Virginia Barton

Christmas Memory Box comes off the shelf


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Catholic Herald, 8 December 1989


Any day now one of the family must negotiate the hazards of the attic and extricate the Christmas Box. Every family has one of these; our antique carton has travelled thousands of miles, an essential component of home-life for more than three decades.

christmas-decorations-in-boxApart from the Christmas tree decorations, the Box holds yards of tarnished tinsel, strings of glass beads and the musical crib with its companion plastic figurines and livestock. The sides and lid of the Box are scrawled with graffiti, messages such as “thank you Box, it was the best ever, 1971”, or “we love you Box, 1966”.

The string that ties it up and the newspaper that pads out the contents are original. The genuinely house proud would have thrown them out years ago, along with the creased paper angels and clusters of ancient nuts – their kernels long since decayed to a whisper of dust.

But the battered home-made offerings fashioned by childish hands long ago become more poignant every year. They are not so much enhancements to the beauty of the tree as goads to the  memory – nostalgic acupuncture perhaps. Woe betide the “decorator” who fails to hang up the fir-cone vintage ‘72, or the blown-eggs stuck with rice a la Blue Peter.

We cling to the rituals and traditions, and at this season, as at no other, everything must remain the same. I am not likely to forget the mutiny (and this when our youngsters were in their 20s) when I tried to substitute a nut-loaf for the turkey, and replace the green tree with a dead branch artily painted with white emulsion.


Music by season

If someone winds it up our musical crib will tinkle Silent Night ‘till kingdom come. Not surprisingly this begins to pall after about 90 seconds and becomes excruciating when the mechanism slowly runs down. Then is the time to turn to the music centre or gramophone as we crumblies tend to call it.

A brief survey of the local HMV record shop offers some interesting choices in Christmas music. Oxbridge college choirs can be depended upon for classy arrangements of carols old and new; On Christmas Night from King’s is a good example (Decca, £4.99).

The Taverner Consort Choir and Players have recorded Seven Centuries of Christmas Music  (EMI, £8.49), and if that sounds rather daunting, the Bach Choir and the inimitable Philip Jones Brass Ensemble offer a traditional option with, O Come All Ye Faithful and other favourites (Decca, £4.49).

Or what about music that aims “to capture the simplicity, excitement and mystery of the season”? Welcome Yule sung by the Bristol Bach Choir (Saydisc, £7.49) claims to do just that.

Actually I couldn’t hear any of these tapes because HMV’s machine was out of order. Neither had their Christmas albums arrived. But the CDs had, and I heard a little snatch of the monks of Prinknash and the nuns of Stanbrook joining forces to sing Christmas and Traditional Latin Plainchant (Saydisc, £9.99). Unlikely to appeal to the Jingle Bells brigade, this is finely sung for the aficionado.

Just supposing I had a CD machine, I would have chosen Festival of Carols (Pickwick) sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral and others, reasonably priced at £5.99.

A recording of Christmas music is an excellent present for all ages, even for the person who allegedly has everything.


For Poland

You don’t need me to tell you that there are plenty of people who don’t have anything much. The mute appeal of the poor in every corner of the globe casts a long shadow. At this, the ultimate season of giving and receiving, a delicate thread of goodwill is being spun between Abingdon and Poland.

Children in the 4th year at Our Lady’s Convent Junior School heard about a family in Katowice whose Christmas looked likely to be as bleak this year as it was last. The Poles are short of virtually everything on a scale unknown in this country, even in war-time. Annual inflation in Poland is now running at about 1000 per cent, and the steel town of Katowice suffers the worst pollution of modern times.

You may have seen Michael Buerk’s graphic report from there on BBC2 recently. While the media concentrates on the drama of political upheaval, it is the families at the bottom of the pile that have to wait the longest for real change in living conditions.

The Carmelite nuns, working closely with local parish priests, brought the plight of one particular family to the notice of the Abingdon School. In no time, children and teachers had gathered enough goodies to send off a 30 kilo parcel! The recipients, overwhelmed by this treasure-trove, felt they had to share the gifts with other needy families in their neighbourhood.


Parcel time

Now a second parcel is being prepared. Like the first, it will contain good used clothing of all sizes (with special emphasis on winter warms), boots, shoes, tights, tea, baby-clothes for little Piotr born in August, shampoo, soaps, writing materials, toothpaste, sweets and toys.

Collecting things for a specific family can be more rewarding than sending a job-lot into a void. The “adopted” family provide personal details – names, ages, pastimes, special needs; and an exchange of letters and photographs strengthens the link.

Vital to the operation is the packing and forwarding of parcels. From Oxford an incredible 863 parcels, each weighing 30 kilos, have been sent to Poland during the last three years. The entire ground floor of a private house has been given over as a centre for collecting, sorting and packing. Cartons are salvaged from outside shops, plastic carriers, string and elastic bands are hoarded, and the intricacies of customs forms distilled to a fine art.

Not a single parcel has been lost or stolen, not one item mislaid en route.

A lorry from Northampton collects at dawn, first stop on the round trip. Somehow enough money is found to cover costs: 75 pence per kilo plus £2.50 for every 30 kilos. Should any school wish to follow the example of Abingdon, or should any armchair benefactor wish to contribute to this noble work, do write to me and I will respond.


camino_shellSt. James appeal

There’s another good cause at the other end of Europe. Remember the shells of Compostela I wrote about last September? The Confraternity of St. James has sent details of an appeal they’ve launched to raise £50,000.

This is the sum needed to restore the ancient pilgrim hostel in Rabanal in the mountains of Leon.

The appeal aims to restore the hostel and create a study-centre at Rabanal.

Pilgrims will be encouraged to bring a book for the Library, just as they used to bring stones to build cathedrals in the Middle Ages.


Games galore

Spanish Christmas customs are beyond my ken – but here’s a Polish Easter recipe, which I make no apology for tucking into in December, as it goes so toothsomely with Boxing Day leftovers. Grate a quantity of cold cooked beetroot (without vinegar), then stir in enough horse-radish relish (from a jar) to give it a “bite”.

Add a spoonful of double cream and the merest drizzle of lemon juice. Bucks up a nut-loaf no end.

Happy Christmas!




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