Christmas once again, that magic time of year, and the usual spending sprees that seem to be part of our lives. But it wasn’t always like that, as many of you will probably remember. My sons had been for Christmas dinner and have now left, my wife had gone to the churchyard to pay her respects to her parents, I was sitting with a glass of cheap sherry, staring out of the window. The sherry is a bit of a tradition, because many years ago my parents would always have sherry in the house for Christmas when visitors called, it was bought at the corner shop, at four shillings a pint, today that’s an unbelievable eighteen pence a half litre , it’s simply a nostalgic link with the past. Outside there isn’t any snow, we don’t get much of it nowadays, but it is cold and it would be easy just to turn up the heat, but not just yet.
I began to wander down memory lane, to a memorable Christmas in 1963. I had just become a teenager, and was coming to terms with the devastating news that Santa Clause didn’t exist, but it didn’t ruin Christmas, because I had to pretend to believe for my brother and two sisters.
The scene outside the window was very different then, I lived in Bradley Bungalows a mining village near Consett , and it was a very cold and crystal clear.
The sun was just beginning to slip over the horizon, a red ball in the sky spreading its orange rays across the countryside, a countryside covered in a blanket of deep snow, smooth and untouched, the trees and hedgerows gripped in thick white frost. The pit heap looked like a snow covered mountain, and even the coalmine winding wheels at the top of their thirty foot tower, looked clean and harmless. The sun slipped away, chased by a bright moon and its winter companion, the Northern Star. The sky became covered in a mantle of stars twinkling in the bitterly cold evening of Christmas Eve.
The chapel choir was in the street singing traditional carols, something they did every year, they would be followed on Christmas Day by the local Salvation Army Band. The same carols, but played with the military tones of brass instruments. Almost everyone came out into the streets for these events and there was a real feeling of belonging, and that Christmas was a special time, no matter what you believed.
It had snowed most of December, and when we came in from our regular sledging and snowball fights, we would sit in front of the roaring coal fire, rubbing our frozen toes and fingers and pulling encrusted snow off our clothes. Sometimes my mother would heat up the range cooking plates, and using tongs would put them on the hearth, so that we could warm up our freezing toes, but not too quickly, we would be warned, or you’ll get chilblains.
Broth or soup, served with homemade stotties, were the usual meals at this time. A tiny piece of tough meat, usually skirt, that’s the bit we throw away these days, would be cut up and popped into a huge cauldron with vegetables and dried pulses, and somehow my mother, a bit of a magician, considering how poor we were, would turn it all into a delicious broth that would last for days.
Those long winter nights were never boring, we couldn’t afford to rent a television, but there were lots to do preparing for Christmas. My mother would buy half a dozen packs of cheap crepe paper, all different colours, and we would make our own decorations for less than two and sixpence, that’s twelve and a half pence now.
We would make multicoloured paper chains and spiralled streamers which were strung across the ceiling, paper pelmets were hung over the tops of the curtains. My mother had the ingenious idea of making Christmas crackers using cardboard and coloured paper, tied with wool, a few sweets inside for fun. The only thing missing was the ‘crack’ when they were pulled apart, but we had the answer, when the cracker was pulled on Christmas Day, we had to shout ‘bang’, whoever did it best, won the contents, oddly enough we all ended up with an equal portion of sweets, which we then used to barter with to get our favourites.
Being the eldest son, my job was to go down to the woods in the snow, and find Holly, and pine cones. I treated this as an adventure, and at that age I still thought of myself as a British hero, struggling against the elements to win my prize and to come home victorious, anyway, at least it was cold and snowing.
The cones and holly would be sprinkled with a little icing sugar and placed on the cast iron mantelpiece. While all this activity was going on my mother still found the time to knit furiously, churning out pompom hats, scarves and mits, she never could knit fingers. The garments were stored away in secret places for Christmas Day.
At last it was time for bed, the four of us were sent into the bedroom, then we lined up in front of our parents in our clean pyjamas and nighties. We were told in no uncertain terms, not to come out of the bedroom until the next morning and no excuses, one by one we were sent to the toilet across the yard in the freezing cold and once more lined up and then marched off into the bedroom, we were all tingling with the cold or was it excitement?
