The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas comes but once a year

And when it does, it brings good cheer.

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There is something about Christmas that can make us nostalgic for our childhood, even if it wasn’t necessarily the one we might have chosen for ourselves. I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a household where Christmas was eagerly awaited by us all every year (with the possible exception of my mother), mostly due to my father’s enthusiasm for the festival. (The oft-quoted lines of the above rhyme were just one manifestation of this). My mother, however, had grown up in a Scotland where Christmas Day was barely celebrated, and had yet to acquire even the status of a public holiday, and so had always had very modest expectations of the festival. There was no tree or decorations in the McKays’ house; very few presents were exchanged; and dinner on the 25th was just a ‘good’ evening meal, as my grandfather had to work (and there was certainly no special cake or brandy pudding to follow). This frugality was obviously partly due to the war and the rationing of goods throughout the forties and fifties, but the Presbyterian Church itself did little to encourage overt celebrations of the event.

Like most Scottish families at the time, the McKays celebrated Hogmanay, with New Year’s Day being the main public winter holiday. It is little wonder, then, that my Edinburgh based grandparents found our English-style celebrations rather excessive, frequently telling my sister and me that we were very lucky little girls. But by 1974, even Boxing Day was given public holiday status in Scotland (Christmas Day had been declared one in 1958, ending a period of four centuries when the festival had been effectively banned), and many Scots had become just as enthusiastic about Christmas as their English counterparts. I certainly don’t ever really recall feeling that our family celebrations were very different from those of my school friends, although like most children I was convinced that our traditions were superior to anyone else’s.

The first time my mother experienced a ‘full on’ English Christmas was when she joined the Skelton family’s celebrations in London in the early 1960s. Little did she know then that she would have years ahead of her attempting (successfully, I might add) to fulfil my father’s fantasy of what a ‘proper Christmas’ was like, but at the same time creating memories for her yet unborn children that would last them a lifetime. All the slightly strange rituals that she witnessed in Twickenham during those bitterly cold winters eventually made their way into our damp west coast bungalow: the gaudy, homemade crepe-paper chains hanging everywhere; the spicy and exotic foods that only appeared once a year; the over-decorated tree; the ‘treasure map’ to indicate where the post-dinner presents were hidden; the Boxing Day ‘snowman’. These were all things I had assumed my parents had created just for our delight, and as a child it never even occurred to me that many of the traditions we so enjoyed might have been started by another family separated from me by time and distance. And even though I was present for a couple of those 60s London Christmases, I have retained very few memories of the event – just a residual feeling of a lot of light, warmth and noise.

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          With my Skelton Grandparents at Christmas, London 1967

All families end up creating their own Christmas rituals, though, and one of ours was to go on the big green double-decker bus to the neighbouring town of Prestwick (where my father worked as an air traffic contoller) to see ‘the lights’, while my mother had the whole afternoon (and kitchen) free for baking. Because I did not associate my father with public transport (unless we were in London visiting our grandparents), it felt strange to be going on our local bus service together. And just like when we were riding in the famous blood-red buses of the capital, we sat upstairs at the front to get the best views. These excursions sometimes made my father nostalgic for London – he would tell us about going to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, the wonder of Selfridge’s windows, the delights of Hamleys’ toy shop. And a lot of the time he simply moaned about the fact that Scotland was bereft of many of the things he enjoyed most about Christmas – in particular mulled wine and roast chestnuts and all the other culinary delights that he associated with the festive period.

Maybe it was living for so many years through rationing that made my father wish for the extravagance of Christmas fare. The fact that so many things were not readily available during that time would have made the festivities even more special, and most  parents would have made an extra effort to lighten this dark period for their children, particularly if their own childhood Christmases had been blighted by death or poverty (as in the case of both my grandparents). This might go some way to explain the abundance of canned and pickled goods my father bought in early December – including the weirdly-named (and coloured) piccalilli, which to me was the quintessential London food (reminding me at the same time of Picadilly). 

The rural Christmases my father experienced as an evacuee on a farm in East Coker would have no doubt also have been special to a London schoolboy – particularly as my grandmother had made the decision to move down to Somerset to join her children for the duration of the war. Like many other evacuees, my father had originally been seperated from the rest of his family and sent with his school to Leatherhead in Surrey, where he lodged with the acting head of the Mormon Church in Britain (Andre K. Anastasiou) and his family, as well as other London school children. But after one year he returned home, and during the Blitz my grandmother took him and his infant brother to join his sister in East Coker, where she had been evacuated with her School (see East Coker). Perhaps it was experiencing these unsettling moves at a formative period in his life that made my father nostaligic for a traditional family Christmas. As mentioned previously (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), I believe that my grandparents tried to create a more stable childhood for their three children than they themselves had experienced, and making sure Christmas was a special family occasion would no doubt have been important to them.

