Some Thoughts about Christmas

Well, we’ve made it to Boxing Day; survived another Christmas. How was it for you?

As we settle down to read our books, play with our presents and think up ever more imaginative recipes for left overs, here are some thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas.

What comes into your mind when you imagine Christmas? Peace and Goodwill to all Mankind? Food and Drink? Family gathered round a roaring fire? Snow?

Lighting the Pudding – Symbol of Midwinter?

No, the real meaning of Christmas is Fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of starvation. Fear that this year the sun will not return and the world will end.

This is the reason that men hauled rocks half way across the country, to measure the midwinter sun at Stonehenge and passages in cold barrows were carefully aligned to mark the moment. Why calendars were developed, to calculate the day; the day when the sun turned and all mankind rejoiced that life would continue.

At a time when life depended on a good harvest and food was short in winter, it was a vital time; more so the further north you lived. Cold as well as the absence of light could be deadly, which is why most of the winter traditions originated there. Do people who live close to the equator and have no experience of short freezing days have any winter celebrations?

Winter comes and times are hard. Food must be hoarded, eked out to last the winter. Fuel collected to keep warm and the darkness at bay. How do you know when the worst is over? When the days lengthen again. What can you do to help it happen? Mankind has always invented rituals to control their lives; gods to pray to or bargain with; someone to thank when things go right – or make sacrifices to, when times are bad.

That is why we have Christmas and all the other winter festivals. I am not going into details. I’m sure most of us are sick of the discussions as to whether Christianity took over the Roman festival of Saturnalia or arguments about who invented Father Christmas or Santa Claus and whether his reindeer sleigh developed from Odin’s cart pulled by goats. Common to all of them is the moment when darkness was conquered and we could celebrate.

However, nowadays we seem to have lost the reason and celebration is everything. The early Christians turned necessity into religion, with Advent. A time of prayer and fasting, before the celebration of the Birth of Christ. The date was set as 25th December, disconnected from the actual shortest day and it lasted twelve days.

In the present era of plenty, people forgot the time of starvation and advent has become part of the preparation. Every year the period becomes longer, it now starts with Black Friday, in November and the shops start to fill with Christmas goods even earlier. Everyone complains it comes too early. There is the putting up of trees, sending of cards, the office parties and other premature celebrations. By the time Christmas Day arrives, everyone is sick of it, and so we sit here thinking “Was that it?” and start taking down the decorations.

Knowing there should be more, there is a final burst of fireworks and drinking. New Years Eve, when everything stops and we watch the clocks count down – to what? A moment accurately calculated by scientists to mark – an event nearly two weeks past.

This change is not recent. It happened long ago, when we lost our connection with the land, and time. Is it a coincidence that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and in the process “invented” the modern Christmas, at just the tipping point that more people lived in towns than in the country? When the agricultural cycle was forgotten by most. In cities, with industry and commerce, there was no winter starvation. If you were poor you could starve at any time of year, for everyone else food was plentiful all the time. But the mid-winter celebration was remembered.

Religion declined, and advent became a tinsel covered coat hanger on Blue Peter. People still go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, not even knowing why.

And we are discontented with Christmas. We feel guilty because, deep in our ancient brain we know it is wrong. Wrong to celebrate when we have not performed the penance, placated the gods.

Is that why, when it is all over, when the New Year has been rung in, then we make our promises? To give up alcohol, to get fit, to become a better person, to finish writing that book.

Wouldn’t we enjoy Christmas more, if we had done that first?

Is that why I read, and write, historical fiction? Because they knew how to do it right?

Happy New Year.


A Story for Christmas

A Christmas present for all my readers.

(This short story was originally published here two years ago.}


Kingdom of Wessex, in the year of our Lord Nine Hundred and Thirty Eight.

The boy was cold. He flexed his hands, but his fingers were becoming numb. He had lost all feeling in his toes long ago. He was high in a tree, lying flat along a thick branch. The fresh smell of the bristly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow lay also on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees. Everything was still. Everything was silent.

There had been plenty of noise earlier, as the crowds had ventured out into the forest. A tree had been carefully selected by the foresters and chopped down. Many people were needed to pull it back to the town. A Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children wanted to help, but only got in the way, climbing and jumping over the great trunk, dodging in and out of the ropes. Someone suggested a game of hide and seek. No one had found the boy in the tree. He must have won the game.

It had been dull all day, heavy grey clouds hung full bellied, low in the sky. But now it was getting darker, a dull red glow showed where the winter sun was giving up its fight against the dark. Soft white flakes started to fall. It was time to go.

As the boy thought about how to get back down the tree, he heard a sound. He froze and listened. It was the sound of horses, tramping slowly through the snow. The occasional crack as a hoof broke through the frozen surface, the crunch as the snow compacted underfoot. As they came nearer, he heard the quiet jingle of harness. Who rode through the forest at this time of day?

