With that peculiarity of memory experienced by those of us who are in the upper age bracket, my recollections of the past are now often sharper than those of yesterday. The events that have stuck most firmly come from my childhood, which was happy at home. Naturally, like most children, I enjoyed Christmas and that season embedded some strong memories.
Back then, in the very early 1960s, winters were more often snowy than not, unlike modern times. It leant a greater sense of rightness to Christmas. There were four of us siblings. Eldest was my sister Dorothy, then my brother Paul, followed by my sister Gillian and I was the youngest. Dorothy was often to be found looking after us while my Mother was busy with household chores. Paul was always the independent one, who went his own way in all things. He was also a walking disaster area much of the time, with a natural talent for breaking anything he touched. Gill and I were very close, demonstrated by our frequent verbal fisticuffs, and the amount of time we spent together, especially at Christmas, making things.
It has always been a delight for me, to look back and recall how Gill and I would sit on the floor, in front of a beautiful coke fire, with snow deep outside, manufacturing decorations like paper snowflakes, toilet roll middle and cotton wool snowmen, paper chains and various other things. We would often work in comfortable, companionable silence at such times. We must have made dozens of things over those years of childhood. It was wonderful, sitting thus, in the warm, often with delicious aromas of cooking drifting through from the kitchen whenever our Mum entered the room.
It may seem odd but the nature of presents I received are less clear in my memory. Despite an opinion amongst my siblings, that I was spoilt by my parents, I was rarely overly concerned about such things. Of course I would make a list, as we all did. Those lists would be put on the fire, to be carried up to Father Christmas by the brightly twinkling fire fairies who inhabit open fires. It was always exciting to see our lists consumed in flames and the contents rising with the aid of the tiny, spark-like fairies. But, while I may have expressed a desire for some toy or other, I can honestly say that I was never disappointed by any gift I received, and I certainly didn't receive everything I asked for.
In the run-up to Christmas, there were two treats we enjoyed thoroughly. First, we would make an expedition into town in the dark, to see the lights, and the giant Christmas Tree that was always gifted to the town by somewhere in Norway. We would also love seeing the hundreds of window displays, where window dressers had really put heart and soul into celebrating Christmas. The pinnacle of those displays was always one of the big windows in the large Co-operative (Co-op) department store. Second, we would be taken to see Father Christmas, who every child knew held court in the magical grotto to be found near the toy department of the Co-op. And it was magical! Their would be a cleverly constructed display of animated figures and objects, like scenes from the North Pole. They were amazing. Then, before leaving the grotto, we would discover Father Christmas himself. A big, jolly man seated waiting to meet the children. We would sit on his knee and the less shy children would confess to their secret Christmas wishes. Chuckling, he would perhaps reassure the child that they stood a good chance of their wish coming true and then delve into one of his huge sacks. He would bring out a small gift, properly wrapped in Christmas paper. I never knew a child to be unhappy with what they received.
When we were out and about in the dark evenings, we delighted in seeing Christmas lights or trees in windows. You never saw the big displays on houses back then, but some folk would put lights on trees in their gardens and, despite the fact that they were usually just plain light bulbs, we were always excited by such efforts. As the years passed, the number of homes that made a special effort to make their publicly visible decorations that touch more spectacular grew. I didn't recognise it then, though I do now, that the biggest efforts were always made when the news was bleakest, a rebelling against dark times. Speaking of dark times, it wasn't unusual for us to have power cuts during December. Most were the result of industrial action by trades unions in the electricity industry but there were a few that were the consequence of equipment failure. At such times, candles and a "tilly lamp" (a very efficient oil or paraffin lamp my Dad used when out fishing) would be fired up. The loss of television and radio (or wireless as it was then known) never really bothered us. We would entertain ourselves, often with card games. The worst bit of it was the loss of the colourful Christmas tree lights. The best of it was the sense of intimacy, a loving closeness, that would embrace us all.
On the matter of gifts, the most memorable one was a Christmas when Paul intercepted me on the stairs early in the morning. He warned me to not be upset by my gift. It appeared to him that my parents had got me a bundle of four bamboo canes! When it was unwrapped, there was great hilarity, and embarrassment for Paul, as a big wigwam was revealed! Of everything else, another gift that I remember was a BILOfix set (see http://www.bilofix.com/). It came in a long, hexagonal box like a tool set. It was like a wooden version of Meccano. Nothing else really made a big impression, other than what we two boys always got from our Dad's parents. This was a chocolate tool set or a sweet smoker's set. I know that there were selection boxes or stockings, and the contents of those seldom lasted beyond the beginning of the new year.
Our Christmas stockings weren't like those of today, or what our own children had. They were big, long oversocks belonging to Dad. Come Christmas Eve, we would place this sock on the foot of our beds. As a young child, I would often play at my bedtime companions (a teddy bear and a golly) having stockings of their own, which I would fill with various bits and pieces and then get excited about "discovering" and opening for each of the toys. I've never been quick to go to sleep and this game would help pass the hours before I finally capitulated. In the morning, we would wake to discover that our stocking had magically filled. There would be some back-and-forth as we told each other that Father Christmas really had been! There would be some nuts, some wrapped sweets, an apple, an orange and a banana. We would all be thrilled to receive this very special bounty.
Christmas Day itself wasn't a matter of loads of family gathering. In fact, while we were children, it would just be the four of us and our parents. Dinner was always the full affair, and teatime featured the grand Christmas cake and a Yule log, along with the Christmas Crackers. We would start the day having to get dressed and have breakfast before we could open our presents. There would then be the usual pile of discarded wrapping paper growing quickly, sometimes supplemented by boxes and other packaging. We'd have the radio on, with a fare of mostly Christmas music, until the afternoon. Highlight of the day for us children was the hour long Disney Time on television. Throughout the day, we would graze on biscuits, sweets, sausage rolls and mince pies. We'd also have the treat of various flavoured fruit squashes made up with lemonade. A very special treat was a small glass, usually half filled, of sherry or port.
Well, those are the Christmas memories of my childhood. I hope you have enjoyed my journey into nostalgia.