I’m not sure why this month’s blog started out as a bit of a tug o’ war, but it has! Whether to write about hot water bottles (hot water bottles? Who wants to hear about hot water bottles like the one currently at my back?) or the biblical verse: Be still… Why the conflict? No earthly reason, except for the fact that if I could reach out through time and space, this digitization of thought, those are the two things I might most want to give you for Christmas.
At first, the humble hot water bottle seemed to have won out. I had almost never seen one until I arrived in England. I saw them hanging on racks, in rows, even in Heathrow Airport when I first disembarked. Eventually, I saw them by the hundreds, row after row like books on a rotating rack, in every pharmacy I passed on every high street in every town. Why so many? Along with barbershop signs that read “We do not treat lice,” I thought hot water bottles were a thing of the past, obsolete, medieval even. Who used a hot water bottle? Who had lice?
The closest thing I could compare to a hot water bottle was an ancient “bed warmer” my father once found in an antique shop in Normandy. It appeared to be a large copper skillet with a long wooden handle. He excitedly told me about how, in olden days, people took embers from the fire, placed them in the copper pan, closed the lid, with its decorative perforations, and ran it over the bottom sheet and under the covers. I think he fancied a lowly kitchen maid doing that for King Henry VIII (or maybe Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy) before he hopped into bed on a cold winter’s night; and of course, by default, my father pictured himself a sort of King Henry, certainly a Harry, as that was his name.
Then I recalled an electric heating pad that my mother used to bring out from time to time, which in all honesty seemed a bit bland and medicinal compared to the colourful hot water bottles that hang in British chemists. I recalled a phase (a fad?) when electric blankets arrived at Christmas with broad silk ribbons but were eventually
discarded by my grandmother, who trumpeted the news that not only were they unhealthy but they could and would burn down the house, a particular fear of hers. But again rubbery hot water bottles? Who used them and for what?
In truth, following the advice in a How to Raise a Puppy guide, I once used a hot water bottle, not knowing what it was. I filled the floppy thing with hot tap water (although I have since learned it should be filled with water boiled in a tea kettle and left to cool for a minute or two) and wrapped it in a towel, along with an actual ticking clock. Placed in the dog bed, it put my nervous puppy (an English Springer Spaniel) into an immediate restful sleep. In all fairness, it worked like a charm. But for humans? That seemed a stretch.
Eventually, having passed them so often in the shops (and after a trip to Austria, where the hot water bottle was a fixture in the hotel bedrooms), I couldn’t help but wonder. Choosing one needn’t include decisions oversize or shape; they’re all mostly the same. However, the fabric and colour of the covers ran the gamut from natural
sheepskin to bleached faux fur, zebra-striped silk or a woolly white reminiscent of a traditional cable knit jumper from Ireland’s Aran Islands. The sky was truly the limit.
I don’t remember what my first choice was, but I do know that eventually those enticing covers give up the ghost (usually at the one-year mark, which is why they make great stocking stuffers) and I have always been left with a black, blue or red rubber bottle, which is then wrapped in a towel, or sometimes not. I now think my British friends were onto something. The hot water bottle, even with decent central heating, warms the bed (and the heart?) just as King Henry’s wooden-handled, copper bed warmer might, and it is as resplendent as my father once imagined (sans kitchen maid). Who doesn’t like being toasty? A warm bottle wrapped in a cloth will calm a worried pup just as it will a nervous human, who equally knows the truth, warmth, counsel of a simple holy verse: Be still…
Wishing you and yours a perfectly warm, still and Silent Night.
Photo by Unsplash/assistantua