REMINISCING THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD
REMINISCING THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD
Today the grass is glistening with frosty crystals; a beautiful reminder that Christmas is just around the corner. Here in Gascony, south-west France, I hope for a white Christmas, though it’s more likely that there will be blue skies and sunshine, or rain.
How I long to revisit the Christmases of my childhood when my mother and I lived with my grandparents and my aunt in an old upstairs miner’s cottage built in 1901 and described then as ‘luxury flats’. Built over a disused pit, the long street of terraced houses was at the top of the small mining town of Felling. It curved down steeply towards a stone quarry, passing by a grassy area where concrete mine traps still sat waiting for the German invasion that never happened. Further on, down and down, you could keep going and reach the River Tyne. From our house, we could hear the ships hooting and see their black funnels as they passed by. In the distance lay the city of Newcastle and I often wondered what life was like across the river. It seemed a long way to a small child, almost a foreign land. And yet, there would come a time when I would work and live there.
As Christmas approached, the atmosphere in my grandparents’ home became electric with excitement. Presents were wrapped and hidden out of my sight. My grandmother, so house-proud, would complain about the needles from the fir tree dropping on the carpet and swear she would buy an artificial tree for the following Christmas, which she did, and I so missed the smell of pine that increased in strength with the heat from the open coal fire, the fire that she black-leaded regularly and where I used to post letters to Santa Claus in the soot trap. How upset I was, one day, seeing her rake out the trap and, with it, my precious letter with all my dreams for Christmas carefully written upon it. Every year my list was headed by the same two items: a bed of my own and a piano. They were both a long time in coming, yet the money my family spent on a dining table full of gifts would so easily have bought a bed and I would not have had to spend my nights perched on the middle hump of the old family bed between my mother and my grandmother, while my grandfather occupied one small bedroom and my aunt the other.
It was with my aunt that I enjoyed preparing the Christmas decorations for the living room [then called the kitchen], twisting strips of coloured crepe paper and stringing them across the ceiling and around the gas light, there being no electricity. We also saved the silver paper from sweets and chocolate and rolled it into little balls to thread together and drape around the Christmas tree. I saw little of my mother in those early days as she worked full-time in Newcastle as a statistician for the National Coal Board, having separated from my father when I was only ten months old. At weekends the family gathered around the wireless to listen to our favourite programmes and sang along to records on the phonograph that had to be wound up regularly, but would make us laugh when it ran down and distorted the voices of the singers. My aunt had a beautiful soprano voice and we often sang together. She was the solo singer in the Songsters of the local Salvation Army, to which my grandmother’s family belonged. She was married to a sailor, who was sometimes there, sometimes not, and was the kind of character that you felt you shouldn’t like, but couldn’t help being fond of him. He was a joker, laughed a lot and we would laugh with him; and he cried at Lassie films.
On Christmas Eve, I was put to bed and told to stay there while the family brought out my presents from their hiding places. I lay there with butterflies in my tummy, tingling with excitement and longing for morning to come. Sleep was difficult to achieve as I wondered what Santa would bring me. Maybe this year I would get that bed of my own, no matter how small, no matter which corner of the tiny house it would be tucked into. I would lie there awake, it seemed, forever, longing for morning, the air tinged with ice in the room; no heating and the wind howling through the window that was frozen solid and the curtains billowed out, making me afraid that there was a ghost or a monster behind them waiting to pounce.
Then morning would come and I took on the task of opening mounds of presents, far too many for an only child, and I wished I had a brother or a sister to share them with. Books. There were always books, and how I loved them. I had a miscellany of other small presents. My family thought that the more presents there were the happier I would be. But there was no bed. There was never a bed. I would return that night to the lump in the middle of the family bed, squashed between my mother and my grandmother, hoping that next year might be different.
After a mammoth clear up of torn gift wrappings, my grandmother would start the Christmas ritual of baking sausage rolls and brewing up her mother’s secret recipe of hot ginger wine. The house already smelt wonderful as the turkey had been cooking gently throughout the night to ensure that it would be ready and melt in the mouth by midday. Outside, the world had turned from frosty silver to cotton wool white snow and the sun was shining down from a clear blue sky. We all listened with baited breath for the sound we loved – even my grandfather, perched on the end of the fender, reading one of his beloved Western books, was dressed smartly in his Sunday clothes.
And then we heard it. The heart-lifting sound of the Salvation Army brass band, in the distance, moving nearer and nearer until it reached our street and stopped. We all rushed down the front stairs and opened the door. The Soldiers of Christ were gathered together in a tight group, their dark uniforms with flashes of red disappearing beneath a blanket of soft snowflakes, the faces of the bandsmen rosy with the cold. Hark the Herald Angels Sing turned into Silent Night as a special treat for my grandmother, Polly, a grim-faced little sparrow of a woman who hardly ever smiled. I was too young then to ask why she was like she was. Now, it’s too late. They are all long dead.
The music ended and the band was, as always, invited into our small home. They shook off the snow from their shoulders and crowded into our kitchen, laughing and joking, enjoying the hot sausage rolls and hot spicy wine. Before they left they said a prayer, then off they went to their own families and Christmas dinners, while we sat around the table enjoying ours – turkey and all the trimmings, laughing because my grandmother one Christmas thought that the turkey had four legs. It was a never-ending feast that continued through the afternoon with chocolate and fruit. Later we would join my grandmother’s sister and family for high tea with ham and salad, cakes and tarts, all home baked. And there was fun and games with my great uncle playing the organ. I was too shy to join in and how I now regret that paralyzing shyness that kept me from enjoying myself. Back home, around nine o’clock we would have supper – succulent turkey sandwiches. I couldn’t cope with all that food now, but the memory of those festive times still gives me a tickle of excitement – so much so that I included this family ritual in my book “When Tomorrow Comes” with my favourite heroine, Hildie, in charge.
I did eventually get a bed of my own, and I swore to myself that I would never again share a bed with anyone. It didn’t quite work out that way, but a lot of water has run under that proverbial bridge since then. Maybe I’ll get to write about it one day, when I have the courage to face my adult past.
In the meantime, I hope you all have a jolly Christmas when it comes and, if you’re sad, remember the good times you had in the past. Smile, laugh, shed a tear or two if you must. That’s what I do.