Saturday, 17 December 2016

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was less a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. Despite the lack of material things once the celebration of Guy Fawkes was over in early November, we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement that was soon to be ours. In Northfleet at St. Botolph’s School on The Hill we were by mid November deep in rehearsal for the annual `Show’ to which parents and friends were invited and by the first week of December lessons were halted for thirty minutes each day to allow us to make the two minute journey into the fourteenth century Church next door in order to practice the order of carols chosen for the end of term service. We sang the same pieces each year - `Once In Royal David’s City’, `The First Noel’, `It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ `Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, `Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, `While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ and `Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and how easily the verses slip into memory even now when I hear the initial refrain of each. And there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert though the event I remember best was the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’, Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz and a contingent of the noisiest boys marched across the makeshift stage maintaining that there was `A State Of War On The Nursery Floor’ whilst banging drums contrived from old biscuit tins. The excitement was intense. Then, quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in `tiled surrounds’ for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us. Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the excitement of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time St. Botolph’s Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under thirty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O`Connor and a clutch of black-clad nuns made a fuss of me and told me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road and on one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Christmas time conversation between the attending congregation during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack next to the Library, hands nonchalantly in the pockets of his overcoat and laughing too loudly at their jokes. Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. One year I recall a red plastic dolls’ tea set from a stall at Gravesend Market, and another a delightful pile of second hand `annuals’- Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began. There always followed a range of festive snacks including the essential candied fruit, nuts and tangerines all so fundamentally part of Christmas that to this day the slightest hint of a tangerine or satsuma aroma instantly flings me back over decades to the late nineteen forties. Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted capon, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and a salty brown gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s, either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second hand bike or even a passed on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was one eventful year. Although my relationship with my father was still fraught with difficulties, these were largely happy festive seasons during which we sensibly drew a truce. This was all to change dramatically in 1951 the year he chose most inconveniently to die on twelfth of December just a few days after an afternoon of Christmas shopping in Gravesend with my mother. This was the year when quality toys began to reappear in shops and there was to be a Junior Meccano Set for my four year old brother and an Art Compendium for me. These were facts we knew because he had been saving judiciously since Guy Fawkes. We were not actually told, however, that he had died although at eleven years old I was aware that his face had suddenly become far too yellow for his own good. The Thursday morning when my mother ran to the corner shop to the nearest telephone, I hovered in the doorway of their room and studied him strangely anxiously and noted the over-yellowness against the white pillow slip, newly changed for the impending doctor’s visit. He opened too-yellow eyes momentarily and made some inconsequential comment about me not being late for school and that was the last time I saw him, the last time he spoke to me. There followed the strangely embarrassing situation of neighbours calling in giving gifts to my brother and myself, boxes of scented handkerchiefs, Mickey Mouse Soap, chocolates. None of this felt quite right and people were speaking far too quietly. A parent dying at Christmastime is distressing for everyone and the guidelines for how to deal with it are sparse. The subsequent Christmases were melancholy affairs even though my mother without fail always provided half a bottle of cherry brandy for mince pies, a small bottle of whiskey for tea and lemonade to drink with the roast chicken. Sometimes there were colouring books for my brother and often sensible socks and underclothes for me. When he shuffled off his mortal coil so precipitously that year when I was eleven and Bernard was four, our father deftly changed for ever the Festive Season, forcing us each year that followed to appraise and examine indeterminate ghosts of Christmas Past as indeed I am doing at this very moment.

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