Advent Sunday – fourth before Christmas? Right? Well, sort of. But for the garden centres it seems to come in September even before harvest festivals are finished. So it's a long time before the church catches up and fires a late starting pistol (okay, that's not really the right metaphor – tell me a better one) with a rousing rendition of 'O come, o come, Immanuel.'And then it's a mad dash from one carol service to the next, and from one Christmas dinner to the next so that by the time Christmas comes, I'm longing for bangers and mash or steak pudding and chips.
When we lived in Yorkshire, Margaret and I used to look forward to the lull which came on Christmas Eve when we would take the scenic drive to Castleton in Derbyshire. It's a wonderfully picturesque village nestling in the Hope Valley at the foot of Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain. And in the Three Roofs Café in the village, our Christmas Eve treat was battered cod, chips and mushy peas. Lovely.
After we moved to South Wales we tried to keep up the Christmas Eve tradition but Castleton was too far away and nowhere else had quite the same feel. This year, however, a week early, we think we have find the perfect place to renew our tradition. The Blue Cap at Sandiway in Cheshire. It's a lovely 18th century inn fairly close to the location for my current novel. But it won't be fish and chips this time. Wild Pheasant with berry and red wine sauce. I'm hungry already.
Who's the dog standing on guard on top of that post? Well, that's Blue Cap himself, of course, a legendary fox hound noted for his exceptional speed and agility.
An old Cheshire custom was souling - going around the houses singing and begging for goodies. Originally it was associated with All Souls day - hence the name - but the custom merged with wassailing during the Advent season. I can recall a December holiday spent with my Gran and Grandad who lived on the edge of Delamere Forest. Lots of us kids and several adults went the rounds of the cottages and farmhouses singing a song that went like this:Chorus:
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missus, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.
God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round the table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwell within your gates,
We wish you ten times more
A soul, etc.
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If your barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
(We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.)
A soul, etc.
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I've got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny
A ha'penny will do;
If you haven't got a ha'penny,
It's God bless you!
A soul, etc
And when we got back to Gran's fireside we had enough treats to last for the rest of the holiday.