Janet Rising joins the blog again for a voyage around Christmas past. And present. (You’re welcome.)
If you’re one of the people who always insist, ‘Oh it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we’ve been to Olympia,’ then clearly you’re on a hiding to nothing this year, what with the famous event having fallen victim to the C-word (I’m not going to mention it again). I’m all for looking forward, but how about a wallow in nostalgia, instead?
What present topped your Christmas list when you were a child? The obvious answer, I’m guessing, would have been a pony – it was for me. But it was a dead-end, cul-de-sac, pie-in-the-sky request and I knew it. The dream of finding a Polaroid image of a cute pony peeping out of my stocking, inscribed with the words, ‘I’m Pippin – and I’m all yours, Merry Christmas from Mummy and Daddy xxx,‘ remained just that: a dream. Instead, I read stories where the heroine, drying her eyes and manfully realising that a pony would never be hers, awoke on Christmas morning to find (almost as an afterthought) a festive-wrapped headcollar under the tree, and a perfect pony awaiting her or at the end of the garden.
Yeah, well, that wasn’t me. Far from filling me with hope, these stories fuelled my cynicism. I know, you’d never think it, would you? That’s years of practice, that is.
Not getting what you want is supposed to be character-building – except that I wanted to be a totally different character to the one I was forced to build. I longed to be the character with a pony – any pony. It didn’t have to be a dreamy dappled grey or a flashy palomino, some old plodder with an attitude problem and a mouth like iron would do. Couldn’t some grumpy old pony which nobody else wanted build my character? I longed to be the character who attended Pony Club, who was picked for teams, who saved the day by completing the final, vital clear round. I wanted to be the character who presented a shining example to other riders, who rode with natural ease and grace, with hands like silk, the character for whom all ponies – and later horses – went like dressage and show jumping champions. The next Lucinda Prior-Palmer was the character I wanted to be.
Clearly, my expectations needed to be lowered. As my birthday falls a week prior to Christmas I had a double-whammy gift list to get in order sometime around September. Sindy was the only doll I ever had (baby dolls, yeuk!), and over the years before I became a teenager Sindy was joined by her boyfriend, Paul who came with a choice of heads – disconcerting when you opened the box as it was like opening up a coffin (I imagine M’lud). Paul’s original head with moulded hair was in situ, his spare with ‘real’ hair, which you pushed on after wrenching off the old one with a loud plop, gazed up at you by its side like some do-it-yourself-head-transplant kit.
Official Sindy furniture was expensive so my father made me a wardrobe, as well as a dressing table with its own stool and a bed, my mother making pillows and blankets. The bed was a double – a bit progressive, considering Sindy and Paul weren’t married. I did, however, get the official Sindy’s car, a racy little open-top red number which, because her knees weren’t bendy (later models only), my Sindy reclined behind the wheel in a cool, laid-back way, Man, as though she was on something. So swinging sixties.
Why Sindy? Well, I expect you know where I’m going with this: one Christmas, after months of anxious anticipation, Sindy’s horse landed! Grey-flocked, pure-white in mane and tail, open mouthed and gagging for her bit, she tumbled into little Janet’s arms, and all her dreams came true (with apologies to Mrs Crewe). Good God was I made up. I think she cost thirty-nine-and-eleven (20 old shillings to the pound, 12 pennies to a shilling, so I make that a whisper shy of two whole pounds – I could get three whole riding lessons for that, and still have change for the bus).
I saddled up Silver Lady (I only recently learnt that Peanuts was the official name – and so unworthy I’m grateful for my ignorance), I unsaddled her, taking reverential care with her red rosette. I swept around her with her plastic broom, I filled her red water bucket, I fastened her nosebag around her head (why a nosebag? She wasn’t a rag-and-bone horse!). I made her rugs, saddle cloths, a stable.
The following Christmas, I knew what I would do with my pool money (I had more cousins, second-cousins, second-cousins one-twice-three and more times removed than you could shake a riding crop at, so instead of getting presents from aunts and uncles they all put a pound in the ‘pool’, and the money was distributed among the cousins, a brilliant idea which netted us all about thirty bob to buy our own presents). Mine bought the palomino Thunderbolt for Paul to ride, his western saddle considered suitably macho. Pancho, Thunderbolt’s pony partner, joined the stable – only I painted his points black to make him dun, complete with wobbly dorsal stripe. I never got the chestnut-flocked Patch’s pony, though. Maybe I was getting a bit old by the time that made an appearance, but Pancho did the job for my Sindy’s little sister.
