Category Archives: Christmas

There is a Time

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940) 

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In the dark – but often spiritually illuminating – time between Christmas and New Year, it is customary to look back on the previous twelve months, while attempting to plan for the next. I say attempt because not only do good intentions often go astray, but there are many events that can derail future plans, not least human fallibilities.

Five years ago I made the resolution to write up my unknown London family history in a series of blog posts intended to replicate the chronological chapters of a book, although the project did not become a reality until 2015. Prior to that, I had been going around in circles, unable to finish any one topic because there was always something extra to research, another fact to verify, or a new location to visit. But by setting myself official monthly deadlines, I was eventually able to circumvent this procrastination, at the same time moving my story forward in ways that I had not imagined at the beginning of my quest.

I do sometimes feel, however, that there is a price to pay for this ‘living in the past’. Not only can it be quite dispiriting to see how quickly a life is begun and ended, but it can be tempting to ignore the hardships our ancestors faced and instead become nostalgic for the lives they once led, particularly in today’s crowded and fast-paced world. This feeling is particularly prevalent at Christmas – a festival that we naturally associate with the 19th century, especially London, in part due to Charles Dickens’ perennial Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol. Yet, we often forget that many of the Christmas traditions we associate with the Victorians were only being established at this period, and that there would have been huge gaps in the expectations of the wealthy and the working class.

L_3293-1987_christmas_card_1000pxThe first Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley, 1843 (c) V&A 

Having been born in the last year of what was once called the old century, my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, would have witnessed those changes throughout his life. It was not until he was a relatively mature father of five (in 1834) that Christmas Day was officially declared a public holiday, and several decades before Boxing Day was also given this status. Christmas Day for James and his growing family would not have differed much from other days – as it was for my Scottish grandparents up until the 1950s – but by the time he had established his second family in the 1860s many of the customs we now take for granted were already in place. I therefore like to think that the Christmas traditions I experienced as a child, and which my father inherited from his parents and grandparents, stretched back over a hundred years, while being modified on the journey.

As I have previously described (see The Ghosts of Christmas Past), Christmas for us as children was celebrated more in the English style. (Although Scotland had caught up in the intervening decade or two, I was aware that many of our family rituals seemed rather overblown in comparison to my friends). Along with Guy Fawkes’ Night, it was the festivity we most associated with our father, who did not recognise our Scottish customs of Halloween and New Year. While I don’t remember the big London Christmases of my early childhood, most of those same traditions were carried on in our own family home throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. As our Scottish relatives did not live nearby, it was usually just our nuclear family of four, and I always enjoyed that quiet period in the days between Christmas and New Year where there was nothing much else to do but go for long walks with the dog, returning to new books and mince pies, along with a glut of fresh pens and paper for all those creative endeavours that petered out during that first week back at school in January.

P1040601 (3)A London Family Christmas, 1966

Like many people, I continue to associate this time of year with contemplation and reflection: a chance to not only think about new ventures, but to consider the direction in which our lives are going and how to find our way back to the old paths we might have allowed to become overgrown with the passage of the years. And family history can help us to do just that – to reassess our future in relation to the past. Unhealthy patterns of behaving or relating may be discarded or amended in the light of knowledge of the effects of past actions on future lives. We realise that relatives who fell out with each other over something petty went on to deny subsequent generations the chance to connect with each other. We wonder if a misguided late Victorian parent may have prevented a bright child from reaching their potential. And we learn that war created upheavals that reconfigured family dynamics for decades to come.

Of course there are kindnesses to consider, too. An unknown aunt who bestowed much-wanted toys on younger relatives before dying young; a grandfather who handmade intricate dolls-houses (with real electric lights and wallpaper!) for all his four grand-daughters; the Somerset villagers who showed compassion towards a family of London evacuees. And in the present day, there are newly-discovered relations (some too distant to ever have met in the traditional way) who have supplied photographs and documents as well as those all-important personal anecdotes. And that is before mentioning other researchers, historians and writers who have offered advice and guidance, some becoming friends along the way.

