Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[10] Christmas Traditions


I keep wanting to write: “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without …” but it doesn’t make good literary style to repeat myself too much. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without – family Christmas traditions. So, for my last Christmas blog, here are some more personal memories of traditions specific to our family. (Just because I says it’s the last one, it doesn’t mean I can’t do another one, maybe next year.)

All families have their traditions. They do things the same way every week or every year. Sometimes just doing something once makes it a tradition. Things, like Christmas, that happen just once a year are an easy target for traditions. (You could probably also describe our weekly Sunday tea back in the sixties as a tradition. I may say something about it another time.)

The same but different

There were many alternative methods to do things at Christmas and not everyone did things the same way. Even for the simple things, once a method is established, it often becomes something you would never think of changing. Here are some examples.

Some people had a star at the top of their Christmas tree; others always had a fairy. We always had a fairy because – because – because we always had a fairy! If someone who put a star on top wanted to marry someone who only considered a fairy, well, some serious negotiation was in order!

Some people left stockings upstairs in their bedrooms, some downstairs. Ours were always downstairs, and ours were always pillow-cases! Of course, Father Christmas, with his infinite knowledge, always knew exactly where to deliver.

Some people had Christmas dinner at about midday. Ours normally arrived at about 4 p.m. and that became the expected time.

Some families delayed opening crackers until desserts appeared. We always had ours at the beginning.

Households had their own traditions for present distribution. In our house, presents were always given out together, a little after noon on Christmas morning. The youngest children had the responsibility of fetching them, reading the names of recipients and distributing them. When all presents had been opened, we would go round the circle and announce who had what. (This probably developed when we had all grown up a little. When we were very young, present opening was spread out a little.)

It can be a surprise to grow up and discover that other families actually do things differently! But, of course, we always knew that our way was the right way.

Here are some more specific family traditions. As the say on all the best television shows: … in no particular order.


Walnut Whips

I have mentioned these already. We would have a box of Duncan’s Walnut Whips for Christmas. The box sat on the sideboard. They were not for general consumption. No one but Dad ever touched the box. The walnut whips were prizes, awarded only by him for winning various games. He would decide when a prize was in order. He tried to be fair – so if the same person kept winning, prizes were not always forthcoming.

Word games

Mostly we played word games, often the ‘Call my Bluff’ one that involved defining unknown words found in the dictionary. We just called it the ‘Dictionary Game.’ We wrote possible definitions on little bits of paper and tried to guess which was the right definition.

There was one year when the word ‘yerba’ came up and was defined by someone as ‘little squares of toast with sardines on top.’ Of course it doesn’t mean that. (It’s a South American type of tea-like drink. I’m sure you all know that now.) But the definition stuck. There would always be times at Christmas in later years, when conversation dropped, when someone suggested it was time to “bring out the yerbas!” We knew what they were talking about. Sadly, they never appeared.

In the same game, something else was once defined as an ‘airtight sandwich box.’ So, if you were stuck for an idea, years later, you could write ‘airtight sandwich box.’ It wouldn’t be right but it would bring a laugh.

Ping Pong

Sometimes you remember the little things. Our Christmas tree decorations were simple. Our grandmother used to put up table tennis balls, wrapped in pretty handkerchiefs. When the tree came down, we each had a ping-pong ball. They were the best bits of the tree for me. It was the only time of the year we ever had them and they didn’t last long.

Bubble and Squeak

Christmas Dinner always produced lots of leftover food. To some extent, this was deliberate. The Boxing Day meal, as well as more turkey, always included ‘bubble and squeak,’ cooked by frying a mixture of leftover potatoes and vegetables.

To some, it makes Boxing Day dinner better than the day before. To me, it’s a familiar memory, a tradition, but something I would never consider eating. My diet has never included green things like cabbage or Brussel’s Sprouts. (I could always find plenty to eat, though. The turkey sometimes kept going for a week. I remember turkey rissoles, turkey soup …)


Angel Chimes

There is a contraption called ‘Angel Chimes,’ driven by the heat coming from small candles. By means of a little propeller, the heat turns the top of the device, driving little metal angel figures round, where they strike bells to make a continuous chime. Such a device would always grace our table for Christmas Dinner. It just about lasted for the meal.

As the candles burn down, they eventually go out. We would always place bets as to which would last longest!

We didn’t know then the connection between bells and angels …


‘Every time a Bell Rings …’

It’s a Wonderful Life is a film, made in 1946, is now considered one of the most loved films in American cinema and has become traditional viewing for Christmas in many households. It stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams to help others. His imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would have been without him.

I consider it to be about the best film ever made. (Bringing up Baby is a close second.) If you haven’t seen this film, find it and watch it now. Have a box of tissues ready. We certainly didn’t see it in the fifties or sixties. Now we have it on DVD. Christmas starts when we sit down and watch it. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it. This year we were lucky enough to be able to see it in a local cinema a couple of days ago, the first time we have seen it on the big screen.

As George’s little girl, Zuzu, says in the film, ‘Every time a Bell Rings, an Angel gets his wings!’

Now I have to decide what to write next …


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[10] Christmas Traditions

  1. Pingback: [43] Cigarettes, Tea, Minstrels – and Marmalade | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. We always had an Angel chime on our Christmas table, so many memories, are they still available do you know where I could get one from?.


  3. Pingback: [88] Christmas Comes but Once a Year | Remembrance of Things Past

  4. Pingback: [109] Growing Up | Remembrance of Things Past

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