Coals and Mummery

FATHER CHRISTMAS: Fill your hearts with Christmas cheer, /And all your quarrels cease./Lay down your swords, take up a glass/And let the toast go free: /May all men now as brothers stand/And drink health to the Company. (From a traditional mummers play script)

Delighted that two of our youngest grandchildren were able to get to their local theatre (in this case, The Orange Tree at Richmond) before the impending lockdown, to be entertained by a new version of ‘Pinocchio’ with puppets. I love it that they’re as enthralled by the setting up as much as they soon will be by the action!

Now winter is truly upon us I begin feeding the garden birds with sunflower hearts and peanuts. Love the way the smallest of the avian crew, the coal tits, flit in and fly off immediately with a single seed or nut to pick apart with their needle bills on a nearby branch. The chaffinches and sparrows by contrast spill the contents out and about as they feast, which it turn gives easy pick ups on the ground for dunnock, robin and blackbird.

In the wake of Storm Arwen the sound of the chainsaw is heard all over the land. Our good neighbour at Oldstead has completed clearing the section of the long distance path that skirts their lovely garden and orrchard. Being mature elder these limbs and logs will not be burnt indoors. Superstition forbids it. Rationality knows the wood gives off little heat and, most importantly, emits cyanide gas when burnt.

Always a pleasure in the run up to the holidays to deck our hall with boughs of holly… along with pine and fir and any other cheerful greenery the garden offers up. Recent windfalls and clearances from the field meanwhile get piled up in a dumpy bag in the yard for recycling.

The small electric driven shredder I use to digest surplus branches for chippings has distinct tastes. It can’t take anything over 35 mm in diameter and the straighter the offering the better. Willow wands slip down its throat like oysters while knotty twisted tough-as-old-boots hawthorn, that most resilient of upland trees, generates loud grating groans of severe mechanical indigestion.

The coalman calls and catches me by surprise with our order of smokeless ovoids. I’m suddenly put in mind by the sight of his striking figure of the traditional English mummer plays. (Mummer comes from the Greek for ‘mask’) The rustic entertainment’s sturdy plots are realised with relish by a cast of outlandish stock characters. These amateur troupes of (usually) all male ‘guisers’ (disguisers) act out ancient rituals of death and rebirth, with panache and broad humour. The short plays are usually performed outdoors (static or promenade) to see the old year out and the new year in, or occasionally at Easter to mark Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

The coal merchant’s appearance – skin engrained with coal dust and sporting the traditional leather jerkin and flat cap – has not changed since I was a lad. Slight of build but strong as an ox, our man cheerfully carries on his back hundred weight sacks from the open sided flat bed lorry (How do they get them stay put?) to tip into the battered old zinc bunker next where logs are slowly air drying.

Our urban born and bred grandchildren have not seen, and will most likely never now see, the coalman ply his trade down their respective streets. The Mumming tradition, like coal merchants, live on in many country areas, the former often revived and reworked to reflect the age they’re playing in. With two long established firms delivering coal products in our neck of the woods, trade must be holding up with a customer base still reliant on solid fuel.

Eggs is eggs. Our supply comes from just up the road, at Bastle farm, where our friends keep a flock of Rhode Island Reds, rescued from bondage in the battery, that range their yard and garden. We leave money in a bag hanging on our five bar gate, and recycle empty boxes. The eggs arrive in all sizes and are usually speckled, naturally enough, with farmyard muck and sometimes a straw or feather graces the line up. Years back I researched and wrote scripts for a friend whose business was making videos for corporate clients, including one of the UK’s biggest suppliers of battery chickens and eggs. They added a little feather to every box of uniformly sized and cleaned up eggs that left the plant to create that ‘fresh from the farm’ illusion.

Our much loved home made advent calendar (made by Kim’s mother in Montreal, early 1980’s, for daughter Sara) is softly opening its daily windows to decorate the tree as we approach Christmas Day.

A very happy Yuletide to you and yours!

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