One of the benefits of being an octogenarian is to recall when Christmas was literally twelve days long. In my childhood home there was a full twelve day period of preparation before Christmas Eve. The making of the special foods for the various parties started on the 13th of December. Decorations were brought out from the box-room and new crepe paper strings were created by hand.
Shopping for presents involved a day in town for my parents, visiting the various stores. One of our aunts came around to ‘watch over’ us while gifts were being sourced to be stored in the box room.
We children had no money for gifts and so giving each other a present was an unknown. However we did earn a penny or two by singing Christmas carols at neighbours’ doors on evenings. The pennies were then taken to the corner store where the owner took the money and wrote out the amount against our names. At the beginning of each December he had given us a leaflet with pictures of chocolate bars and chocolates in decorated tin boxes. Two days before Christmas we would line up at the shop so he could tell us the bars or boxes for which we had contributed enough. What puzzled me was that the item he told me I deserved was always much bigger than the ‘prize’ I had thought I earned. That was his gift to our parents for their year-round support of his shop.
We wrote cards and illustrated the front side. These were on stiff paper and a few days before Christmas were delivered to the doors of our friends. Some were put in envelopes and mailed out-of-town. Hanging the decorations was a two-day job as we had to get all the streamers up before the Christmas tree was bought in and set up. The second day was decorating the tree, including putting the electric lights up. These were a major point of pride for us children as we were the only house on the street that had these lights. That was not due to our having more money than our neighbours, but because Dad worked at an electrical company in partnership with the manufacturers of Christmas lights.
The special foods were kept in the pantry until Christmas Eve. Then the toffee was brought out in its metal pan. It was so hard it could only be eaten by putting it into one’s mouth until it melted. Dessert for dinner that day (note the mid-day meal was called dinner) included the first of Mum’s mince tarts and the first of the Christmas puddings.
My mother was the oldest of a family of thirteen children and many of them arrived for the meal at tea-time for which there was fruit salad, more mince tarts, home-made ginger-snaps, and a huge slab of the Christmas cake. We were also allowed to take one of the sugar pigs which were common decorations on the Christmas trees of that time.
After we had helped clear the table and wash the dishes, the guests departed and we sat around the table for my father to unwrap a new jig-saw puzzle. We all worked on that for two or three hours, occasionally interrupted by carol singers coming to our front door.
At eight o’clock we had our baths and were tucked into bed, each of us sure we’d never be able to get to sleep. But we did, and in the middle of the night our parents laid a Christmas stocking at the foot of our beds. When we woke up that gave them a chance to lie-in as we opened the stockings and gorged on the contents – an apple, an orange and a mince tart, and some chocolates.
We were eventually encouraged to get up and get dressed. Breakfast was in the dining room already waiting for us – the usual porridge, but liberally coated with brown sugar, bacon and eggs, and another mince-tart. We then lined up at the door of the front room with the youngest first and my father then opened the door so we could rush in to find the pile of gifts for each of us. None of them were wrapped; wrapping paper was beyond the means of my parents. The one thing I recall about the gifts was that each of us received at least one book. There would also be a small stack of books for the huge bookshelves in the dining room. The latest edition of the ‘Rupert Bear’ annual was always included. The whole morning was spent enjoying our gifts and sharing them with each other.
Christmas Dinner was a huge meal for us – more meat than we usually had in two Sundays, mashed potatoes and an assortment of vegetables. For Christmas Dinner the favoured meat was beef, or perhaps lamb. Then out came the largest of the Christmas puddings, with sauce all over and a sprig of holly on its top.
Boxing Day was the time when the coal-man, the milk-man and egg-man arrived at each doorway for the traditional annual gift for their services. Not all the people on our street could give them money but would often instead provide a small cup of beer and a biscuit. They were dressed up for the visit and were invited to come inside for a glass of hot-toddy and a mince-tart and, as they left, a shilling was put in their hands. My parents had very little money to spare but they looked forward to these calls as an old tradition.
They rarely celebrated New Year’s Eve; back then New Years Day was a regular work-day for all but the far north of England. Twelfth Night on January 5th however, was a major event in the family. My father had a letter, carefully preserved in a glass frame and dated 1674, thanking a relative for upholding the old traditions of Twelfth Night, many of which dated back to the Druids. This was the day when we observed as many of those traditions as we could recall. All signs of Christmas had to be carefully taken down and stashed away for another year. People who came were expected to remove one decoration from the tree or help to remove the crepe streamers, but would also be encouraged to help eat up or drink any Christmas foods that remained in the pantry.
Today I continue to celebrate Christmas the family way, starting twelve days before and finishing twelve days afterwards. The current practice of starting the celebrations the day after Halloween adds 42 days to the family tradition. I’ll write nothing more about that!
by David Chesterton