The Ghost of Christmas Past
I am having some trouble finding what to write about Christmas. (Not Xmas, always Christmas) Of course, Christmas has changed but it has always been Christmas. The changes have been gradual, shaped by changes in the house, work, cooking and life in general. You will get a picture of what it was like if you take modern Christmas, emphasize its Christian roots more, simplify it in the light of things we did not have in the fifties, and bear in mind the pictures I have given of how we coped with cold. You also have to realize that, so soon after the Second World War, life was more austere in general, simpler and less commercialized.
And, of course, back in the fifties, I only saw it from the viewpoint of a young child. I can’t guarantee getting dates right because my early Christmases merge together in the mind. We had our established traditions by the time I left for University. It’s difficult to remember when each one began. What follows will be a mixture of about a dozen early Christmases.
To our family in the 1950s, Christmas was a holiday lasting not much more than the two days, the Bank Holidays – Christmas Day and Boxing Day. People at work had less time off then. Christmas Eve was a normal working day. New Year’s Day was not yet a public holiday. (Let’s not worry about Scotland, where Hogmanay has been more important than Christmas.) If we were lucky, the time off work extended to include the previous following weekend, or the following weekend, but no more.
Nowadays we cannot fail to notice the approaching festivities from about mid-October with massive advertizing campaigns on television and elsewhere, but back then we knew nothing of television adverts and almost nothing of television. In the environment of our house and school, we didn’t see much of the High Street shops.
School life was different but term continued until about two days before Christmas. In the preceding weeks, we would have had the stories of the Nativity and learned to sing new carols but, in the context of the general curriculum, this was just continuing religious education and singing.
As young children, we were not aware of days and dates and I can remember once, at a very early age, being told that the next day was Christmas Eve. It was a mild surprise, only vaguely exciting.
There was no Internet and the only way to shop was to walk or take the bus to Ilford or to other, nearer but smaller shopping centres. Everything had to be carried home. At least some food such as bread and milk was delivered to the door.
My first memory of Christmas shopping for presents must have been at about eight. I went to Woolworths at Gants Hill, perhaps a mile away. I may have walked or taken a bus but I certainly went on my own. I may tell you more about Woolworths later but it was a general shop, selling from household goods to toys, all very cheaply. It didn’t take long for me to complete my shopping. I had bought seven presents for a total of 3s 6d. That is 17½ pence in today’s money! (When we had typewriters, there were keys for ¼, ½, and ¾, presumably to make it easy for our complex currency, with four farthings in an old penny.)
All I can say about what went ahead of the day itself was that most of it was invisible to me. One or two special food items would appear – some mixed nuts and a box of Walnut Whips. A bowl of nuts with a nutcracker was always there over Christmas and the Walnut Whips – well, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Walnut Whips!
My only other memories of Christmas preparations were of my father carefully deciding on the wine order. For the rest of the year, alcohol rarely appeared in our house. We had bottles of (sweet) sherry, just in case relatives appeared. They stayed in the cupboards. In the fifties, apart from in pubs, alcohol was only sold from a few Off-Licences. Dad would carefully read the catalogue from our local wine dealer and select maybe one bottle of wine for Christmas and one for Boxing Day, to be delivered for Christmas. We, of course, had soft drinks. I think they were possibly Ribena and Tizer, both real treats for us.
In writing these blogs, I am frequently struck by the way we ignored all Health and Safety. Even though I lived through the period, I am amazed at the casual way we lived with dangerous and hazardous substances and situations, particularly fire. I have already considered the everyday use of explosive gas and highly inflammable paraffin.
In our main living room, as you now know, we had an open coal fire. In the cold of winter, the flames would burn high. So what did we do at Christmas? We brought in a pine tree, the most easily ignited kind of wood, dropping masses of in flammable needles, and then we filled the room with decorations made of thin paper! I think we all did well to survive.
It always started with a tree, a real pine tree, bought and decorated about two days before Christmas. There were no fancy devices to hold it, so it was stuck in a bucket of earth; no magic aerosol spray to stop the needles dropping. The unmistakable smell of Christmas came from the turpentine smell of the tree.
We had the same tree decorations that came out every year in a box, which lived in the loft – simple glass balls, lengths of silvery tinsel, coloured lights and a fairy on top. We recognized it all from the previous year and the familiarity helped to create the Christmas mood.
Then there were the room decorations. Made from thin, multicoloured paper, they unfolded to stretch across the room. They were looped all round the walls and across the ceiling, fixed with drawing pins [US: thumb tacks or push pins]. The paper was so thin that they folded back to a compact form for storage until next year – this also may them very easily ignited!
I am both surprised and disappointed that Wikipedia has never heard of paper chains because we often made them to supplement the other decorations. Imagine a strip of coloured paper about an inch wide and ten inches long. (I refuse to use metric units.) One inch of it at the end has the kind of gum that is activated by licking it. Lick the end, wrap round and fix to make a large cylinder of paper, about bracelet size. All you have to do now is repeat, interlocking the hoops to make a chain. Different colours are random but looped circles are always different colours. A length of chain can be pinned to the wall just as the other paper decorations.
We also had sprigs of holly and ivy and just a little mistletoe. These were much more readily available then. Perhaps the fact that Dad worked in the fruit and vegetable trade helped.
Well, it was easier than I thought, more than enough for one blog. I am keeping to 1000-1500 word posts so you will have to wait for more ….