As a young boy, Christmas was something to look forward to. In 1951 at the age of five, I started primary school after moving from my parent's seafront flat to a new suburb that backed onto farmland. It was a time of great adventure for us kids but a tough time for our parents. Six years after the war, my mother still had ration books, father earned very little as a carpenter on building sites, and entertainment was the radio or an occasional trip to a local cinema. I remember my childhood as a time of Roy Rogers, Superman, and on the radio – ‘Journey to the Moon’ or ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ It was a time when the world around me was going through significant change, not that I was aware of that at the time. The Cold War was hotting up and a year earlier, in July, my birthday month, the first rocket took off from Cape Canaveral.
Yet while the advance of technology was astounding the world, Authorities in London and in particular the city was clearing bomb sites and rebuilding homes. Temporary residences, called prefabs, dotted many areas of suburbia and were intended for victims of the blitz or the homeless. Temporary became permanent and in my hometown, the last of them, situated next to our airport, were torn down well into the seventies as I recall. Home life may have been a little tough, but the one thing that kept us going was family togetherness. There was no better example of this than on a Sunday, about twice a month. My uncles and aunts and grandparents would arrive at our house armed with plates of food and cakes for a family tea. The afternoon was spent playing cricket out on the field in front of the house while the girls and the women did what girls and women do. Sometimes in the summer months, we would all pile into our uncles two cars and take off for a trip somewhere and a picnic. Teatime, back home, was salad and pilchards with a slice of bread followed by jelly and custard or a slice of Victoria sponge cake. In the evening we played a few games before bedtime – school in the morning. I never once lost touch with any of our family while I was a youngster and because of that, I have so many happy memories of those times.
There were, of course, holidays and I guess my favourite holiday was Christmas. It was a time when my family, despite the financial struggle my parents endured, came together, forgot the daily drudge, and lived for the fantasy and sparkle of Christmas. My father would appear a week or so before the 25th with a tree and fix it into a bucket. Mother would then cover the bucket in red crepe paper. In ‘51 I had an elder sister and another just born. Eventually, there would be three sisters and a brother. My older sister would help mother decorate the tree, and I would make a mental note where the chocolate foil covered coins were hung along with the pink and white sugar mice. A string of lights finished the job and then I got the job of making paper chains. I remember the terrible taste of the glue as each strip of coloured paper had to be licked at one end after passing it through the last part of the chain. Then we hung them across the room and some other decorations that when opened up, represented a bell. By the time the job was done my sister would then hang up all the Christmas cards and issue a warning. “Raymond, don’t touch.” This was accompanied with a look that warned of impending danger if I ‘touched.’
The tension mounted every day and on the last day of school my mother would give me a small box of cakes to be taken in for the school party. I really wasn’t interested in the school party but did look forward to the food. It was, therefore, normal during my time in junior school that twelve cakes in the box managed to count ten by the time I reached the school gates. The party always took place in the morning so we could go home at lunchtime. I would spend time avoiding the girls. It wasn’t a mixed school, and silly girls would try and give us a kiss, something to be avoided at all costs. If you got a kiss, it was a horrible wet one which you immediately cuffed off. Girls were those skinny or fat lot who did handstands up against the playground wall with their dress tucked into a pair of sexy navy blue knickers that came up to their armpits. You spied on them through the gates that separated our playgrounds and made silly taunts like – “Ziggy Zaggy, your knickers are all baggy.”
Christmas Eve then arrived, and the excitement boiled over. Father would give me a thick ear if I got in the way. I could not contain myself. Food being cooked in the kitchen. Chocolates on the tree. The smell of tangerines and oranges. Bowls of nuts and under the tree – presents! My uncles and aunts and grandparents all bought each one of us a present. My parents bought each one of us a present, and one of us would be lucky. My father was an artist in woodwork, and he would make a present for one of us. My sister, one year had a dolls house, I had a garage, and a horse on wheels was another present he made another year. He did wonderful things with his hands and a lot of his work, many years on, can still be seen around the town. Shop counters, church doors, display booths in builders merchants – the list goes on.
Expectant and full of energy there was no sleep on Christmas Eve until the early hours. When I woke, I always found one of my school socks at the foot of my bed. Inside there was a tangerine, some nuts, a torch, colouring book and crayons, and some small toy. The bed became a tent and the torch my entry into the world of make-believe. As dawn broke, my sister and I, and later all of us kids, would race downstairs and look at the presents. We had to wait for mother and father and when they did come down the unwrapping and tearing began. Gifts were revealed, and in our wake, the front living room became a montage of coloured paper and cellophane wrapping accompanied with the cacophony of excited shouts and noisy toys. What fun it was.
Breakfast was quick. Mother would have us wrap up and say “Go outside and play.” It was time for her to baste the bird that had been slowly cooking through the night and start cooking the vegetables for dinner. The funny thing was that outside I would find all my friends who had also been sent out to play. That was until I saw a familiar car driving up our road followed by another. My uncles and aunts. I knew if they were arriving, dinner was not far away. I don’t want to give the impression that I lived for food but times like Christmas, Easter or Sunday dinners were special. That’s when we had treats and food we didn’t normally get to enjoy.
Dinner was a jumbled up affair. The table was full, and with thirteen of us around it, you can imagine the balancing acts and juggling of plates. We would pull crackers and wear silly hats, but at that moment we were all kids enjoying our own company and to heck with all the ills of the period. But it was a great time with lots of talk and laughter. My uncle Jim would grab my knee and squeeze, making me scream. Of course, there was a pudding after dinner covered in custard and within it, a sixpence piece someone would find. After dinner, the girls cleared the table and disappeared into the kitchen while the men all snored after falling asleep in armchairs. That’s when I raided the tree for the chocolate coins.
Tea was grab anything that had been set out on the table, and for the rest of the evening, it was games time and no early night to bed. Glorious memories of these times as I grew up between the ages of five and ten. Of course, those times carried on, but that’s another story. Today, on the whole, we don’t have that kind of kindred spirit in family life. Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I wish I could live my life again and revisit my childhood. To all of my friends and colleagues – Happy Christmas and a Wonderful New Year.