The magic of Christmas time appeared stronger almost half a century ago, probably because there was a greater sense of involvement with it in a family sense.
Throughout the year, young children would take small amounts of money, weekly, from parents, relatives or neighbours, to pay into the school bank. The release of this annual thrift generally took place about the first week in December. At this time the spending spree commenced. For the youngsters who had undertaken this task for so long it became a time when their efforts were rewarded, in the form of a few shillings from each of their donors, which was enough to set them off on the trail of buying Christmas presents, with, hopefully a few bob left over.
There were other ways of earning a little extra cash for Christmas – carol singing all around the district as a soloist or in small groups. Unlike today, when young people first knock at the front door to enquire whether you want them to render a carol, generally comprising one verse only before holding out a begging palm, in my childhood it was a case of pot luck. We would pick out a likely looking house, sing about six carols, each having four or five verses, then expectantly knock the door. If we were lucky, we were given a halfpenny, or an orange, with even the odd silver three penny piece. If we were unfortunate, and no-one was at home, or they did not want to give, our singing was all in vain. The nights always appeared to have been colder and crisper, but wrapped up in winter woollies, the only thing affected was our voice.
The weeks immediately prior to Christmas were always full of great expectations. The toy fares of David Evans, Ben Evans and others held forth a promise of what might be in store for us.
The hunt was on for sprigs of holly or mistletoe. Evenings would be given over to making decorations or Christmas cards. A hand would be given in helping to mix the numerous ingredients that went into the Christmas cake, and when the baking tins were filled with this delicious looking conglomeration, it was all hands on deck to carry them to the nearest bake house. This usually took place early in the morning, the finished cooked product being ready for collection in the evening.
It was also a time when the Christmas puddings were made, complete with three penny or sixpenny pieces. The fruity mixture would be placed in basins, wrapped in cloth and placed in the boiler to steam away for hours. The interior of the kitchen was covered with a mist of steam, but at the end of the day, when the puddings were taken out of the boiler and stacked away to cool, there was generally a very small one which everyone had to sample.
In readiness for the big day, children of all families would willingly lend a hand to make the house shipshape. Most homes had open coal fires with hobs attached, on which were placed various utensils for cooking. These hobs, the stove and fire grate front bars would have to be given a helping of elbow grease and a liberal dosage of black lead. This ritual was undertaken every week, but at Christmas a special effort was made. The same would happen to the brass fender and collection of brasses that surrounded the fireplace. Out would come the Brasso and the collection would be rubbed and rubbed until one’s face could be seen in reflection.
By now the decorations would be hanging. The Christmas tree standing in a corner of the room in its tub would be regaled with bright coloured ornaments and candle holders. Electric lights were not in popular usage as yet, instead small coloured candles would be inserted in the holders, and, under adult supervision, would be lit.
Looking back, I wonder how we managed to survive Yuletide, which involved such a hazardous practice. One gentle puff and the whole tree could catch fire, but somehow it rarely happened.
All households had their Christmas logs, either bought from men selling wood from carts that entered every street, or by scouring any nearby woods in search of fallen branches. By the same token, any house with children produced their Christmas stocking for each child, these being placed at the foot of the bed, waiting to be filled by Santa Claus. It is amazing, when one considers the poor living standards that existed for many, but I cannot recall one instance when a child from the humblest of homes failed to receive something.
On Christmas day, church bells would be ringing out at an early hour, not that anyone needed calling. After breakfast it was a case of making yet another journey to the local bake house, if you happened to be fortunate enough to have a turkey, goose or large piece of meat. These would be cooked in the bake house ready for collection at lunch time. Most houses had small ovens for cooking purposes, and having saved up all year for this special Christmas treat no-one was eager to take the chance of ruining the repast by attempting to cram it into a confined space and possibly cooking only part of it. As a result of this, a queue of people would assemble outside the baker’s, the place alive with friendly gossip.
The remainder of Christmas day, after listening to the King’s message of comfort on the radio, would be very much for the children. Their new toys would be played with by all and sundry. There were boxed games like Ludo, Snakes and Ladders or Tiddleywinks, which would have adults joining in the fun. Other games would be played such as Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Blind Man’s Buff etc., It was a day mainly for children.
On the table, with a feast of other delicacies, would be tangerines, dates, masses of nuts, sweets, mince pies, jelly and blancmange, an occasion, maybe for many only once a year, when royalty could not have wished for more.
At tea time there was, always, along with the iced and decorated Christmas cake, the chocolate Yule log, complete with robin, and crackers containing paper hats and trinkets.
On Boxing Day, when the euphoria had only partly subsided, it was a case of neighbours popping in for a drink, or visiting them, with a visit to the Vetch Field or St. Helen’s in the afternoon. Youngsters generally went to the fairground, which camped in the Strand.
In the evening, for many a household, my own included, the adults took over and the youngsters were packed off to bed by nine o’clock. Sleep would not come easily, knowing what was taking place downstairs.
The middle room carpet would be rolled up, out would come the gramophone, and dancing or shuffling to the music was the order of the night. For those less athletic, there would be several card schools in play, and, tucked away in the corner of the room, a table laden with cold meats, pastries and drinks of all descriptions. Most homes had music of some sort, and for those with a piano there would always be a sing-song, with the most unlikely people throwing off their inhibitions and rendering a solo. It was a case of making one’s own entertainment, which they did with gusto.
The festivities would go until two, three or four o’clock the following morning. Those failing to last the pace would fall asleep in a convenient chair or, packed like sardines, four or five to a bed, all the same sex, of course. For some it then became a question of snatching a few hours sleep before setting out to do a day’s work. They might have felt jaded afterwards, but for once a year it was worth it.
As a footnote I give examples of prices that existed in 1938, and, if by today’s standards, they might appear like paradise, remember, that wages were very low in comparison with modern pay packets.
Pembroke turkeys were selling at: 2/6 a pound (2 shillings and sixpence)
Geese: 2/0 (2 shillings)
Chickens: 1/6 (1 shilling and sixpence)
Per pound – nuts: 6d
Oranges: 4 for 6d
Pears: 2d each
Dates: 6d per box
Butter: ¼ a pound ( farthing per pound)
Eggs: 1/9 per dozen
Whisky: From 15/0 per bottle
Brandy: From 14/6
Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates: 6d per qtr pound
One ton of large household coal: 24/0 in bags or 20/0 loose
Capstan cigars: 20 for 11 ½
Players cigarettes: 50 for 2/6
Pipe tobacco: 4oz for 4/4
Peacock’s stores advertised dolls’ houses from 2/11, tricycles from 35/0, and boxes of crackers from 6d. The store remained open until 9pm on Christmas Eve. And for that special attention, Franks, in Union Street offered “Green’s Ice Cream Puddings” from 2/0 each.
How mouth watering it now all seems, but sad to relate, for many a family even the prices listed proved beyond their means. But one thing was always in evidence the, indeed, as it still is – Christmas time was an occasion for merry making, for renewing lost friendships, for making that special effort on that one day of the year. Prices have altered, yuletide features have vanished, but the spirit of Christmas remains unchanged.
Next Page, The Games