I've just been reading Owlfarmer's post on gifts and it sparked memories of Christmases past.
In the post-war years of the mid to late forties the UK was struggling to recover from years of devastation and hardship. Food was still rationed and people thought carefully about how they used their allowances. Christmas was a time to enjoy something a little different, a treat.
In our house the children would wake to the exciting heaviness of a Christmas stocking at our feet. Packed inside would be all manner of small inexpensive gifts and in the toe of the stocking we would find a tangerine and a handful of nuts.
I recall my mother drawing and plucking a chicken for our Christmas dinner. Chicken was a luxury and we had one at Christmas and perhaps another at Easter. Dinner was roast chicken 'with all the trimmings' which allowed the meat to go a little further. My mother cooked roast potatoes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, carrots, giblet gravy and bread sauce. To follow there were mince pies and Christmas pudding with brandy butter with the anticipation of finding a silver sixpence in your helping. Christmas crackers were fun and we liked the silly hats and trinkets inside and the groaning jokes.
In the afternoon we would have the gift-giving ceremony. Each child would take it in turn to pick a parcel from beneath the tree and give it to the named recipient. We would all watch and enjoy the pleasure of the unwrapping and the final showing of the gift. Often it would be an item of clothing which would have to be tried on and modelled for our delight. When that present had been thoroughly appreciated by everyone the next package would be selected. So an enjoyable afternoon would be spent giving, receiving and thanking.
Tea followed – Christmas cake with silver ball decorations and a Father Christmas standing on the white icing 'snow'. After that, before bed-time, we would play board games or cards or read. It was a warm, relaxed time in front of a crackling fire. Thinking back now I wonder just how relaxed my mother felt by the end of the day!
On Boxing Day we would have soup, cold meat and bubble and squeak. My parents tried to make the special feeling of Christmas last a while longer by holding back a few little gifts which were always said to be 'from the tree.' Around the room were small boxes of chocolates, dates, figs and bowls of fruit that we could sample. We enjoyed them for their rarity and because it would be another year before such a feast was spread again.
Shopping for food in those days entailed visiting many specialist shops – bread from the baker, dry goods like tea and flour from the grocer, meat from the butcher, fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer, fish from the fishmonger, confectionery from the sweet shop. The shopping list would follow the route to be taken, starting with the greengrocer at the far end of town. Shops were open for a matter of hours, from 8:00 or 9:00 a.m until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m for five or five and a half days. They shut at close of business on Christmas Eve and opened again on the first working day after Boxing Day. If someone had neglected to buy something she needed she would have to go without it until the shops were re-opened. Provided all the necessities were in the larder there was a tremendous feeling of relief once there was no possibility of shopping again until after the holiday.
Now everything is available throughout the year. The seasonal foods no longer hold sway since whatever is desired may be purchased at any time, fresh, frozen, dried, produced locally or thousands of miles away. In the western world we live in a bubble of self-indulgence, able to satisfy our every whim and fancy at any time of day or night. If the local shop is closed there's always an all-night garage or a twenty-four-hour store if we really cannot wait for our fix of whatever we want.
During the last twenty years or so Christmas increasingly has developed into a festival of greed and commercialism. From August the Christmas catalogues start to arrive, each charity exhorting expenditure on often tawdry items. Later 'Good causes' beg us to support them and in December Salvation Army and silver bands pluck at our heart and purse strings with their brassy renditions of carols, many of which will be unfamiliar to young school-children. The supermarkets blare out endless repetitions of ghastly versions of seasonal songs old and new and worse still, shoppers find themselves singing along. Houses sprout unlikely decorations – blinking, twinkling, nerve-rending flashing lights in all colours while jolly Santas stride across roof-tops and inflatable reindeer prance behind them. Is it because our winters are so drear that we embrace these gaudy decorations? Sunlight may be scarce but we can make our own brightness – and it all looks so sad when Christmas is over. There's a brief renewal in the lead-up to New Year's Eve, a final flash of brightness of fireworks as the Old Year dies and finally we face cold, dull January and wonder if there will ever be dazzling days again.
Where is the true meaning of Christmas now? Is our anticipation always to be disappointed because we have so much all the time and salve our consciences for those who have nothing by dropping coins in a collection tin? Where is the joy? For me it is in the faces of my family in the moments when they are laughing or day-dreaming or simply enjoying each other's company, in the wonderment of small children as they see something they have never seen before, in the quiet moments when walking alone or waking in the night when everyone else sleeps. These times are present throughout the year but take on special significance at Christmas. Whatever your beliefs or lack of them, this annual holiday affords a time for reflection. Take a moment from the rushing crowds or the press of visitors and look up, maybe (probably!) through the rain at the vastness of the sky and consider your place in the universe. We are insignificant organisms struggling towards the light. We came from stardust and to stardust we will return.
'For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return' Genesis 3:19