Christmas in the late 1950s – early 60s was a very different beast to the over indulgence and massive consumerism that is the norm in 2018. Not long out of rationing, there was a simplicity to Christmas festivities that were still steeped in the Christian faith rather than the commercial faith. Stainbeck Preparatory School and Harehills County Primary, where I spent my primary years of schooling, had no embarrassment about being exclusively Christian in outlook. As a child though, the whole period was one of excitement. It was a time when special songs were sung, stories were told, parties were held and it also signified the ending of Winter and the soon to arrive New Year.
This is my account of Christmas at this time and whilst not everyone would have had exactly the same experiences, I am sure that many of you would recognize what we experienced in your own families. As Christmas Eve got nearer my excitement would build, the weather was usually fairly awful, cold and grey, but suddenly things changed. An old artificial Christmas tree would be dug out from the loft, given a bit of a dusting down, glass baubles added and a little tinsel. It was only about three feet tall, but to us it was magical. Occasionally, streamers and balloons were hung around the front room and lounge and this seemed to bring colour into a very monochrome world. As mentioned last week, we would often take a Sunday afternoon trip to Hetchell Woods to collect some holly with blood red berries. Mum would arrange these around the round metal-framed mirror that was over the fireplace. We never had Advent calendars, but certainly at Stainbeck Prep. School, Miss Cowling did and the opening of the little card window was a major part of the morning ritual. Inside would be a little picture of something linked to Christmas: a snowman, tree, baby Jesus, Magi, with maybe a smattering of glitter. At home, Christmas cards would start arriving in the post. At these times they were not quite as grand as today, but were more simple, traditional affairs, with maybe just a trace of glitter to the religious or Dickensian themes. Mum would begin to hang them up as they became too many to house on the mantelpiece. I remember counting them and seventy was quite the usual. The postmen, don’t ever remember a postwoman in these times, worked very hard and their bags must have been very heavy. It was a time when parents discovered how many people they knew, but saw only rarely, had fared over the year.
Winters tended to be quite depressing and this mood was lifted with a general anticipation. I do not know how traditions start in families, but somehow they do, and in ours Mum and Dad would host the family party where my grandparents, Harry and Mary Wray, from Chapel Alleton, Aunty Joan and Uncle Ernest, and later their daughter Angela, from Coventry and later Kenilworth, would all arrive and enjoy the festivities. Boxing day we would all have a second go when my grandma and grandad hosted the party in their house in Regent Terrace in Chapel Allerton. Over the years additional guests would be invited to our home as my mother found waifs and strays in the district, usually pensioners, that would miss out otherwise and spend Christmas alone.
My older brother and I went to sleep on Christmas Eve in a great state of excitement. A pillow case was placed at the bottom of the bed in case Santa decided that we had been good enough to warrant a visit. My younger brother didn’t experience this in Lawrence Avenue as he was too young, but he did later in Gipton Wood Crescent. I can still remember the recurring dream/nightmare that I used to have. It was like a circular pattern that started and just when I thought it was reaching the end it started back from the beginning again. This probably has some deep meaning of insecurity or something, but I did experience it every year as a child. Eventually I would wake up and I think it was about one in the morning or some similarly ridiculous time. I would feel down at the bottom of the bed in the dark to see if there was anything there, or whether I was wrong and it wasn’t Christmas at all. Usually I managed to feel the pillow case and it held some things inside. I would put the light on and very quietly sit up and begin to explore what treasures there were. Now I am sure that the modern child would be very disappointed, but I wasn’t. I remember one year there was a small slate and slate pencil. Remarkably it looked very much like the current iPad. It was about the same size, had a wooden border and a slate pencil. I thought it was great. There would usually be an annual of some sort, a selection of chocolate, an orange, as fruit was quite a rarity at this time of year, and a few other toys. Toy soldiers, a wooden castle one year, assorted guns that sometimes fired rubbed darts or caps, clockwork robots and, when I was very little, a donkey on wheels that was about eighteen inches high. I think this was mine, but it could have been my older brother’s. I know that a few years later in Gipton Woods he nearly killed himself sledging down a hill on the metal frame and hitting his head on the ice.
Many families now all wait to open presents, but we didn’t. After eating too much chocolate and opening presents, I would often fall back asleep for a while, but always got up very early. When we had one, we would put the television on and watch a range of programmes. Usually there was a carol service and when I was older Leslie Crowther, from Crackerjack, hosted Meet the Children, where he visited a children’s hospital. I seem to remember a programme where a hospital was visited and they showed patients in iron lungs. Around the Christmas period there were TV Christmas specials such as Steptoe and Son(1962). The BBC in 1960 had the following on Christmas Day:
I remember playing with whatever we had been given and Mum and Dad would get up and after breakfast Mum would start getting ready for Christmas lunch. Chicken, not turkey was our feast in the early years and Mum was always tremendously stressed about whether it would be too dry, undercooked, the vegetables too hard or too soggy, if the roast potatoes were still hard, whether her gravy would be lumpy or similar concerns. The kitchen was very small and my dad tried to keep out of her way and would often be vacuuming the carpets to keep out of the way. As we got older, we were instructed to set the table. Clean tablecloth, candle display, courtesy of Harehill C.P. School, crackers and for us tomato sauce. I don’t ever remember the Christmas lunch being up to her standard. She was convinced they were all failures, but it never bothered any of the rest of us. We would eat after pulling the crackers, donning our party hats, reading the poor jokes and fighting over the trinkets that shot out of the crackers with the bang.
Of course the stress of preparing Christmas lunch was just the start of my mother’s worries and for the rest of us, ours. My mother had spent weeks preparing for the Christmas party and she had a wide range of games that she organized. The type of thing that she did was cut famous faces out of magazines and number about twelve of them on a sheet of paper. The game was that you had to list as many as you could. Some were obvious, but others were less so. Another might be the linking of catch phrases with a range of celebrities. Usually we would work in small groups and we youngsters would rely on the oldies for film stars etc., but the youngsters came into their own when is was children’s stars such as Pinky and Perky, Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope, Torchy the Battery Boy, the Wooden Tops or Bill and Ben. There was also the pass the parcel and these would have a selection of forfeits interspersed amongst the wrapping. We didn’t have a record player so the large wooden radio provided the music. Who could forget the need to go out the front door and shout ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, or having to tell a joke, or sing a carol? My mother’s greatest claim to fame was her Christmas ode, or rhyming story. Maybe this was where my writing of pantomimes started, a genetic trait from my mother, but she would put together a long poem, or song. She would often use tunes that were well known and parts would be distributed and after a few drinks the adults were more open to taking part. There was humour, there was noise, their was laughter and we really enjoyed ourselves. We soon forgot the terrible mood that gripped my Mum as she built up to the start of the party. My father rarely escaped her ire in the afternoon. According to her, he had no idea what she went through, and he probably didn’t. The stress always ate into her. When the party was well under way and the adults had enjoyed a few drinks: Babycham for the ladies, or my father’s standard joke, ‘Would you like a Madera, my deara?’ whisky for the men, she seemed to relax more and felt it was worthwhile. It was the same every year, until it became too much for my Mum and, my wife and I took it over and hosted it.