Every year it seems there are more and more Christmas festivals and markets. I’ve never had the authentic experience of a German Christmas Market. Totally a sun-lover, pretty as a picture the markets might be, but I’m less than keen to embrace the biting cold and streaming eyes that often accompany them. Never the less, I have an abiding memory of a crisp, cold December day when I was utterly transported by a Christmas Festival.
Grassington is a small town in a wild and beautiful location in the Yorkshire Dales. In ferocious weather it’s every bit as difficult to get to as an alpine village, but, on an English Winter weekend in December, it casts a spell.
Buckets are rattled at you as you pass the fire station and a lovely old pipe organ gives you pause- long enough to notice the sign inviting you in for refreshments. It is, after all, an event in aid of charity. But as you progress to Main Street, the sights and sounds capture you, and the magic of Grassington Dickensian Festival takes over.
First, the organ grinder, twirling out his sounds, then a homemade cakes and biscuits stall. None of your ordinary old cakes here- chocolate tart with raspberries has my name written all over it. Jewellery and crafts, chestnuts, honey roasted cashews, spit-roasted pork- my nose doesn’t know which way to turn. The chill in the air persuades me that a hot chocolate laced with brandy will be just the thing.
Clutching it to me for warmth, I smile at the age-old antics of the Mummers, drawing in the crowd. Morris dancers hop and skip. Best not to loiter, unless you want a starring role.
Maybe after another hot chocolate and brandy? No, better to turn to the serious business of selecting a few small gifts from the many and various shops and stalls. On Main Street, Gemini glistens with metal and gems, whilst Rustic Rabbit sparkles with every imaginable Christmas bauble.
As the day draws on and the pallid sun retreats, the atmosphere begins to build for the main event- the procession. The town crier hovers by the brazier where torches are on sale to light the streets. The youthful shepherds and kings, who have manned the hospice stall all day, quench their thirst at the Black Horse Hotel, still uninhibitedly selling 20p kisses for charity.
At 4pm sharp the procession is off and gathering momentum through the streets, the crowd following on. A sharp rap on the door- “Is there any room?” asks Joseph, at the first hostelry. “No room” booms the landlord. On to the second and third of the town’s inns, the torches flickering, the atmosphere electrically charged. Again the response, “no room”, and the crowd stifle a groan. We exchange anxious looks, but the ending is inevitable- a return to the manger erected in the square. Christmas carols have never sounded so poignant.
Suddenly it’s all over and the stall holders are packing for home. The shops are open for a while longer if you’re quick, the queues gone now. I seek shelter myself in the warmth of The Forester’s Arms. Shrugging off my coat, I listen to the impromptu performance of carols from the fine voices gathered by the pool table. The joy and wonder of Christmas is here in Grassington.
This year the final Saturday of Grassington’s 30th Dickensian Festival takes place on 17th December. For the first time ever there will be an ice rink on this final weekend. The festival is staged on three consecutive Saturdays in December, while 8 miles down the road, neighbouring Skipton has a Yuletide Festival on corresponding Sundays.
The town’s three inns all supply reasonably priced accommodation, or an opulent stay can be had at 5 star Grassington House Hotel. Park and Ride is available, and coaches visit from far and wide. Full details are available on http://www.grassington.uk.com/dickensian%20festival/dickensian.htm, with a video to get you in the mood. A useful little booklet, “One hundred things to see on a walk through Grassington”, can be very cheaply purchased from most of the town’s shops and pubs. Proceeds go to charity and it will enable you to have a better look at this deserving little town and the beautiful surrounds.
Everything changes with time, but I do hope that popularity doesn’t spoil this wonderful event. All the way home I sing to myself “There isn’t any room for strangers”.