Anne Gracie started her first novel writing by hand in notebooks while backpacking solo around the world. Hooked on Georgette Heyer from the age of eleven, Regency-era historical romances were a natural choice. Now a best-selling, multi award-winning author, Anne has written more than twenty books, which have been translated into more than eighteen languages.
I’ve always loved the rituals of Christmas and in particular the decorating of the tree. The ornaments always evoke memories of childhood, and each ornament has some significance. Some are antiques passed down from older generations, others are gifts from distant friends, some are handmade and range from exquisite craft creations or ornaments made by childish hands long since grown up, with love and enthusiasm.
So it’s a little frustrating when I write a Christmas story and can't include even a small scene of trimming the tree, because my books are set in the Regency era and the Christmas tree as we know it, hadn’t yet arrived in England. (Queen Victoria was the one who made it popular — or rather her husband, Albert, who was German and brought the tradition from there.)
But although I might not be able to have a Christmas Tree, that doesn’t mean I can’t infuse a story with a little of the Christmas spirit I so enjoy. Here’s a snippet from my novella in THE LAST CHANCE CHRISTMAS BALL — an anthology of linked Christmas stories written by the Word Wenches; Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Joanna Bourne, Pat Rice, Nicola Cornick, Susan King and me.
In my story, Mistletoe Kisses, my heroine, Allie Fenton is facing her last ever Christmas in her family home — alone. Her parents are dead and a distant cousin will inherit. After Christmas, Allie will leave to take up a teaching position in Bath, so it's a poignant time for her. But she's determined to make it a Christmas to remember . . .
First Allie waxed and polished all the furniture in the sitting room, polished the brass fenders and the fire-screen with its old-fashioned sailing ship design, mopped the floor, beat and straightened the rug and plumped the cushions on the settee. When she finished, the room smelled pleasantly of beeswax and brass cleaner. And of the wood burning in the fireplace.
Later she would go out to cut greenery. In years past they'd decorated the whole house, but this year it would just be the sitting room.
Next she went up to the attic and fetched down the Christmas box. Made of oak from a tree grown on the estate, the wood had been sanded and polished until it was silky smooth. She dusted it and set it on the rug in front of the fire in the sitting room.
It had been made for Allie when she was a child, by Old Peter, an elderly workman on the estate. Every year he'd made something new to add to the box.
Each item was wrapped in tissue; first the stable—just three walls and a roof— then the holy family, carved and painted by Peter, and dressed by Allie and her mother; Mary in a blue cloak and dress made from an old dress of Mama's, Joseph in a red flannel robe tied around the middle with a piece of string, the three kings and the wise men in rich robes cut from an old dressing gown of Papa's and some scraps Allie had begged from the dressmaker one year. The kings were distinguished by gold paper crowns. Then came the manger and the tiny baby Jesus, wrapped in a square of white wool, hemmed in clumsy stitches by an eight-year-old Allie.
No nativity scene was complete without animals and Old Peter had carved an ox, a donkey, a few chickens, a cat, two tiny mice, a couple of camels — slightly oddly humped, as Old Peter had never seen a camel — and a handful of sheep, along with the requisite shepherds with their ragged striped robes and crooks.
Allie's favorite piece was a carved and painted version of her beloved dog, Gippy, a gift from Old Peter the Christmas she was twelve. Every detail was perfect, from the little tan eyebrows on the black and white face, to the feathery tip of white at the end of his black tail.
Gippy was long gone, but his spirit remained in this little carved figure. And on one of the shepherds, whose body bore a clear line of puppy tooth dents. Each year those tooth-marks made her smile.
She arranged the nativity scene on the mantelpiece. The paint was worn, the clothing faded, and the gold of the kings' crowns was dull now, instead of shiny, but Allie wouldn't change them for anything.
After a simple lunch of soup and cheese on toast, Allie put on her warmest coat, hat, scarf, gloves and boots. There had been a severe frost the night before and it was still bitterly cold outside.
She fetched a basket and a pair of stout shears and tried not to think about previous Christmases when the collecting of greenery had been laughter-filled events, punctuated with snowball fights. . . And fingers, toes and noses all cold, and tingling with the joy of being alive, and coming home to hot drinks and mince pies and soup and toasted crumpets. And the smell of the house filled with fresh fragrant greens. . .
She always loved collecting the pine and laurel, holly, ivy and. . . maybe she wouldn't bother with mistletoe this year. With nobody but herself in the house, what was the point?
The grass crunched under her feet as she set out. Last night's frost still lay on the ground in some parts. The air was crisp and cold and invigorating. She breathed in great lungfuls of it, feeling more alive by the minute. Her breath coiled in smoky puffs then dissipated along with the faint melancholy that had overtaken her earlier. She found herself humming a Christmas carol, and smiled. She loved this time of the year.
Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Abbey is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…
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