OPINION: Keeping sane among the craziness of Christmas

The gravy mule-train on its rural rounds to provide festive largesse in the “good old days”

The gravy mule-train on its rural rounds to provide festive largesse in the “good old days” - Credit: Lower Dodman Heritage Society

I turn again to Granny Biffin, by a country mile Bronickle End’s oldest and wisest indigenous remnant, for a simple but effective formula on how to keep sane during countdown to the Great-Season-Of-Too- Much.

She insists the best way to stay clear of fatigue, panic, penury or depression on the final lap is to accept the whole business is supposed to be a celebration, not a contest.

This good-natured veteran of festive seasons stretching back way beyond rationing and “ye olde futility rites” in Nathan Peabody’s barn just past the Muckwash Magna turnpike has again transformed her tiny Comfrey Cottage into a grotto for gregarious greetings until the old year fades and a new adventure is born.

“I tell myself and anyone else with enough good manners to listen that a hug makes a perfect gift – one size fits all -  and nobody minds if you exchange it.

If you look in my pantry, you’ll see jars of old-fashioned Christmas spirit. I open a new one every month,“ she twinkled like the brightest star in a Norfolk sky.

She has long wondered why it is customary to welcome trees indoors while at the same time leaving homeless people outside. And she’s noticed how emotional people become over family ties at this time of year, especially when they have to wear them.

Sadly, the Dewdrop Inn at nearby Little Dodman has closed after a long reign as the county’s least trendy pub, Happily, three of its most colourful regulars, retired coypu catcher Ernie Hoskins, retired stack thatcher Horry Barnes and retired muck spreader Billy Archer, continue to work alongside Granny Biffin to spreads as much comfort and joy as possible in such difficult times.

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They are keen to show how the older generation can still come up with something exciting without the aid of social services, trendy surveys, new-fangled technology or the vicar and the happy-clappy set. “We are more grumpy-thumpy when it comes to getting on with life “says Ernie Hoskins . “The urge to bind folk together is just as strong as ever.”

To this end, throats have been cleared and lanterns lit for the “Give A Carol A Norfolk Flavour” safari within a seven-mile radius of Bronickle End. God Arrest These Merry Gentlemen and Thirsty Noel have been ruled out of the reckoning because they could evoke too many upsetting memories of cherished country pubs closing in recent years.

Among those delivered with gusto by hardened natives and hedonistic newcomers alike are Hark the Hempnall Angels Sing, As With Gladness Men of Aldborough. We Three Kings of Poringland Are, In the Deep Mid-Winterton and Good King Wendling Last Looked Out. Retired chapel harmonium player Elsie Snodgrass is proving a big inspiration on her trusty melodeon.

Horry Barnes has also been researching old-established local charities set up specifically to distribute a few extras at this time of year .He has uncovered details of the Browning brothers, Amos and Andrew, who formed a trust out of their arable estate to provide gravy for every Christmas meal in the district.

A document discovered at a recent jumble sale by the Little Dodman Heritage Society refers to “the gravy mule-train handing out tasty largesse to homesteads where giant “dumplings await rich embellishment,”

Billy Archer, self-appointed guardian of the Yule Log Ceremony will find the most cross-grained block of elm in his shed for the Christmas Eve get-together in Granny Biffin’s small but cosy abode This ancient custom specifies that so long as any part remains unconsumed by fire, all present must continue to drink strong home-made cider.

One Christmas Eve traditional ritual apparently beloved of generations of unmarried maidens will not be on the festive agenda this time. It used to be the custom for she who wished for a glimpse of her future spouse to wash out her chemise, hang it before the fire to dry and wait in solemn silence until midnight “when he will come and turn her linen.”

Granny Biffin, keen to show ability to keep up with the times, sees this as “a futility rite too far and a serious danger to chaps with a weakness for drink and steaming underwear.” On the other hand, she warmly applauds plans for a ground-breaking pantomime production by the Lower Dodman Mummers and Poppers early in 2022.

Felicity Rockland – Ffynche, former debutante and stenographer and now writer and director in residence at the village hall is not denying it could be called Snow White and the Seven Unitary Authorities meet Scroby Dick and the Eco-Friendly Managed Retreats.

She knows how to fill seats.

Skip's Aside:

An old friend snuffled and wheezed his way into my company for a sympathetic ear and a consoling pot of tea.

He recognises a kindred spirit when it comes to convincing a cynical old world that even the most resolute of characters can fall foul of Norfolk’s most virulent malady, Suffin Gorn Abowt.

It all begins with a tizzick in the throat and turns into a nasty cough with bronickle complications and a tendency to go all of a dudder. This shivering can bring on a period of acute anxiety before victims are allowed anywhere near rest of the human race.

They may then offer a heartfelt “Betterannerhebbin” to concerned relatives. Those who can manage with a painfully whispered “Wassannwoterwuz” are returned to complete isolation and a chance to discover what daytime television is all about.

Whenever I try to make light of a dreadful cold -and they do get worse as the years shorten – Armageddon parks at the foot of the bed’ Angels jostle to call me home as soon as the nose clogs up and the throat dries up (my wife’s favourite part of the process). The rest of me gives up although I may allow bulletins to be issued on the hour.

For all that, even a serial wimp deserves more charitable treatment than a cackled “Hope you’ve cancelled the Sunday papers!” or” Shouldn’t buy any green bananas if I were you!.” Best response to such insensitive fodder , if you can muster enough strength, is a quote from the Tomb of the Unknown Hypochondriac: “There. I told you I was ill!.”

I have again been in search of Ye Olde Norfolk Colde Cure. Plenty of choice to bring me out in a good cold sweat. A dirty sock or woollen stocking wrapped around the throat for at least a fortnight can work miracles. Probably itches after a while but infinitely preferable to a cowpat, still warm, folded in linen to make a poultice.

Honey-and vinegar and onion gruel can chase away the germs while a flannel soaked in camphorated oil on the chest has been going strong for many generations. The romantically inclined .. Cupid with a cough … may prefer to apply a paper heart covered with goose grease to the chest. A slice of swede sprinkled with sugar has its supporters and rubbing tallow in the nostrils may not be as unpleasant as it sounds.

Mind you, fellow sufferers, we might not have been spoilt for choice had we recalled that an apple eaten on Halloween at midnight will keep you free of colds for the coming year.

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