The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

A Saxon Christmas

A Country Christmas - 1913 Vintage Xmas card I...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

A Saxon Christmas

 

If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable

The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries.  In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer.  The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.

Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes.  The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate.  Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II.  Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security.  Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor.  The Protestants and  Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year.  Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service.  The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.

We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the  ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge.  The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights.  Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual.  Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.

The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism.  As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change.  In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot.  The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire.  Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.

On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who  forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!”  Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding).  Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander.  At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family.  The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid.  The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest.  This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.

We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce.  Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority.  The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity.  A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms.   So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.

The holiday season is inevitably about family.  Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune.  As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:

May those who love us, keep loving us

For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles

So we will know them by their limp.