When conker season finished, the beginning of the Christmas excitement started. Part of the pagan need for a winter solstice celebration must have been latent in my northern hemisphere genes. Christmas was always the highlight of my year, and I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t all about Jesus.
I loved to hear the plop of the post as the first Christmas cards started to arrive. In those days people sent so many cards there was even a second post just before lunchtime. Much as I love E-cards with their clever graphics and animations, they’ll never replace the warming sight of cards strung all over the room for me.
Carols and nativity plays were an integral part of our celebrations, but it was the combination of the traditions, the decorations and the secrets which drove us into a state of feverish anticipation. Even now, the first carols set off that Pavlov’s dog reaction within me and I find myself panting not for my Christmas dinner, but for the whole Christmas package.
At secondary school, the Christmas term always ended with a carol service in the local Anglican Church. For several weeks before we had carol practices and there was always much ribald mirth at some of the carols with words we perceived to be rude. ‘Good king Wenceslas’ was one because it had the word ‘sod’ in it. The boys always put huge emphasis on the ‘come’ in ‘O Come all ye Faithful’. It took me a while to understand what they meant. When I was younger I got a bit embarrassed at the word ‘womb’ which cropped up pretty frequently.
The service was the same format every year, based on the King’s College nine lessons and carols, starting with a procession to the accompaniment of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. The church had wonderful acoustics and the treble solo soared through the old stone arches leaving a lump in my throat that made it difficult to join in the singing of the second verse. Nigel sang that solo twice before his voice deepened to a rich bass tone.
At home, we all assisted with the decorations, most of which were from the garden. My father put dowel rods up across the picture rails all through the hallway, and we hung sprigs of holly and pine, interspersed with mistletoe, slightly hidden for surprise kisses. The tree, placed behind a large front window, was a branch from one of our trees, often cypress or yew, reaching from floor to ceiling. It gave off a particular rich, earthy smell, which commercial trees lacked.
Christmas Eve would be a hectic fever of cooking and preparing vegetables, all from the garden. In the kitchen the aroma of mince pies and sausage rolls mingled with the pickled meats and gammon boiling gently on the stove. At three o’clock the radio went on for the nine lessons and carols from King’s College, which signified that Christmas was here at last.
On Christmas morning we weren’t allowed to get up until The Signal. That was Dad, going out on to the landing and singing ‘Christians awake, salute the happy morn’. He probably hadn’t even got to ‘awake’ when we were all up and into their bed. The stockings were always hung in their room, because they had the biggest fireplace. On thinking back, really not sure how we bought into that one. Anyway, we three children opened our stockings quite slowly, watching carefully to see what each other got, and always feeling happy but sad when we got to the fruit at the bottom. I used to put fruit in the bottom of my children’s stockings, too, until one year my eldest daughter said that in My Day, fruit was probably a treat, but they had fruit every day, so it wasn’t a treat!
After the stockings, it was breakfast, then church. The turkey had been in the oven since first light, and the puddings were steaming away on their own, so fortunately even my parents were anxious to get through the hugging throng of well-wishers as quickly as possible.
At home, it was time for mince pies and homemade elderflower ‘champagne’ which we downed very quickly before racing into the playroom to rip into all our goodies.
Then came Christmas Dinner, plates piled high, chairs squeezed in, cheeks red and shiny. We were really glad when Mum got her first dishwasher, as it seemed in those early years as if everything in the whole kitchen had to be washed up. I remember standing at the sink feeling ready to burst. Although I never considered it at the time, I see now that those Christmases brought out the second deadly sin in me, gluttony.