Sunday 11 December 2022

Reflections on Christmases past

The holly . . . but no ivy
In the post-war years of the mid to late forties, and even into the fifties, 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.

'Rationing remained in effect until the early 1950s. Meat was the last item to be derationed and rationing ended completely in 1954, nine years after the war ended. The UK was the last country involved in the war to stop rationing food.'

In our house we children would wake to the exciting heaviness of a Christmas stocking at our feet. Although we would try to stay awake on Christmas Eve, we never saw the person who delivered the stockings and so could be deceived into half-believing that Father Christmas really existed. 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. I wonder how many ordinary people would do that now? Certainly, I have never done it. I wonder, too, how many children, today, accustomed to seeing 'oven-ready chickens' never make the connection to the feathered, living birds they might see on a school trip to a farm. Having said that, my soon-to-be son-in-law's nine-year-old son recently presented us with a pheasant he had drawn and plucked himself. I was very impressed!

Chicken was a rare 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 hopeful 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 unwrap presents. Each child would take it in turn to pick a parcel from beneath the tree and give it to the named recipient. The (real) Christmas tree, delightfully pine-smelling, was decorated with glass baubles and tinsel and real candles. Lighting the tiny candles must have taken a long time and there was obviously a real fire risk, but I don't recall any disasters. Cutting one's hand on a broken glass bauble was a more likely event.

We would all enjoy the pleasure of the unwrapping and the final display 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 parcel would be picked. So an enjoyable afternoon would be spent giving, receiving and thanking.

Christmas robin

I remember how shocked I was to discover that the 7 and 8 year-olds I worked with in the seventies and eighties, knew in advance what they were getting for Christmas. Not only that, they knew exactly how much it would cost. Where was the fun in that?

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, nuts, figs and bowls of fresh fruit. We enjoyed them for their rarity and because it would be another year before such a feast was spread again.

Shopping for food in the late forties and fifties entailed visiting many specialist shops – bread from the baker, dry goods like tea, flour and sugar 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 forgotten to buy something they needed they would have to go without it until the shops 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.  Nonetheless, a siege mentality persists and supermarket aisles are thronged with stressed shoppers pushing laden trollies of goods to see them through the 24 hours or so that the shops will be shut.

During the last thirty years or so Christmas increasingly has developed into a festival of greed and commercialism. From August the Christmas catalogues start arriving, each charity begging expenditure on often tawdry items. Later 'Good causes' encourage 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 carols most young children sing at school will be unfamiliar to all apart from their teachers and parents.

The supermarkets blare out endless repetitions of ghastly versions of seasonal songs old and new and worse still, shoppers find themselves singing along. Television and radio do their best to plug any gaps, so that it is nigh impossible to pass a day without an assault on the eardrums, unless those devices are out of service.

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. 

There is a tingle of magic about Christmas, a vision beyond the everyday, a hope of better things to come.

Redwing enjoying a meal of holly berries

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


  1. My heart soared like a hawk into the air, whilst reading this.; and it has not returned, yet. What a – yes: wonderful read. From paragraph to paragraph I kept innerly nodding. ;-)
    Thank you a lot!

    1. Thank you, Sean. I appreciate your comment.

  2. I agree with everything you wrote here, especially the part about everything now being available all the time, so where is the joy and the fun? That specialness that only happened once a year? Gone forever.

  3. It is sad and people seem to try so hard and spend so much money to try and recapture that long-lost specialness.

  4. Hi Janice - my parents raised chickens, sold parsley - it was green, and we were extremely lucky having a garden full of veg, fruit and chickens, pigs etc ... my life was very similar to your described here ... talk about difficulties of today - pale into complete insignificance to those experienced during the war and then for the first 10+ years afterwards ... I am in line with your other commenters.

    Your soon to be little in-law's son has done an amazing job ... good for him ... I never plucked a chicken - I'm sure I was around for part of it ... probably burning the last of the feathers off before it was completely plucked ready for the oven. I'm impressed with that nine year old too ... an excellent reflection of life back then.

    I enjoyed this - cheers Hilary

  5. Thank you, Hilary. I'd forgotten about the burning off of the feathers - but can smell it now!


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