I’m old enough to remember white Christmases.  More to the point I’m old enough to remember when Christmases, or at least the Christmas holiday, seemed generally white.  Every garden had its own snowman with pointy carrot nose and two lumps of coal for eyes.  Nowadays I don’t even know where you go to buy coal.  Strange really considering that my grandfather was a coal merchant.  He wouldn’t be impressed.

To a child, Christmas meant snow. I was eight before I realised ‘white Christmas’ was two words not one, so inseparable were they. To a 59 year old man with Parkinson’s, snow means slips and falls, broken bones and visits to casualty.  Snow compounds unsteadiness, makes faltering footsteps less confident. Snow hides cracks in the pavement loose paving and many other hazards.  I no longer see snow but accidents.  Wonder is replaced by a fear. Heavy snowfalls do not turn Northampton into Narnia.

But I digress. Back to Christmas and a snowy 1960s Doncaster

We lived in a tall Victorian terrace house on Thorne Road. In the living room was the biggest Christmas tree imaginable.  Every year we insisted my father bought a bigger tree than the previous year.  And every year he wrestled it up the stairs to our living room (the ground floor of the house was occupied by my father’s surgery).  More than once I would emerge from my bedroom to be confronted by what appeared to be a Norwegian forest making its way up the stairs towards me.  It was like a scene from Macbeth.  Only the continuo of muttering and oaths from my father behind it reassured me that the tree was not approaching under its own steam.

By the time the tree was in the living room, the wallpaper was torn, lampshades were askew, and pine needles littered the landing like hypodermics in a crack den. Everything in the house smelt of pine.  Except for my father who smelt as though he’d gone 15 rounds with Joe Bugner.  But this did not distract him from the lights.  It goes without saying they didn’t work.  For the next hour my father would be changing bulb after bulb in methodical sequence while Venetia and I made paper chains and Charlie gurgled in amusement from his high chair. Finally father declared the lights ready, and with a fanfare plugged them in, plunging the entire house instantly into darkness. Sometimes the neighbours too. The fuse box was in the basement and it would be another 15 minutes before we had lighting again.  My sister and I amused ourselves by playing murder in the dark while mother would decamp to the kitchen with a candle and a bottle of Bristol Cream until the ‘all clear’.

Christmas Eve was always a slow crescendo of excitement.  There was no school, no relatives to visit, and my father did not have surgery.  Christmas Eve was family alone. Around late afternoon we had brief visits from some of my father’s grateful patients – Mrs Ferruzzi with Grappa and panettone and bear hugs for my father. And Mr Kowalski, a retired Polish miner with bottles of Polish vodka.  Every year. They were as much a part of Christmas as tinsel and baubles. Less welcome were the local ruffians masquerading as carol singers who thought that a couple of growled lines of Jingle Bells entitled them to a the equivalent of a city banker’s annual bonus. You didn’t have to pay them of course. But finding the doorway used as a urinal was even less attractive. My father’s solution was to close the blackout curtains and wait in an upstairs window with a powerful semiautomatic Russian assault rifle. Yes, I am joking – but he certainly felt that way. In any case, you couldn’t get the ammunition in Doncaster.

As night fell, and mother busied herself in the kitchen, my sister and I would watch the snow falling outside our window in big heavy flakes – the street outside silent but for the occasional swish of tyres or giggling revellers gingerly making their way home from The Salutation past the Gaumont cinema and Christ Church with its stained glass windows like beacons in the night.  Muffled snatches of evensong broke the silence as the snow shrouded the headstones in the churchyard, falling on the quick and the dead alike.

By 9pm, my father would abandon his vigil, pack away the AK47, and pour himself a sherry.

The house smelt of Christmas.  Cloves, citrus, brandy and cinnamon mingled with sausages and gravy as my mother cooked what she could before Christmas day itself. Usually we had a frozen turkey for Christmas and my mother started defrosting the fowl around October, or so it seemed. One year, at my mother’s suggestion, my father bought a turkey from a local farm, freshly killed and plucked in front of him. It was the size of an emu and the farmer was ill-prepared for the stiff resistance the bird put up. For several minutes It was touch and go who would kill who.  My father placed it on the dining room table with a thud, simultaneously striking a pose, hands on hips, like some latter day Nimrod.

