Great-Uncle Vasily & Friends, c.1910

Great-Uncle Vasily & Friends, c.1910
Justin at The Tar Baby Festival, Horncastle 2009

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Newsletter 2011

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

Every family has its Yuletide traditions, and everyone cherishes some event or other that heralds, for them, the excitement of its beginning - so I thought you might like to know how we celebrate the festive season at Sotby Hall Farm. The real start of Christmas for me begins with the scent of fir boughs, when the twins rig up a block and tackle in the roof beams of the Great Hall and hoist Mr Benniworth up with a chainsaw to prune the tree - which has been a permanent fixture in the Great Hall since 1919, when Great-Grandfather found it had rooted through the pot and the cracks beween the flagstones, into the earth floor beneath. Julia used to be so good at doing this, but nowadays she's rarely with us at this time of year... anyway, while this is going on the rest of us collect all the offcuts and bind them into nice sprays with fir-cones and ivy from off the walls - it's as much as we can do these days to keep the inside walls clear of the stuff.

Mistletoe is brought in from the orchard - just as soon as there isn't a woodland burial going on - and it's Roger's job to fumigate the harmonium in the minstrels' gallery so Igor can accompany the carol singers when they pay us a call. and soon the family start arriving from far-flung places - Xavier from La Paz, Julia from Tagab if the Legion can spare her, Juan from Rome, Eudoxia and the cousins from Kyiv, Tamsin from Oxford, Roger from marking PhD theses in the library, and - hopefully - fingers crossed, everyone! Humphrey will be allowed out on parole to be with us, too.

 By then the tree is decorated with the presents (or the keys to the presents, when it's a new tractor or a gun safe or a 4x4), and ever since Justin put Cetchewayo in a tutu and tiara a few Christmases ago - didn't I tell you? - guess who the Christmas Tree Fairy has to be!

Because our home is so large, as is our family when it gets together, we only decorate the Great Hall, which is the one room big enough for everyone to sit down and eat in all at the same time... unless you count as Christmas decorations the little wreaths Aunt Eudora makes with a lit candle in the middle of each, which she puts on window-sills all around the house, one for every deceased family member, to guide their spirits back home for the holidays, from the Otherworld beyond the fens. It's an ancient local custom hereabouts, where they're known as 'corpse candles'. They do look very pretty from a distance at night. Even so, the only family members they've guided back so far are Igor and Justin, who usually come home rather the worse for wear after last-minute deliveries of 'Lincolnshire Poacher' to the pubs in Horncastle and Market Rasen.

Soon the carol-singers come, and we're ready for them with hot mince pies and mulled beetroot claret. They always sing the Osgodby Carol, which is very old and in English, so no-one understands what it means any more:

 "Edil be þu, levedi quene;
Ne was no wight ne so wel bisene
 As þu, þat bar þe blissed daye-springe
 At midernicht, þat beeþ þe hevene kinge."

Even so, we all love it, though Justin says it was written to be sung by drunks because the pronunciation doesn't scan if you try to sing it otherwise.

Between sunset and midnight we also await the coming of Minting Mummers with the Yule Bear, who doesn't look like a bear at all but a walking cone of bean-sticks covered in ivy. He (or it) is accompanied by six swordsmen with branches on their heads to represent antlers, a man dressed as a woman with a cow's tail, a crusader knight on a hobby horse, a Robin Hood and a Turk with a cork-blackened face. Sometimes there's also an accordionist but often they just borrow the harmonium. The Bear dances a bit, falls over, is given a drink, gets up again, dances a bit more and away they all go to their next call. Folklorists say there must have been a lot more to it at one time because of all the other characters, but the ancient pagan essence of the death and resurrection of the natural world at the winter solstice is there, at its heart, still. Roger tells me the Bear has also been equated with the Green Man carved on the choirstalls at Minting church, some Celtic Dionysus, or possibly the Norse god Baldur. Justin says since time out of mind it's always been some unsteady and oblivious drunk who's been dressed up like that for a joke. Meaning is wherever you find it, I suppose.

Juan celebrates Midnight Mass in the chapel, and on Christmas morning Uncle Igor likes to go for a swim in the moat. It seems to sober him up, and he maintains he owes his robust health and longevity to midwinter bathing. He even used to do it on the Eastern Front during the war, and insisted the whole company join him. Lately Roger and I have been worried about the shock of the freezing cold water on his heart, so we hit on the idea of turning the whole moat into a hot tub by using a geothermal bore (since Igor wrecked the dry sauna the other year by throwing water on the heating elements to make steam). It's been a partial success, heating the moat by only a few degrees so at least he doesn't have to break the ice before his morning dip. That's probably why the capybaras decided to stay with us after the floodwaters receded and Wragby Fen shrank back to its usual size. The carp seem to be growing bigger as a result too, which is good news since we can get more than £50 a kilo as soon as they're over eight inches long. Now - what news have I got to tell you?