Genealogy can also encourage us to regard time differently. Past, present and future may slip and slide into each other. What would my Bermondsey ancestors make of present-day Bankside, with the strange apparition of old-new Tower Bridge appearing from the river mists at the end of their narrow, cobbled lane? Or at the sight of Shakespeare’s Globe rising out of the debris of what to them was modern wharfs and warehouses? Of course, any visit to the capital after some years away can create similar sensations in the modern mind. When I first returned to London to pick up the genealogical quest I’d started in the 1980s, the unexpected changes to the city confused me. Hadn’t there once been an iron railway bridge across Ludgate Hill, spoiling the view of St Pauls’ Cathedral from Ludgate Circus? And look! There was the ‘lost’ Temple Bar, re-erected in an unrecognisable reincarnation of Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s. Strange new tube stations had also sprung up in unexpected places like fungi arising from the hidden network of their underground mycelium. Not only that, but a fast train line now linked London with France, bringing us closer to our continental neighbours.

LUDGATE HILL (2).jpgLudgate Hill Railway Viaduct, London, early 20th Century

However, it is the social aspects of family history which I often find most illuminating. In my own quest to find out about my London ancestors I have been both surprised and disappointed by the fact that the ‘lost’ wealthy branch from my great-great grandfather’s first marriage (in particular his merchant son, James William Sleath-Skelton, see A Tale of Exploitation) seemed unwilling to help the other second family to prosper in an increasingly competitive and industrialised world. Although the unorthodox – yet not uncommon – living conditions of my great-great grandfather and his much younger partner (who only became his wife shortly before his death) may have offended the High Victorian sensibilities of the adult children from his first marriage, I wonder if they did not feel some sort of duty towards the struggling descendants of this union, most of whom had to leave school relatively young and take up manual work. Was there no Christmas spirit among them which might have seen a food hamper delivered to the Hawkins-Skelton’s cramped terraced house in Kennington, or a box of toys for the children? After all, these were their half-siblings, children whose many descendants  would spread out over south London, going on to fight for King and Country in the 20th century’s future wars.

While Dickens was spreading the message that Christmas should be a time of giving and togetherness, many wealthy families up and down the land, including the Sleath-Skeltons, were obviously donating to specific charities. But while it may have been easier to give to anonymous individuals under the umbrella of a charitable organisation, it seems that when it came to their own relations some preferred to shun those deemed less successful than themselves. Ironically, it was just at the time that Christmas was reinstated as a public holiday, the New Poor Law of 1834 was coming into effect, something I have discussed before in relation to my great-great grandmother’s (Mary Ann Hawkin’s) immediate family, most of whom fell foul of this law and ended up incarcerated in separate workhouses, despite their protestations for parish relief (see When I Grow Rich). 

Dickens was vehemently against the amendment to the poor law, which saw parish or ‘outdoor’ relief being replaced by the punitive workhouse system. He viewed the new law as anti-Christian, writing his novel Oliver Twist in response to this and other social injustices of the time, particularly towards children. It is interesting to note that several years later he visited the Norwood School of Industry (a sort of children’s workhouse) in South London, to which Mary Ann’s younger siblings had been sent while their parents were in the separate (male and female) City union workhouses. Were little Emma and Sophia Hawkins aware of the illustrious visitor in their midst that day in 1850, when they were no doubt displayed as examples of how ‘industrial schooling’ was able to improve the lives of what Dickens called compounds of ignorance, gin and sprats in his article about the school (entitled London Pauper Children), which was later published in his new journal Household Words?

Scrooge (2)Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) by John Leech

Perhaps the last words of this post should be given to Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, Tom, who appears at the start of A Christmas Carol, explaining to his embittered  uncle why he believes in celebrating Christmas: I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2019.

 

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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, Christmas 1966

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 separated 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.

snowmanPreparing 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 up  around the place. I remember as a child thinking it magical that a flattened boot-shape could suddenly become a multi-coloured honeycombed bell to 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.