Many families have Christmas traditions, and our family was definitely one of those, and I still have fond memories of family Christmases when I was growing up. But time changes everything, and unfortunately it’s now been many years since those happy times of my youth. While the big family celebrations are no more, the memory of them lingers on and I can still picture them in my mind.
I grew up on the South Coast of England, but the rest of my family on my Mother’s side all lived in the same area in Warwickshire, around the town of Rugby, where they had for generations.
Every Christmas we would travel up to spend Christmas with my Grandmother, who had a large house, and this would be the centre of festivities for the Christmas celebrations.
My Grandparents had bought the house along with my uncle and aunt, and all four of them lived there, together with my two cousins, who were older than me.
Our school holidays for Christmas in England were a full two weeks, and so I would get to spend a long time up there, and there was always plenty to do.
The festivities began on Christmas Eve, when we usually had Pheasant for dinner. One of my uncles had connections with an estate owner, and so a brace (pair) of pheasants usually hung in the kitchen for a week or two to “ripen” ready for the special occasion.
Then in the evening all my uncles, aunts and cousins would come around to my Grandmothers house, swapping presents, and having drinks and nibbles. Since we hadn’t usually seen them since the summer, this was a great social occasion, and the house was pretty full all evening long.
Then of course it was off to bed early for me, and up early the next morning, to see what Santa had brought for me.
In those days it wasn’t like now, where some children get really spoiled and have 20 or more presents to open. Back then there were far fewer presents, and you had to hope that each one counted!
Of course as so often happened years ago, children got underwear, socks and handkerchiefs, the last thing that they “really” wanted for Christmas, and ironically as I have got older and could actually use gifts of such things, I have rarely got them, such is life.
Christmas morning began with my eagerly looking for presents under the Christmas tree, but no presents got opened until everyone had sat down to eat breakfast together, and this is one tradition that our family had, and I don’t know of any other family who does this anywhere.
While waiting for breakfast I would also help my aunt rake the ashes out of the fireplace, and light the fire, since in the early 1960’s there was no central heating in my Grandmother’s house.
For breakfast on Christmas Day we would always have Pork Pie, which is an English thing, but never usually eaten for breakfast. This was no ordinary pie though, it was the best Pork Pie in the world, and it came from Pontins Butchers in the town, which sadly got closed down for health violations many years ago, but nevertheless their Pork Pies were like none I have every tasted since. The Pork Pie would be served cold with Colman’s Mustard and Bread and Butter, the regular white sliced Mothers Pride bread that most of the country used to eat back then. It was so good.
Finally, after breakfast on Christmas morning, it was time for everyone to open their presents. We all sat in the living/dining room, and it was fun to see what everyone was given. My main present as usual was kept to last, and it was well worth waiting for.
Then before you knew it, it was time for Christmas Dinner, which is the biggest meal of the year in England, really the equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner in the USA.
Christmas means TURKEY, and we always had a large fresh turkey, that had often been cooking in the oven since the night before. The kitchen had a Rayburn oven that was wood fired and always kept lit, and this not only kept the kitchen warm, it also made the very best Roast Potatoes and Yorkshire Puddings.
There were usually about 10 or twelve of us sitting down to Christmas Dinner, which would consist of Roast Turkey, Stuffing, Roast Potatoes, Roast Parsnips, Yorkshire Pudding, Brussel Sprouts, Cauliflower, Peas and Carrots, Bread Sauce and thick Bisto Gravy (brand name that practically everyone used). In later years we added Cranberry Sauce, but I don’t remember it back then.
Prior to eating of course it was a tradition for everyone to pull their Christmas Crackers, which are novelties for Christmas that two people pulled, went “bang”, and inside was a party hat, balloon, joke and a gift. Nowadays Christmas Crackers usually just have a hat, bad joke and a worthless gift, but the ones we had in those days were really good.
