Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Child’s Christmas in England

Last Christmas Dave Lane, who is married to Ernie's niece, Bridget, invited the family to submit their memories of Christmases past for inclusion into a publication. I don't know how many submissions there were, but this is the text of what I wrote, together with some of the photos.

I wish I could tell you all that my Christmases when I was a child were like something out of Dickens. They weren’t. Remember Scrooge and the goose? We never had goose. It was always a turkey, and what a treat that was. Remember, I was born in the first year of the war and food rationing lasted through my childhood. We always had enough to eat, but it wasn’t fancy. We pulled out all the stops at Christmas. Our main meal was around one p.m. I remember that my maternal grandmother (Nana-round-the-corner) joined us. I think I have a vague memory of us going to her house for Christmas dinner when my grandfather (Garby-round-the-corner) was still alive. I don’t think my paternal grandparents (Nana and Garby-down-the-Lock) were ever with us. We wouldn’t have left them on their own, so I suppose they celebrated with some other family members. The piece-de-resistance was the turkey. In fact, I can’t remember what else we had, though it must have included brussel sprouts. (And any of you who haven’t given brussel sprouts a try have missed a real treat.) No Christmas dinner was complete without Christmas pudding. This rich, almost cake-like, concoction is made of currants, raisin, butter, spices and a minimum of flour. The mixture was put into a buttered bowl, covered with greaseproof paper and a pudding cloth and steamed for hours and hours. So rich are Christmas puddings that they are traditionally made several weeks before Christmas in double quantities so that one can be saved for next year. No brandy butter for us. It was always thick custard. Hardly had we digested this meal than it was time for Christmas tea. In our household this was traditionally stalks of celery with bread and butter (don’t ask, I have no idea why except that in post-war England celery was a treat), followed by canned fruit and evaporated milk, jello (called jelly in England) and trifle. This was topped off by mince pies and Christmas cake. The latter was also made weeks before Christmas and was a fruitcake stuffed with currants, sultanas and raisins. There was a layer of marzipan and the icing was a hard, royal icing. Funny, after all these years I have just remembered a rather worse-for-wear robin that we always had decorating the top of the cake.

Christmas crackers were a traditional part of Christmas tea. They were designed to be pulled apart with a sharp “crack” and there was always a paper hat and some other goodies inside.

Not only was there lots of food at Christmas, we also had drinks. I don’t think my parents bought alcohol during the year, but on Christmas day we always had Dubonnet and Sweet Vermouth.

Another food I remember when I think of Christmas is crystallized fruit. Some of my father’s relatives immigrated to Australia earlier in the century and Aunt Hetty and her family always sent us a big box of this dried and sugary fruit. I wasn’t fond of it (except for the pears) but it was a kind thought at a time when candy was rationed.

Our Christmas decorations were mostly paper chains hung from the picture rails, and in spite of Prince Albert, we never had a tree. Most people didn’t. So there were no gifts under the tree. We didn’t have stockings, either. The custom was to hang a pillowcase on the end of the bed, and Father Christmas came during the night and left our presents. They were never lavish. Brian and I both got bikes at some point, but obviously not in our pillowcases, and for the most part the presents from our parents and grand parents and one aunt were modest. I almost always received books, and I can admit now that I was so often disappointed. I wanted something more exciting. But I came to love those books and many of them have found their way across the Atlantic. Last year I gave my grandson Patrick my copy of A Christmas Carol. I’d treasured it for nearly sixty years.

Seems to me that there was snow in A Christmas Carol. At least there was in the Muppet version. I don’t remember snow in the London suburbs at Christmas. In fact it rarely snowed ever, and then only lightly (early emergence of global warming?) It could be cold. As we grew older we were taken up to London to see the Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Regents street. Last year I wrote a post which included a photo taken of me on Christmas Eve in London with Garby-down-the-Lock.

I remember spending a lot of time in the Woolworth’s in Waltham Cross picking out gifts. I can still see the bird brooch with blue and white stones that I bought one year for my grandmother.

Strangely, I do not remember any changes in our Christmas celebrations when Brian and I became teenagers. I do recall that when I was at university I worked for a couple of years for the Post Office, delivering Christmas cards. I have a hazy memory of coming home one day chilled to the bone and sinking into a tub of hot water.

What a great idea it was to collect these accounts. It brought back so many happy memories of Christmas in England. And guess what? For the first time in forty-four years, that's where I will be spending Christmas this year.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Patrick is lovingly reading his way through the "Christmas Carol" you gave him and showed it to all his teachers at school (the one day we let him take it). We so appreciate the gift and the memories behind it.