My earliest Christmas Days were spent at Nan and Grandad’s. Until I was six, my parents and I lived upstairs in my grandparents’ three-storey house (a railway house – Grandad was a train driver). After we moved out, we made the trip across Brighton, but that was no problem because the buses ran on Christmas Day.
There was always a crowd of us for Christmas Day, including my aunt, uncle and cousins from London, whom I couldn’t wait to see. The same decorations came out year after year; paperchains strung across the ceilings (licked by me in the preceding weeks – I must have been high on glue by the time Christmas came!), shiny paper stars, crumpled with age, and a small fake tree from Woolworths with red berries on the ends of the branches. The tree took pride of place in the front room window upstairs while we were downstairs in the basement, making full use of the small living room – called the kitchen – the dining room at the front, and the scullery at the back. This arrangement was old-fashioned even then. Looking back, it seems incredible that Nan cooked Christmas dinner for us all on the ancient gas stove in the scullery, with none of gadgets we seem to need now to make the simplest meal.
It wasn’t just the turkey dinner with all the trimmings, either. The Christmas cake and
pudding were made weeks before, mince pies and sausage rolls baked on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day tea was almost as big a meal as dinner. With tangerines, nuts and sweets in plentiful supply, I remember the day as being one big feast. I disgraced myself one Christmas tea-time. Nan asked me if I liked her Christmas cake. ‘It’s a bit puddeny,’ I announced. I’d heard my mother say that of course.
A point to note here: my mother did not like Christmas, a fact she made all too plain. She didn’t like her father much either. Also, at some point in the proceedings, at least one of the London contingent would have misbehaved. One year, the oil painting in the attic of Moses in the Bulrushes was used as a dartboard after a go at the cherry brandy. Our Christmases may have looked idyllic on the surface, but underneath, tension ran like wires through cheese.
As a treat, I was allowed a small glass of port and lemon. I don’t suppose there was much port in it but I thought it was marvellous. This early introduction to alcohol had me in disgrace again when, being taken to visit another aunt around Christmas time, I was asked what I would like to drink. I didn’t hesitate. ‘Port and lemon.’ My mother was mortified and tried to cover up my faux pas. I think I only got the lemon that time.
At Nan’s, when we weren’t stuffing ourselves silly, we played games. Dominos, draughts, snakes and ladders, all emerged from years-old boxes. There was a game called Chinese Checkers. I never did understand how to play it – I don’t think any of us did, and there were pieces missing anyway. There were other sorts of games, too, and these, miserable child that I was, I found no fun at all, but it was Christmas and I had to endure them or be labelled a spoilsport. One of these involved being blindfolded and sat on a chair. Then you were lifted up, everyone calling out how high you were going, until bang, your head hit the ceiling and you screamed. At least, I did. It wasn’t the ceiling, it was a plank held above your head when you were only a foot off the ground. Then there was Nelson’s eye. Blindfolded again, your finger was guided into the soft squidgy eye, to much hilarity all round. I never found it the least bit funny to be shown half an orange when the blindfold came off.
No Christmas would have been complete without Grandad enticing me and my cousins to crawl into the cupboard under the stairs to find what ‘treasures’ we could in this glory hole. Once we were in, he would hold the door shut, trapping us in the airless pitch dark, until we became hysterical. This trick wasn’t confined to Christmas, but we fell for it, every time. Well, we didn’t want to spoil Grandad’s fun, did we? What with the blindfolds and the entrapment, is it any wonder I’m a fully paid-up member of Claustrophobics Anonymous?
Grandad did have one party trick I loved, and would ask him to do, over and over. It was simply this: he would cut a brazil nut in half and set light to the cut side, turning it into a magical, miniature candle.
Our day ended with the adults playing cards and my cousins and I lolling around, half asleep, clutching our favourite present from Father Christmas. Mine one year was a black doll. To my mother’s puzzlement, I’d longed for a ‘black dolly’ and was overjoyed when I got one – I must have been a very PC child, that’s all I can say. This plastic beauty was dressed in orange knitted clothes, which, funnily enough, were the same as those I’d seen my other grandmother (Dad’s mum) knitting for the babies in Africa. Pure coincidence, of course 😉
Merry Christmas, all!