We had a small turkey for Christmas dinner that year – nobody had thought to check whether the emu would fit in the oven.

Of course, the larger the turkey the longer it lasted. Turkey slices in a Boxing Day cold collation was one thing. Counting the New Year in with a festive turkey risotto was quite another. And turkey haggis on Burns night was a bridge too far, something nobody should have to face. My father – because that’s what fathers do – ate the stringy bits we children would not. He hated waste. Still does. I have an enduring memory of him at the kitchen table staring glumly at a turkey sandwich like a figure from Conrad. “The horror, the horror” he seemed to be saying.

Around 11, we children were despatched to bed, on the understanding that Father Christmas would not stop at houses where children were awake. On a small table on the landing was a carrot for the reindeer and a mince pie and thimble of sherry for Santa. One particularly fraught Christmas, Santa had a tumbler of whisky waiting for him. “But Santa will go all giggly” I said to mother. “Santa needs to” she replied.

I was usually the first to wake on Christmas morning and would tiptoe downstairs to establish that Santa had left presents. Even more impressive was the fact that he had successfully negotiated the holly I had packed into the chimney breast as a prank.

We children were under strict instructions from mother not to open anything until a parent was present. Naturally we paid no attention. Ten minutes after waking, everything was unwrapped and Charlie gurgled away from beneath a mountain of wrapping paper.  One of us knocked over a plant pot.

The noise woke my parents. There was a moment before the full import dawned on my them. Mother shrieked. “Dear God, they’re in the living room”. Both ran downstairs but it was too late – neither my sister nor I knew what belonged to who, nor who indeed had sent what. “Don’t move” said mother as they tried to piece together the crime scene and ascribe the right donor to the correct gift and its intended recipient.

A period of comparative peace ensued as I played with my Thunderbird 2 and my sister decorated her dolls house in the style of Jackson Pollock with a tin of red emulsion she had found in the basement. The emulsion also added a new dimension of realism when my Action Man ‘went postal’ and machine gunned Sindy and her coterie of dolls. Fortunately my new tank had not come with batteries or things would have been worse.

When Christmas dinner was ready, mother rang a cowbell we had bought from Kuhtai and we descended like wolves on the dining room. My father heightened anticipation with a theatrically languid sharpening of the carving knife before he nodded and the turkey was wheeled in on a groaning trolley. While father carved, we pulled crackers and tickled Charlie. The jokes seemed worse each year but somehow we never tired of the compasses, keyrings, bottle openers, and whistles. The flaming of the Christmas pudding was always a treat. Steeped in brandy, the pudding lit with a ferocity that singed eyebrows. The ensuing laughter helped blunt the pain from teeth cracked by the many coins lurking within.

After dinner we watched the telly – a brooding mahogany edifice like a sideboard. Nestling like an eyeball in the centre of this structure, and perhaps no bigger than a dinner plate, was the screen. Bracketing the screen in stark contrast were huge speakers covered in a sort of green baize with an art deco sunset motif. Baize was appropriate since each speaker was the size of a snooker table. It had taken four men just to get it up the stairs.

Switching on the telly for the Queen’s speech visibly dimmed the lights. That’s if it didn’t blow the fuses again. You could boil an egg in the time it took to warm up. Meanwhile, my sister and I hid round the back watching the glow from valves the size of marrows, and doubtless receiving doses of X rays normally reserved for radiotherapy. This thing fogged film

The day ended the same way each year – parents replete in postprandial torpor, children snorkelling their way through the Quality Street and Tizer. Tucked up in bed I asked my mother how Santa knew I liked my new toys.

“He knows” she said “he just knows”.

from “Slice of Life” (c) 2010

Christmas Past

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