Off to the Fair!

Memories of Bonfire Night (1950s)

Memories of Midsummer Picnics

Memories of Pancake Day
(Shrove Tuesday) 1950-ish

Memories of Easter Time

Memories of Christmas Past

Memories of Christmas Past (1950-ish)

Allow me to share with you some memories of Christmas from my childhood. Our family, like many others, didn’t have much money to spare, (which I now realize, made Christmas ‘extravagances’ just that much more special). Both at school and at home, we learned the story of the Nativity, and it would have been unthinkable not to include the baby Jesus in our celebrations - so there was always a Nativity scene as part of the decorations. You could buy books in those days with press-out cardboard figures, and clever foldout stable settings. Some you could paint yourself, others were ready coloured, and a few even had glitter sprinkled on them. We made most of our decorations ourselves - paper chains from strips of coloured paper, and streamers and folded garlands of ‘crepe’ paper (used to be a lot of that around, but I haven’t seen any for years.) Once, we were given a ready made tissue paper garland - which we carefully examined then armed with tissue, scissors and glue, recreated many times! Reverse engineering is not new! The tree was a baby pine or fir tree - always living, in a pot with a root. Ever the conservationist, my mother would replant the tree in the garden after Christmas, and dig it up the next year. When it got too big to bring into the house, she’d plant it on waste ground (lots about after the war), and find a smaller one. I still don’t believe in killing a tree at Christmas. We had some little clip-on candleholders (I still have a few) which took miniature candles - yes, I know it was dangerous, but not unusual, and we never had any mishaps. I’ll never forget our first string of fairy lights! Most of the tree decorations were handmade, and we even wrapped tiny gifts and hung them on with thread. We would begin working on our list of Christmas gifts early. Again, especially for us kids, most were handmade - embroidered handkerchiefs, tablecloths or cushion covers for aunts, a knitted bed-jacket or crocheted shawl for grandma, warm socks, gloves or scarves for uncles and so on. Often we made a cake or some other tasty treat, or forced bulbs and decorated the pots. Everyone got a calendar - a piece of cardboard covered in wall-paper, with a big picture and a pocket size pre-printed calendar stuck on the front, and a bit of ribbon for a hanger on the back. Gifts were neither extravagant nor flashy, but they were made and given with love and one felt true joy in the giving and real appreciation in the receiving. As I mentioned, we didn’t have much spare cash, but there were cases of real poverty in those post-war days, and there were families much worse off than we were. With this in mind, Mum would set aside a few items of warm clothing, toys and food that we would wrap and leave anonymously on the doorstep of a needy family. I can’t tell you the joy this brought to all of us. Presents were wrapped without the benefit of sticky tape or glue - the package being tied instead with ribbon. When they were opened, there was no mad scramble to rip off the paper as there is nowadays. The knots were unpicked and the paper removed carefully to be folded and reused the next year.

During the week before Christmas, we’d deliver - and collect - presents. On Christmas Eve, Dad would usually finish work early and we’d go to the meat market to buy a turkey (or whatever). They usually auctioned off their remaining stock to the highest bidder, so some real deals could be found - and with our lot, we needed a big bird! Mum would usually go to church - we could go or not as we chose. Sometimes family members would visit for a few drinks. Then, we hung up our stockings (a real sock -not a pillowcase) and went to bed. I would wake up in the morning, and remember what day it was. To make sure, I’d feel around the end of the bed with my foot for the weight of the filled stocking. We were allowed to open our stockings in the bedroom before we got up. There was always an orange in the toe and an apple at the top. There may be a colouring book, paints and brushes, or a dot to dot book. Sometimes there was a ‘magic’ painting book - you just painted clear water on the page and the colours would appear! There were magic growing crystal gardens, imitation edible cigarettes or a liquorice pipe, sugar mice and chocolate coins covered in gold foil. For a girl there may be some knitting needles and wool or an embroidery set; for a boy, a toy car or plane. Early on Christmas morning, my great uncle (who must have arrived really early), would drape a red blanket around his shoulders and don a paper crown, then parade through the house singing at the top (or maybe bottom) of his rich baritone voice: “Hail! Hail! King Christmas comes! A merry, merry piping and a beat of drums... (This was probably some remnant of the ancient Lord of Misrule tradition) Anyway it was our signal to get up! After a quick breakfast, one of us was chosen to be the “Postman” and deliver one gift at a time to each person, including him or herself. The process took longer but everyone got to see each other open every gift and it was enjoyable. The anticipation that the next one may be for you, only added to the fun.

Christmas dinner, already half-cooked by this time, was served at about 2.00 p.m. Dad would carve the bird at the table and we’d pull crackers and drink wine - even the children were allowed just a sip. Dinner was followed by Christmas Pudding - which had been made and stored weeks before to mellow. Mum always arranged it so that the children got the sixpenny pieces she’d hidden in it. After dinner, the men lit a cigars and then settled for a nap while the rest of us tidied up. The smell of a cigar still means Christmas to me. There was always a huge party on Christmas night. The table was set with a buffet of turkey sandwiches, cold cooked ham, pork pie, trifle, mince pies and the Christmas Cake. There would be eggnog and ginger beer for the children and beer, spirits, and home brewed wine (usually elderberry or parsnip) for the adults. What wonderful parties we had. Each person prepared their own “party piece” whether it be a recitation, a song, a dance, a mime or some other thing. I recall the heaving bosom of one aunt, who always gave a rendition of “Trumpeter, what are you Sounding Now?” in a fine contralto voice. Sometimes my siblings and I would put together a short play, and perform it. But the star of the show was always my father who could tell stories and recite poetry like no one else I ever met. With just the candles flickering, you could hear a pin drop as he recited “The Pigtail of Li Fang Foo” or “The Green-eyed Yellow Idle” or “Gungadin”. I knew all of them by heart before I was 7 years old! Then we’d all sing, sometimes with Mum at the piano, sometimes not. And we’d play party games - games now long forgotten like “Pastor of Paris” and “I went Shopping” and “The Minister’s Cat”. Of course, there were always forfeits! With 20-30 people (plus kids) this went on until the wee hours, and we often fell asleep before it was over, but eventually the guests left and we all went to bed.

But that wasn’t the end of Christmas. We were just getting started! The next day, Boxing Day, someone else would host the party and we’d do it all over again! Though people didn’t get as much time off work as they do now, celebrations continued on a less lavish scale till New Year’s Eve with another big party. Even after that, it was still “Christmas”! It wasn’t really over until Twelfth Night - by which time we had to have the decorations down and the tree replanted, or we’d be haunted by the “rattling of chains” for the next year. We always saved one (small) mince pie each to eat on Twelfth Night with a final toast, as we bade farewell to Christmas for another year.

By today’s standards, our Christmas was simple - some may even say cheap, but it was filled with joy, goodwill, passion and a sense of wonder. So did we feel a deep content? Was it worth it? Ooh Yeah! ... It was SPECIAL.

By Sylvia Richards December 2009