Welcome to the year’s first Christmas special! Perhaps not as hotly anticipated as this year’s slice of Doctor Who but I’m sure you’ve all been dying to know what I think of how we portray the season in our writing.
I’m sure some of you are about to start or are currently writing festive-themed short stores. So here, I hope to go over the obvious ways to portray Christmas but also to try to think about the less conventional elements to the environment at this time of year.
In the northern hemisphere at least, it is damn cold. Whether snow is a foregone conclusion in your part of the world, nigh on impossible or so rare yet likely enough that you would place a bet on it, the weather is noticably colder either way. Sandwiched as a mini “season” between the portentous autumn and the bleak winter, Christmas is a little bit of every season rolled into one. It is during December that the nights are the longest; it gets dark early and morning light comes late yet there is the positivity of spring, the life of summer, the extrovert of autumn and the weather of winter in this artificial period – and I love it.
Christmas is the smell of roasting turkey in the morning. As a child, my parents used to slow roast the turkey over night meaning that it was the first thing I could smell in the morning when I woke up. As an adult and as a lover of mulled wine it is the spices: cinnamon and ginger. Increasingly, as the popularity of hanging dried fruit as a natural room air freshener increases, it is also the smell of oranges. For those who prefer a real tree to a fake one, it has a smell all of its own.
Whether houses and shopping centres get it right or not, Christmas is nothing if not colourful. Bright lights, baubles whether plain or gaudy are striking colours. My favourite colours at this time of year are silver, bronze and purple. Other popular Christmas colours are red, green and gold. I much prefer plain white-yellow Christmas lights though there are all sorts of colours around.
The darkness in the morning and in the evening is noticeable but our houses and towns and cities are so brightly lit with the joyful festive season that we do not really notice until the New Year just how miserable they have become. When there is not snow on the ground, heavy frost is a common site and for me, this type of weather has its own charm. I love going for a walk or a run in the morning just as the sun is coming up.
What sort of wildlife do we see at this time of year? In the UK, we have come to associate the robin (above) with Christmas even though the bird is present on this island all year round, the image of a robin in the snow is a popular Christmas card.
Deer are a popular site in the countryside and though I tend to associate them more with autumn because of the rutting season, they do seem to be around a lot more around Christmas. Nothing is more delightful than going for an early morning walk on Christmas day and spotting one.
On rare clear days, the sun sits low in the sky. It does not glow, and it is piercing, almost unpleasant in the mornings at sunrise and the early evening for sunset. Yet on those clear days you can see the most dazzling of sunrises and sunsets. Gold, red, pink and everything in between.
Cheesy music is on all radio stations, playing over the airwaves in the shops, in our cars and practically everywhere else we go.
Despite being an atheist, I enjoy listening to hearing churchbells ringing in Christmas Day. There is something so magical about the peel as it strikes midnight that I do not notice or care for at any other time of year. And of course, Big Ben as the clock strikes midnight to ring in the New Year can bring relief, hope, happiness and sadness depending on how your year has gone.
Christmas is about indulgence so typically we eat a lot of chocolate. Turkey is the meat of the season. Some people only eat sprouts at this time of year, some only eat vegetables at this time of year. I’ve already mentioned my love of mulled wine and Christmas spices. But what other flavours are there?
CHRISTMAS PUDDING!!!!!! Some despise its stodgy, sticky texture and the large number of calories they will consume in this single dessert. I love it and would eat it right through the winter if there were any available in the shops after January 2nd. It is the perfect Sunday afternoon winter dessert and you certainly do feel full up afterward.
If you are writing a historical piece, as with any season you need to give serious thought and research to what the people in your world would have been eating. We eat heavier foods at this time of year as being outside in the cold, our bodies require more calories in order the keep our body temperature up. Seasonal vegetables include sprouts, leeks, parsnip, cabbage, some cauliflowers and broccoli. For those who shun traditional livestock farming methods, this is the time of year to eat game. I am a big fan of venison and pheasant in particular.
What sort of things are you or your characters drinking? Coffee over tea, red wine over white, heavy ales and porters over lager, hot chocolate over milk shake and fewer juices in the morning.
Cold. Go outside without gloves and within minutes your fingers start to feel numb. On a mild day, it can feel muggy and the weather is rarely pleasant. Everything is frozen. The ground beneath your feet, if not soaking wet, can be solid because of the cold. Breath in a lungful of air and it is icy.
But touch is also about the clothes we wear. Woolly hats, scarves, gloves, waterproof jackets and big coats all serve to make us feel snuggled up and warm.
So that is my summary for the Christmas season, what do you think?