A Christmas Tale by Sandra Horn
When I was a grotty teenager, we moved from our council house to a dilapidated cottage in a couple of acres of its own grounds, on the edge of Ashdown Forest. It was in a hollow, down a quarter-of-a-mile of unmade road across a golf course (on Common Land, but whoever managed to swing it to put a golf course on it is lost in the mists of time). It had typical Sussex tile hanging on the outside, and oak panelling in the downstairs rooms, which we thought incredibly grand, although it was just thin ply. It had no electricity or gas, an outside lav and only two bedrooms, so until Dad built an extension, Mum and I had one room and Dad and my brothers the other – christened the Hennery and the Mennery. Much later, I set a series of stories for children in an imagined version of the place, weaving Sussex legends and folklore into them. They were called The Hob and Miss Minkin, the Hob being a household spirit who lived under the hearthstone and was invisible to the family. Such spirits were believed to be benevolent as long as the human inhabitants behaved and were kind and clean and looked after their animals, but could be spiteful if they were displeased. Kipling mentions them in stories and a poem, Farewell Rewards and Fairies. Miss Minkin is a dear old cat, very fussy and precise and easy to upset if not receiving her due measures of care and respect. She and Hob are friends and when the family is asleep they meet by the fireside to share Miss Minkin’s dish of cream, exchange the news of the day and stories, and sometimes sing and dance (Hob plays the fiddle). The stories follow the seasons, ending with Christmas, so here it is – a story for children of all ages and a change from the usual dark winter tales. I hope it raises a smile!
The Christmas Presents
The December moon swung high over Ghyllside Farm, bright as a promise and round as pudding. The first snow of winter lay crisp and white over the fields. The farm folk were all abed, snuggled down and fast asleep, dreaming of plumcake and presents. Down in the kitchen by the fire, Hob and Miss Minkin were toasting their toes. There was a smell of pine-needles in the air from the sparkling tree in the corner, and there were two large stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. The stockings belonged to the farm children, and had their names pinned on them: Ben and Susan. The children had hung them there before they went to bed. They had put a small glass of sherry and a plate with two mince pies on it, by the hearth.
“In case he’s hungry,” said Susan.
Miss Minkin had watched all this with great interest, and told Hob about it later.
“Who did she mean?” asked Hob, “Nobody knows about me. Nobody has ever seen me.”
“She must have made a mistake. She meant to say ‘she’,” said Miss Minkin, “she’s a good girl and she left the things for me, but you shall share them, my dear.”
“Thank you, I’m sure!” said Hob. They ate the spicy pies to the last crumb.
“Very tasty!” said Hob. Miss Minkin was not so sure. Then they sipped the sherry, but it made Miss Minkin cough a little so Hob kindly finished it up. He left a silver sixpence under the plate for good manners.
“This is all very pleasant,” he said, “It must be Christmas again, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said Miss Minkin, “Jenny has been charging round the kitchen boiling and baking and getting hot and cross. She even forgot my morning milk!
I had to yowl to remind her, and then she slapped it down in a very grumpy manner. I kept well out of the way after that. I spent most of the day snoozing in the airing cupboard.”
“Dear me, what a difficult day you’ve had!” said Hob, “she shall find a frog in her shoe in the morning for being unkind.”
“Oh, please don’t bother,” said Miss Minkin, “she was sorry after and gave me all the bacon rind. I have forgiven her. Christmas is a trying time for her. I like it, though, on the whole. There is always plenty of leftover turkey.”
Hob puffed on his pipe. “It’s a merry time, right enough,” he said, “I remember in the old days there was always a great deal of eating and drinking and dancing and wassailing. Neighbours went all round the houses and sang a song or two, and people gave them spiced ale and presents.”
Miss Minkin put her head on one side and thought for a while.
“I should like to have presents,” she said, “I have a very fine voice and you can play the fiddle pretty well. What do you think, my dear? Shall we go a-wassailing?”
“Indeed we shall!” said Hob, “That is a fine idea. The neighbours will like to hear some good old Christmas music. It will cheer them up.”
Hob fetched his fiddle and a sack to bring all the presents home in. Miss Minkin washed her face and combed her ears. They slipped out through the cat flap into the snowy moonlit garden. Miss Minkin sniffed the air and said it was safe to be out. There was no smell of fox or badger. Hob looked up.
“A fine night indeed, but there’s a nip in the air,” he said. He was wearing a stout green jacket and hat, and Miss Minkin had fluffed up her beautiful fur, so neither of them minded it much.
“Where to?” asked Hob.
“Let’s try Berryman’s Farm first,” said Miss Minkin, “the farmer’s wife is fond of me and they keep a very good larder.”
They set off across the round the henhouse, and ducked under the gate to Halfacre Field. Their footsteps crunched on the frosty grass. Only the moon saw them cross the wooden bridge over the murmuring ghyll and turn down the lane to Berryman’s. Farmer Croft had just filled the coal scuttle and taken off his boots before going to bed. Miss Minkin cleared her throat and Hob tightened his fiddle bow.
“Ready!” he said, “one, two, three!”
He played a good loud opening chord, and they began ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ with all their hearts.
Hardly had they sung the first line when a boot and three lumps of coal came flying through the farmhouse window. The boot sailed over their heads and lodged in the branches of a tree, and the lumps of coal fell right in front of their feet. They were quite surprised, but they remembered their manners and called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”
“What was that?” he said.
“I don’t know, it sailed by so fast and high,” said Miss Minkin, but we must try to get it down. It’s a present and the farmer will think it very rude if we leave it in the tree. He’ll think we didn’t want it.”
