My Christmas Story
Christmas, Britain 1954
This is my Christmas story of how it was in 1954. I was seven nearly eight at the time. Find out how we celebrated, what we ate and the presents we received and gave. Also what happened in our community, the parties we went to and the chapel services. This is Christmas seen through a child's eyes. Those are the times we look back to and fondly remember as the best Christmases ever.
Back then, in 1954, Christmas was not the commercialized frenzy it is today. There was not so much disposable income in each household, just a few years after the Second World War. Christmas meant a few added luxuries in our diet for the day and some small but happily received presents. Otherwise Christmas was what we made it by our own ingenuity and hard work.
In those days Christmas didn't begin in September. There wasn't a hint of Christmas in the shops until December began. Although we did begin sewing little presents for our mothers, at school in the Autumn Term. We were given a strip of cloth about six inches by a foot, which we had to hem and decorate with ric rac. Ric rac was a wavy piece of braid which one stitched to the hem of the strip of cloth. I chose pale green ric rac, and emerald green and royal blue yarn for the stitching and was promptly told that,"Blue and green should never be seen." I was unperturbed by this and reasoned in my head that as the sky was blue and the grass was green God obviously agreed with me, that it was a good combination. The finished article was intended as an adornment for my mother's dressing table. It took all term to complete the project.
While I was doing that, my brother was at the Grammar School busy in the woodwork class, making a specially designed wooden box which would hold my parents shoe polishes for the rest of their lives. My sister was painting a picture of wildlife, including tigers, drinking at a jungle pool. So we were all doing our bit to make Christmas a happy occasion for our family.
Meantime our parents were doing their bit. Basically Dad was just keeping going as a farm labourer bringing in the pennies to keep us going. Mum was also doing a little farm work, of a lighter nature. She was washing eggs and helping the farmer's wife with housework. The farmer's wife was a very busy lady who was also President of the local Women's Institute, a ladies' club which specialised in such skills as butter making and jam making. Compared with our family she was rather well off. She was good hearted and would sometimes offer to take Mum to the nearby town of Wellington, thus saving her the bus fare. Our family benefitted quite a lot from Mum working for the farmer's wife and as Christmas drew near Mum helped with picking feathers off the turkeys, geese and chickens and was rewarded with a goose for our Christmas dinner. Picking poultry was hard work for Mum's fingers and made them red and painful.
Do these bring back memories for you?
First celebrations in my Christmas story
The first celebrations we had at Christmas were the ones at school. One day when we trooped over from the school to the village hall, where we always had dinner, we found we had Christmas dinner. We had chicken and sprouts, never a favourite with children, and roast potatoes and gravy and carrots and stuffing. This was followed by Christmas pudding and custard. On another day right at the end of term there would be a Christmas party . Again we would use the village hall where there was plenty of room for games. I will describe the sort of games we played later when I talk about our Sunday School party. The tea that followed at school included biscuits and Christmas cake and jelly and ice cream. (This was jelly in the English sense made from gelatine.) At the end Father Christmas would come and give us all a present, maybe a pencil or a rubber. or a little book. Afterwards Mum would arrive to escort me home. We had to walk just under a mile from the village to where we lived in a little hamlet. We were soon out of the village and able to see our way in the moonlight, better than any street light. The air was crisp and clear and a welcome change after the heat that had been generated by little bodies running about. Our walking kept us warm. There were two hills to climb and then it was all downhill and our cottage by the chapel was the first habitation we came across. I arrived tired but happy and got ready for bed.
The nativity play
The next excitement at school was the nativity play and concert. We had done so much rehearsing for this in the last two weeks. It took place after school hours and again in that useful village hall. I was an angel and had an old sheet to wear with two big cardboard wings painted white. The cardboard had come from the village shop, a most useful emporium known to acquire anything for anyone, given enough notice. Inevitably the shepherds had teacloths on their heads and one had a real shepherd's crook which towered above him and kept everyone ducking and diving to avoid it.
Mary was played by the daughter of one of the school governors. With my humble background I had to be content with fourth angel. Mary had a beautiful blue cape which I coveted. I also liked the lovely toy lamb which one of the shepherds carried. It had been knitted for him by his Granny. The three kings missed their cue and had to be fetched from the kitchen behind the stage. When Mary laid the doll, baby in the manger, a real baby cried in the audience. Very effective.
Once the nativity was over the concert began. One of the big boys sat on a chair and had a very dirty face and hands. Three girls came on stage, bringing a bowl of warm soapy water. They would start to wash the boy's face, but he would put his dirty hands over his face and make it dirty again. Presumably they got him clean eventually, I can't remember what happened.
I had an important part in the next act. A girl read a poem which began "Eyes like saucers, giving you a fright." My part was to sit on the stage, now back in my normal clothes, and look out at the audience. At that age I had rather protruding eyes and was a natural to demonstrate "eyes like saucers."
Various songs were sung by various groups, including "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Down in Demerara". These had both been learnt off the radio on a programme called Singing Together. Most of us sang "Down in Devonorara" as that made more sense to us living in Devon as we did.
