Doubt, Tea and Christmas Eve

In homage to an old Glasgow haunt of ours, we’re drinking today’s tea in what they would call ‘Russian style.’ That is, loose leaved and less the tea infuser. Also, whatever the technical term si for drinking a cup of tea while a cat waltzes around one’s space, not just lap, but back, shoulders, desk, keyboard…there’s a technical term for that, yeah?

Anyway, the tea itself is called Fireside Mocha, and we really hoped we’d misread Firside Matcha. No such luck. Question; if your fruit based infusion lacks tea leaves but does have coffee grounds, in what way is it not flavoured coffee?

This year’s attempt to convert us to the taste of coffee went about as well as anyone whose old hat at this tea-and-a-poem blog of ours would expect after three odd years of it.  There’s grimacing, noises of distress and quoting of Nancy Mitford. Specifically that old saw, ‘Aren’t I grown up Fanny? I drink tea and almost like coffee.’ It’s one of Don’t Tell Alfred‘s truly funny moments, with the caveat that we still don’t like coffee. Not even almost. And we absolutely, unconditionally, definitely do not want the stuff in our tea. Got it, universe? If we want coffee – which event is doubtful – we’ll have coffee. If we want tea, we’ll make tea. And if we want a fruit concoction steeped in hot water, we’ll have a fruit flavoured tisane and thank you to leave coffee grounds well out of the mix.

Anyone still unclear on the Gospel of Tea as preached by us, raise your hand, post a note, or otherwise reach out to us. We solemnly promise not to victimise any lovers of coffee.

To go with a tea of dubious merit, here’s a Christmas poem with doubt at it’s thematic centre. We don’t know enough Betjeman, and obviously neither does the internet, since it’s convinced we’ve misspelled his name. What we have read though, we’ve always found interesting. He shares Hardy’s trick for elevating the mundane and weaving it in to a sacred space.

There’s probably something interesting to be said about the fact that two of the best Christmas poems going are rooted in the wavering faith of these two poets. Something about the frailty of humanity and our impermanence, or something. But it’s late, much too late for theology. So here’s the poem instead, and if you happen to have any more brainwaves about doubt, Advent, mundanity and the poetic, you know where to reach us. Or you could just get in touch about tea. We’re really good with both.

Either way, a happy Christms from Canada, from us, the Dawlish Dachshunds, and Miss Marschallin.

Christmas 

John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Mulled Wine and Minced Pies; their Oddities and Risks

Yesterday’s tea confused us. Today’s…well, today’s is odd. It’s called Mulled Wine Oolong, and incontrovertibly it tastes of mulled wine. Specifically of mulled wine if you took out the alcohol content. The bizarre thing here is that it tastes not at all of oolong. This is strange less because it’s a tea (though there’s that too) but because oolong is such a pungent sort of tea. You ferment the leaves to make an oolong, so it always has something of a smoky taste. Smoky isn’t quite the right word, but it’s late and the right word for that particular flavour eludes us. The point is, it should be ideally suited for something calling itself Mulled Wine Tea. You’d expect the underlying notes here to be the musk of the oolong. Instead the spices and candied fruit overwhelm it, which says a lot about the strength of the flavouring, because a normal fruit blend won’t undercut an oolong. We drink them all the time; orange oolong, oolong with raspberry, with lemon and citrus.

That’s not to say Mulled Wine Oolong is a bad tea. As we say, it’s an eerily effective rendition of mulled wine. Drink it with a mince pie and enjoy yourself. Just don’t expect it to taste like tea.

We’re thinking of mince pies as a companion piece here not a little because we miss them over in Canada. We can’t buy them for love or money this side of the water, whereas we used to be spoiled for selection. We never actually went out of our way to buy them, but they always seemed to be on hand at Christmas receptions or as sweets after supper – maybe a friend passed them round over afternoon tea. We keep meaning to make them, but since we can’t find the mince over here either, and making it up from scratch is an alarming amount of effort, that has so far come to nothing.

We did look, but found no literature on the mince pie. Personally, we blame Oliver Cromwell, who famously declared them – and Christmas – illegal back when he was running England. The country then, like good, absent-minded Englishers, forgot to reinstate both as legal thereafter. So it’s really very daring, the buying and selling of mince pies. This may explain the total lack of them in Canada, what with our track record of historically declining to offend Britain.

Instead, here’s a poem on something called Christmas Plum Cake. We make this a plum pudding, but if anyone has different ideas, do write in. You can get hold of plum pudding in Canada, incidentally. It was a staple of Christmases in Guelph, growing up, where only our grandfather ate it. Here’s hoping you have more appetite for the poem.

To Mrs K____, on Sending Me an English Plum Cake

Helen Maria WIlliams

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! —
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life’s calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!