Woolworths offered quite a selection of model horses, about a third of the scale of Silver Lady – and much more in my price bracket. My collection grew at Christmas (still got ’em, up in the loft, can’t bear to part with them, saddo that I am), as did my other herd, Britains- and Timpo-sized, over 400 of them. All named, all stabled in shoe box stables. I even had miniscule models – horses and farm animals – in Airfix kit-size. I painted those, too. Well I had to as they only came in regulation white. All up in the loft, still.
Later, my pool money would be eeked out over two or three riding lessons, and our last lesson before Christmas might end with some gymkhana games or a mini jumping competition. There was always a red post box in the main yard, opened on Christmas Eve, small piles of cards from those riders and helpers who were absent hanging around over the holiday period on tack boxes and curling up with damp.
One year, a family who kept their hunters at livery there presented each of the staff with a delicately wrapped present, which proved to be small bouquets of freesias. I remember thinking it a very odd gift (a bit like Jill’s fountain pen that might easily have been jodhpurs), but now, of course, I’d consider it dead classy. Flowers for Christmas, oo-er.
Christmas at Pony Magazine began early. We’d be planning features even before the end of the summer holidays, which is when the Pony Annual would arrive, on which we’d been working, in fits and starts, for eight months. Christmas proper started in our November issue which always carried a page of charity Christmas cards, giving readers plenty of time to get their orders in. In the early days of my editorship we received actual cards which needed to be scanned. Now, of course, pdfs are quicker and easier, but a lot more difficult to send out.
Christmas adverts in Pony ranged from toys (remember that life-size fluffy toy pony that neighed?), beautiful rocking horses that cost more than a real pony, to antlers for ponies to wear, model horses, Christmas jumpers and festive head collars. New gifts ranged from, ‘Oh wow, look at this!’ to ‘Dear God, that’s some poor pony’s Christmas ruined!’
Remember when we were allowed out? One year, our marketing manager got ridiculously over-excited about a ball to which she had been invited to represent the magazines. Preparation was meticulous: dress selected: tick. Transport: tick. Trip to the hairdressers: tick. In a moment of madness, she had booked a facial and make-up sesh at a local salon during her lunch hour, determined to look her best. Only she reacted to one of the ingredients, which meant that nobody did any work that afternoon. Instead we watched, fascinated, as her face swelled up like a giant hamster, and as her expertly made-up eyes reduced to mere slits, transforming her from Cinderella to Ugly Sister before our own. Farewell ball, hello doctor! I daresay you think us cruel when I describe how much mirth her plight gave us, but she was famous for being the office ‘petri dish’ as she was always reacting to something – anything – and really should have know better.
Those of us who had made it through manning the magazine’s stand at Olympia spent Christmas Eve uncertain as to whether we were actually conscious or dead, staring at our screens in a limp fashion, waiting for the time when we could tear ourselves away and journey back to the comfort of our own homes and the even bigger comfort of a large gin and tonic. At lunchtime we would console ourselves with a few sausage rolls and mince pies. One year, someone brought in their two young daughters who were sniffing and snuffling like truffle pigs, obviously up to the eyes with (hopefully) a cold. And that wasn’t all they’d brought: would we like a sausage roll little Mandy had made with her own fair hand before she succumbed completely to the pox? Or perhaps we’d rather have a crisp, offered to us from an infected bowl held by her spluttering sister, clearly full of plague and not long for this world?
No. Do us a favour and go over there, please. Bit further. Further… that’s it, right out of the door and down the steps… keep going… I’ll tell you when.
