I always start to feel that Christmas is getting near when the town centre gets dark before the shops close. So what do I remember of Christmases as a child (apart from the dark high street)?
Mum was very strict on the time when decorations could go up – not before the start of the school holidays. But my sisters and I would often (at least when we were old enough) be trusted to decorate the tree. Except the fairy on the top – that was always Mum’s job.
Our favourite decoration was the Angel Chimes – an ornament where the heat from candles provided the draught to turn a fan, causing metal angels to spin round, striking bells as they went past. To be honest I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw the candles lit. Most of the time we were happy to spin the angels by hand.
Father Christmas always visited – he left our presents in a pillow case. In reality, mum filled pillow cases well before Christmas and hid them in her wardrobe. She then had to make sure she hung an empty case of the same colour in our rooms. I can remember looking out from my bed early Christmas morning trying to work out whether the “stocking” had been filled – but not daring to get out of bed to check because of the draconian punishment that had been threatened if I got up too early.
The same Advent calendar
I can’t say that I’ve made thorough search, but it seems that most advent calendar today have chocolate behind each door. We had to make do with pictures. Not only that deprivation – we also had to make do with the same calendar year after year, until the doors became so bent that they would no longer close. Times were tough!
Christmas morning started with stockings, then breakfast, then presents. Dad would get the gramophone out (yes, certainly in my early years, the gramophone really was kept in a cupboard and brought out only on special occasions) and put on his Christmas record.
The only Christmas record: The Ray Conniff Singers
Dad had only one Christmas record; I remember it well – but not fondly. The Ray Conniff Singers. If you ever get the chance to hear the Ray Conniff Singers – please don’t. They were one of those ensembles of the 1960s and 1970s that managed to make every song sound the same – bland lift music. The Mike Sammes Singers and Cliff Adams Singers were other examples of the not-missed genre.
(What’s a record player? For younger readers I should explain that a record player was like an iPod, except it was the size of a large microwave oven, and the music was loaded by means of a large flat black disc.)
Once my elder sister reached secondary school age we were trusted to stay at home while Mum and Dad went to the 8:00 am Holy Communion. We would arrange the presents while they were out, then a quick present opening session before we all returned to church for the mid-morning family service.
Christmas in hospital
When I was a teenager Mum had returned to full-time work as a nurse and often had to work Christmas morning. She worked at a cottage hospital (what are now called community hospitals). The hospital and staff were well thought-of in the town and always given numerous presents – mostly alcoholic.
One of the side rooms was turned into a makeshift bar (obviously they moved the patient out first) and staff families were invited on Christmas morning for a drink (somehow I can’t see that happening today!). If we were lucky my sisters and I would manage to sneak a glass of sherry or ginger wine. Then at lunchtime one of the doctors would carve the turkey.
Of course, because Mum was working she couldn’t cook Christmas lunch. Sometimes my elder sister did it. She was (and still is) a good cook, and, with mum working, was used to cooking a Sunday roast most weekends from the age of 13 or 14. Other years Dad would take us out for lunch – arranging with the restaurant that we would arrive late, after Mum finished work. All this meant that the present opening had to be delayed until later in the day.
I remember one awful (awful for a 12-year old) year when our neighbours were hosting a Christmas afternoon social gathering, so we went there immediately after getting home from lunch.
The event went on and on and, despite well-choreographed hints from my friends (“what did you get for Christmas, Chippy?” “I don’t know we HAVEN’T OPENED OUR PRESENTS YET”) it was well into the evening before we got to the unwrapping.
Village carol singing
We lived in a small village, and a group from the church would go carol singing. I remember that we once ended up at a participant’s house for mince pies and mulled wine, and the choir master taught the group to sing four-part harmony to silly songs.
One year my dad created a wooden hanger to suspend a gas lamp from for illumination. He also thought he would adopt a Victorian theme by wearing a top hat – until it was pointed out that it looked as if he were a hangman carrying the scaffold.
How different was a US carol service?
There was a US Air Force base near the village, and one year we were invited to their carol service.
I can remember two things about the service. One was that the US had different tunes to some of the familiar carols. The other is … will let me explain. But remember that I was only eleven or twelve.
As we entered the church we were given candles to be lit while the choir sang “Silent Night” towards the end of the service. The flame was passed from the altar candles to symbolise the light of God passing through the world.
Now, I wondered whether wet candle would still light, so spent most of the service (when my parents weren’t watching) licking the wick.
Now, I don’t know whether you have ever tried to light a saliva-impregnated candle. If not, let me tell you what happen. It doesn’t light. It spits and sparks and crackles. And in a near-silent and darkened church the sound of the crackles and sight of the spits is greatly exacerbated.
And Christmas 2014 all seems a lot different – and yet also a lot similar. That’s progress. Some traditions we keep; some get replaced by new ones – and some we still do, but in a different way.
Merry Christmas to all Chandler’s Ford Today readers. May you get some gifts that you wanted; some gifts that you didn’t know you wanted; and some gifts that are better that those you wanted. Not just for Christmas – in life in general.