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I was in my first year at proper school; I was five. 'Christmas is coming!' was the popular buzzword. Christmas had been coming for positively eons by now, according to my reckoning. Then one day, a week before we broke up for Christmas, a large cardboard pillar-box appeared on a spare desk, in the corner of the classroom. It was painted red and black and looked just like one of the iron post-boxes out on the street. It even had its own 'door' (tied up with string) at the back in order to get the letters out. What was worse was there was one teacher who would dress up as a postman, and deliver 'post' from other classrooms. At age five, we even believed it.
The idea was of course, that you could write Christmas cards to your friends in the school, and 'post' them there without any stamps. You could use regular cards from a shop, or make your own complete with odd-looking envelopes that really looked home-made! That didn't cost anything at all, and, since it was only a few years really since the war, no one was particularly over-flush with money. On the last day of term, the box was opened, and all the cards were handed out. God help you if you'd forgotten anybody......
At the age of five, we weren't allowed to walk home on our own of course, so our mothers used to collect us, and making the trip useful by doing some shopping on the way back. Thus began my introduction to Ration Books, and the mysteries of the various shops. I learned which shop sold what products, and looked longingly at the large 'cube' shaped tins of biscuits that I liked. Oh yes. There were no 'packets' of biscuits in those days. The lids were kept shut tight on the tins of biscuits and were sold by weight in a brown paper bag! You then transferred them to your own biscuit tin when you got home. For certain priced biscuits, they'd do a mixture of various sorts, so if you weren't that well off, you could at least have a variety of a lesser weight. Sugar was still on ration, and you were limited to so much a week. So were things like butter.
Now my grandmother had a man who ran a greengrocery business from a 'van'. It was actually more like a 'covered wagon' that we used to see in westerns, and it was drawn by his horse. We always suspected he had Romany origins! He was a fat, jolly man, and the kitchen chair always groaned as he carefully lowered his bulk into it. He always had some 'special offers' it seemed.
"Now then," he'd start. "Would you be wanting any yellow soap today?"
"Oh yes please," replied my grandmother. "As much as you can spare, please Stan," she enthused.
I later learned that 'yellow soap' was black-market terminology for butter, when my grandmother, with a big grin, handed me a slice of buttered toast. Oh wow! Was that yummy!
…....So, Christmas week arrived at last. More cards to write – for all the relatives this time. Post them any time up to about nine o'clock in the evening, and they'll still be there for breakfast the next morning. Even if they have to travel a hundred miles or more it seemed. 'What?' I hear you ask. Well. How was that possible? It seems that back then, we had a Postal System that actually worked! Three cheers for the old Post Office! Christmas cards arrived daily for us from all sorts of friends and relatives. We considered we posted our cards early a whole week before Christmas Day. Some would leave posting until the night before Christmas Eve. Since there was a regular post on Christmas Eve, the cards all got through. On the rare occasion that the weather took a hand and changed for the worse, it had been known to have just one early morning post on Christmas morning. In that event, the Postman always got a tip!
So that was another year done with as far as school went, although the school year actually ended with the summer holidays. That is when we moved up a year into the next form after summer. Christmas shopping was done in two forms. Presents were often bought earlier in the year, depending on what they were and their cost. There were few 'fashionable' toys like there are these days, and precious few were made of easily-broken plastic. Generally speaking, they were of better quality than their modern counterparts, which is why they're still collectable today. The main reason toys were disposed of was they were passed down to children who had nothing, or just thrown or given away, because their owners were bored with them, or had simply outgrown them after a few years. The last of the presents tended to be bought in the week before the event.
Food shopping was another matter. In the UK, refrigerators were a rare thing for most people to own. (We didn't get one until the summer when I was eight.) Consequently, most of the foodstuff was bought fresh. It was nothing for some food shops to stay open until midnight on Christmas Eve, when they would try and sell as much of their stock as possible. Most butchers literally sold out by the end of the evening. Turkey was almost unheard of in Britain in the Fifties. A goose was the usual Christmas dinner, as chicken was the price of finest beef steak today. Also, chicken often went 'off' easier than goose, often causing bitter disappointment on the 'big' day. Unfortunately, a goose produces a lot more fat when it's cooked than anything else, so the excess fat had to be removed. I have fond memories of my grandmother and mother tending to the goose and spooning the fat into a bowl, so that it didn't soak back into the meat. It wasn't wasted anyway, being ideal for cooking the roast potatoes, (real King Edwards, and not the ones we get these days), which turned out beautifully crispy with the inside being a scrummy fluffy white appearance. However some dripping was still used for the Yorkshire pudding!
