Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.
‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is my favourite piece by one of my favourite writers, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro). Saki was a novelist, parodist, author of short stories, journalist, and an wit in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. Like the first two of that triumvirate, he was also gay. He died during the Battle of Ancre (1916) in World War 1. Reginald is Saki’s most exquisite hero, a natural successor to Algernon Montcrieff, and the precursor to Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Nancy Mitford’s Cedric Hampton. The piece below comes from Christmas 1904, and was originally published in the Westminster Gazette. I’ve illustrated it with some images of Edwardian Christmas, building on yesterday’s Victorian Christmas extravaganza.
My copy of the Complete Saki was given to me by my wonderful late grandfather. In full disclosure, ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is almost the first piece in the book. As a teenager, those first two sentences hooked me, and they always delight me with their instant immersion in Saki’s era. In 2017, I suggest we all follow Reginald’s guidance when it comes to last-minute Christmas shopping: I, for one, am always willing to receive ‘something quite sweet in the way of jewellery’.
Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki (1904)
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.
There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.
Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.
The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.
But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.
Imagine that I blogged yesterday. Imagine that this was not derailed by encouraging Own Godson – five months, two chins, rolls of chub where lesser mortals have wrists and knees – to consume 50 precious ml. of milk before snoring, and then by attending the Magdalen Christmas Entertainment. Both were extremely festive.
Godson admired our Christmas tree, kicked his legs, and practiced a range of noises ranging from the dulcet coo to the tropical-bird-cum-opera-singer shriek. My mum has been visiting, so he appreciated the triumvirate of adoring women dedicated to passing him toys and acclaiming his cleverness.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas focuses on the newborn Jesus, and aside from two of the Gospels describing how he ‘kept increasing in wisdom and stature’, he next turns up as an (I imagine) infuriatingly precocious twelve-year-old. Being very fond of babies, I have a great deal of sympathy for the writers and (even if saccharine) artists who’ve wallowed in a longer narrative of Jesus’s babyhood. I always liked the line of Once In Royal David’s City about the child Jesus: ‘tears us and smiles like us he knew’ (much better than the the verse detailing Jesus’ invariable obedience to Mary). It’s cheering to imagine Jesus at five months, testing his lungs and kicking his legs – even if he didn’t have a cuddly octopus to attack with the same gusto with which our godson wrangles his. I’m also grateful not to be looking after said godson in a stable, or anywhere full of sand.
Then college, where the tiny choristers were significantly less sleepy than last year, inc. the very smallest and blondest who looked about to burst with excitement during The Twelve Days of Christmas (as, in all honesty, did the countertenor who sang a Mariah Carey-esque solo during Jingle Bells). The pudding was ignited. The Academical Clerks (big choristers) sang more Mariah Carey over mulled wine. The tree’s lights sparkled and the cloisters weren’t any damper than last year. Today, we made a festive pilgrimage to the Broad Street market (and, er, John Lewis). I bought a winter hat that wasn’t designed for a man with an XL skull – an epoch.
Jumping back to Thursday evening (in an oscillation entirely unsuited to the relentless onwards push of an Advent Calendar), three small choristers read from Molesworth’s How To Be Topp (1958) by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. It was so funny that I decided to repost it here – and nobody really minds opening two windows at once on an Advent Calendar, in order to enjoy two lots of chocolate a double dose of seasonal cheer:
Another thing about xmas eve is that your pater always reads the xmas carol by c. dickens. You canot stop this aktualy although he pretend to ask you whether you would like it. He sa: Would you like me to read the xmas carol as it is xmas eve, boys?
We are listening to the space serial on the wireless, daddy.
But you canot prefer that nonsense to the classick c. dickens?
Be quiet. He is out of control and heading for jupiter.
But — He’s had it the treen space ships are ataking him ur-ur-ur-whoosh. Out of control limping in the space vacuum for evermore unless they can get the gastric fuel compressor tampons open.