Christmas Under Fire

At the end of 2012, I was lucky enough to visit the 1940s house at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth (seen in the video clip below) just before the exhibition closed. It was a strange feeling to walk through rooms haunted by another time,  and I had the odd sensation that I had been in such a house before. But when  I tried to reach back for the memory, it kept sliding away from me, like a view just out of sight. Perhaps the ‘idea’ of the house was just imprinted on my mind from old films I had seen, or a vague sense that my grandparents’ house in Bishop’s Grove (where they were rehoused directly after the war) had such a look and atmosphere. In the end I loitered for so long there, standing silently in each of the rooms whenever there was a lull in visitors, that I began to worry someone might find my behaviour suspicious. Even now, when I recall the experience, I have the uncanny feeling of stepping back into my own past on that winter’s afternoon, although I know that cannot be.

Interestingly, I  recently came across the David Lean film This Happy Breed (adapted from the play by Noel Coward), which tells the story of a London Family between the wars. The story was in part influenced by Coward’s upbringing in Clapham and is now a wonderful evocation of the period, as well as being entertaining in its own right. Although the film was made in 1944, the Christmas scene takes place almost twenty years previously, in 1926. Yet it shows the kind of decorations that I remember from my own  childhood – and the ones that my father associated with a ‘proper Christmas’. This scene  in the film is shown in the video clip below.

In addition to taking on the traditions of an English Christmas, my mother soon learnt to cook the kind of Sunday roasts my London grandmother had dished up to her own family, complete with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts. Christmas dinner was just a more extravagant variation of this meal, with turkey substituting for the roast beef, and ham, stuffing, chipolatas, parsnips and cranberry sauce added to the list of foodstuffs overpiled on our overheated plates. At the time I found this meal just as overwhelming as the huge lunches we sat down to after attending church on Sunday.

However, the one festive meal that I adored as a child was our cold Christmas Eve buffet – another Skelton tradition which came about through my grandmother cooking up a large amount of ham on the 24th (in preparation for the Christmas meal). This was the kind of dining experience I could relate to as it was possible to take as little or as much as you wanted over the course of several hours. In addition, there was all our favourite home baking laid out on the mid-century modern hostess trolley for afters (tiffin, mince pies, gipsy creams etc), which to me were infinitely more enjoyable than either Christmas pudding (which smelled too much of alcohol) or the traditional stodgy Christmas cake with its old-fashioned marzipan and polyfilla-style icing.

Every year I declared Christmas Eve to be my favourite part of the holiday, as we settled down in front of the television to watch a family show we had chosen together (from the three channels available) with the aid of the special festive editions of the Radio and T.V. Times (publications only indulged in at Christmas), our plastic trays filled with sausage rolls, ham, chutney etc, a glass of Ribena and lemonade (the posh ‘Christmas drink’) at our sides. Even as a child, I was aware that the aspect of the festivities that I liked the most was that sense of being together as a family, sharing in these annual rituals, and feeling as if we were closing ourselves off from the demands of the outside world for a few days. The presents were simply the icing on the (Christmas) cake, but certainly not the be and end-all of the holiday, particularly  as tradition had decreed that we were not allowed to open our main gifts until after Christmas dinner – and then only one per person at a time. This was a very civilised and civilising experience, and I was always slightly shocked when friends told me about their dawn raids on the presents under the tree, wondering why more families had not adopted our sensible routine.

Another one of the traditions that convinced me we were secretly morally superior to other families was the Boxing Day snowman. Conceived by the London Skeltons as a way of prolonging the celebrations – particularly if they were taking place on the 26th at another relative’s house – the snowman was  basically a portable present holder made from an old dried milk tin covered in cotton wool. Inside was a small present for each guest on which a label (enticingly hanging outside) was tied. When the snowman’s head was taken off, everyone pulled the tag with their name on it. The actual item was usually something as mundane as a bottle of perfume or a packet of cigars, but for the younger members of the family the ritual of the Boxing Day snowman gave the presents an added glamour.