The strange part was that meat was cheap then. We always had a huge joint of beef and additionally one of pork; a huge glazed, bread-crumbed ham and an ox tongue for cold meat on Boxing Day. My father would make a huge quantity of Russian salad to go with other salad ingredients and a huge quantity of mash potato. For a salad, it was incredibly filling meal, but then there was a huge choice of salad items, much like the huge choice of vegetables with the Christmas roast. All the leftover greens and other veg were used to make a huge 'bubble-and-squeak' for an evening snack on the boxing day or with the Boxing Day main meal early afternoon. Strangely, there was never ever any leftovers of the Russian salad, which pleased my father no end.
My father was actually quite good at making the Christmas specialities, like the mince pies, and cold snacks that we'd have in the evening with fresh baked crusty rolls. There were tasty fingers of anchovies -on-toast, small sausages on cocktail sticks and similarly pineapple, cheese and ham. In addition, there were prawns on some tasty mixture on cheese biscuits. There were other delicacies too, but I forget exactly what. He'd do the Christmas pudding mix earlier in the year, and the puddings would cooked in the elderly pressure cooker which spat and spluttered on the just-as-elderly gas stove. Speaking of stoves, I remember an elderly heating stove in one corner of the kitchen, which used 'coke' instead of coal; a rarely seen commodity these days. It would almost glow red-hot if the dampers were fully opened.
There were always drinks of some sort that we didn't have all the rest of the year. Although I didn't get any, I was given some special 'Christmas drink'. I haven't a clue now what it was, but it tasted special, so I was happy. The rest of the relatives who stayed over for the Christmas period got somewhat merry after I had gone to bed. I lost my own bed to my Grandmother, who used my room when she stayed over, and I was relegated to a camp bed in my parents bedroom for the duration. However, one Christmas Eve, I had got up and gone to the toilet at around midnight and returned to my own bed instead. When my Grandmother came up to bed she called down to my father that I was asleep in her bed, and he had to pick me up and put me back in the camp bed. I didn't even wake up!
That was the Christmas I was given my very first train set, and my budgerigar, which had been a birthday present that year, and was already tame, spent much of the afternoon riding the train, doing laps of an oval of about five feet by three, on the lounge floor! I know for a fact that everyone else was quite relieved when the batteries eventually ran flat. (They hadn't been able to get a transformer before Christmas, as the shop was out of stock.) When I think of the toys I was bought for Christmas Past, I think they were much better quality than they are now. There was very little of the cheap plastics stuff, and they didn't break as easily. They were often more educational then and required you to think for yourself a bit. These days it seems everything is done for you except for pushing the buttons. No wonder some of our kids can't think for themselves and get so bored.
On the Sunday before Christmas, we'd have the carol service in the afternoon at three thirty at our local church. It always seemed a long walk to me, but then that was the days of short legs and short trousers. I always figured it was sheer, malicious torture sending us boys out in the freezing cold with short trousers, but then long trousers would soon have worn out with all the kneeling around and falling over playing games. Boy's knees were self-healing! It was always packed in the church, since all the family came if you attended at all. The only one who couldn't come was my Grandmother, who used to stay and look after the house, since she had severe arthritis. We later discovered that she limped everywhere because she'd had Polio as a child and had ended up with one leg shorter than the other, which she was far too embarrassed about to ever appear much in public, or even to mention to most of the family. She'd limp around leaning heavily on a cane, which disguised the truth of the matter.
The service was always a great success, and we sang all the well-known carols, with just a few readings. I had severely embarrassed my elder sister three years before, since she was in the guides, who were doing the readings from the bible that year. Having spotted her after hearing her start reading, in a cool clear voice, I pronounced, "That's my Wendy!" She didn't know where to put her face which had turned crimson, and there were a few sympathetic giggles from some nearby families. My mother nearly buried me in her coat to shut me up!
Needless to say, they didn't take me to the Midnight Mass, and I was already in bed and asleep before they went. My Grandmother, who didn't go out was babysitting me. That wasn't the night I tried pinching my bed back!