The school term was now over. Next day Mum and I got up early and walked up the lane to catch the bus into Wellington. Mum would stride out and I would run along beside her to keep up. Sometimes I would get a stitch and sometimes I would get a bad pain in my left side. But this morning I was fine. We waited at the end of the lane and Mum would get up in the low hedge to see if she could see the bus coming in the distance, on the other side of the village. Soon her efforts would be rewarded . The bus would pull up when she hailed it and we would be glad to get out of the cold wind. I was wearing a warm hood on my head, which tied under my chin, and a tweed coat that Mum had made me, cut down from an old coat of hers. I still have a strong instinct to make do and mend, a legacy from those years.
We drove through the countryside, picking up more people as we went. I liked to sit next to the window and would rest my head on the cold glass, only to receive a bump to my head when the bus lurched. Now the shops were Christmasy. The butcher's was well-stocked and Woolworth's was full of all sorts of enticing things. Mum was intent on buying useful presents such as new vests and socks. She bought nuts and large oranges and a box of dates.
After a while we were getting hungry. Despite lack of money, because Mum was such a good manager, we were able to go through a doorway and up stairs to a restaurant. We had fish, chips and peas. I was always worried I would drop my peas on the floor. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and went home happy. It was a Saturday, in fact one week before Christmas day. Dad had gone off to the village on the other side of where we lived. He was bi-polar and inclined to spend his money too freely. Mum kept him on a short rein, but even so his excursions tended to bring surprises. He came home with some Christmas decorations, which were to last for many years. Among these were two flat objects which could be openend out. One was a lovely ball of rainbow colours and the other a similar object which made a bell. One was hung at the window in the living room and one in the sitting room. I was fascinated by them.
The village shop
There was more shopping to be done in the village shop. This was a veritable Aladdin's cave, made more cave-like by the extra purchases hanging from the ceiling. There were wellington boots and watering cans and the like suspended on string from hooks in the ceiling. The shopkeeper used a pole with a hook to get down anything that was needed. But on this occasion we were more interested in the food counter where Mum chose nuts, hazel, Brazil and walnut, for our Christmas feast. She also bought a box of dates in a long box with rounded ends. Some large oranges and eating apples were also purchased. Then there was the delight of going into the back room, where the shopkeeper kept his special Christmas purchases. There were all sorts of delightful things to see and enjoy, which I knew I could never own, but looking was enjoyable too. After a while in there Mum would leave me looking while she went back to the shopkeeper and plotted a few secrets for Christmas day. Fortunately we did not have to carry all our purchases the mile to home as the shopkeeper was one of the few villagers to have a van which he used for deliveries. He came the next day and Mum sent me on an errand upstairs while she hid her secret purchases. It was cold upstairs, the only heating being a coal fire in the living room. I got into bed and read a book all about rabbits going on a picnic and the little ones getting lost. A kindly squirrel found them. The shopkeeper left and I went downstairs. Mum put on my coat and sent me out to play. She said,"Just walk up to the orchard and look at the chickens." Meanwhile she took her secret gifts up to her bedroom to hide them and wrap them in crepe paper.
On Christmas Eve Dad had the afternoon off work. After lunch which will called dinner, he had a nap. He had told me he had a surprise for us all. It was very frustrating waiting for him to finish his nap so that we could find out what the treat was. He said,"Come with me to the orchard." On the way up the hill he stopped at a shed and took out an axe. We went on past the garden and right to the far end of the orchard. There in the hedge was a medium sized holly bush. I stood well back while Dad swung his axe at the trunk of the bush. Dad made heavy going of the job but eventually the trunk was severed. He chopped off the lowest little branches so that there was a piece of trunk by which he could hold the bush and dragged it behind him down to the house, while I skipped along beside him. This was to be our Christmas tree. He dragged it in the front door and round the tight bend into the sitting room which had an alcove in the corner just right for the tree. He propped in an aluminium bucket of soil and Mum put red crepe paper around the bucket to hide it. I don't think we had ever had a Christmas tree before. It was a great success. Mum at once began to put wrapped presents under the tree. Now that it was Christmas Eve we had the fire lit in the living room. The chimney smoked a bit because it was damp.
The sitting room was sparsely furnished. There was an American organ, a reed organ, in the corner behind the Christmas tree, a sofa and two arm chairs. One of these chairs fascinated me because behind the back rest there was a pole fitted in grooves that kept it in place, but there was another set of grooves in which you could put the pole and this allowed a more reclining position. I suppose the sofa was actually a chaise longue and we children would fight over who would sit at the end with the head rest.
Excitement was beginning to rise in our household. Mum was busy in the kitchen making mince pies and Dad had decided it was near enough to Christmas to indulge in a few nuts and an orange. Mum wanted him to have just half an orange but he insisted on a whole one to himself. There were carols playing on the wireless from King's college Cambridge.There were sprigs of holly with berries, attached to the pidture rail and on the top of the cupboards. The new paper ball and bell hung at the windows, yes it was definitely Christmas time at last.
