*originally published: Sunday, 20 December 2009

Then and Now – Christmas

Most towns have switched on their colourful street-lights and the count down to Christmas has started in earnest. The shops have been decorated and offering all sorts of bargains for what seems like months. Conversation between customers is now concentrated on things like the price of turkeys or the number of cards they have to send before the postal deadline.

Every year the number of greeting cards, particularly those sent overseas, seem to increase. As does the cost of the postage! The celebration only really lasts for just two days and yet it is always the main topic of conversation for several weeks leading up to it.

Christmas has always been a time for celebration when families get together. It is a time when we remember those who have befriended and helped us as well as those who might need a helping hand themselves. As it becomes more commercialised, the way people observe it seems to change almost year by year.

Nevertheless, Christmas day and Boxing day are still generally set aside for family and close friends but the partying usually starts well before that and often goes on for some weeks after. Unfortunately, there are many people who now look on it just as an excuse to have a good time going out to eat, drink and party.

Did You Know?

In the past Christmas was very much a religious celebration and as each year has slipped by more emphasis seems to have been put on ensuring that it is primarily a time for indulging the children. Nevertheless, there has always been plenty of entertainment arranged for the grown ups when the youngsters, worn out and tired, are tucked up in bed.

Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve, when the younger members of the family had seen their stockings put up ready for their presents, mother would get out a mince pie and perhaps a sausage roll and place them with a glass of wine somewhere Santa couldn’t fail to see them. Of course, in the final days leading up to Christmas it wasn’t only Santa who was given a glass of something to warm him up.

Tradesmen, like the milkman, baker, oilman, coal-man and almost anyone calling at the door were given a mince pie with a drink of wine or spirits to wash it down. This was often very apparent with the milkman who, as the day went on, found it more and more difficult to carry his heavy can from door to door and transfer the milk safely into the customers jug using pint and half-pint measures. Fortunately he could always depend on the horse that was pulling the float knowing the round well enough to move on and stop where he had to without any instruction. Later, as the rounds-men became motorised an Xmas ‘Tip’ slowly replaced the traditional festive ‘Nip’.

Of course children have always loved Christmas. No matter what position a family held in society they all put up trimmings and most had a tree of some sort. A short cycle ride out into the countryside to a known location was necessary to gather holly and it had to have berries on every sprig. Everyone put up paper-chains and trimmings, some made from crepe paper that came in many colours. These were often kept from year to year, as were the tree decorations.

A good sprig of mistletoe was also essential, especially if you were having a party when it would be hung over the door frames ready to catch that certain someone. It was well used for such games as ‘postman’s knock’, ‘sardines’ and many others.

Adults exchanged gifts but the children always came first. Dad was quite satisfied when he found mum had wrapped up a packet of Woodbines or a jar of ‘Brylcreem’ for him to open. While he might manage a box of handkerchiefs or a bottle of ‘Evening in Paris’ scent in return.

All children got presents of some sort. The richer the family the bigger and more expensive the presents would be but even the poorest got something. Sometimes it was only a stocking with an apple, orange, a few nuts and perhaps some crayons and a colouring book or a tin box of Reeves paints. Often a home-made toy was included. The more affluent families had a pillowcase instead of a stocking that would be filled with board games like snakes and ladders or draughts, jigsaw puzzles and Children’s Annuals or books of nursery rhymes.

There was often something special hidden at the bottom. It could be boxes of lead soldiers painted in bright colours with guns and flags and some with their horses. It might be a farmyard set with the animals, buildings and carts etc. or a train set with stations, signal boxes, bridges and crossings. Then there were sailing boats in many shapes and sizes and lots more toys to choose from.

Girls had just as wide a choice from skipping ropes to dolls with prams and all the accessories associated with attending to a baby. They also enjoyed receiving copies of uniforms like nurses with all the necessary bandages etc. to make it realistic. Those with even richer parents probably had their wrapped presents put under a large tree in the drawing room and at a given time they all gathered round for them to be handed out.

It is good that we retain as many of the old ways and traditions as we can at this time. Let us not forget that all families got together on Christmas day to enjoy the special food and luxuries they had often had to save for all the year. After tea everyone joined in games.

The fact it was the only day in the year when all public houses and off-licences were closed at 2.30pm ensured father would be there. There was nowhere else for him to go! Everyone joined in the activities and the younger children were amused with their new presents until bedtime. It was then the adults could settle down to a quiet game of cards while they sipped their port and sherry and munched mince pies.

They were good days to remember!!

valley lad – [SEVENTYSIX]