To be honest, it's been a quiet year. It was nice to have a little break in April to go to William and Kate's wedding - though I thought the Bishop's reference to St Catherine of Siena in his sermon was in rather poor taste, seeing that she made a vow of chastity at the age of seven. Her mystical marriage to Jesus later on was, I suppose, a reference to Prince William being one day the future head of the Church of England. I really don't know why they don't declare all members of the royal family to be living saints. like the ancient Romans deified their emperors, and have done with it. It wouldn't be the wickedest or the silliest thing to have come out of Lambeth Palace in the last 475 years. The food at the reception afterwards was absolutely scrummy but I rather thought the cake looked like a traffic cone. Anyway, we do wish them well, poor things. As to where the private island where they spent their honeymoon actually was, Xavier's lips are still sealed.

We went on to Oxford to visit Tamsin at Bolingbroke, quite a privilege for me as no woman has been allowed in the college since its foundation in the fourteenth century and apparently no-one ever thought to invite one in before. Mind you, it is almost unbelievably small. Tamsin, of course, won her case at the European Court of Human Rights (and it was nice too see Strasbourg, and be there just in time for the International Film Festival). We were so proud to see Tamsin conducting her own case, an appeal based on Article 9 of the Convention which guarantees freedom of thought and belief. The Court upheld her appeal on the grounds that she has every right to believe herself to be a pipe-smoking middle-aged don with a tweed jacket and external gonads, and has an equal right to manifest that belief by studying and teaching at Bolingbroke. Hurrah! We pushed the boat out rather afterwards, and celebrated with a Methusaleh or two of Cristal Brut 1900. At least we thought we had, when Justin confessed to decanting some of Igor's kale and sultana premier cru Sekt into the Cristal bottles. Then he said he was joking, but to be honest it just didn't taste the same afterwards.

Something rather odd happened at Bolingbroke that weekend, or to be precise, at the much larger, overshadowing Saint Aldate's College next door. Famous for their parsimony despite the fact that they own half of Oxford, Aldate's, I was shocked to learn, employ illegal immigrants as college scouts (citing the Statute of Labourers Act of 1351) and even charge people admission to walk through their Quad. This is quite unfair, and causes no little hardship to their poor undergraduate students who have no choice but to pay to enter and leave and come back again. As for the scouts, the coin-operated turnstiles mean that many have been working there for years under a kind of debt slavery. Even the College rubbish-bins, identifiable with the College coat of arms, are padlocked and chained to the pavement.

Anyway, Saint Aldate's College now owns a large expanse of water-meadow which they won in a fixed game of cricket against its original owners, Harton College, back in the 1890s. It has proved a bone of contention between the two colleges ever since. Well, imagine the fuss one morning when the College cattle (a very pretty little herd of Ayrshire-Angus crosses) who normally graze there, were all missing, and a frantic search found them all in St Aldate's Quad, wearing Harton scarves! The finger of blame has been pointed, quite unjustly, at Bolingbroke students. Anyway, it was all quite interesting and very reassuring to see Tamsin going around with a serene smile on her face - and in a dress - after all the trouble she's had.

The Christmas crackers are doing well at the Farmers' Markets. I'm so glad we found a use for the GM cattlefeed lentils after the breakfast cereal fiasco. With a bit of butter spread on and a slice of something good and strong like Cote Hill Blue, they don't taste half bad.

The Friends Of Market Rasen Old Police Station have been gathering support for the "jewel in the crown of the town" since they launched a Facebook page at the beginning of December. No, really. They want to make sure it's open to the public. Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to think that moving some policemen back inside would be a good start. Go and have a look on Facebook, if you must. It's at

Oh, and that reminds me: I've decided that if you can't beat Facebook, one had better join it. Look out for the Kirov-Renshaw Family Facebook page, coming soon! So, let's see what 2012 holds for us all - apart from the Olympics, of course. We're all so looking forward to watching little Wilhelmina compete, especially in the BMX events. I do think she deserves a medal at least, having been pipped for the yellow jersey at Grenoble this year.

We thought a great black phantom dog, last seen in 1926, had been seen over the Revesby side of Horncastle, leaping hedges and overtaking cars, but it turned out to be a black plastic haylage bale rolling and bouncing about in a rather stiff breeze. Old Mr Benniworth just shakes his head, and says:

"When howls th'east wind o'er Dogdyke Fen,
It bodes but ill for beasts and men."

And they say the world will be coming to an end on 21st December 2012. Well, if it does, at any rate, we shan't miss the Olympics!

 As ever,

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