Hazel McHaffie

Christmas play

The Apprenticeship

Saturday 28 December 2019: our twentieth (!!) Christmas story/play with the grandchildren. The culmination of a year knitting over forty hats while I devoured all those psychological thrillers you’ve heard me talking about!

It’s now twenty years since the first child was born and I was asked to create a new tradition for a new generation. Back in 1999 I wrote a simple story for a ten-month-old that involved her floating away on a balloon to a distant land and rescuing a little African girl from poverty. Actual printed-out photos of our baby granddaughter enacting the story back then were glued into position on the page to illustrate it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d still be doing this two decades later! But of course, in that time, technology has changed out of all recognition. The hard-copy books of the story are digitally produced, liberally illustrated; the narrative and the moral within it infinitely more sophisticated.

This year the drama took place largely outside – a first, and a big gamble given our uncertain weather! Thankfully it was dry and relatively mild, although slushy mud in one place claimed one victim (me), and a keen wind towards the end made lighting sparklers tricky. The in-between generation took responsibility for being one step ahead of the actors, setting up each scene in different places throughout our local nature reserve and town. I simply had to trot along, narrating the story, with the youngsters following a lantern, working out clues at each stop.

The story basically revolves around four young people who notice an advert in a shop window for an apprentice to an inspirational and magical milliner. All four decide to apply. Selection is through an initiation ceremony where they have to identify desirable attributes for such an employee, using magical thinking caps and various tools and artefacts – a different colour of the rainbow at each stop.

Puzzling …

 

Concentrating …

Recording …

Collaborating …

We began at 1pm and it was dark by the time we stood around a fire in the garden, finally  learning who had been successful in gaining the apprenticeship.

The day ended with a rainbow meal, some of it assembled by the teenagers themselves, using colourful ingredients.

Now here we are, post the event I’ve been preparing for all year, racing to get the books created before 12 January – our annual target date for publication, which this year coincides with our second granddaughter officially becoming an adult!

It only remains for me to wish you all every blessing in 2020. To those who are sad or struggling: may you find peace and solace. To those whose lives are rich and full: may you find contentment and gratitude. To those who fear the future: may you find hope and confidence. And may God bless you, everyone.

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Childhood revisited

Well, I’m currently taking a break from the serious research for my next novel and revisiting my youth!¬† Why? Because it’s time to start preparing for the family’s annual Christmas story/play, and as part of that I’ve been acquiring and re-reading books I loved as a girl. All very undemanding but very satisfying. And great fun.

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi is one of them. A delightfully innocent and gentle tale of a young orphan girl living with her grandfather high in the Swiss mountains, scampering in the meadows with the goats, bringing joy to the lives of assorted elderly and disabled people. And a classic.

Back then I simply revelled in the story. Sixty plus years on and a writer myself, I’m now much more curious about the author. Apparently she lived her whole life contentedly within a few miles of Zurich and even when her work became known in the bigger world, she personally shrank away from public acclaim, having no appetite at all for having ‘her innermost, deepest soul laid bare’. Maybe a lot to do with her sad life story; four years after Heidi came out she was widowed in her fifties, her only child having already died in childhood.

I was astonished to see that the book was published in 1880, a fact that entirely escaped me last time around. And that was ten years after Frau Spyri wrote it. It’s alleged that she completed it in four weeks; if so that was indeed time well spent given its success.

Thanks to Charles Tritten, Heidi’s story has been continued in two further volumes: Heidi Grows Up, and Heidi’s Children, neither of which I read as a girl. Tritten was intimately acquainted with the characters already, having translated the original tale into French. But more than that, he has drawn on the author’s own childhood and interests, and the Swiss valley she loved so much, and borrowed many of her literary foibles, to preserve the uniqueness of the world she created in Heidi. Some of the language feels very dated now reading it in the 21st century, and there are occasional inconsistencies, but the gentle moral messages are as relevant today as they were back then.

Working on this next story for the grandchildren nicely compliments ongoing work on the costumes. Yep, I’m wardrobe mistress and director as well as author – and I love it all. The youngsters have been involved in fittings over the summer and this authentic linen dress for Heidi met with an enthusiastic thumbs up.

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Herr Doktor Schrinkenfeldt and Friends

One of my most exciting Christmas presents this year was a dress circle seat for Scottish Ballet’s production of Hansel and Gretel, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh on 19th December. It was utterly fabulous – costumes, music, story telling, dance, everything. And I appreciated it all the more because I’d looked at all the videos about what went on behind the scenes; so much vision, so much expertise, so much talent.

Returning to my own Christmas production, Herr Doktor Schrinkenfeldt and Friends, was something of an anti-climax. But then I don’t have a vast team of experts at my disposal; I personally double as scriptwriter, artistic director, costume designer, scene setter, makeup artist, sound effects technician, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – master of none. Which is entirely appropriate given that our audience is limited to nine people, the budget is low and it runs for one day only.

This year the story/play (performed yesterday) revolved around four cousins who find themselves invited to visit a house full of monsters – well, 6 actually – allegedly friends of their Great Aunt Olga, all of whom have wisdom to impart and fun activities to offer.

Along the way the children tasted de luxe sandwiches, made soup from revolting ingredients, adopted fairy companions, painted ceramics, sent magic lights 40 feet into the night sky. As they met each monster, they also learned that they themselves are uniquely special, strong, brave, compassionate and talented. And that parents aren’t actually monsters erecting barriers to communication.

Suddenly after months and months of preparation, my seventeenth Christmas story/play for the grandchildren is over. How does the artistic director of Hansel and Gretel feel as the curtains close for the last time, I wonder? Exhausted but satisfied, I imagine. And already thinking of his next production.

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