A Refugee Xmas, courtesy of Eva Ibbotson

The special CiB meme ‘Xmas in books, accompanied by carefully chosen pictures’ is back!

Every December on the blog I feature Xmas scenes and Xmas books – I never seem to run out, but am still open to ideas and suggestions.

If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page.

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

published 1993

Refugee Christmas Eva Ibbotson 1

‘Careful!’ said Professor Berger, as he had said every year since Ruth was old enough to light the candles on the tree. He had travelled overnight on the bus from Manchester and would greatly have preferred to be at home with his family, but now as he looked at the circle of faces and touched his daughter’s head, he was glad they had come together with their friends. ‘I never seen it like that,’ said Mrs Burtt. ‘Not with real candles.’ 

And Miss Violet and Miss Maud forgot the needles dropping on the floor and the wax dripping on to the tablecloths and even the appalling risk of fire, for it was beyond race or belief or nationality, this incandescent symbol of joy and peace.

Then came the presents. How these people, some of whom could scarcely afford to eat, had found gifts remained a mystery, but no one was forgotten. Dr Levy had discovered a postcard of the bench where Leonie had been overcome by pigeons and made for it a wooden frame. Mrs Burtt received a scroll in which Ruth, in blank verse, proclaimed her as Queen of the Willow. Even the poodle had a present: a bone marrow pudding baked on the disputed cooker at Number 27.

But Heini’s presents were the best. It had occurred to Heini that while he was borrowing money from Dr Friedlander for the competition, he might as well borrow a little extra for Christmas, and the dentist had been perfectly happy to lend it to him. So Heini had bought silk stockings for Leonie and chocolates for Aunt Hilda and a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for the Professor who was fond of the Roman Stoic. This had used up more money than he expected and when he went into a flower shop to buy red roses for Ruth, he found the cost of a bunch to be exorbitant. It was the assistant who had suggested a different kind of rose – a Christmas rose, pale-petalled and golden-hearted, and put a single bloom, cradled in moss, into a cellophane box – and now, as he saw Ruth’s face, he knew that nothing could have pleased her more.

 After the presents came the food – and here the horsehair purse of Mrs Weiss had turned into a horn of plenty, emitting plates of salami and wafer-thin smoked ham . . . of almonds and apricots, and a wild white wine from the Wachau for which Leonie had scoured the shops of Soho.

Refugee Christmas Eva Ibbotson 2

commentary: This story of the lives that were upset by WW2 is harsh and sad at times, very romantic at other moments, and affecting and charming at moments like this. (There was a post on the book earlier in the year, here.)

This group of Eastern Europeans are trying to make new lives for themselves in North London, and use the local cafe, the Willow Tea Rooms, as their HQ. Gently, throughout the book, the very very British ways of the café are subverted to reflect wartime, the new clientele and a kindness to each other that we hope prevailed in real life. (And prevails now – the book has its relevance for those concerned about the treatment of immigrants…) One of the owners suggest making a different kind of cake. ‘Oh, Maud! Not . . . strudels?’ the other answers.
‘No, not strudels, I agree. That would be going too far. But there’s one they all talk about. It begins with a G. Sounds like guggle . . . Guglhupf or something.’
There are many ways of helping. That early summer evening when Ruth was lost in Europe and the first air-raid sirens were tried out in Windsor Castle, the ladies of the Willow Tea Rooms let compassion override principle.

Refugee Christmas Eva Ibbotson 3 cake

The kindly Miss Maud and Miss Violet, the proprietors, are a type familiar to us from all those novels of the 30s. Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth and Dorothy L Sayers all liked to show us a teashop, and these ladies don’t let us down: Miss Violet serves tea in ‘a lavender smock printed with small white daisies’. In fact Ruth borrows one to wear as a lab coat in her zoology studies:
It was not what Ruth would have chosen to wear in a laboratory, but she had accepted gratefully, as she had accepted the virulently varnished pencil box decorated with pink hearts which Mrs Burtt had bought for her from Woolworth’s.
This is truly a book about gifts: Christmas, year-round, real and metaphorical. The Morning Gift of the title is somewhat unexpected. But you can be sure everything will turn out well in the end: although all are aware of the reality of what is happening in Europe at the same time.

For more on this book and other Eva Ibbotson works, click on the label below.

AND, IF YOU ARE GOING TO READ ONE THING BY EVA IBBOTSON, MAKE IT THIS ONE: AN ARTICLE IN THE GUARDIAN THAT POINTS UP THE IMPORTANCE OF LIBRARIES, while being intensely charming. (And thanks also to Susanna Tayler, who first pointed it out to me.)

It is related to this book, and is one of the most wonderful articles you could ever read. When  Anna Carey and I both Tweeted it, it got the most RTs and likes and shares of anything I have ever done, and heartfelt messages from those who clicked on the link . Read it.

Photo is of a Home Front Christmas from the Imperial War Museum.

Pen and ink drawing by Edmund Xavier Kapp: it is ‘ready for Christmas at the canteen under St Martin-in-the-Fields’, so something like the very important café in the book.

And a picture of a gugelhupf.


  1. What a wonderful post. I have to get a copy of the book now.

  2. I love that different perspective on Christmas, Moira. And I think a lot of people forget how hard it really is to start all over again, with nothing, in a new country. It sounds as though this book shows that, as well as a look at the relationships in the family. An excellent choice for this meme.

    1. I love it because the book is brave about the reality of the refugees' situations, but it is full of hope and kindness too.

  3. Her books are so full of people being decent and kind, without being too sentimental. One of the reasons I think The Morning Gift is my favourite is that my grandmother was a contemporary of Eva Ibbotson's during the war at Bedford College in London, and then when the college was evacuated to Cambridge,
    though I've no idea whether they knew each other. I wish I'd found out more about grandma's experiences but The Morning Gift paints a lovely picture of wartime student life so I can imagine what it might have been like for her.

    1. Oh what a lovely connection to have! and yes, as I just said to Margot, it's the positivity and kindness that shine out, without its being sentimental or twee.

  4. Thank you. I must read this book again immediately.

  5. Moira, I liked the passage you quoted from the book; in fact, I read it with a calm delight, a feeling that usually comes over me whenever I'm reading fine prose. I can see why you described the book as "very romantic," "affecting" and charming."

    1. Thanks Prashant - she has a lovely grace-filled style.


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