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Preparing the Boxing Day Snowman, London, 1960s

Christmas would also not have been Christmas without the special records my parents played – in particular my father’s favourite: Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. I especially loved the rather eerie  Guardian Angels, which gave a glimpse into the possibiltity of another more esoteric world to a child raised in the traditions of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In fact, the run up to Christmas (when bracing carols were sung instead of the normal tuneless Victorian hymns) was one of the few times my father regularly attended services at our local church, and my parents both enjoyed the special atmosphere of the midnight service on Christmas Eve. I now regret very much that I never had the opportunity to attend this event with them – as a teenager I decried it hypocritical just to turn up in church for the ‘fun bits’ (a view I shared with my current beau, the minister’s son). My parents, however, took all this youthful rebellion in their stride, with my father (contrary to form) sanguinely declaring that the fact we came out with such statements was proof that we were following normal behavioural development patterns!

As in all families, Christmas became a more muted affair as my sister and I grew older and social activities and boyfriends began to dominate the agenda. By the 1980s the Christmas stockings – my father’s old knee-high RAF socks from his baggy-shorted time in the Middle East – seemed to have had shrunk in size until they eventually disintegrated.  And returning home from university one year, I noticed that the house was no longer festooned with lurid crepe chains and other paraphernalia. My mother explained that  when the box holding the Christmas decorations had been brought down from from the loft, all that was found left inside was a brightly-coloured mouse nest and pile of droppings. She had sighed with relief at this (having first determined that there were no rodents on the loose), and joyfully sprayed some twigs silver instead. 

xmas-paper-decorationsBut even then I felt nostalgic for the old decorations – particularly the single ones we had always hung  around the place. I remember as a child thinking it quite magical that the flattened boot-shape could suddenly pop up  into a multi-coloured honeycombed bell we could dangle from the ceiling. And every year, the opening of the decoration box would bring back memories of all the other Christmases we had experienced.

During this time and beyond, assorted partners would sometimes join our family for the celebrations, often declaring our family Christmases to be one of the best they’d ever had, and earlier  traditions (such as the present map) were revived for their benefit. Naively, I imagined this state of affairs continuing for years into the future, with perhaps new members of the clan with whom to share our rituals.

Unfortunately, Christmas 1993 was to be the last time we would all spend the holiday together. On Christmas Day, 1994, my father (who was then terminally ill) was rushed into hospital, having valiantly tried to hang on for one more family Christmas. We trooped in to visit him on Boxing Day, clutching our sad little presents that would forever remain unwrapped, none of us quite able to believe that the light from our Christmas lodestar was about to be extinguished.

But Christmas goes on, as does life, and new families and new countries have added their own traditions to the mix. Not everyone in my family is the biggest fan of Christmas, but I still get that sense of excitement when December comes round again. And whether I am polishing the angel chimes, collecting pine cones, making mince pies, decorating the tree, or even listening to Mario Lanza, there is always a little bit of those first Christmases that still follows me around, wherever I might be.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2016.

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2 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Christmas Past

  1. Marion M

    This is very timely as I am at this moment preparing to give a talk about Christmas in times past. Other aspects to think about are not only what era you lived through but the location. Rural to urban, the contrasts could be dramatic, and the focus quite different. The timing of Christmas has shifted as well. Formerly Christmas did not begin until Christmas Eve and was then celebrated until Twelfth Night. During the twelve days or nights of Christmas we would have neighbours over for supper or we would go to them, this involved walking over fields to neighbouring farms and then walking back, only after all the day’s work was done. We went round the neighbourhood Carol Singing for the twelve nights as well, usually a couple of nights in the village, then a couple more nights to do the outlying farms. Always ending up at someone’s farm house for refreshments. My childhood memories of the run up to Christmas were stark. Raising poultry for the Christmas trade, the whole house was festooned with dead birds hanging from hooks in the ceiling, feathers everywhere, and the smell of giblets. No fires could be lit as the birds had to be kept cold until they were sold. But when they were all sold my mother did put up decorations just like the ones you describe. Then you had to get the logs in so that there would be roaring fires, and yes, we did roast chestnuts on them. You can’t do that with gas central heating ! Cracking nuts with nut-crackers, little tangerines in tissue paper, sticky dates in a long oval shaped box, these were special treats for Christmas time. Thank you for a lovely thoughtful piece.

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  2. The Incidental Genealogist Post author

    Thanks for you interesting response, Marion. I wish I were able to come to your talk as I think it would be good to explore this theme further (perhaps in next year’s Christmas entry). I loved your description of the turkeys hanging up, and your evocations of a rural Christmas put me in mind of how the event is celebrated in the Alpine areas here in Switzerland. The nuts, dates and tangerines were all things I remember from my own childhood Christmases, which of course are now eaten all year round and thus have become less ‘magical’. But as you mention, it was the packaging (the pictures on the date boxes looked so exotic), and and rituals of eating these foods which also made them feel so special.

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