REVIEW: The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton
This is the heart-warming story of how three of the Kitson children help the wealthy merchant woo their older sister Annaple with a different gift for each of the twelve days of Christmas – with hilarious results! But as the house groans at the seams with partridges, calling birds, swans, maids-a-milking, and more, will Annaple really succumb to the romance of it all, or will she just want the house returned to its normal, tidy state?
Dear Ms. Overton,
This book was a recommendation to me several years ago by one of our readers here. Or I think it was. Anyway, after languishing on my Amazon wish list for a while, this year I found myself a hardback copy with this cover on it and ordered it. What a treat! I loved it and am only sorry I waited so long.
Based on the delightful drawn illustrations that are spread throughout the book, (I think that) the story takes place in the first half of the seventeenth century in a southern coastal town in England. Wealthy merchant (I’m guessing he’s in the import/export business) Francis Vere and Annaple (she started life as Anne then proceeded through Nancy, Annick, and Annabel – and possibly Annette – before settling on Scottish Annaple because she’s a romantic. I mentally pronounced it Annapel) Kitson are sweethearts. Francis has asked Annaple numerous times to marry him but she hasn’t said yes yet.
With the Christmas season now upon them, her irrepressible younger siblings Prudence, James, and Christopher are determined to help his courtship along. They truly love their sister and want to see her happily married but they also want to start eating better meals as Annaple is absent minded when she cooks. If she’s at Francis’s house, they can get their food sent up from the Pig and Whistle pub. Francis says he can afford a cook, housekeeper and maids so his stomach is covered.
Annaple likes Francis, she said she did, so why the hold-up? As Pru laments, Annaple says Francis isn’t romantic enough. Too unimaginative. Too solemn. Annaple has fanciful ways and often rhapsodizes about pear blossoms, the simple pleasures of country life, picking lavender, herding geese across dew covered meadows, patchwork and being awakened by a piper in the morning – that being from her Scottish phase. The Kitson siblings take turns giving Francis advice, courtship advice, and proceed to tell him some of Annaple’s more outlandish (to them) wishes, wants, fancies and favorite fairy tales. As everyone will soon discover, once Francis gets something in his head, it’s there for good.
Things start slowly with a gift on Christmas Day that Annaple thinks is charming – a partridge in a pear tree. She writes a lengthy thank you note – something she’s always on to the boys about doing including mentioning the gift, how much they like it and it must be a page and a half at least – and then goes and ruins another meal. Francis seeks out Pru for more advice while they walk through the market where he buys out a stock of doves and singing birds and blithely informs Pru that he’s used to buying in bulk so she might be seeing more partridges in the future.
A sailing trip with Jem and Kit to France one day nets French hens – Annaple has mentioned she likes eggs – who are none too pleased to be in England. The Kitsons have five clergymen in the immediate family so there must be at least five golden rings for the ceremony. And since the French hens still aren’t producing eggs, Francis gets them six geese who are laying. Then come the beautiful swans floating down the canal outside their house and since they don’t have a cow, the next day eight milkmaids arrive each leading a garlanded one.
But Francis isn’t stingy – as if thinking that were even a possibility – and provides coops, hay, plumbers and masons to build a pond for all the various fowl, hires a barn for the cows and sends stale bread for the hissing swans. Geese, as Mr. Kitson tells his children, used to be used by the Greeks as watchdogs.
Meanwhile the townspeople are starting to gossip about Francis’s courtship and soon arriving each day in advance to see what he’s going to give Annaple today. Free enterprise being what it is, there’s soon a thriving trade in food to feed them and seats to rent if one can’t get a place inside one of the neighbor’s houses who are renting out space – sort of like the New Yorkers who rent their window space for the Macy’s parade. Several stern letters arrive from the mayor about what the Kitsons can or can’t do with the extra milk – 12 gallons a day per eight cows and they only need two so they take to bathing in it – and that the swans are becoming a nuisance.
Still Annaple won’t say yes and is frankly getting embarrassed by all the fuss and annoyed by a houseful of pear trees plus the dawn chorus of birdsong each morning. On the plus side since she won’t go out to the market to buy food as she doesn’t want to face the neighbor’s mirth, they’ve got plenty of goose eggs now. The French hens are still tetchy at being in England.
Dancing Spanish ladies and high kicking Russian men entertain the growing crowds that now include people from nearby towns to watch the morning parade of gifts. Kit and Jem are enthralled by the precision of the drummers maneuvers but all the family agree that as for the Scottish pipers, enough is enough.
What Francis presents Annaple with on the thirteenth day is what does the trick and the crowd happily adds another verse to the song they’ve been improvising and chorusing each day. Needless to say, the church is packed for this wedding.
The book also includes the ancient daily celebrations of the season which used to be seen in England and snippets of lines from the carols that were sung on those days. “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” has always been a favorite of mine.
Francis proves his romanticism and wins his lady fair, her family will finally get meals they can eat, the Kitson siblings good hearted ribbing of their older sister is hilarious to read, Mr. Kitson also gets some gifts of French wine (obtained along with those pissy hens) and tobacco and the household will hopefully be able to dig itself out from under all the 344 gifts lavished on Annaple while the town gets itself a new carol for Christmas. And I’ll be reading this each year. A