“True enough,” said Hob. Then he waved his fiddle bow three times round and pointed it at the tree.
“Come!” he said, and the boot came tumbling down at his feet. Hob scratched his head.
“I’m sure this is kindly meant,” he said, “but one boot on its own is a strange sort of present. It will be heavy to carry home, and then what would we do with it?”
“We don’t want to hurt his feelings,” said Miss Minkin, “shall we hide it somewhere?”
They pushed the boot a long way behind the staddlestones, where nobody could see it. In the spring, a pair of mice moved in and raised a family of ten. They were very snug.
The farmer looked all over the yard for his boot the next morning, but it was well hidden. It was his good boot, too. It was the other one that had a hole in. He had to hop on one leg all over Christmas until the shops opened again.
Hob picked up the lumps of coal and put them in the sack. He covered them with straw for tidiness.
“This is very generous,” he said.
Miss Minkin would have helped him, but was afraid of blackening her beautiful paws. Hob said he didn’t mind a bit of honest dirt.
“Where to now?” he said.
“The Bird and Hurdle, I think,” said Miss Minkin, “they keep a good kitchen and I have done them some favours in the matter of rats.”
Off they went, over the crisp white fields, through the hedge and across the lane, to the back door of The Bird and Hurdle. The landlady, Peg Brewer, was already fast asleep and dreaming of Christmas pudding. Her husband Tom had stayed to lock up, and had just poured himself a last pot of Christmas ale before bedtime when Hob struck up on his fiddle and Miss Minkin began to sing at the top of her voice. She had not got much further than ‘Silent Night, Ho –‘ when the door opened and the pot of ale came sailing out. Hob dropped the bow and caught it one-handed.
“Oh well done!” said Miss Minkin, “how clever!”
“It’s nearly full of good ale, too!” said Hob.
He put the pot of ale carefully in the sack, waved his fiddle bow three times round it and sang:
“Stay right side up,
Neither spill nor slop.”
And it didn’t.
“This is more than kind of our good neighbours,” said Miss Minkin, “I expect he remembered me and the rats and he wanted to say thank you.”
In the morning, Mr Brewer looked everywhere for his favourite pewter pot, but he never did find it.
“The sack’s middling heavy now,” said Hob, “shall we be getting home-along?”
“Yes,” said Miss Minkin, “but let’s call at Windlemoor as we go. It’s on the way home, and the Missus has always had a soft spot for me.”
Hob shouldered the sack and off they went. The moon was beginning to set, and the stars were very bright as they went back down the lane towards Windlemoor. An owl swooped low over their heads on silent wings, and Hob wished it good night and good hunting.
At Windlemoor House, the whole day had been busy with Christmas preparations, and Mrs Biggins was still up and about with some last-minute jobs. The back door was open to let out the heat of the Christmas baking. Mrs Biggins was sorting out chunks of marrowbone for roasting in the morning when Hob and Miss Minkin came through the garden gate and up the path. They stopped outside the door and began ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. Mrs Biggins jumped, screamed and threw the chunks of marrowbone up in the air. They came bouncing out of the door like skittles, and Miss Minkin had to step smartly out of the way. Hob picked up the marrowbones and put them in the sack.
“Really, our neighbours are very good,” he said. He called out “Merry Christmas!” but a gust of wind must have caught the door and made it slam shut.
In the morning, when Mr Biggins asked for the Christmas marrowbones, his wife gave him a very black look and told him he could have cold mutton and like it.
Hob and Miss Minkin made their way home in the fading moonlight, under the Christmas stars. Hob stumped along with his fiddle in one hand and the sack over his shoulder. Miss Minkin watched where she was stepping and took care not to get her paws too snowy. They were very pleased with their night’s work.
“Wassailing is a very good thing,” said Miss Minkin, “I’m glad I thought of it.”
“Yes, my dear, the folk round here are very kind, although their manners are a little rough,” said Hob, “In the olden days, if I remember rightly, they didn’t throw the presents at people – but times change, I suppose.”
“Hurry along now, please,” said Miss Minkin, “my fur is getting damp.”
The slipped quietly through the cat flap at Ghyllside Farm, and into the shadowy kitchen. It was late into the night, and the fire was dying. Hob and Miss Minkin were feeling a little chilly. Hob blew on the embers to make them glow, and piled on the straw and the three lumps of coal. He soon had a good blaze going, and he and Miss Minkin were warm and cosy once more. Then Hob took the pewter pot and put the ale to warm on the hearth. Last of all, he set the marrowbones to roast on the grate. While they were sizzling, he lit his pipe and blew several perfect smoke rings round the star on top of the Christmas tree. Miss Minkin washed her face and paws, ready for the feast.
“Merry Christmas!” she said as she eyed the sizzling marrowbones. Hob lifted the pewter pot, “Wassail!”
They feasted and danced until morning began to light up the eastern sky, and had just nodded off to sleep when there was a noise of feet scrambling down the stairs, and the children came running in. Hob slipped into the shadows and was back under the hearthstone in no time at all. Miss Minkin opened one eye.
The children took the bulging stockings down and began to shout, “I’ve got a doll!” “He’s given me a train!” “Look, a chocolate mouse! A spinning top!”
They ran upstairs to tell their parents that Father Christmas had eaten the mince pies and drunk the sherry, and had left lots of marvellous presents in the stockings and two old bones and a pewter pot on the hearth.
Miss Minkin closed her eyes and settled down for a long Christmas Morning nap.
Cover and illustration by Katie Stewart, Magic Owl Design
MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE AND ALL! WASSAIL!