Christmas with the Chestertons
While contemplating the Christmas Holidays, I thought I’d like to peek in at Top Meadow, the home of our friends Gilbert and Frances Chesterton out in Beaconsfield, and see what the holiday couple might be doing for Christmas this year. Why don’t you come along?
I only thought of taking this trip because of Dickens. Our friend Chesterton fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work at a very young age, and contributed greatly to a revival of Dickens. Because of the renewed interest in Dickens, there was a renewed interest in Dickens’ work A Christmas Carol. Originally published in 1843, extremely popular during its day, after Dickens died in 1870, the work languished. In 1906, Chesterton himself revived an interest in Dickens by writing quite a lot about the author.
So, in reference to Dickens, it could be said that the Chestertons know how to “keep” Christmas. Their holidays are always filled with friends, family, plays, music, conversation, food, spirits, and gifts. Let’s take a peek in the door. No, let’s do more than peek as long as we’ve made the train journey; let’s knock and hope the couple is at home. They are.
Entering the front door at Top Meadow, you and I, the guests of Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, are warmly greeted, our coats and hats taken and hung up, and hot cider or another warm beverage pressed into our hands. We’ve wiped our shoes, and come in closer to the hearth, and we’re invited to sit by the crackling fire.
Gilbert and Frances make us feel immediately at home, and we notice Christmas decorations everywhere. Frances collects nativity scenes from around the world, and there is a different one set up in each room of the house. There are presents under the tree, and a few of them are for us—how did they know we were coming?! A plate of beautifully decorated cookies is sitting on the table in front of us; Frances insists we have some, and we do—they are delicious. After warming up, gifts are exchanged, and Gilbert suggests we all sing carols, and so we sing.
Then a knock is heard at the door, and the neighborhood children come in, and Frances shoos them into the studio where they are preparing costumes, props, and rehearsing last minute. They will put on a play for all of the adults this evening. Winkle the dog is barking, hoping you’ll toss him a little bit of that cookie you’re eating. Two cats are purring at your feet, begging to have their ears scratched.
While we’re all waiting for the children to get the play ready, Gilbert lights a cigarillo, makes a large sign of the cross in the air with the smoke, and offers you one if you’d like. He pours a bit of burgundy for anyone who wants it, and then asks you to pass the cookie plate back his way. He pulls out a well worn copy of A Christmas Carol from his coat pocket, and asks if you’d like him to read from it. Everyone wants to hear Gilbert read.
He reads with expression, in between drags of the cigarillo, and one particular time, proves that he does indeed know how to blow smoke rings. As he reads, he is reminded—during that part where the gentlemen come in and ask Ebenezer to contribute to their campaign for the poor—that he and Frances are collecting for the local nursing home this Christmas—St. Joseph’s Convalescent Home—and Gilbert has a tin in which you can place your donation. You do so, quite willingly, because it is Gilbert asking. After this pause, he continues to read. His voice turns quite rough when he becomes Ebenezer Scrooge, and quite high and quiet when he becomes Tiny Tim. But before he even gets to the first ghost, Frances opens the door and announces that the children are ready.
We all enter the studio, and the children put on a play that Frances Chesterton wrote for tonight’s visit, called The Christmas Gift. The costumes are wonderful, the children do a fine job with memorization, and they sing Christmas carols in between quite a few of the scene changes, asking the audience to join along. Holly is strung all along the walls, and a small bunch of mistletoe is hanging from a strategic place in the center of a doorframe you can’t help passing under. You are kissed. Flowering plants line the table near the window, and the nativity scene in this room came from Spain.
When the children finish, Frances brings out more cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies and best of all, chocolates; there is more cider and some hot buttered rum as well. A few of the children have brought small instruments, and they play more carols, and everyone sings. Frances would like to return to the hearth, and so we all go back to the main room, where a little fairy must have put a few more logs on the fire while we were away. One of the children asks Frances to read her poem How Far IsIt To Bethlehem, and she says she knows it well by heart, and recites it for us, and by the end all the women are wiping tears. We all clap, and Frances is embarrassed, and says, “Gilbert, do something!”
We remind Gilbert to finish reading the Dickens’ story, and he does, with great wit and charm, keeping us all entertained and laughing alternatively with crying. The story ends with a flourish, and God bless us, everyone, we have, indeed, kept Christmas at Top Meadow this year. What a nice visit we’ve had with the Chestertons. Let’s all do this again next year.