A Long Way From California

by Beverly Franklin-Atkinson

I’ve grown up my entire life celebrating Christmas morning in Southern California. Christmas vacation off from school playing in the neighborhood with friends, cruising the boardwalk and pier, bonfires at the beach, waking up Christmas morning and spending hours on the new bicycle or roller blades that you just received, zipping around outside in the usually 70°F sunshine. So after getting married my husband and I decided since he moved to California, we could at least spend the holidays with his family in England. That first Christmas in England was definitely an eye opener. I couldn’t have asked for a more idyllic village in the Cotswolds in the most picture perfect house. It was just like the paintings and David Winters figurine homes, but the one thing that you don’t grasp in those paintings is the bone chilling cold that permeates ever fiber of your being – particularly in a rambling 600 year old house.

Every year the entire family - aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings - all descend upon Fairfield House. The more senior you are the better your chances at securing a proper bedroom. As my husband and I were still way under 50, along with his cousins, we were relegated to the attic. The attic is divided into sections for privacy’s sake, but in the end it is unmistakably an unfinished attic. You know the sort – where aunt Mildred stores the canned plums, rhubarb and strawberry jam for the year. It’s also the place where the now not-so-young grandkids’ toys go to die. Well, this is where we called home from the holidays. Imagine leaving San Diego at a balmy 74°F to land in the “winter wonderland” where simply stepping out of the airplane and running up the tube to get into the airport foreshadowed the frigid climate for the next 10 days. A rude awakening to say the least. But all washed away with the warm welcome, big hugs and tin of anzac biscuits that are reliably in the same tin in the same cabinet year in, year out. I love those biscuits.

Upon arriving to the tiny village and making our way to the large 2 story Tudor / Elizabethan (not sure what it’s considered, built in 1425, under the House of Lancaster / Henry VI rule) home with moss on the slate roof and smoke trailing up from the chimney, the family embrace us as the long lost members that we are. After peeling off our layer upon layers of wooly socks, scarves, sweaters, coats, boots we are ushered into not the largest, fanciest room of the home, but rather where everyone congregates and feels at home. It’s a small room with a large Inglenook hearth and iron stove fully stoked. And because it is a cozy room, it holds the heat better, everyone is in close proximity on settees, big comfy chairs, stools, poofs on the floor and able to catch up. It’s a great space for doing the Saturday crossword together or playing games. It’s a room to chat, a room to read, a room to play the piano tucked in the corner, but not for zoning out on TV. There is no TV in this room.

After a long day of flying, then driving, then catching up with family, when bedtime rolls around you can’t wait. . . until you remember that that entails entering the icebox of an attic. Imagine now, there is snow everywhere, the windows are frosted over, and the home is generally heated by fireplace with small underpowered (in my opinion) radiators in the real bedrooms. And even those aren’t a luxury that we will be experiencing. But with much kindness and forethought for the thin blooded Californian in the house, his aunt and uncle have provided us not only with an electric blanket, but also the magical hot water bottle. What is this device that shares its warmth and molds itself to my feet? To me it was straight out of a Dickens novel – antiquated, quaint yet strangely effective. And this begins my love affair with the hot water bottle and the many different wooly coats you can buy for them, but I digress…. Also a new experience, though not a foreign concept, for me was the electric blanket. It must be said that my husband and I have two totally different internal thermostats and he was able to adjust much more readily to the Siberian-like conditions than I. But this electric blanket became the great equalizer. . . until I broke it. Or should I be more specific – broke his side. He had his 0-10 control and I had my 0-10 control. If you offer me 0-10 I am going to assume that you can freely use any number setting. So 10 it is! All night long I am oblivious to the 40°F camping-like surroundings because my 10 is keeping me toasty warm. All is good in my world, but apparently my husband’s side wasn’t quite as Bermuda. It turns out, as he tells it, my ‘10’ setting burned out his side and that one is not meant to leave the blanket on 10 all night. I didn’t see why not as it was a choice offered on the dial. If one wasn’t meant to choose 10, then why offer it? This argument continues on to this day 16 years later. But at the time, it just meant more duvets and blankets were in order which was fine with me as my 10 still worked and with the extra bedding just added to the mafting on my side.

Waking Christmas morning to the crisp clip-clop, clip-clop of some girls out for a brisk morning hack in light snowfall just adds to the fairy tale feel. But this is also when I discovered a major difference in how other families celebrate Christmas.

part 2 continues...

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