I — Why don’t they try Earth on the intercom? They will never open those tampons with only a z-ray griper. They will — Father thwarted strike both boys heavily with loaded xmas stoking and tie their hands behind their backs. He cart them senseless into the sitting room and prop both on his knees. Then he begin: THE XMAS CAROL by C. DICKENS (published by grabber and grabber) Then he rub hands together and sa You will enjoy this boys it is all about ghosts and goodwill. It is tip-top stuff and there is an old man called scrooge who hates xmas and canot understand why everyone is so mery. To this you sa nothing except that scrooge is your favourite character in fiction next to tarzan of the apes. But you can sa anything chiz. Nothing in the world in space is ever going to stop those fatal words: Marley was dead Personaly i do not care a d. whether Marley was dead or not it is just that there is something about the xmas Carol which makes paters and grown-ups read with grate )(PRESTON, and this is very embarassing for all. It is all right for the first part they just roll the r’s a lot but wate till they come to scrooge’s nephew. When he sa Mery Christmas uncle it is like an H-bomb xplosion and so it go on until you get to Tiny Tim chiz chiz chiz he is a weed. When Tiny Tim sa God bless us every one your pater is so overcome he burst out blubbing. By this time boys hay bitten through their ropes and make good their escape so 9000000000 boos to bob cratchit.
Xmas Nite At last the tiny felows are tucked up snug in their beds with 3 pilow slips awaiting santa claus. As the lite go off a horid doubt assale the mind e.g. suposing there is a santa claus. Zoom about and lay a few traps for him (see picture) Determin to lie awake and get him but go to slepe in the end cruz and dream of space ships. While thus employed something do seem to be hapning among the earthmen.
Be quiet you will wake them up. Hav you got the mecano his is the one with 3 oranges if you drop that pedal car agane i shall scream where are the spangles can you not tie a knot for heavens sake ect. ect.
It would seem that the earthmen are up to something but you are far to busy with the treens who are defending the space palace with germ guns. So snore on, fair child, snore on with thy inocent dreams and do not get the blud all over you.
The Day Xmas day always start badly becos molesworth 2 blub he has not got the reel roolsroyce he asked for. We then hay argument that each has more presents than the other. A Mery Xmas everybode sa scrooge in the end but we just call each other clot-faced wets so are you you you you pointing with our horny fingers it is very joly i must sa. In the end i wear molesworth 2’s cowboy suit and he pla with my air gun so all is quiet.
Then comes DINNER.
This is super as there are turkey crackers nuts cream plum puding jely and everything. We wash it down with a litle ginger ale but grown ups all drink wine ugh and this make all the old lades and grans very sprightly i must sa. They sa how sweet we are they must be dotty until pater raps the table and look v. solemn. He holds up his glass and sa in a low voice The QUEEN. Cheers cheers cheers for the queen we all drink and hurra for england.
Then pater sa in much lower voice ABSENT FRIENDS and everyone else sa absent friends absent friends absent friends ect. and begin blubbing. In fact it do not seme that you can go far at xmas time without blubbing of some sort and when they listen to the wireless in the afternoon all about the lonely shepherd and the lighthousemen they are in floods of tears.
Still xmas is a good time with all those presents and good food and i hope it will never die out or at any rate not until i am grown up and have to pay for it all. So ho skip and away the next thing we shall be taken to peter pan for a treat so brace up brace up.
Recipe: equal parts brandy and vodka; apples; as much sugar as seems plausible; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 star anise; twice as much nutmeg. Maturation: 6 weeks. Appearance and Colour: sandalwood; simmering; amber; every Medieval picture of St Joseph Bouquet: church pews; alcoholism; The Forest Primeval, fruit (?) Mouthfeel: Scathing, with hints of huntsman; Signs You May Be Dying In A Victorian Novel; sombre, with notes of Heathcliff; holly; the Bayley poem where she gets locked in a trunk; standoffish ghosts; the theory and practice of a ‘family retainer’ Finish: It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank
Clementine and Cranberry Vodka:
Recipe: Cranberries (1 pkt thereof); the zest of three clementines and then the juice because you got bored; enough vodka to cover all of that; Some Gin; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 nutmeg (grated); some marmalade; it’ll probably be fine Maturation: 6 weeks Appearance and Colour: Ribena’s trashy sister Bouquet: plausibility; wassail; polka; Dita Von Teese in Zac Posen Pre-Fall 2018; any Robert Graves poem; My Barbie Kremlin; syrup; The Christmas Candle Mouthfeel: silken; festive; would not be out of place at Old Fezziwig’s Christmas Party; frolicsome, with hints of vodka Finish: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
Apple Brandy No. 2:
Recipe: 4 small green apples, rustically* (*unevenly) chopped; brandy; jerez; Some Gin; 1 star anise; 12 tbps sugar; 1 stick cinnamon (whole); A Secret Ingredient; gin again. Maturation: A fortnight and odd days Appearance and Colour: Apple Brandy No. 1’s blonde cousin, who lies about her age Bouquet: aspiration; The Mayor of Casterbridge; an altercation at the County Fair; sacrilege; Christmas At Brambly Hedge; Sufjan Stevens; apples (?) Mouthfeel: sprightliness; sugar mice; seed pearls; pince-nez; liquorice; green apples; pink elephants; the comic subplot of a Jane Austen novel; After-Eights; unsteadiness; The Land. Finish: I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day (actual ships: 0).
