This has been the most globally traumatic year that I have ever experienced and I suppose it is a reminder of how fragile peace and tranquility is. For some reason the song, ‘White Christmas’, came into my head and it made me remember just how few white Christmases I have ever experienced. I can only think that there may have been one with a reasonable fall of snow and maybe one or two where there were some snow flurries. Our connection of Christmas with snow apparently is linked to the time that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and other novels. It appears that it was a mini ice age and there was heavy snow for a few years.
However it came about, it is part of the Christmas folklore and as a child I longed for a white Christmas, but far more often, got a wet, foggy or frosty one. In the 1950s Christmas was special at school and at home, and for all of my working life in schools it has always been a magical, if not exhausting, time. Sitting here at my desk in Perth Western Australia, it is hard to imagine that it is really Christmas. Today will be thirty-three degrees Celsius and forty on Wednesday. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and we are in the very fortunate situation of being almost totally Covid free. The cases we have are in compulsory quarantine and we can live as if there is no pandemic, apart from being restricted to staying in the country and not being able to share Christmas with my eldest son and family as they live in New South Wales. We will be able to share Christmas with the rest our sons and family and, yes, the turkey is thawing as we speak. During my life I have moved around a little and I have spent most of my 39 years teaching career, writing and producing Christmas plays and pantomimes. “Oh yes I have! Oh no you haven’t!” I have written and produced pantos in the UK, Perth Western Australia, and the children of the Banz International School, in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea performed two of my musical plays/pantomimes. It was quite a feat and being a talented lot we managed to have snow men, a dancing Son of Santa, Jack and his Beanstalk, Ugly Sisters, Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs and a host of other characters. Goodness only knows what the local children and families made of it all.
As a young child Christmas time was the highlight of the year. I was so affected that it was a time when I would get recurrent nightmares where I was following a pattern-like maze to only fail just before reaching the goal and having to start again, much like Sisyphus doomed to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to find he had to start again for ever. Getting to sleep on Christmas Eve was difficult and when I finally did, either my older brother Andrew would wake up in the early hours, or I would. We would fumble down our beds feeling to see if our pillow cases had been filled. Sometimes it was too early and we grudgingly had to go back to sleep, but if Santa had been, we would try to see what we had got without waking our parents. In the early days the pillow cases would have a tradition of having an orange, a selection box, a book, some chocolate coins and a major toy or two. As we got older and my parents became a little more affluent the presents became more expensive and elaborate, but never more important and probably less so than my earliest memories when I still believed in Father Christmas and I hadn’t had that magic taken away.
In the 1950s my brother and I were usually greeted by some form of weapon. Parents weren’t so uptight as to feel that arming your child with a plastic machine gun, cowboy hat, gun and holster, Indian head-dress and tomahawk, was going to turn them into psychopathic killers. As a result, we would spend much of Christmas morning stuffing our faces with chocolate whilst charging around the house fighting gun battles. Looking back it isn’t surprising that my mother was stressed and liable to fly off the handle. One of the most memorable gifts I got was a set of knight’s armour. This included a helmet, breastplate, pike, sword, scabbard and shield. I remember buying my first son something similar, but Viking, and my younger brother and I fought a running battle through the streets of Halifax, whilst my wife pushed our toddler in the pushchair. She had the same pained, long suffering expression on her face that I have witness so regularly over the years, but the two of us had a great time attempting to decapitate the other, much to the shock and horror of the Halifax residents.
I have spoken about a lot of my experiences at Stainbeck prep School and Harehills County Primary Schools at this time of year, so I won’t go into details, but both schools made a fuss, decorated the rooms with streamers, paper chains that we would make and the old paper fold-out bells, stars and other decorations would come out. The tissue paper honeycomb structures, faded, red and yellow opened from flat things to magical three-dimensional shapes and lanterns, and I would watch fascinated as the teachers would climb the ladder to put them in place. Miss Blackmore had an annual advent calendar that we would all watch as she opened each door on the lead up to Christmas. At these times there was just a little picture of an angel, a star, Santa or something similar, not the modern chocolate or Lego piece, but we were still entranced.
At home, Christmas morning meant watching television whilst Lesley Crowther would visit hospitals, give presents to children who would not be home and eventually visit someone in an iron lung. There would be Carols from King’s at some point, a selection of seasonal cartoons and the same old films, but not so old then. I think ‘White Christmas’ was a regular as was Holiday Inn. The cooking of the dinner was a real chore for my mother and was the second most stressful thing about Christmas, for her. The kitchens in Lawrence Avenue and Gipton Wood Crescent were tiny and she would shout at anyone who was foolish enough to enter. The venting of her spleen was particularly directed at my father and he would scuttle off and vacuum the rest of the house with a thoroughness that kept him occupied all morning, kept him away from mum, but got constant complaints from us due to the noise spoiling the TV.
