Welcome to Day 5 of our festive celebrations and today we’re in Ukraine, where St Nicholas is known as Svyatyi Mykolai here. In Ukraine, Christmas trees are often decorated with spiderwebs, and finding a real spiderweb on your tree is meant be good luck. All versions of the story involve a poor family who can’t afford to decorate a tree. While the children are sleeping on Christmas Eve a spider covers the tree in cobwebs, and on Christmas morning the cobwebs are magically turned into silver and gold strands decorating the tree. So beautiful!
Today, we’ve got the wonderful Naomi Foyle talking us through her Christmas traditions, which include patchwork stockings and haunted chimneys … Curious? Read on to find out more and remember we’ll be giving away Naomi’s powerful and poignant book ASTRA, Book 1 in The Gaia Chronicles.
PATCHWORK STOCKINGS AND HAUNTED CHIMNEYS: MY ANNUAL CHRISTMAS IMPROV by NAOMI FOYLE
One can, of course, hate Christmas. I have a friend who does his tax returns on Dec 25th – brought up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, this efficient Scrooge decamped to London as soon as he could, lugging a sack of contempt for all religious expression. I certainly respect anyone’s right to go cold turkey and reject the protracted gobble of the season – last year I choked to see a carol choir performing outside my local co-op in the middle of November. But I also love December’s crazy concoction of camp glitz, pagan feasting and spiritual idealism, and relish Christmas to its glittering hilt. With no parents in the UK or children to demand strict adherence to family custom, I’ve had the freedom to reinvent the holiday each time round. Just as every year I buy a new bauble for the tree, I also add patches of velvet and lace to the patchwork stocking that is my own ever-evolving Christmas tradition.
As a Tarot reader observing the Celtic calendar, for several years I held a fancy dress Solstice potluck party (cunningly giving a prize for the best pudding). Then I started walking a Solstice labyrinth at Hove’s All Saints church with a Christian friend. From there it wasn’t a big step to attending Midnight Mass: I know most of the words to most of the songs, after all. Charitable giving is part of my Christmas too, but in an effort to get more creative at Christmas four years ago I stopped buying Oxfam cards and, treading in the footsteps of my artistic aunt, now whiz up my own. Last year I attended the Muslim Institute’s annual Winter Gathering in Salisbury, and returning in early December to this strong, warm faith community felt already like another of my own seasonal celebrations. This year, having just completed six months of successful breast cancer treatment and surgery, those celebrations mark a very personal rebirth of the light. Still trembling from my brush with mortality, it made sense to also add the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories to my stocking. So when friends in Oxford said they wanted to come down to Brighton with their two boys to celebrate my recovery, I was thrilled to have a gold star excuse to attend ‘Stories by the Fireside’ at Hove Museum. Part of the exhibition Many Ways to Tell a Story by the mouth-wateringly named Fabula Collective, the event promised a spooky reading by Charles Rudkin from Hauntings in the Museum, three beautiful hand-bound booklets illustrated by Fabula artist Dagmara Rudkin,
Oh who am I kidding? If Simon, Hannah and the boys hadn’t come down I would have kidnapped a child to come with me. Just for the afternoon, I promise! The exhibition, comprising illustrations, installations, books, embroidery, photography and films by 17 international artists, was even more utterly fabulous than I had imagined. Dagmara Rudkin’s sumptuous puppets, the cast of Henny Penny stitched together from vintage finery and recycled rubbish, recalled the work of Czech genius Jan Svankmayer, while Fabula’s enchanted collective vision was encapsulated in The Story Cabinet, a castle full of fairy tales, intricately constructed by various Fabula members from scraps of cardboard, wood shavings, antique drawers and poppy seed heads. Then there was the story, which seemed to grow like a fungus out of the very walls of the gallery. Seated by a marble fireplace, Charles, in louche looped red tie and tombstone baritone, held his audience captive with ‘The Fiend in the Attic’, the chilling tale of Master Gorger, whose evil plan to capture and enslave the souls of children must be foiled by the toys and sleeping magus of the museum’s ‘Wizard’s Attic’ collection upstairs.
Mordantly witty yet at times disturbingly evocative of child sex abuse, it was in fact, a most unfestive tale. Although he had included an uprising to satisfy the most hardened politico and reassure the most sensitive child, Charles later admitted that he found the requisite ‘happy ending’ problematic. ‘I did rather sense your heart was with Master Gorger,’ Simon giggled as his two sons, hopefully unscarred, rushed off upstairs with Hannah to watch Henny Penny on film. As a reluctant writer of horror myself, I could relate to Charles’ attraction to his own creation. An author at some deep level is written by the story, and the horror genre at its best forces writers to exorcise the darkest of human impulses from our own psyches. Tales of the child snatcher allow us to speak the unspeakable, and to counter its force: the containment of Master Gorger’s seductive menace is sparked by the voices of the children themselves, voices our society is thankfully now beginning to listen to.
Stories by the fireside are not just for children, then, and reading the other two tales, deepened my admiration for the ambition of Charles and Dagmara’s responses to the Hove Museum Collection. The illustrations, stark yet detailed pen and ink drawings, add wintery ambience to a trinity of tales that do what all the best tales do: add layers of nuance and new understanding to collective histories. ‘The Major’ is ghosted by the Museum’s former occupants, an officer in the Royal Sussex Artillery Militia, and WWI POWs. ‘His Name is Forever’ conjures with the museum’s most famous artefact, an amber cup found in a burial mound excavated during the construction of Hove’s Palmeira Square, imagining it as the ceremonial vessel of a ruthless ancient warlord whose spirit dims and flickers but whose bloodthirsty nature, as we all know, has not yet been extinguished from the human race.
Between Brexit, Trump, climate change and Aleppo it has felt for many, I know, like a Henny Penny year: the sky is falling, the seas rising, and a flood of desperate refugees continues to wash over the world. Our leaders have proved they can’t save a fly from drowning, and if we want to mop up their mess we’re going to have to create a better future together. As systems fail, this will involve improvising, while embodying the core Christmas value of love; a human value, in its essence, shared by all faiths, and one that has contributed beyond measure to my recovery this year. I’m no longer drinking alcohol, but I’ll head off now to heat up some herb punch with which to wish you all a healing holiday – and all the strength, magic and new stories we’ll need in 2017.