This was the one evening of the year when the bedroom fire was lit, a small amount of coal had been saved over the year for this special occasion. The room was warm and cosy, and we climbed into bed snuggling up together, we were never embarrassed, it was just the way it was. The bed was covered with old army blankets, handmade crocheted covers, and even an army motorbike despatch riders fur lined greatcoat. The door was closed and a final warning was issued from the other side of the door. We didn’t argue, in those days you did as you were told, or suffered the consequences. Sleep was difficult but we finally drifted off as the fire crackled and sputtered and then died down to red that slowly faded away to a faint orange glow.
Christmas! It was here. Well, that’s if you could call four thirty in the morning Christmas Day. A voice whispered in my ear.
‘Has he been yet,’ said my little sister.
‘We can’t get up yet,’ I answered, but there was no way that I was going to get back to sleep again. The room was close to freezing point as we lay under the covers, our teeth chattering with the cold. A faint glow still lingered in the grate, so I slid out of bed, shivering as I stoked the little fire, suddenly a flame flared up and I quickly added more coal to get a fire going, at last it caught, and the temperature began to rise.
The windows were covered with fantastic ice patterns on the inside, and as they began to melt we could see heavy snow falling outside. We silently crept along the passage, the others behind me as I opened the door. Four heads peeped around the edge and we were met by a warm glow. Someone had kept the fire stoked up all night, and the room was warm and comfortable, an unusual event but it was Christmas after all.
‘How did Santa get past that?’ asked my youngest sister of six.
‘Oh, he lit the fire when he left,’ I answered, with a knowledgeable look on my face. But where were our presents? There were four pit stockings hanging from the mantelpiece filled with fruit and sweets, but nothing else. Then I noticed four scraps of paper on the floor.
‘Over here,’ I said. On each separate scrap were our names, and underneath, the words. FOLLOW THE CLUES. A piece of differently coloured wool was attached to each paper, It was a treasure trail!
What a time we had, the trail led all over the house and even the backyard in the snow, a little present would be found when each clue was solved. Today I still remember that treasure trail but not the presents, it was the enjoyment of the game that was important. I also realised years later that my parents had made a small amount go a long way.
Later that morning, crying merry Christmas at the top of our voices, we proudly carried our parent’s breakfast into the bedroom. Tea, and bread toasted on the fire with granddads toasting fork, that he had made down the pit, the toast spread with pork fat. I still have that fork now, proudly displayed on our hearth. We were proud of our achievement, and our parents shared our enthusiasm as they tucked into their breakfast. I had managed to save enough money from my part- time jobs over the year to buy them a present each, but all of our names were on the homemade tag. After lots of ooh’s and aah’s they expressed their delight at their presents, a Toby jug and a baccy box. I wonder now if they were just being kind.
On to Christmas dinner, we had been out playing in the heavy snow, we would stand under the guttering of our bungalow because we knew that the heat inside would melt the snow on the roof, and that it would come crashing down onto us, then we could play ‘trapped in the snow’. When we were called in, we would be covered from head to toe in snow. After the appropriate scolding, and then the warming up, we would sit at the table.
I can still see that table, and I don’t think that there was one piece of china or cutlery that matched, but it didn’t matter, and if it did, nobody could do anything about it anyway.
All the food was fresh, but we still turned our noses up at the horrible brussels sprouts and carrots, but to get at the rest we had to eat them. I usually wolfed them down quickly, so that I could enjoy the rest of the dinner. Home made Yorkshire pud, mashed potatoes, and that year we had pork, roasted to perfection with home made sage and onion stuffing, or stufning ,as my little sister called it. Chicken was far too expensive and Turkey was only something I’d seen pictures of, but nevertheless it was the best meal of the year, I seem to remember that it was the only time of the year that I ever satisfied my hunger. We pulled our crackers shouting ‘bang’ as loud as we could, and for pudding we had the biggest spotty dick I had ever seen. This was served up with milk and sugar, and we thought we were the luckiest kids in the world.
Evening had arrived. We played board games until ten thirty, which was an hour past our bedtime, a special treat for that day only, but bedtime finally arrived. It had been a wonderful day and we were worn out. As usual we slipped into our pyjamas in front of the fire, then marched into the bedroom.
We lay awake a long time but gradually went to sleep one by one. I was almost gone when the door opened quietly.
‘Are you all asleep?’ said my mother quietly. Silence, but just as she was closing the door I called back.
‘Mam,’ I whispered, ‘thank you,’ and went to sleep.
‘Hello, I’m back,’ said a cheerful voice, bringing me back to the present. I jumped up and put my arms around my wife and whispered in her ear.
‘Merry Christmas darling.’