Childhood Christmas — Fond Memories of Innocence.

22 Nov

I used to love Christmas as a child, back in the 50’s and early 60’s. Our lounge was decorated with twisted, coloured streamers, the mirror and pictures sported sparkling fringes of tinsel, bunches of holly appeared above the door and a traditional tree festooned with baubles and flashing lights stood proudly in the corner. OK — it was an artificial tree, but to my sister and I, it was real enough and we looked forward to decorating it and plopping the fairy ( or was it an angel?) on the tip of the very top branch.

At school we missed lessons to have class parties with sandwiches, cakes and jellies, and then were rewarded with a whole fortnight off. Everywhere, a sense of excitement and expectation filled the air as the great day got closer and closer. Both at school and in church we sang the much-loved,” traditional” carols (actually, mostly written in Victorian times). They all had that warm, reassuring ring of familiarity about them. Soon we didn’t need the song sheets to tell us the words of “Away in a Manger”, “We Three Kings” or “Silent Night”, along with numerous others. I especially like ” Oh Come All Ye Faithful” as everyone seemed to belt it out in a rousing manner and my dad and grandad sang deep, rich bass parts. Similarly, the soaring soprano voices in “Hark the Herald…” were indeed, to my child’s ears, just like angels singing in heaven. When I got older, I wrapped up warm and went carol singing with friends. Our breath hanging in clouds before us in the cold air, we sang our hearts out, being rewarded with: opening doors, smiles, extra spending money and sometimes, warm mince pies. However, the real reward was the sheer joy of singing and of joining together to feel part of something that was bigger than any of us. That’s one of the real positives of Christmas. It’s a great coming together in a spirit of goodwill such that we all feel part of a warm, caring community.

Then there were the Nativity plays. Three boys in colourful dressing gowns and shiny cardboard hats would carry important looking boxes that represented the gifts of: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Nobody actually knew what frankincense or myrrh were but they sounded suitably exotic and rare. The gifts would be ceremoniously presented to a specially selected boy and girl, also in dressing gowns but this time with tea-towels on their heads. The girl would cradle a doll which she had taken from a wooden crib. Pretend shepherds with their pretend sheep were already there, so before us, that famous event in a Bethlehem stable was magically recreated. I think many of us were so transported by the occasion that we truly imagined a special, bright star was at that moment shining right above us and a trio of camels plus a small flock of sheep were parked just outside.

Christmas Eve was extra special as expectation had now reached fever pitch. Our tree was twinkling away as were many others in the neighbourhood. ( although we didn’t have the over-the top, Beverley Hills- style extravaganzas that we often witness today.) Special foods had mysteriously made their way into the house. Bags of Brazil Nuts and walnuts, complete with fiendish looking nut crackers suddenly made an appearance. The fruit bowl was overflowing with apples, bananas and tangerines. Sticky dates or fleshy figs arrived in boxes decorated with pictures of turbaned Arab gentlemen or a  long-shadowed camel standing by a palm tree.

The radio ( and in later years — the telly) featured carols at regular intervals and we sometimes listened to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge. There were also lots of other seasonal songs usually involving snow and/or bells and usually sung by Bing Crosby. In our religious and classical music- orientated household, the Huddersfield Choral Society usually made its annual appearance at this stage, singing Handel’s Messiah and especially the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” My mum and dad had both performed that in their time. Once that lot got going and their magnificent music swelled to a stirring crescendo, even Bing and his fake Hollywood snow had to take a back seat.

As we got deeper into Christmas Eve, a stillness seemed to descend on our house, if not the whole world. ( in my child’s mind’s eye.) We sat around the bright flickering open fire and felt a warm glow of family togetherness and happiness. Eventually, my sister Glenys and I went up to our rooms, but were barely able to sleep because of the excitement that was now only hours away.

Now we come to the most memorable moment of the whole festival — Christmas morning. We emerged from our sleep early, usually about 5 or 6 am! And there, at the bottom of our beds, were big, bulging pillow-cases. We didn’t get piddly little stockings! This is the most intense moment of excitement in a child’s life — Christmas morning and the arrival of the presents! Father Christmas had been. He had actually parked his reindeer sleigh on the roof and come down our chimney! Yes, I believed it all ! It’s funny that today we lecture our children about stranger-danger, yet happily tell them that a wierd old man with a long, white beard is going to sneak into their bedrooms in the middle of the night. However it is through this myth, propagated by almost the entire adult population, that the true enchantment of Christmas is realised for our children. I may be cynical now but as a young child, I experienced that wonderful magic for myself. The fact that it was based on a lie and was giving me an early grounding in materialism, is by the by. It was still genuinely special.