Lunch would be served in the dining room. The table was set with an embroidered table-cloth, courtesy of Grandma Wray. There were crackers, the candle decorations that we had made at school, the holly and berries on the mirror that we had collected with my dad at Hetchell Woods and strings of over a hundred Christmas cards. In case you are not in that league, I must let you know that we have received one (now 3) and a virtual card so far this year. It looks rather sad on its own. We even had streamers strung across the room and when five of us sat at the table there was barely room to move. Mum would bring in the meal: chicken, roast potatoes, sprouts, stuffing, gravy and frozen peas, place it in front of us and then tell us she had spoilt it by either under or over cooking it.
As it was, the meals always seemed great, apart from the sprouts. I never liked them, but somehow I do now and tend to crave the unusual taste and pungency. Tomato sauce would help anything I didn’t like at the time. The meal would be followed by Christmas pudding and custard. Again, it is a bit of an acquired taste, but nothing speaks more of Christmas than pudding or maybe the mince pies. When we were finishing, Mum was starting to calm down and relax a little, but only for a short while. Dad would do the washing up to attempt to placate Mum, but shortly after round two of stress started. We had a set routine. Christmas Day the party was at our house and Boxing Day it was at Grandma’s in Chapel Allerton. My mum’s sister and family would come and stay at Grandma’s and they would bring Grandma and Grandad Wray over.
As most siblings are, Mum and Aunty Joan were quite competitive in everything they did. Mum would start preparing for the party weeks in advance. She collected pictures from magazines to make party games, ‘Guess the Celebrity’ and such. She would write a funny play that was a rhyming story with various parts. She would then copy them out so that we could all read them out in pairs. She would make ‘Pass the Parcel’ games with secret forfeits hidden between layers. Examples were, going outside and shouting, ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’, or standing on one leg and imitating a pirate, telling a joke, or singing a carol. We had pass the hat, dropping dolly pegs into milk bottle games and many others, but for us children the ultimate humility was performing. School recorders would be brought out, guitars and violins and we would have to do a piece. Cousin Angela was musical and put us to shame, but my mother was not going to be outdone and worked on us to hone our skills so that we wouldn’t let her down.
By this time the mood was cheery due to the amount of alcohol consumed. The ladies had Babycham or sherry and my father would refill glasses with his annual joke, “Another Madeira, mydeara?”. Like most dad jokes, no one but him found it funny. As we got older my parents got more involved in the church, St Wilfrid’s at Harehills and guests were added. Mr Benton, choir master became a regular, Mr Rawlins, an elderly gentleman, from down the road and later a Mr Denton who my mother visited from the church and then Mr Waites who was the driving instructor who finally got my mother to pass the test and about six attempts. She had known him so long, by the end, that he became a family friend.
The parties were always good fun and we all loved them, but they put years on my mother due to the stress. Boxing Day was something else entirely. Grandma didn’t seem to worry and her tiny house was packed with us all. We used to eat in the parlour and then there was another session of games. Mum tried not to do Grandma’s games and we did ‘The Ring that is Passing’ where a ring on a large loop of string was passed hand to hand secretly whilst the players on the string pretended to pass the ring around and the chooser inside the circle had to tap the hand they thought had the ring. There was another pass the parcel, maybe another session of dolly peg into the milk bottle and a quieter word game, ‘The Parson’s Cat’ where we had to add another word to describe the cat in alphabetical order, without hesitation. If you repeated a word, or hesitated, you were out.
Whilst the party was getting prepared Granddad, Uncle Ernest and Dad would sneak off for a pint and that was either The Regent or The Nag’s Head. This was quite sensible as the house was only two rooms upstairs and down. Needing to go to the toilet was always a drama as that meant taking the key to the end of the terrace and using the outside loos in the dark. To make matters worse the wall opposite used to harbour the biggest black slugs that you had ever seen and the one gaslight/electric streetlight illuminated just enough for you to see the giant beasts. Six to nine inch black slimy things were the stuff of nightmares and certainly meant you only went to the outside loos in a real emergency.
Finally the festivities were over and we would get in the car and fall asleep on the way home. Looking back I am so grateful for the way the family came together to make the time special. Of course, like all families there was stress, fallings out, tantrums, but there was love, compassion and fun. These were times when you made your own entertainment and that is a skill that many of us have lost and I can only admire the patience and goodwill that was evident.
I will have most of my near family with us this year, but will miss my eldest son and family, but at least we have Skype. I know from relatives in Leeds how this pandemic can affect a family and I know how different and difficult Christmas 2020 will be for many of you. My older brother in France will have a very quiet one too, but I hope that we can all speak for at least a short time over the holiday. I hope that we will finally put the trouble of 2020 behind us and look forward to a much better 2021. It may take a while yet to get back to normal, but I wish you all the best Christmas you can have. Keep safe!