Scent of Almonds

Today has involved, among other things, the internet’s insistence that it couldn’t establish a secure connection to the blog, a singing lesson, and the augmenting of the Christmas Cake. We’re fairly sure the last one went wrong, somewhere between skewering the cake and soaking it in orange juice as per the instructions. Turn upside-down, they read. Add Orange Juice, they said .So we did these things, and righted the cake, because it said to do that too. And then we thought about it, and wondered how, gravity being what it is, a perforated cake was going to absorb orange juice sitting right-side-up and wrapped in clingfilm and tinfoil. The marzipan was on by then too – also as per the instructions – and we’re pretty sure that none of the above sequence is good for marzipan. We’re certain, after a sample of the stuff, that we prefer making it from scratch. It’s nothing against store-bought, but it always tastes sweeter than the home-made stuff. And not quite like almond. On the other hand, we were all saved eyeing marzipan out of obscure kitchen corners into the next millennia, so that was good.

Almonds resurfaced in the tea. It smelled of sweet almonds, which is good, because anything else would send a sane literary critic running the other direction and worrying about cyanide. Just us? It may be entirely possible we’ve read one murder mystery too many. Anyway, it’s a green tea that tastes of roasted almonds a combination that works well. It’s long in the mouth and stands being steeped for long periods of time.

Things being what they are, we ought to have a poem on hand about almonds or Christmas cakes, or something for consistency. In fairness, we did look. The absolute dearth of literate has us convinced that all anyone ever took away from marzipan was a blizzard of icing-sugar. Blizzard being, naturally, the collective noun for amassed icing sugar. Probably any poet whose baked the stuff is still coaxing it out of the crevices of counters and finding residual powder behind the toaster. Good to know we’re in good company on that one.

Instead, here’s a poem about the new year. Precipitate, possibly, but then, Advent is our liturgical new year, so it’s not entirely without relevance.

Year’s End

Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.
There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

Oxen Kneeling

Appropriately for tonight, we’re drinking a Santa’s Secret, a sweetened black tea with pieces of candy cane. We could be liturgically snippy and say really this belongs in the December 6 box, for St Nicholas, but this is a Canadian Calendar, and Santa has long been associated here with Christmas Eve, never mind the liturgical calendar.

Besides, we’ve always loved the little human embroideries of the biblical narrative. Christ falling three times during Stations of the Cross, for the humanity and frailty it gives Him, the tabby cat who got her M-shaped marking on her forehead when Mary blessed her for keeping the Christ warm in the manger, or the cherries she plucks from that cherry tree in the carol. Did any of them happen? Impossible to say, but someone, somewhere once believed that they did, and ever since people have cleaved to them in various degrees, and have kept adding. Santa and his sleigh, the tree that craved great purpose and so became the Cross -and here’s another for you.

An old English superstition says that on Christmas Eve the oxen kneel at midnight to greet the Christ. It’s immortalised forever by Thomas Hardy in poetry, who crammed such superstitions into all his writing. We’ve shared superstition and poem before, but the old-world awe of the image of the oxen kneeling is one that never loses its beauty for us.  Perhaps we’ll find a better Christmas Eve poem in the New Year, but until we do, have the oxen kneeling.

The Oxen 

Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
photo 1
No oxen to kneel here, but all the same, a happy Christmas from all at Dawlish-uder-snow!

Myn Lyking

Winter in Scotland and it’s been driech, which in plain English means it’s been raining doggedly since Thursday, when Murphy’s Law being in good working order, the family arrived. We’ve been trying to defend the appeal of a seaside town with sideways wind and twilight at 3 ever since. For our part, we’re combatting the weather this evening by drinking a late pot of Kashmiri Chai. It’s lighter than most chai, with a base in green tea; we discovered this pouring out, when the colour initially suggested the tea was understeeped. In fact it’s meant to be a golden colour. It’s further embellished by cinnamon, nutmeg and marigold flowers. And being chai, it is the ideal antidote to winter, whatever the weather.

We haven’t had much time spare for poetry hunting of late, what with trying to acclimatise three Canadians to Scotland. But last Sunday we were gifted a new carol by the conductor of our choir who told us to open Carols for Choirs to ‘Myn Lyking’ as if everyone knew of it. They should, so here this evening is both the Middle English text for you, and the carol to accompany it.

Myn Lyking 

15th Century (set by R. Terry)

I saw a fair mayden sytten and sing
She lulled a little childe, a sweete Lording.

Lullay mye lyking, my dere sonne, my sweeting.
Lully mydere herte, myn own dere derling.

That same Lord is he that made alle thing,
Of alle lord is his is lord, of alle kynges King.

There was mickle melody at that chylde’s birth
All that were in heav’nly bliss, they made mickle myrth.

Angels bright sang their song to that chyld;
Blyssid be thou, and so be she, so meek and so mild.