Of course things improved a lot once we had the extra bedroom built over the garage. I didn't have to give up my room any more, and if I woke up at five o'clock in the morning, and found presents stacked at the foot of the bed, then I didn't disturb anyone if I got up and turned the light on to see what was in all the various parcels. Actually, no one was particularly late up Christmas morning, even my parents, who often came in and sat on the bed with a mug of tea, to watch me open my first lot of presents. A sock wasn't big enough by a long way, and I used to have an old pillowcase, on which I had drawn Christmas trees, snowmen and Santas everywhere. Well you get the idea. There was wrapping paper thrown everywhere, and a neat pile of presents just to one side.
My parents were crafty and always included at least one favourite comic 'annual', which after I'd opened everything, I'd probably settle down to read while they went back to bed for a bit! They'd usually stay there until they heard movement from my two sisters, who didn't get up early these days like I did. They saved their presents until after lunch when everyone else opened theirs. If I had any 'big' present that year, it would be saved until then as well.
Somehow we all managed to be up and washed, (sheer mayhem in the scrabble for the bathroom), and dressed ready to face the trek to the morning Christmas Day Service. Thankfully it was kept short, and there was no sermon, since the vicar knew how restless the kids got. Instead he gave a short address, telling the Christmas Story, and explaining that was why we celebrated Christmas with gifts and feasting. It sort of made sense, even to me.
And I guess that's what's missing these days. The importance of gifts and the excess of eating and drinking have outgrown the real reason. People feel they have to give something bigger and better for a present each year. It's almost like 'keeping up with the Joneses' gone mad. Why do we do it? Why do we bother? We could spend hundreds buying a laptop for one of the kids, but if we saw a child in ragged clothes and no coat in freezing weather, would we do something about it, or look the other way quickly, so as not to notice? I bet I can guess what the vast majority would do.
There was a time a few years ago, when I could still walk normally, but didn't attend church any more; I guess I just wasn't convinced any more, though I still enjoyed the music. On Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass, I'd park up near our local church in town, which was quite a large one, and trek across the churchyard. I'd be laden with a camping gas stove, a small bottle of gas, a couple of saucepans, and a frying pan; and a backpack full of goodies. That was the churchyard where a lot of people who slept rough would gather, and make shelters to keep the wind off them against the church walls. I'd set the stove on a flagstone out of the wind and get a few huge tins of soup heating in a pan. I would lay out the rolls which I'd buttered earlier in the evening, and start off a few sausages and burgers in the frying pan. The smell of cooking food soon had them poking inquisitive noses out of their sleeping bags. It was free, it helped; they were welcome to it. Soup and food gone, I'd dole out season's greetings and be off home.
I didn't have my own place at that time; I rented a small flat. On Christmas Eve, I'd sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, switch on the TV and wait. There were often a string of the usual visitors in the latter half of the evening mostly, all imparting what their Christmas plans were, and occasionally there were one or two who would stay late, very late, and later still, until it was perfectly plain they didn't want to go. That was truth time, when the real stories of their predicament would emerge, as would the spare quilts, blankets and pillows. But the wait . . . . . . ahh... That was something else and would end on Christmas Day.
I don't think a year went by without the phone ringing sometime between breakfast and mid afternoon on Christmas Day, and there was a voice trying to choke back tears as their happiness splintered into shards, and they found themselves temporarily at least, homeless for Christmas. That must have been sincerely bloody awful for them, and something I wouldn't wish on anyone. One year, someone I knew well and was about eight years my junior, cried on my shoulder for a full hour. I've had a few wet shoulders in my time.
Why is it that families row and have splits at Christmas? Is it so stressful these days? Well, yes, it is. Everything has to be just so perfect, doesn't it? But does it? Really? Is it so important if the turkey is just a little bit crisp, or the Yorkshire pudding didn't quite rise as much as it should because someone opened the oven door at the wrong moment? It seems that some consider it a complete disaster if everything doesn't go perfectly. Crap. Why can't families just enjoy being together for the day or days. Sometimes it can be a family member's last Christmas, and that really bites home if there were arguments and disagreements. To have to leave after bad feeling that is still running high, can leave mental scars that may never go away. Such a shame. I put up one chap who had been turfed out by his father for apparently upsetting his mother by asking if she had any ham to make a sandwich. She didn't. Ham hadn't been on her shopping list. He had nothing to eat back at his bedsit, as he wasn't expecting to have return there until after the new year. Another had a minor argument over something with his younger brother, and was literally physically slung out of the front door and told never to return. He didn't either; instead he cuddled up to me night after night, begging me to hug him, for months on end. I could have cheerfully have strangled his father for the scars that left.
And what of this year? Who can say? I'll get in sufficient food, plus a few extras . . . just in case that phone rings again.
Christmas isn't what it was.
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