Mum prepared the vegetables for the next day. I was allowed to stay up until 8 p.m. and then packed off to bed with a hot water bottle. My older sister joined me in the same bed at 9.p.m. We had not slept together for two or three months as she had a job on a farm a few miles away. We did not appreciate having less room in the bed. We slept well but woke early, about 6 a.m. because we knew there would be a stocking for each of us. My sister turned on the electric light which had only been installed a few weeks earlier. We each had a grey knee high stocking and happily emptied them onto the bed. I had a mince pie which I ungratefully threw across the room, an orange, some nuts, a pencil with a pretty pattern and a rubber. My sister had some lavender soap. We happily settled back into bed and snuggled under the blankets to keep warm. There was no bathroom in the cottage and we would have a metal jug of hot water brought to us by Mum. There was always some cold water in a jug to cool this down and many times in the winter that water had been known to freeze solid. That is how cold my room was.
When it was finally time to get up Mum made us porridge. I happily spent the morning writing with my new pencil and then rubbing some of it out. We knew there were more presents to come but had to wait patiently till the afternoon. But first there was Christmas dinner at 1 p.m.
Ding Dong Merrily On High
Presents for all
Mum carved the goose and then put the vegetables ready on our plates. There were parsnips and roast potatoes and boiled potatoes, the inevitable sprouts, and runner beans that had been salted down earlier in the year ( no freezer back then.) There were boiled sweet chestnuts in a sauce and stuffing and carrots. It was a lovely dinner. We said grace first and then tucked in. We children were excited because the presents would come after dinner. We had Christmas pudding for afters with clotted cream supplied by the farmer's wife. After lunch we all settled by the fire in the sitting room. We all sat on seats as the floor was covered in linoleum and not very inviting in winter. Once Mum and Dad had settled my brother went out of the room and and came back in a red dressing gown and with cotton wool stuck to his face. He was Father Christmas. He handed around the presents. From me Mum had the dressing tablecloth. My brother gave Mum and Dad his woodwork box for shoe polish and brushes and my sister gave her painting. Mum and Dad were delighted. There was quite a big present under the tree. I hoped it was for me, and it was. I undid the paper carefully, Mum would iron it and keep it for next year. I found something brown and oblong, about two foot long and one foot wide with wheels. Mum helped me unfold it. It was a little broown doll's pram and my big eyes grew bigger as I took in what it was. I had never thought I would get a doll's pram. I gave Mum and Dad a big kiss. My sister who was fifteen had some new clothes and some paints. My brother had new clothes and a pocket knife. Of course, I had new clothes too but I could only think about my new pram. I ran up the stairs to fetch my doll. Then Mum gave me two little blankets to keep the dolly warm. I tucked her in and wheeled the pram through to the living room and then the kitchen and back again. I was in my element!
I have not mentioned going to church on Christmas day. There was no service in our little chapel because the minister was at our sister church three miles away. We had no transport, in fact my Mum and Dad never had a car, though he lived till 1995 and she lived till 2000. So we never went to Christmas services.
Let's get back to our Christmas day activities. We settled in the sitting room, which was special in itself. Dad and my brother got out the draughts board and had a game. then we had a game of speed. This was a card game with modes of transport for pictures and a value in the corner. It was a good game and you also learnt about planes and cars and ships. Now and then Dad would tuck into the nuts or have an orange. Mum would want him to share with her to eke things out a little, but Dad was having none of it, he was going to enjoy his Christmas.
Mum brought out some sugar mice. I put mine in the pram with the dolly. I would eat it very slowly, a bit at a time over the next week, until all that was left was the string tail. I was always good at making treats last and still today I can make a box of chocolates last a week or two. I suppose it is all down to my frugal upbringing.
Eventually it was tea time. There were mince pies and Mum's Christmas cake. Also we had tinned fruit so that we could eat up the clotted cream. Dad also had some on bread with jam. I couldn't eat it that way, it made me feel ill, but I liked it on fruit. We didn't have crackers at this time, that would come in later years.
After tea we went back in the sitting room and Dad built the fire up to such an extent that Mum thought he might catch the chimney on fire. We ate more nuts and then sang some carols, with Mum in the corner, behind the Christmas tree, playing on the American organ. She was the organist for the chapel.
Soon it was time for me to go to bed. I carried my new clothes and pram up to bed and put them beside the bed, where I could see them and put out my hand and touch them, to make sure they were real. I bit the nose off the sugar mouse and went to sleep happy.
Silent Night Was Always A Favourite Of Mine
Our little chapel
The next day was Sunday, so we did get to go to chapel. Mum went in first to play the organ and then Dad took us three in to sit on the right hand side one seat from the back. The seats were divided in such a way that there was a long seat next to a short seat and then the one in front was divided the other way, so there was a short seat in front of ours at its entrance but of course, further in we had another long one in front of us. Maybe I need a photo.
I always resented not being able to sit with Mum. She was at the front playing the organ. There were several families. the people from the farm had three daughters, the people in the long seat in front had two daughters and a son. Another couple had one son. There was a little old lady who always gave us sweets and an elderly lady behind us. This Sunday we had a lay preacher, a farmer from some distance away. We had lots of carols to sing. I don't remember the sermon, but it would have been 30 minutes long, but I was used to that and used to sitting still.
After the service much handshaking went on. Then it was off home for another of Mum's good dinners.