Once upon a time Christmas began in December, with just a little tease, no baubles, no blast of lights. The tiny window, number 1, hidden in the busy picture sprinkled with glitter. When we propped the calendar against the window the picture always thrilled. Around the middle of the month, when I opened number 15, the delicious smells of Christmas would waft upstairs to my bedroom.
“Come and stir” she shouted. I whizzed down the mahogany bannister and thew myself at the kitchen door. She unlocked it, brow dusted with flour, housecoat awry, cursing “bloody patients” for the phone always seemed to her to ring while she was in the middle of something – which was always. I listened to her snap “Well how long have you had the cough? Then why didn’t you call Dr Horsley earlier? This is a very busy time of the year you know, you can’t expect him to just drop everything….” Afterwards the wooden spoon clattered harder against the side of the big cream bowl.
“Make a wish, and stir again.”
“You put breadcrumbs in there? Eeuw.” But when I stirred, feeling the heavy drag of the mix against the spoon, then tasted it – it was delicious.
Next came the cake, “far too late” she fussed “I should have done it months ago.” I became adept at dodging her cat’s cradle paths from the sink in the scullery to kitchen table, and stove. I learnt the importance of the ‘heavy drop’. Spoon suspended a foot above the bowl, I let the mix plop into the bowl like a cow pat. Not enough plop? More milk would be added. A splat instead of a plop and you’d blown it but with the drop just right the cake would be evenly moist all through. What we feared most in those days was not the soggy bottom, it was the soggy middle.
Biscuits were made in industrial quantities, almond and hazelnut. The smell of singed hazelnuts meant keep well away from the kitchen, for the stove was unpredictable depending on the direction of the wind. (The birds did well out of baking days.) Mum’s hands became shiny with butter as she rolled the dough into balls. My job was to flatten them slightly as I pressed a nut or a quarter of cherry into the middle of each one. The cooked biscuits were arranged on plates on a lacy paper doily and covered in greaseproof paper to be distributed to the receptionist at the surgery, Brewer our gardener, Mrs Grindle the cleaner, the dustbin men, the postman, Zigna Laarson (in exchange for her hated peppermint creams) and Bertie Robertson the sports master at my brothers’ school, also a vegetarian. Bertie, a bachelor with no family, would join us on Christmas day.
My poor mother had scant help from any of us as the day approached. My father would be fighting off his own asthma, struggling to cope with all the afflictions caused by the seeping, soggy, town of Gloucester (Dr Foster made a wise decision). I don’t remember my brothers, all older than me, lifting a so much as a scuttle. Perhaps the lock on the kitchen door was testament to my usefulness? Never easy about her relationship with her spinster sister-in-law who came to us most Sundays, Aunty Mamie would be fetched from her flat in Longford which overlooked the advancing floods. Sitting by the fire, knees akimbo, exposing long pink silk knickers she would read.
Aunty Helen, another of my father’s sisters, who lived “Up North’ would be fetched from the station to sour the cream and spread misery with her interminable pessimism. (We’d beg to exclude her every year – it never worked.) In the afternoon the two aunts would vie for the spot in front of the fireplace, hitch up the back of their tweed skirts and rub the warmth into their buttocks and then turn like spits to do the other side, skirt held out. Banished from the kitchen, they bickered the day away in this manner.
None of this helped my mother’s crescendo of stress, which peaked around midnight on christmas eve when she’d finally get round to dressing the tree. Pernickety about how it was done, she left only the lametta for me to add in the morning. Sent early to bed I’d lie awake, fizzing with excitement, hearing her scuffle about in the boxes of decorations. I turned round and round in my bed like a dog in a basket terrified Father Christmas wouldn’t come if I didn’t sleep.
The weight on my feet and the rustle of tissue paper when I moved woke me before dawn. “Not yet,” she’d hiss through the door, “wait till seven.” After a few minutes I’d rap on the bedroom wall again until she gave up, and came in to perch on the end of my bed to share my surprise and delight as I unwrapped the gifts from their screws of tissue paper. The contents were deliciously familiar each year: a clicking frog, chocolate money, paper flowers that opened in a bowl of water, a few walnuts, plastercine, maybe a small cloth bag of brass jacks and ball, a few marbles. Lastly in the toe, without fail, a cox’s apple and a tangerine. (I’d completely forget that I’d spent the weeks before christmas with my head stuck between the gas fire and the chimney in my bedroom requesting a fairly costume.)
As soon as I was allowed up I’d race downstairs to be first to find the box of homemade fudge on the front door step. Each year Bertie ran all the way from from Stonehouse to Gloucester to deliver his present before dawn and then ran home again to change.
Opening our presents took up most of the morning; they were not the extravagant toys of today. Fuzzy felt, maybe an etch-a-sketch – one year a Mason Pearson hairbrush that I did my best to get excited about. A ten shilling note from Granny, the same from Aunty Mamie. I remember the year I realised that it didn’t have to be all one way. I had a small amount of pocket money and I used it to buy a pack of Price’s candles and some wax crayons. I melted them together on the stove and made big coloured candles in pudding bowls for my four brothers, aunts and parents. My brother Ian was withering, but I thought them very nice.
Bertie would reappear around 11, ice blue eyes sparkling in his tanned climber’s face, sheep white aran sweater; I loved Bertie from when I was about 4 years old. After he arrived we were rounded up to be taken for a long walk, leaving Mum on her own to cook dinner for 10. I’d bag the front seat in Bertie’s white sports car so I could have him all to myself. Dad loaded up my brothers and we’d drive miles to the Forest of Dean, the Malverns or even as far as the Black Mountains to ‘work up an appetite’.
Finally the meal: a great feast, spread out on the sideboard in silver serving dishes. Eaten off green Beryl plates on delicate white lace mats that only came out once a year. The silver candles, gravy boats, cutlery and crystal glasses had been polished to perfection by Mrs Grindle. Dad filled our glasses with fizzy apple Shloer – for there was no alcohol allowed for Order of the Cross members. The cake, the pudding and the trifle more than made up for it however.
We never had an hors oeuvre, the meal began with nut roast, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips, and sprouts from the garden with the slugs washed out. The gravy was flavoured with marmite, the bread sauce by floating a onion studded with cloves in the milk and adding a rare treat: white breadcrumbs. There’d be jelly made from red currants I’d helped to pick in the summer. The Christmas nut roast was made special by adding a sausage roll of stuffing made from white bread, thyme, sage and grated lemon rind laid through the middle. When the roast was cut, circles of pale green stuffing appeared like magic in the middle of each slice. Pine nut kernels, rare and terribly expensive then, were sprinkled on top with dabs of butter to roast it.
Finally, the puddings. First we had Christmas pudding (brought to the table with blue flaming brandy licking the sides), served with a sweet white sauce. My mother, with sleight of hand, sneaked a silver 3p bit wrapped in greaseproof paper into each portion. Then we had mince pies served with top of the milk and strong cheddar cheese; trifle; fruit salad; meringues and brandy snaps stuffed with cream. Funny thing is, I don’t remember any of this being turned down by any of us. We even managed to end the enormous meal by eating one of mother’s favourite Elizabeth Shaw mints. The only thing we rejected were the Meltis fruit jellies (from a grateful patient to an ungrateful family) and Zigna Laarson’s dreadful peppermint creams.