I hate Christmas.
The tacky decorations. The irritating, repetitive songs. The forced cheeriness. The bland food that swells in your stomach.
The build-up throughout December is nothing but a mounting dread that culminates in bitter disappointment. And it’s worse in Morkwood, the small village I live in. You’ve probably never heard of us; only neighbouring villages tend to recognise the name. No one ever visits or travels through. Morkwood is a dead end in the corner of nowhere.
Christmas is a real community event in Morkwood. It has to be – it’s against local law to refuse to take part. It’s one of those old, very English laws that no one has ever thought to get rid of, like in London where pregnant women can urinate in police helmets, or in Wales where it’s an offence to be drunk and in charge of cattle.
And in Morkwood, all villagers must participate in opening the doors of the Advent House.
It began one hundred and fifty years ago with Lord Bartholomew Greville, the son of a penniless gambling addict. Greville married rich, bought up all the farms in Morkwood and built an enormous manor house on the outskirts of the village.
One summer he hired some local carpenters to build a wooden advent calendar. It was supposed to be the size of a dollhouse, and would be filled with twenty-four gifts for his two young daughters in the lead-up to Christmas.
The lord was adamant about designing the thing himself – it was documented many times that he referred to the locals as halfwits. Yet in his plans the measurements were written down wrong. Perhaps he wrote metres instead of centimetres or there was some form of sabotage, I don’t know, there are many theories. Either way the carpenters didn’t reconfirm with the lord and spent months making a giant advent calendar the same height as the manor house. The structure completely covered the side of it, like a wooden extension.
Lord Greville was travelling around Europe with his family while the carpenters worked. When he returned and the Advent House was revealed to him, he pretended it was exactly what he had wanted to save face in front of the villagers. Rather than a gift for his daughters, he proclaimed it was a gift for the whole village, a way to bring everyone together.
Some of the villagers started to believe him. Most of them worked in farms owned by the lord, so rumours began to spread of pay rises and cooked hams behind the doors. When Lord Greville made the Advent House an annual legal obligation, they assumed it was because of their contracts or tax reasons.
Lady Greville was an artist, and her husband commissioned her to paint twenty-four backgrounds to go behind each of the doors. The paintings slide out, so the order of them can be mixed up each year. However, much to the disappointment of the villagers, it was the paintings themselves that were the gifts – each one was an activity or challenge for the village to participate in together. There were no hams, and certainly no pay rises. According to local documents, this led to a small-scale riot that cost three people their lives, but unsurprisingly this part isn’t mentioned when the villagers retell the story to their children.
So that’s what we do each year in Morkwood. We get together every day for twenty-four days and perform the same activities and challenges, all because a rich man couldn’t own up to his mistakes over a century ago.
Today is the first of December. As the clock struck midnight, I poured myself two fingers of whisky and downed it in a single gulp. It’s my own private tradition.
At half past I pulled jeans over the top of my long johns, put on my boots and went outside where it’s cold and dark and wet and miserable to traipse through the village to the manor house. The day of the month corresponds with the time each door is opened, so for the first of December it’s one in the morning, for the second it’s two and so on. It’s another exhausting element to the whole thing.
Most of the villagers were standing in a semi-circle around the Advent House by the time I arrived, shrouded in a hum of excited chatter. A few like to dress up in old fashioned clothes and carry flaming torches on the first day, but most, like me, just wore whatever was warm and used the light on their phone to guide the way.
I waved to a couple of people but made sure to stand near the back. I felt safer there.
“Good morning, Margaret.”
I turned to see my Aunt Iris, dressed in a waterproof jacket and muddy jodhpurs. She had a battery-powered torch in her hand and a scowl on her face.
“It begins again,” I said.
“It does indeed. The year gets shorter every year.”
I nodded, too cold to laugh politely at her favourite saying. “What do you think it’ll be today?”
“I don’t know. I just hope it isn’t the lake.”
William Greville, a descendant of Lord Greville, made his way to the front of the crowd, clapping his gloved hands to quieten everyone down. As a Greville he’s exempt from proceedings and only has to open the doors, a technicality he pretends to be disappointed about.
“Welcome, everyone. It’s always lovely to see you all dressed in your fineries and excited for Christmas. Before I start, is anyone missing?”
People started glancing over their shoulders. A few pointed fingers attempted to count the crowd.
“We’re all here!” someone called out.
“Good,” William said, “that’s what I like to hear. We don’t want to have to do a register again like we did in ‘93 – that took bloody forever. And let’s keep things nice and calm as well, shall we? Let’s not push and pull, we don’t want another broken arm, do we Arthur?”
There were woops and giggles as Arthur, a forty-something man with slicked-back hair and a paunch, gave a dramatic bow. Arthur is ruthless in December, even more so than usual. He works in a small insurance firm outside of Morkwood, thinking himself some sort of high-flying investment banker.
William doesn’t like to give long speeches like his father used to and wasted no time in walking straight over to the first door of the Advent House, located on the bottom right-hand side with a large ‘1’ carved into the wood. He took off one of his gloves and put his hand on the doorknob, unable to suppress the grin on his face as everyone went completely still. Even the Harris’ newborn baby was uncharacteristically silent.
William gently twisted the doorknob and slowly began to pull the door open.
“Merry Christmas!” he shouted into the thick silence.
As William stepped back, I stood on my tiptoes to see over the heads of the people in front of me. I could just about see the painting inside, which was of a line of six or seven prepubescent boys, all pink-faced with dark blonde hair, holding red prayerbooks and wearing stark white albs. Their small mouths were open in an ‘o’ shape, and their large blue eyes wide and worried-looking.
I felt air that I didn’t know I was holding whoosh from my lungs.
“Wonderful!” William said in surprise, even though he had chosen the order of the advent paintings. “So today we will sing. Mrs Lassiter, would you be so kind as to conduct?”
Mrs Lassiter, a tiny, frail old lady who used to be in charge of the church choir, shuffled to the front in a brown Victorian dress, which was far too big for her and looked as though it was in the process of swallowing her whole. She pulled back her bonnet a little so she could wince at the sea of faces in front of her, and then held up a withered, veiny hand.
“One, two, three…”
Come on, haste, let us open,
The Advent House doors await.
Wake up the children, wrap up warm,
Quick, we best not be late.
For if we delay, no matter why,
The woods will know it first.
The trees will find and claim us,
And our Yule-tide will be curs’d.
And if we refuse the games and folly,
Thoust surely misunderstood.
There is fear in the night for those who scorn
The festivities of Morkwood.
There was wooping, applause and chatter. William and Mrs Lassiter merged back in with the crowd as it descended upon the tables of mulled wine and mince pies like a swarm of ants. I stayed still. All I wanted to do was go home and down another two fingers of whisky.
I looked at Aunt Iris, who wasn’t making any moves towards the tables either.
“While I do hate singing,” she said, “I’m glad it wasn’t the lake.”
I sighed, because the lake is still to come. It’s sitting somewhere behind one of those doors.
I looked back over to the happy crowd. Each year it surprises me how quickly they forget – it always starts off easy like this, but there’s still twenty-three doors left to open.