They came in sight. There were three men, one in front and two following. They looked tired, huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white. It seemed carved out of the snow itself. The rider was swathed in black. The following horsemen were just dark shapes moving though the swirling snowflakes. Suddenly, the sun discovered a chink in the armour of the clouds and sent a final triumphant dart of light through the trees. The leading rider looked up and his head glowed with a golden light. The boy gasped. The sun set and darkness returned.

What had he seen? For a moment, the man on the horse had looked like the pictures painted on the walls of the church. Was he a saint? If he was, which one? The riders were beneath the tree and the boy craned down for a better look. He lost his balance. His numb hands were unable to maintain their grip in the cold branch. He struggled and then, in a cloud of snow and pine needles he plummeted to the ground.

He landed in a drift of snow that had collected at the side of the path. Winded, he lay for a moment, and then struggled to his feet. The following riders were no longer muffled shapes but armed men, moving towards him.

“Stop!” shouted the man on the white horse. “It’s just a boy.” The men stopped but did not sheath their swords. The boy stared at them, then looked up at the man beside him.

“I’m not a boy. I’m one of the king’s warriors.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” The rider inspected the skinny boy standing before him, buried up to his knees in snow. “Where did you come from?”

The boy had extricated himself from the snowdrift and was brushing snow from his clothes. “I fell out of the tree.”

“I didn’t think you floated down on a snowflake. Why were you up a tree?”

“We were… training. Practicing how to hide in the snow.”

“Very successfully.” The man looked around at the empty landscape. “I can’t see anyone.”

“They’ve all gone home,” muttered the boy. He hugged his arms round his body trying to get warm.

“You look cold.”

“I’m all right.” The boy stood up straight.

The man nodded. “Are we near to Winchester?”

“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”

“Can you show us the way to go?” He leaned down and held out a hand.

The boy stared at up the man. His hair wasn’t fiery gold, just fair, with a few threads of silver running through it. It was cut short, as was his beard. His face was tanned and his pale blue eyes were surrounded by the wrinkles of someone who had spent much of his life staring into the sun. He smiled showing white even teeth. He didn’t look dangerous, so the boy grasped the offered hand. He was pulled upwards and settled on the horse’s back. The man was stronger than his slender frame suggested. The man tucked his thick black fur cloak around his passenger and urged the horse into motion again.

“SHow long have you been the king’s warrior?”

“A whole year. Well, nearly.”

“Nearly a year. That’s a long time.” The boy nodded. “Are you any good?”

“Well. I beat most of the other boys, most of the time.”

“Only most of the time?”

“All right, all of the time, but I don’t want to boast.”

“Of course not,” laughed the rider. “Perhaps you can come and fight with me, in a year or so.” The boy thought about it.

“ I’ve only used a wooden sword. They won’t let me fight with a proper sword.” He glanced longingly at the sword that hung from the saddle.

“You can do a lot of damage with a wooden sword. If you know how to use it properly.”

“I know.” The boy looked up and grinned. “You can’t kill anyone though.”

“Do you want to kill somebody?”

“Sometimes. When they call me names.”

“Why do they call you names?” The man glanced down at the boy. “Because you are better than them?”

“No.” The boy pulled the cloak tighter around his body. “Because I don’t have a father.”

“I’m sorry about that. Did he die?” The boy just buried his head deeper in the dark fur.

The man stared into the whiteness ahead and lowered his voice. “Sometimes it’s better to have no father at all, than one that hates you.” They rode on in silence.

“What about you mother?” asked the man gently.

“She died, the summer before last.”

“But you remember her?”

“Of course.” The boy thought for a moment. “I think I do.”

“You have that, then. I don’t remember mine at all.”

“That’s sad.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m over it now.”

“Are you?” The boy twisted to look up at the face above him. The man looked down and smiled.

“Of course I am.” He dug his heels into the horses flanks but it refused to move faster, just plodded on. “So you became a warrior?”

“Yes. Now I have friends, the other boys.”

“Apart from the ones you want to kill?”

The boy laughed. “You must be good at killing.”

“Some people say I am. I’m still alive anyway.”

“Did you fight at Brunanburh? With the king?”

“I did fight there, yes.”

“It must have been exciting. I want to know what happened, but no one will tell me about it.”

“A lot of people died. Perhaps in the future, when the friends of the men who died have gone, people will talk about it. When you are older, you will understand. I see lights ahead. Is that Winchester?”

The boy stared into the darkness. “Yes, that’s it.” He looked round. “I’d better go. They’ll be wondering where I am.” He unwrapped himself reluctantly from the cloak. “Thank you for the ride.” Before the horse had stopped, the boy had jumped, landing lightly on his feet. He ran a few paces and turned to look up at the man on the white horse.

“Perhaps you can tell me about other fights. An old man like you must have fought in many battles.”

