeys too, standing stoically near the crib.

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Christmas turkey

Donkeys are so much a feature of my life that I wasn't at all surprised to pass a line of them as I went to fetch my Christmas turkey. They were walking, one behind the other, up the narrow pavement in front of the redbrick Georgian cottages in Beaulieu, almost as if they too were on their way to the butcher's shop.

It's a small shop, Beaulieu Organic Farm Shop, outside the village and on the edge of the forest. I first began to buy meat from the butchers when they were based further away. Then I passed a field full of white geese on my way to shop. Now I often find donkeys, and sometimes ponies, grazing outside.

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