It’s not hard to pop that Christmas spirit, and here’s a case in point. A couple of years ago I received a Christmas card from an old work colleague which I eagerly opened in anticipation of the usual message of good cheer and season’s greetings! Instead, out plopped a computer print out explaining how busy the sender was at Christmas, what with all the shopping and cooking and cleaning and decorating the house and the buying of presents, not to mention the children’s nativity plays and church gatherings, the parties, the dinners, the wrapping, the card-writing, the endless round of prep and doing and going and being somewhere… on and on it went, one big, long, drawn out festive rant. It concluded with the frosty declaration that this would be the last Christmas card I could expect, as the writer was sure I would agree that it would be better to give the money to charity, thus saving herself the extra hassle of writing and sending them all. The whole missive had the whiff of the drunken and nervous breakdown about it.
Well, I thought, that’s cheerful. And a merry bloody Christmas to you, too. I mean, she didn’t even have a horse so there really was no excuse. I know ditching cards is gaining in popularity, but I’d be sorry to see them go. They are part of my Christmas decorations (call me cheap) and I enjoy touching base with old friends. Don’t send them if that is your thing but spare me the droning monologue about how busy you are. We’re all busy at Christmas, love, and you nobody’s forcing you to volunteer for the nativity and make your own Christmas puddings. Just buy your festive season in bulk at Waitrose if you’re that stretched, or go abroad. Oh, you can’t this year, can you?
How do you like your Christmas cards? Horsy ones from the charities – cute donkeys in the snow or racehorses exercising against the backdrop of a frosty woodland? Polar bears and penguins? (What’s with penguins at Christmas, they come from the opposite side of the globe, nowhere near the North Pole) Do you prefer Victorian nostalgia? Photographs of robins? Reindeer? (One of my favourite pre-Christmas pastimes has always counting how many notices and blackboards I can spot which say reindeers, but I’ve just looked it up in the dictionary and apparently you can add the s. Disappointing.) Or maybe you favour the traditional card, something Biblical, perhaps?
My favourite card has to be a detail from The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, painted in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1459-60). An art lover, you are thinking, she’s going for highbrow – that explains the Waitrose reference (I only put that in for effect as I’m much more of a Sainsbury’s girl myself. Other supermarkets are available.). Well, actually, not so much. For if you look at the bottom centre of the detail from the Procession of the Youngest King you’ll see a really splendid mule, ridden by the devout Cosimo de’ Medici.
In another part entitled Procession of the Old King, one of the kings, Melchior, is on a grey mule.
(While we’re at it, why not try Cardinal Wolsey at the Gate of Leicester Abbey by CW Cope, painted in 1847 and exhibited in the Billiard Room in Osborne House. Apparently, Cope got Sir Edwin Landseer to work on the mule’s head, and a very lovely mule it is, too.) Of course, you don’t have to go to Florence or Osborne House to see these because we can just Google them, lucky people that we are.
So we’re back to Christmas 2020, and what to do about it. Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it, and how we get our heads around it all. Some time ago, when asked by a work colleague about what I would be doing over Christmas I told them my husband was working.
‘Oh no!’ they gasped. ‘Whatever will you do?’
‘Whatever I like,’ I told them, watching their face morph from concern to envy.
So the point I am trying to make (there is one, bear with me), is that we all know that Christmas will be different this year – so it’s probably not a good idea to keep on trying to replicate the usual one. Try something new (how about a lovely Christmas sausage bake?), stir things up a bit. Go for a ride. Rearrange your Pony magazines/pony books. Clean your riding boots. Look up lovely mules on the internet. Catalogue your model ponies or riding gloves. Spend the day with the dog, or in bed, or in bed with the dog. Buy all your presents for loved ones from charity shops (if they’re open), or from country stores, or make them yourself, or set a limit on your spending – who can get the best present for the least money? (My sister and I used to play this in Woolworths, the pick-n-mix being banned from the game as it was too easy to come out with a single sweet. We did this as adults. I know, don’t bother pointing it out. At least we paid.) Who knows, you may even start a new festive tradition, you know, something good out of something bad. That’s the spirit!
However you spend Christmas it’s what you make it, so make it good. After all, it comes around again quicker than ever (so I’m always being told), so there’ll be another one along before you know it.
Janet’s latest book, My Horsy Life, is out now. It’s available as an eBook (on Amazon, Google and Apple) and a paperback. Amazon tend to run out of paperbacks quite quickly, but you can buy them direct here.