“Not so much of the old.” The man grinned down at the boy. “I’ll be busy while I’m here, but I’ll see what I can do.” The boy was already moving, but he turned, and shouted back.

“There will be plenty of time. It’s Christmas.” The sound echoed through the trees and the boy ran on, faster. He leaped over an obstacle, landing in a pile of snow. He shook himself like a dog and ran on. He dodged through the trees and disappeared. Only the sound of his voice lingered. “It’s Christmas!”

The man on the white horse watched him go. “Perhaps I am getting old.” He sighed.

“Come on, it’s nearly dark.”

“He was disrespectful, my lord.” One of the attendants grumbled.

“He was young. We were all young once. Even you.” The man just grunted.

The other man had removed something from a soft leather bag “Do you want to wear the crown for your entrance into the city?” He held it out.

“I suppose I must.” He took the gold circlet and carefully placed it on his head.

Then King Aethelstan of Wessex, King of all England rode on to attend his Christmas Court at Winchester.


Historical note:

The boy is, of course, Byrhtnoth. When he died at the Battle of Maldon in 991, it is thought that he was in his sixties. For the purposes of my book, I have taken his year of birth to be 930.

Aethelstan, grandson of King Alfred died on 27th October 939. He was in his early forties. He had become the first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. It is not known where he spent Christmas 938. Perhaps at Winchester?


Happy Christmas.

Christmas is coming – three times over.

Christmas is approaching rapidly, but I am unprepared. I am writing and find it difficult to stop.

But it is not going smoothly; those word updates do not measure an even progress from start to finish. I am darting about from place to place, never knowing where I am.

I never thought it would be easy. The approach of Book One to publication day. The pause with Book Two, awaiting feedback and more editing. The start of Book Three.

It is Book Three that is causing problems, perhaps because I started planning. Not major planning, just dividing the book into chunks – I have six, or maybe seven. See, I can’t do planning properly! A few weeks ago I wrote here about having found an antagonist. I wanted to give him a trial, so I wrote a scene, then another. This section of the book, for various reasons, I planned to write in the present tense. It would be interspersed with other POVs. So that I didn’t become confused, I decided to write the whole of this section, before moving back to past tense. It must have worked, because I then had difficulties shaking off the present tense. I had 9,000 words.

I knew what came next, I continued, another 9,000 words. The ideas were coming thick and fast, I wanted to carry on. Nothing wrong with this, you might say, in fact it’s great.

Except – I’ve got to stop. This section is towards the end of the book. I think I know where the end comes, but more and more words come spilling out and the end gets further away. What about what comes before? The main part of the book. Not only is it not yet written, I’m not even sure where it starts! With regret, I have forced myself to stop.

I have returned to the start. I have rewritten an abandoned ending to book two as the start of book three. I have written more, I think it is going OK.

But – As I write, the abandoned characters at the end keep calling to me, “Come back, we want to carry on.” While the same characters, at an earlier point in the story shout, “No, us first. We might change everything and you will never exist.” It is difficult enough, but the book covers a year in time, from winter to winter, Christmas to Christmas. Today, I had to stop and think – would he be wearing those clothes, or did he acquire them later. One Christmas is happy, the other not. There is snow one year and not the other.

And then there is real life, Christmas is coming. Will my mother end up with a sword. Will Byrhtnoth find a box set of Vikings DVDs under his tree?

Should I give up and spend the next month in bed?

No, because the voices are calling and I cannot silence them.

Box set for Byrhtnoth?

Happy Christmas

Christmas Eve and I’m not ready. There are still presents to be wrapped and decorating to be done. I collect greenery from the garden to decorate the dining room, so that must be done at the last moment, otherwise it will not last until Twelfth Night.

I haven’t made the mince pies yet – I have no lard to make pastry – I must go shopping for those last-minute ingredients.

Before all that I just wanted to wish all my readers a Happy Christmas. I will try to blog a bit more regularly – I have several book reviews up my sleeve – perhaps next week!

And I have a present for you, two in fact. Like the best (or worse) Christmas Presents they are “re-gifted” from previous Christmases.

One is the piece of writing that started all this off. I used to be a genealogist – still am when I get the time. I thought it would be a good idea to write a genealogy story for Christmas. I tried and failed. What was different from all that factual writing I had done? A few weeks later, in January 2013, I joined a writing class. The rest is history, or rather Historical Fiction. Six months later, I wrote my Christmas story. You can read it here.

The second is the story I posted last Christmas. Well, I hope I have acquired a few more readers in the last year!

It is a story about Byrhtnoth and his meeting in the snow with – Who? Read it and find out.

I will be back soon with a review of the past year and looking forward to what I hope will be an interesting new year.

A very happy Christmas to you and yours.

From Byrhtnoth (and The Writer)

At least the Christmas Cake is ready!

At least the Christmas Cake is ready!