With Clean Knees For God

Saturday night was bath night – except at Christmas when, whatever the day, the late afternoon hours of Christmas Eve were organized for special ablutions based on Saturday night tradition. A battered galvanized tin tub was brought into the kitchen from the backyard plunked in front of the kitchen fire and half-filled with buckets of cold water plus a couple of kettles of boiling water. Just enough to take the chill off.

With sister Doris on enforced visit to the neighbours during the cleansing of her brothers, the ritual began, changed only from our regular Saturday night splash by more vigorous scrubbing. My brother Tom, four years my senior, was deemed old enough and responsible enough to bathe himself. I was not. For me, a strong-armed mother was needed to make sure every visible patch of my 10-year old body gleamed.

Hands, elbows, and behind the ears got special attention. Fingernails were trimmed and every speck of grime removed. Hair, shampooed and dried, was combed reasonably straight and I was eventually proclaimed clean enough to wear freshly laundered pyjamas and ready for bed.

Next morning, we would be up and about for a fairly early breakfast which, it being Christmas Day, would offer rare treats of eggs and bacon, huge slabs of bread and a cup of tea. We were allowed (ordered) to wear our pyjamas while opening recession-modest presents and while eating breakfast. The latter was not a concession to slovenliness but to make sure no egg yolk dripped on soon-to-be worn Christmas Day best suits and ties. With the donning of those ultra cleaned and pressed garments there were more examinations of fingernails, ears, and knees.

We didn’t get to wear long pants until we reached the magic age of 14 so clean knees were of prime importance for choir boys representing the house of Hume. Tom qualified for long pants; I didn’t. My protests that, as all choir boys wore ankle-length cassocks, no one in church ever saw my knees were swept aside with a motherly declaration that “God can see your knees.”

And with that, we would be ushered from the house for the short-block walk to St. Mary’s Abbey church, with Tom getting firm last-minute orders to “go straight to church and make sure he (that’s me) doesn’t get mucky before he gets there.”

After morning service, we would meander home, taking care not to get too mucky because we knew there would be another inspection before the big meal of the day to be served at midday. Before we boys could eat, we had to change our clothes because we had an evening service to sing, and gravy stains on nice white shirts could undoubtedly also be seen by God.

After the meal – usually an elderly chicken donated by Granddad Jimmy Startin, my mother’s father – loaded with vegetables and dumplings and followed by Christmas pudding and custard, it was nap time for adults, reading time or playing with newly opened Christmas present board games for the choir boys.

Then a sandwich and cup of tea, the final examination of the day with touch-ups where necessary, the short walk to church and ‘‘Evensong” around 5:30 or six. Mother always attended Evensong, beaming with pride. By seven o’clock we walked home together with only gas lamps lighting the winter-dark streets, not talking much.

Then it was hot cocoa and biscuits and bed. Christmas had never been happier. And I wish you all an equal season of happiness leavened with the simple joys and loving strength of family.


  1. My childhood ablutions were similar. I was 18 before I enjoyed indoor plumbing. Yet my siblings and I always greeted society perfectly clean and wearing spotless, ironed clothes. Denim was worn by people who cleaned pigsties.

    And Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  2. As always, beautiful & memorable. Thank you for bringing back similar memories to mind. Wishing you the best of Christmasses. Brenda Harfield

  3. Similar happy memories except that I had at least two books, one would be an ‘Annual’ plus an orange in my Christmas Stocking. Happy New Year. M

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