The ladies in the family were always allowed to have the best part of the turkey, the breast, while the men generally had the legs and wings, and so I was usually fortunate enough to have a leg, and enjoyed being able to pick up the bone and to bite the meat off it, imagining that I was King Henry VIII or something. It all just tasted wonderful.
For desert it was always a home bade Christmas Pudding with Rum Butter, and Mince Pies, none of which I liked. Since we didn’t have a freezer and buy ice cream in those days, we used to pour Carnation Milk on our deserts, and on Christmas Day I used to have a tin of Sliced Peaches with Carnation Milk to finish off my meal.
Then with full bellies all round and the table cleared, we all sat down to watch television, and what has become a British tradition on Christmas Day for many years, the Queen’s Speech. This is always at 3pm on Christmas Day, and is followed by a blockbuster movie, which back then used to mean a James Bond film or something like that.
Back then we only had two television channels, and movies were not allowed to be shown on television for at least two years (or so) after they had been released in the cinema. Since nobody had VCR’s in those days, if you didn’t see a film at the cinema, the only other way to see it was on television.
Soon enough it was time for tea (we always called our meals Breakfast, Dinner and Tea, rather than Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner for some reason), and although we should have still been stuffed, we usually had cold meat and sandwiches, with cold turkey, and tinned ham. Now I don’t know exactly why we had tinned ham, and maybe this was a tradition left over from the war, but on Christmas Day that was what we had. These days you can still buy it, but not many people do.
So after a busy day when I had greatly added to the excess pounds that I already had, it was off to bed, to dream of playing with my toys the following day.
Now Christmas in the UK doesn’t end with Christmas Day, as the following day is also a big holiday, Boxing Day. I believe that it is called this because people used to box up gifts for the needy, but in truth nobody really knows the origins of Boxing Day.
This was a day for me mostly filled with playing with my new presents, and also annoying my Grandmother, since I would blow up the balloons that we got in the Christmas Crackers, rub them on my woollen sweater to create static electricity, then stick them on the ceiling, where they would remain for days. Often I would leave them there at the end of the holidays when we left, and since my Grandmother could not reach them, there they would stay for maybe weeks, until the softened and came down, leaving behind a black ring of dust that had been attracted to the static.
Boxing Day was another tradition for us, the Family Christmas Party, and because this was a special occasion, the front room would be used. Many houses in England used to have a front room, which was just for special occasions such as this, or for when visitors arrived. It seems strange now looking back that there were rooms unused, when so many houses in England now just have a living room that is barely adequate for a small family.
Everyone, family and friends, came to the party on Boxing Day, and it was always a fun affair. There was plenty of food of course (and I put on even more pounds), the kitchen was filled with lots of bottles of drink, which my cousin and I managed to sneak samples of if we were lucky, but we never got drunk!
In the front room my cousin’s record player was busy playing the latest 45’s, The Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five, and the Everly Brothers. People were dancing, and it was fun to see my cousins Rock n’ Rolling with their boyfriends. Everybody got up to try their hand at the latest dance craze – The Twist.
Then my Dad would get on the piano and play all the old “sing-a-long” songs that everybody knew, the old wartime songs and pub songs, like Roll Out The Barrel, It’s A Long Way To Tipperary etc, and it was a wonderful way for everyone to get together and have a great time.
Sadly now I only have one uncle and one aunt left from those days. My Grandparents and parents have passed on, as have the other uncles and aunts. My cousins and I are the senior generation, and most of us are now Grandparents ourselves.
Although many of the family do still live in the same area, I loved to London, then to the USA for 15 years, and now back to the South Coast of England. One cousin moved to New Zealand 35 years ago, another to the North of England, and really it was because of my Grandparents that we all came together.
We keep in touch through telephone calls and the internet of course, but are far more likely to contact friends that we have never met than other family members, and we rarely get to see the new generations that have come along any more, except at weddings and funerals.
It’s sad really that families have ended up moving far away from each other over the years, and that closeness of years gone by has disappeared as a result, but time changes everything, except for fond memories of Christmases gone by that linger on in our minds.