Laurie Lee

Village Christmas & Other Notes on the English Year

“Today is the winter as it always was, and when it wasn't it was not remembered.”

In the hands of essayist and poet Laurence “Laurie” Lee (June 26, 1914 – May 13, 1997), England unfolds as rich and warm and tempting as it ever was.

The essays in Village Christmas and Other Notes on the English Year are full of seasonal changes, cultural textures, and avuncular characters. Landscapes are dotted with small towns, abundant rivers, and snug valleys. It is the England many of us seek and are delighted to find still exists, not so much a place but a time.

I used illness as a weapon. I’d wake in the morning and say I couldn’t go to school because I’d got the wobbles, couldn’t walk—and in the afternoon be as fresh as a daisy. Yet I could be a great walker when I was a boy—three miles to school and three miles back. Sometimes I’d get a stitch. There was one cure for that. You’d put your foot up on a milestone and kiss your knee. It always worked.

Village church. Featured in Laurie Lee's "A Village Christmas" in the Examined Life Library.
Village church near Pulborough, Sussex. “When the time comes I will be buried in a village churchyard.” wrote Lee. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When he turned twenty, Lee left the Cotswolds and ventured abroad. While his writing matured, Lee nevertheless felt an increasing pull of a lost home, only to find he could never return.

But the conflicting emotion served him beautifully. Although Lee’s writing is nostalgic, it is never mawkish. He steps into the past with the eyes—and scars—of an adult.

Eddies of tempting smells filled the crowded kitchen—mince pies, hot pastry, the tang of fresh-chopped parsley, the tingling aroma of the goose, which was too big for the oven and hung turning on a spit before the roaring fire, its fat dripping into a small brass dish. Nothing could be hurried; Christmas dinner was sacred and the waiting was part of its price.

An understanding of anticipation and longing and the duelling forces of love and pain abound in Notes on the English Year. Lee’s essay “An English Spring” captures all that is sad about springtime and how prone we are to expect warmth and comfort that never arrives.

Almost overnight comes gusty March and the first real rousing of spring—a time of blustering alarms and nudging elbows, of frantic and scrambling awakenings. It is a bare world still, but a world of preparation and display against the naked face of the countryside. The cold east wind puts an edge to activity.

Lee’s writing is not widely known outside England, but it should be. Like Wodehouse, Wilde, and Dickens, he is an English writer who adores the English language: “Pushing the cold before me like a sheet of tin, I set off up the Christmas road.”1

Field gate, Sussex
Field gate, Sussex. “I went for my regular Sunday evening walk with Dad, during which I would discuss all my worries about the approaching week and he would reassure me and give me the courage to go over the top Monday morning,” wrote John Cleese, one of many Brits who hailed from a village. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I love the world and all its trivialities, the little domestic details, the post box on the corner, the wet gutters, the leaves, the buses, the sunset

Sometimes youngsters say: ‘I didn’t ask to be born.’ I didn’t ask to be born either. But I’m glad I was.

Complement Lee’s lyrical nostalgia in Notes on the English Year with Robert MacFarlane’s meditative examination of England’s aged paths and ways and the inspired naturalistic and poetry of English Romantic John Clare and George Mike’s indispensable How to Be a Brit

Village Christmas