I wrote the following for Christmas 2003. To those who read me then, apologies; to those new to my writing here’s the way my Christmas was in 1931
We never had a Christmas tree when I was growing up. In the great depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s we couldn’t afford one – and there were no evergreen forests near my English industrial-town home from which to steal one.
We had holly, lots of it with bright red berries. We had mistletoe, indignantly avoided until I discovered girls. We had some greenery, poached from a St. Mary’s churchyard Yew trees, and paper decorations galore,hand and homemade to be hung in abundance from kitchen ceiling and every available wall spot from which they could be draped.
The manufacturing of the brightly coloured paper links, cutout bells and small green trees, was a kitchen table project for the long winter nights leading to Christmas Eve. While Dad was down at the Wheatsheaf making sure the beer met consumer standards, mother would order the kitchen table cleared, scissors found, paper and paste prepared and production started.
My older brother Tom at 12 was in charge of the cutting operation, which saw sheets of colored paper sliced into inch-wide strips. Mother and sister Doris, 10, did the weaving of the paper chains. I was confined to the mixing of the paste – made from flour and warm water – and dabbing the ends of the strips before they were pressed together to form another link in the ever-lengthening chain.
My sister would complain throughout that I was deliberately smearing her fingers with paste as she held strip-ends together. I would respond with seven year old blue-eyed innocence no mother could deny, that it wasn’t my fault she couldn’t keep her fingers out of the way.
I was lying. When you’re eight years old baiting a 10-year-old sister is fair game year-round, and not to be abandoned simply because it’s Christmas. Peace On Earth does not apply to small boys with slightly older sisters.
The assembly line evenings always ended the same way – with mugs of hot cocoa and fresh baked ginger snaps. Total decadence.
Then, two or three evenings before Christmas Eve, party night would be declared. It was the night father unveiled HIS (made from berry picking to bottling by mother) latest batch of Elderberry wine. The neighbours were invited in for a tasting during which dad graciously accepted their approval of HIS wine and mother just smiled. During the “new wine” celebration, teenage sons and daughters were permitted to sip a small glass while “the nippers”, of which I was one, were granted the briefest of sips from a dad or mother’s glass.
Father, trying to make me feel included, was obviously unaware that I hated Elderberries. Hated them every step of the picking, washing, mixing, tending, stirring, yeasting, liquefying red-mess, awful tasting, way. But when my kindliest of fathers, his unwavering Gallipoli-earned glass eye staring me down, said “just a sip”, I sipped.
With seasonable toasts completed mother would usher the neighbours out, and the genuinely happy task of “dressing” the kitchen for Christmas commenced. In short order it was transformed from a poky place where meals were prepared, cooked and consumed, to a cave worthy of Aladdin.
With the gaslight turned low the coal fire in the kitchen grate burned with a warmer glow; the holly berries were brighter. A few Christmas baubles glittered on the mantelpiece, our paper chains and streamers hung from the kitchen clock and every nail in every wall. Even the purloined and usually gloomy Yew clippings took on friendly air.
It was three days to Christmas Eve – and we were ready. Poor, but ready.
Christmas morning always began with the opening, however cold the dawn, of the window to the bedroom – and bed – I shared with my brother: Our clear voiced singing of “Christian’s Awake, salute the happy morn….” Preceded a seemingly interminable wait until we heard the kettle boiling downstairs – the signal that tea could now be made to settle the nerves of parents as the children scrambled through a hasty porridge breakfast and then the small – very small – piles of presents on the scrubbed-white kitchen table.
The waiting for the kettle to signal present opening time was maintained in my own family until the youngest left the nest. And, silly though it may sound, at 90, I still half listen for the kettle to whistle on Christmas morning before opening a Christmas gift. It’s a time for me to remember when no one in the family had to worry about the safety or sensible features of toys, because there were no toys. When, to a little boy’s dismay, there were only hand knitted “pullovers” (sweaters) which I was assured I would “grow into”, along with hand knitted gloves and socks, a book or two and always from my wonderful Aunt Emily (Pem) a small “variety box” of Cadbury’s chocolates. Aunt Pem’s husband owned a corner grocery store, hence the touch of luxury.
We regarded ourselves a fortunate family even in the depths of the depression with dad on poverty level dole. Mother’s father had a small holding on the edge of town where he raised a few chickens, had a cow, grew vegetables. Christmas dinner, courtesy granddad, was always chicken – but not roasted. Granddad’s gift chickens needed an extra hour on the slow boil to be made edible. But it was ”chicken”, and with a few vegetables and light-as-feather dumplings, followed by homemade Christmas pudding smothered with hot custard, a feast of royal proportions – enjoyed but sometimes with a touch of guilt because we knew our neighbours, lacking granddads in the country, sat at tables close to bare.
There never was a Christmas in my growing up, before we launched into our chicken and dumplings, that mother, who scrubbed floors and took in laundry to make ends meet, didn’t ask us remember how blessed we were. It’s why decades later I can still call up the warm vision of that old Christmas kitchen and appreciate how blessed I was at eight – and still am now a few days from 91.
A time to again remind myself and old and new readers of “Adirondack” Murray’s great thoughts about Christmas dinner and the passage of time:
“Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray, how fast the guests do go!
Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay.
Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day may ever come to host or guest again.
And have a Christmas you will remember for ever.