In that bulging bag were: my Billy the Kid annual, my Rupert Annual, the latest additions to my fleet of Dinky Toys ( model cars), a toy train set, my sweets and my selection boxes. Each year it varied of course. I remember one year I was really pleased to get a magic set, another time I got a tricycle, to be followed by a bike a few years later. But the selection boxes were an ever present. Yes — there were whole boxes of chocolates, just for me! In that moment, Christmas was not a time for thinking of others as society likes to claim it is. At that specific time Christmas was extremely exciting but also extremely selfish. These were MY presents. These were MY chocolates. Mine, all MINE! I think younger children pay lip-service to the spirit of giving. Encouraged by adults they write cards to friends and family and present little gifts ( bought on their behalf) to others. However, basically for the under 10’s, Christmas is an aquisitive time. Selflessness only comes slowly as we get older and take a less ego-centric view of life.

So now it’s Christmas morning. My sister and I play with our presents and race around screaming with excitement. Everything is different on this special day. We have a carol service on the radio ( wireless) and unbelievably we consume pork pies and ketchup for breakfast! ( A strange family traditionlong since lost in the mists of time.) A church service now follows even though 6 years out of 7,  Christmas does not fall on a Sunday. I grew up in a Christian family, so the religious significance of Christmas was always emphasised. In the Methodist chapel service, we sing those familiar carols again, this time putting special stress on the final verse of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” — ” Yea Lord we greet Thee, on this happy morning!” The preacher talks about the baby Jesus as being God’s gift to the world and the well-worn bible passages are read — Isiaih’s prophecy, Mary’s Annunciation, the donkey trek to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn, the shepherds seeing the angels, the star and the journey of the Magi. Even at chapel where it’s usually pretty boring and serious ( in my child’s opinion), everyone is smiling and happy. Glenys and I receive shiny half-crowns from kind members of the congregation.

Then it’s back home for more playing with the presents and more stuffing of chocolate down my throat! One year I hid behind the settee and methodically gobbled the entire contents of a large selection box! I wasn’t much into sharing in those days. I only realized my terrible mistake when I went green about the gills, rushed upstairs and  wretched up half a toilet- bowl of brown sick! Lesson learnt I think.

That year I didn’t have much of my Christmas dinner, but usually, right up to age 17, the Christmas meal was one of the highlights of the day if not the year. For a family on a very moderate income ( my father was a railway engine driver), we normally ate conservatively. Sunday dinner was the biggest meal of the week. Well, Christmas dinner was like a Sunday dinner with knobs on! We had all the richest traditional fare and the stars of the plate were slices of tender pork accompanied by apple sauce and sage and onion stuffing. We couldn’t afford turkey or even chicken as the 50’s were before the days of factory farming and mass production of cheap poultry. Chicken and turkey were still luxury items to us. As I entered my teens we started to have a chicken on Christmas Day as my Grandfather had a small holding and gave us one of his birds as a treat. At the time I thought it was the tenderest, most delicious meat I had ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth. This was truly an exceptional day I thought. Later, of course , I became a vegetarian because of that very same Christmas chicken from Grandad Bates, but that’s another story, already told in a previous blog.( “How My Grandfather Turned Me Into A Vegetarian.”)

Our dessert was also traditional — a rich, fruity Christmas pudding smothered in sweet white sauce.( even better than custard.) I loved it, even though being good tee-total Methodists, we never had brandy in it. The afternoon meandered pleasantly through to tea time with the bewitching atmosphere hanging on. It was a day I wanted to last for ever. My dad gave demonstrations of his skills with the nut-crackers and how to use a pin to prise out the bits of sweet nut from seemingly inaccessible nooks and crannies. I tried to copy him and spent many a happy hour trying to winkle out the tiniest of morsels. It’s much more fun than buying a packet of ready shelled nuts. How boring! We also tried to eat the dates ( or figs) with little wooden forks but were never quite sure whether we liked them or not.

Christmas afternoon was always arranged around The Queen’s speech which came at 3pm. This was on the radio and from the mid-50’s onwards also on the telly. Even at a very young age I found this incredibly stuffy and boring, but it was impressed upon me that it was important so I fell into line. For many years we had to listen to it in silence, an atmosphere of awe descending on our house as if she was some sort of Deity speaking to her humble disciples. For my parents and grandparents this Royal interlude was very special. I think it took them back to the dark days of the Second World War, when King George VI had addressed a beleagured nation, once he had got his stammer sorted out, and put fresh hope back into everyone’s hearts.

