Monday, 14 December 2020

Quick Lit December 2020


Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for QuickLit as usual. I rarely read memoirs, and this month I squeezed in two. Retrospectively, I'm not sure it was a great idea because I was feeling emotionally sensitive during a second lockdown, and real-life pain is much worse than fictional pain. But both were worth reading.

Helen Oyeyemi - Gingerbread

The best way to describe this quirky novel is that it's a Brothers Grimm story in a modern setting. Going back and forth in time, it tells the story of how the Lee family women, makers of seemingly magical gingerbread, came to the UK from Druhastrana, a country most claim does not exist, and for Harriet Lee's quest to reunite with her childhood, changeling friend Gretel. Weird, but I enjoyed it.

Raynor Winn - The Salt Path

This was a memoir I simultaneously felt drawn to read and dreaded reading, because I knew it was going to be harrowing. In mid-life, Winn and her husband, Moth, lose everything, and in the same week, Moth receives a diagnosis of a fatal degenerative disease. With no home, little money, and nowhere to go, they decide to walk the 600-mile South West coast path of Britain, wild camping on the way. I picked it up for the Dorset connection and nature writing, but ended up learning a lot about homelessness. Although the ending was positive, it still left me drained and disturbed - but in a way that a deep book does. Highly recommended - one of my top books of 2020.

Raynor and Moth. Credit:

P.G. Wodehouse - A Pelican at Blandings

I had to read something lighthearted after The Salt Path, and knew this wouldn't have any hidden surprises. Poor Lord Emsworth just wants to be left in peace with his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, but he is plagued by the arrival of his overbearing sister Connie, star-crossed lovers, and wrangling over a nude painting. Enter his unflappable brother Galahad, as usual, to sort all out and make every ending happy.

Lawrence's lyrical chapter on the joy of riding his motorcycle reads painfully ironically

T.E. Lawrence - The Mint

In 1922, worn out by fame and broken by PTSD (which of course was not recognised back then), Lawrence, aka, Lawrence of Arabia, took an assumed name, and managed to enlist as a common airman in the RAF, hoping to be erased and made anew. This is his memoir of that experience (published after his early, accidental death) - raw, concise, painful and quite a departure from the sprawling, genre-defying Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Part of the fascination of this book is that Lawrence could never have got away with it in our digital age. Language warning - you probably did not know that people swore like this in the 1920s!

If you want to read more about Lawrence, check out my account of visiting his grave in Dorset. Oh, and one of the characters in my novel, A Dorset Summer, is inspired by him. Considering that I am not interested in either politics or the military, my obsession is a little odd :)

Hoping that Father Christmas brings you all you wish to read!

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Three Good Old Men: Slovenian Christmas

 Slovenian children are particularly lucky in the Christmas period, because they get visits from not one but three "good old men" bearing gifts. Of course, books could be, and are, devoted to each, but here's my summary, with my favourite facts. (I wrote a quick Grandfather Frost blog last year, but didn't have time for more. I guess 2020 cleared my calendar.) The usual festivities will be quieter this year, but the three good old men will not be abandoning children in Slovenia - or anywhere in the world.

Is this a rap battle for supremacy? (Credit:

December 6: Saint Nicholas Day

One of my favourite days in Advent, celebrating one of the most-beloved saints. The original Saint Nicholas was a third/fourth-century bishop of Myra. Legend says he came into the bishopric very early, hence the tradition of selecting a boy bishop in some places on this day. His main association with gifts comes from the legend that he secretly saved three poor sisters from being forced into prostitution (the cleaner versions say he helped them get husbands) by secretly dropping coins into their stockings hung up to air at night, to provide them with dowries. For this, he is the patron saint of prostitutes. He also reputedly came to literal blows with Arian at the Council of Nicea over the latter's heresy - not quite the jolly old elf of modern times. 

In Slovenia, he is known as Miklavž and appears in his bishop's robes. In parades around the country, he is often followed by angels who help to give out gifts - and by devils ready to scare the bad children. Back at home, Slovenian children follow the tradition of leaving out a shoe, or maybe a stocking, for the saint. In return they get small gifts of chocolate and dried fruits. I can only imagine the reaction of most American and British children on getting dried fruit for Christmas. Actually, no, I can really imagine it, which is why our remaining little one gets chocolate and a mini panettone. We picked up this tradition before coming to Slovenia as part of our Advent observance, and it's a lovely precursor to Christmas.

Ok, this is from our trip to Zagreb, but it's a favourite memory - this St Nicholas was roaming the streets spreading good cheer and gifts. I won't forget his kindness towards the mentally disabled young adult behind him

Last year, I took Alcuin down to the old salt warehouse in Koper to greet the saint, but it turned out that there was such a long programme prior to his arrival that we had to give up, as it was beyond a small child's patience. This year, we are still in a strict lockdown and it was bucketing with rain most of the day, but he was happy tucked up at home with the above, plus a bonus Christmas book.

December 25: Father Christmas/ Santa Claus

A relatively later comer, the gift-giver of the Anglo world has managed to sandwich himself between two more traditional figures on the calendar. According to friends, celebrating December 25th, and Saint Nicholas' Day for that matter, were not encouraged during the Tito regime. For this reason, while Saint Nicholas has been welcomed back to this culturally Catholic country,  the more protestant, and commercial, Father Christmas/ Santa Claus tradition has not gained the traction it has elsewhere. I recall that the first time we lived here, nearly twelve years ago, there wasn't a hint of Christmas stuff in the shops until we were into December. Not quite the case now, but still not a frantic period. The 25th is a religious holiday, and the 26th is Independence and Unity Day, less family days than public holidays. Here in Koper, you'll find people thronging the streets and cafes, or skating on the winter rink. Father Christmas is known as Božiček here (božič is the word for Christmas). He is still the main gift-giver in our family, of course.

December 31: Grandfather Frost

The origins of this ancient figure of winter are many and tangled, but he was promoted during the times of communism as an alternative to the Christian saints. His names include Father Frost, Grandfather Winter, and Grandfather Snow. In Slovenia, he is known as Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost). He is associated with slavic pagan figures, and his identity has morphed and merged over time. He is alternatively, and simultaneously, Morozko, a Russian spirit or wizard of winter, a hero or smith who chains water with his iron frosts, a being who kidnaps children for ransom, as happy to freeze bad children to death as to reward good ones. At one point recharacterized as demonic by the Orthodox Church, he was eventually adopted as a propaganda figure by the old Soviet empire, by which path he made it to Slovenia. However, by the time the Yugoslavs decided to abolish Christmas, they had also split from the Soviets, so Father Frost had to be Slovenised.

Leaner than fat old Santa and tougher than heretic-punching Saint Nicholas, here Dedek Mraz appears in a leather coat and a hat made from dormouse fur. He is said to live under Mt Triglav, the country's highest mountain, from whence he emerges at the end of the year to bestow presents from a traditional Slovenian woven basket. In the capital of Ljubljana, he rides through the streets in the last days of December, in a carriage drawn by Lipizzaner horses.

In saner times, we have enjoyed attending the little Dedek Mraz celebration the University puts on for children earlier in December, but that of course has not happened this year. I don't know if Father Frost will visit us, as I always give a final gift on the last day of Christmas anyway (Epiphany, January 6).

A nice summary from the Slovenian perspective can be found at Total Slovenian News, where you can also find an account summary of how Dedek Mraz came to be. Merry Christmas! Vesel Božič!