Sunday, 17 December 2017

Approaching Christmas Rationally

I’ve never been able to Do Christmas in a sensible manner and my brother used to maintain that it was because of our father electing to die so very inconveniently close to the festive season at the end of 1951. Following his own inconvenient death in April 2016 I no longer have a listening ear with which to discuss such matters. My own children, growing up in Auckland, New Zealand always felt they were trapped in a Dickensian novel at this time of year as I trawled suburbs, and more latterly the internet, for those providing geese for Yuletide eating. Let me tell you it isn’t easy to buy a goose in this part of the world but then again not completely impossible. What the kids really wanted to do, of course, was have barbecue on the beach like other people – normal people.

Now they have successfully escaped my enforced December traditions they are slightly less critical and Seamus, in Taiwan has even admitted to making his own Christmas Pudding from time to time which is courageous since the Taiwanese do not seem naturally drawn to Christmas Pudding. Sinead, in London definitely opts for a heavily decorated tree every year and is happy to admit it. Patrick still living close by in Auckland is perhaps the most traditional of the trio enjoying all the trimmings and also liking to incorporate as many German traditions as possible simply because his father was German.

For me, like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was certainly not 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. By mid November at St Botolph’s school we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement of this most important Christian festival of the year.

I loved going into the adjacent church each afternoon 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 there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert also. The Christmas concert I remember best is the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’ and Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz. Both my parents were there which made me enormously proud even though my brother got bored and began to cry.

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 Yuletide conversation between the attending parishioners 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 and laugh 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. Usually I became the proud owner of a pile of second hand books. 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 and it was certainly not present in all local families but I do know that each of my own children still follow it.

Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted chicken, 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. Now of course I realise how difficult I must have made his life upon his return to his family after the war when I so very much wished he would return to the Eighth Army and that The War would simply resume. I found the war years strangely reassuring and rarely felt in any danger. Life certainly changed a great deal when he returned in 1946 and was to take an even more dramatic turn following his sudden death on 12th December 1951. Our future Christmases were to be sombre affairs and treats were few. I was no longer required to go to Midnight Mass and found I missed the tradition and would sometimes insist on going alone.

I think I must have been a particularly contrary child. I certainly grew into being a particularly contrary adult and as I said previously I have never been able to approach Christmastime in a rational manner in my frantic desire to become knee deep in conventions and traditions. On the other hand maybe I’m slowly learning – I haven’t even attempted to track down a goose this year! So far anyway.....

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