Christmas tea was light, a sensible idea considering all the rich food we had been consuming for most of the day. The highlight of tea was definitely the Christmas cake which my mum or grandma had probably baked back in September. Again we were traditional and, as a child, I fully concurred in this as it was reassuring to be like everyone else and to know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. Surprises can be unwelcome and the very thought of them can breed insecurities. Our Christmas was certainly well within our family’s and our nation’s comfort-zone. Thus we got a rich, fruit cake topped by a layer of yellow marzipan, glistening white icing and lots of tiny, sweet balls arranged in decorative patterns. Little models of Santa, reindeer , fir trees or snowmen were stuck on the top for further decoration. It was delicious and so rich that one could only have a small slice at a time.

As I got older and reached puberty, Christmas tea posed a tricky dilemna. I wanted to eat it and get my teeth into the cake, but I also wanted to go and see the traditional pantomime that was always on the telly around that time. I like the gags, the songs, the dancing and the knock-about comedy, but most of all I liked the shapely, long legs of the leading man. No, this was not the beginning of homo-erotic stirrings, because the leading man, complete with seamed stockings and high-heeled shoes, was actually an attractive woman. It’s one of those panto traditions that I’ve never been able to fathom, but very welcome nevertheless! Thus I always fancied Prince Charming a lot more than boring Cinderella! And all the time my parents sat there, totally oblivious as to why I was so keen to see the panto.

I’m so sorry to have changed the tone of this piece now, as most of it has been devoted to my pre-pubertal age of innocence. Burgeoning sexuality, cynicism, vegetarianism, athieism, anti-consumerism and probable quite a few other “isms” had not stirred their worldly -wise heads yet. ( not until the later 60’s.)

It was all downhill after the pantomime. The presents had been opened and the wrapping paper thrown away. The special food had been eaten and we were feeling totally stuffed. The chapel was closed up, now that Jesus had been born yet again.( Maybe this is where “Born-again Christians get their inspiration from.) The Queen had disappeared back to Sandringham or possibly Balmoral. My Dinky cars were parked in their garage and my train track packed away. However, the tree still twinkled and the magic of Christmas still lingered on, only very slowly fading away into ordinariness. Boxing Day was officially designated as  special but it was a bit of an anti-climax really. It was a day for eating the left-overs and generally recovering from the excesses of the previous day. ( and we didn’t even drink alcohol. Raisin “wine” does not give you a hangover.) Maybe a special show would be on the radio or ( a little later) a blockbuster film on the telly. Boxing Day also had football matches which often ended in stodgy 0-0 draws because the players were still full of turkey and pudding. Certainly, by the end of December 26th it was all over and normality returned. People emerged from their annual seasonal trance, gave each other dazed looks and stoically prepared themselves for an endless procession of grey, ordinary days. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we didn’t celebrate New Year very much in England.

I enjoyed my innocent childhood and my enchanting Christmases. I loved the lights, the songs, the parties, the cards and the presents. However, on reflection, I think it was the comforting security of well-known routines that I loved the most. Also the fact that just about everyone took part (or so it seemed) made me happy to be part of a massive shared experience. This is something that tradition brings — togetherness, a sense of belonging ( and thus of identity) and the safety net of the familiar. It is what is so important in childhood but which makes growing-up so problematic and scary. Since my early childhood I have developed an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Christmas and to tradition in general. I resent being forced into a communal straight-jacket and being mocked or criticised if I don’t play along. However, as a child I was very happy to live the cliche and it led to some of the happiest days of my life. In some ways I wish I could travel back to those early Christmases and relive the joys of innocence, but unfortunately, that door has now closed for ever and I cannot pass back through it, except perhaps in my fond memories.

This blog is dedicated to my parents, Maurice and Jessie and to my sister Glenys. They all helped me to enjoy some wonderful childhood Christmases.

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2 Responses to “Childhood Christmas — Fond Memories of Innocence.”

  1. Joanna bates November 26, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    The idea of eating a pork pie for breakfast is one I kind if love knowing our family – it kind of seems like a fun, let your hair down kind of breakfast! Thanks for sharing these memories its a wonderful insight into your early childhood memories. I’m a little sad that believing in santa doesn’t last beyond 10 but i think you are probably right.

    • scrapstu1949 November 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jo. Yes, they were happy, magical days, and the pork pie bit is absolutely true. That was Maurice and Jessie’s way of making Christmas breakfast special. It probably came from my dad as his dad kept pigs. Don’t worry — I won’t tell Esme and Nina any of this!

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