I was going to tell you about this awesome poem about Serbia and the Annunciation and, I don’t know, man’s inhumanity to man, but after a trillion interviews, chicken Kiev, and a vintage episode of Silent Witness, that kind of Quality Content is beyond me. So you get to enjoy my carefully-curated edit of videos of cats being little bastards with Christmas trees.
All the best cats (inc. the late Daisy, 50% Queen Victoria, 50% Henry VIII, a short-legged tortoiseshell who never shut up) cannot be trusted with a Christmas tree. If you’re not pulling yards of tinsel from their throat, they’re shredding parcels, chasing baubles, or sitting twelve feet from a swaying disaster, wearing an insolent expression that demands of you: WHAT?
Christmas-tree-decorating is joyous, technical, and highly ritualised. DEPTH. PRIORITY. THE FANNING OF BRANCHES. My preferred aesthetic is somewhere between Liberty’s of London and the Disneyland Hotel (two spiritual homes). Growing up (I say this like I am now (a) tall, and (b) different), my favourite decorations included the gorgeous wooden and china ones my mother had bought at Literal Disneyland while on tour with the RSC . They’re everything. Less admirably, my other favourite decorations also included (and include) a strange fox in a hatbox, and a resin badger now missing one foot, both chosen by self when under seven. I “compromise” about their inclusion each year by putting them in a moderately secluded position and daring anyone to challenge me.
Wife & self & parents decorated the Stratford Tree last weekend; tonight, after a symposium on the Medical Humanities, Strictly, and an excellent chicken Kiev, wife & self did the Oxford Tree. My mum gave us selfie props. The result, as you’ll see, is like a gayer Abigail’s Party with the entire cast in need of haircuts. The pictured cocktail, the Festive Unicorn, is now a tradition. Because I have Pinterest aspirations but cannot sew or cook, my version of Christmas catering is to infuse lethal alcohol from gin, fruit, and Kilner jars. I am in a harrowing psychological war with our friend Ben in the field of Festive Prep, but since he has an actual label-maker for his homemade jam, I’ve lost. Two years ago, while tree-decorating, I cured Emily’s flu by switching her from Lemsip to Homemade Raspberry Vodka. Think on, and Happy 2nd December.
P.S. Here is our tree-decorating-playlist. It’s not groundbreaking but its inclusion makes me feel like An Influencer. Last Christmas is on there an integer number of times because it’s the greatest Christmas pop song ever written.
I last fashioned a blog advent calendar approximately 300 years ago, with a modicum of planning and pretensions to festive continuity. This year, I’m emerging from eight weeks of twenty-four tutorials, twelve lectures, five seminars, and one short-trade-book-coming-out-in-January (of which more soon!), to a weekend’s pause before we enter the frenetically flapjack-fuelled Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, aka Admissions. If anyone finds this because they’re facing university interviews over the next fortnight – especially anyone hastening to the deer park + river + gargoyles palooza – hello, best of luck, we’re all rooting for you and I do remember what it was like. I genuinely love admissions, what with my Dream Team Co-Interviewer (whose daily etymologies are the purest thing on Twitter), the v. many bright young candidates, and the flapjacks.
Given the above, what could be better than committing to a daily bout of Advent blogpost goodness? Treat that question as rhetorical. I miss blogging, I like December, and nestled in the ensuing chaos of YouTubed Muppets and disturbing Scandiwegian frost-folk will be a genuine attempt to mark and benefit from Advent, the loveliest season of the year (even if the Thames Valley climate soon drives me to a reversed balaclava). I might borrow from other Advent preparation blogs, I will certainly bang on about my preferred charitable causes (poverty, homelessness, gender and sexual equality), and in extremis I might even be driven to cook (or, as my wife suggests, “write about how [I] hated all the wrapping paper [she] bought, then admitted it wasn’t so bad”).
When trying to find a theme for this post, I noted that it is the patronal feast of St Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewellers – which makes it a good day to buy something sparkly. Or even FIVE GOLD RINGS (…segue…). The best and most bizarre YouTube video available shows Montserrat Caballe and a dozen peaky, toothy choirboys weeshing us a Merry Chreestmas from Beaulieu Palace House for the edification of one old man and some shoulderpads. For what initially seems like a more orthodox alternative, let Wells Cathedral coax you into the festive season.