For those of you who were not born till the Sixties, or much later, here are some of my childhood memories of Christmas during the 50's in the UK.
A British Working Class Christmas in the Fifties
Born in 1952 I suppose it would be halfway through the 50's before I really began to take much notice of what was happening. Our parents were classed as relatively old back then, as most of our neighbours were young parents. My dad was aged 36 when my brother was born and my mum was 33. There had been a baby boy a year or so before but he was sadly born dead. In many ways it is safe to assume that if he had survived I would not be here today, boring you all to death or hopefully entertaining you.
Two children, however, were ample for a family struggling to make ends meet, and having one parent with health issues. My brother was born in 1950 and myself in 1952.
As the only children, in what was an ageing extended family I guess we were pretty spoiled financially. Yes our parents had little money but dad always worked and a myriad of great aunts and uncles supplied plenty of presents and some remuneration.
Christmas was I suppose a strange affair but we loved it. After all Christmas is whatever it is to you and, if the spirit is right, then it should be fun.
We were brought up to attend Sunday School and regular church services each Sunday, Celebrations such as Easter and Christmas were not just special because they were a holiday but because they had a religious significance.
At advent there was usually a Sunday School presentation. This was often a book or some years an illustrated children's bible. To this day I have my first Advent presentation which was a prayer book. This book is a little larger that A5 in size. It is called "I ask a Blessing" and has children's prayers with little illustrations. The hard book cover is a little worn at the edges but considering this book's age the condition is not bad. This book was presented to me in 1955. I would have been 31/2 years old. It is very special to me.
All school's held nativity plays and my favourite memory is from 1957. Having just started school that year I was chosen to be Mary. Thankfully it was a mime. Always a chatterbox, even then, I was shy out of the home. I wore a collection of items from my Mum's linen so that I wore white with a dark blue towel draped over my head, as a shawl.
One of the other significant events to do with church at Christmas was our Church's pantomime. As kids we loved this. The plays which we had to appear in were a nightmare for me but watching someone else was lovely. St Stephen's church, which was to become Hull Truck theatre years down the road, held great pantos. Who the actors were I have no idea.
Perhaps they were amateurs drawn from members of the congregation. Whoever they were they were good.
Our Christmas tree and decorations
The decorations in the fifties were often sticky coloured paper looped together to make a brightly coloured paper chain. We also had fluffy tissue paper decorations which opened up into a fat Santa or Christmas bell. These were usually kept for years but the paper chains were replaced each year. This meant that someone had the chore of sticking all of these links of paper together. As kids though we loved it. To complete the decorations a sprig of Holly and one or two of Mistletoe would be strategically placed around our home.
We had the same Christmas tree forever. Now you may think that I am exaggerating but I am not. When my Mum died in 1975 and we emptied her home there it was, our little Christmas tree. It looked small, sad and neglected. As children though we thought it was perfect.
When decorated the tree was placed on the top of our TV set. The tree was 3 to 4 feet high, artificial and was really quite sparse. Once Mum had decorated it though it looked amazing or it did to me. Amongst our tree ornaments we had:-
Perhaps it was because my parents were a little older or maybe just the times, but we had a traditional British Christmas stocking. This was placed at the end of our beds. When we grew and were more street wise this became a pillowcase full of presents.
However as small children we had a stocking which was actually one of my Dad's huge, knee length working socks. This would have layers of small gifts and treats. The knobbly bottom of the sock would be due to an orange or tangerine, an apple and some large shelled nuts. We would barter these with each other. As a child I did not eat nuts and swapped these.
In the stocking there would be small gifts such as skipping ropes, balls, yo-yos, a kaleidoscope, water pistols, penny whistles a toy harmonica, doll's clothes, colouring books, crayons and more. It could take ages to fully empty this sock. We then went onto the gifts that Santa had brought.
In some ways these could be opened quicker. Wrapping paper lovingly placed was ripped open in a flash. Over the years gifts included a toy sewing machine,a brownie box camera, a trike and roller skates.
We usually received a new bicycle each year but it was not really new. Dad would have a couple of bike frames in our Great Aunt's attic room. He would disappear from time to time and this would be where he was. As if his hour's of work were not long enough he would add new wheels, a sparkling bell, a lick of paint, new brakes and whatever else was necessary so that we each had a new bike at Christmas. Sure some years I had a boy's bike and sometimes it was my brother's old bike after a makeover.
Dad biked to work and all over the place really. As children he would take us off on our bikes each weekend. We would tour the local dockland or countryside stopping of at Museums and such, now and then.
Santa and Me
Well to start with I was not keen on the big fella. Santa, Father Christmas, or St Nick, call him what you will, but I found him rather daunting. He would appear at school parties, Sunday school lunches, local stores, Hull Fair and more. Sometimes he appeared a little taller, or a little fatter and he usually seemed rather peculiar. Yes, I know it was probably one of his helpers or assistants but all of this was rather unsettling. I would be terrified that he would call my name and I may have to meet this man.
Whilst we were at our Great Aunt's Christmas Eve party he would begin delivering presents. One year, as we were heading home a young man shouted at my brother that Santa had already passed overhead. Still my brother raced home with my Dad and hopped into bed almost fully dressed and it was OK. His presents were there at the end of his bed next morning.
A while ago, with such memories in mind, I penned a sort of poem or ode to Santa that goes like this:-
When I was young
it seemed strange to me,
that at Christmas time
I would sit on the knee,
of a rather fat man
all dressed in red
who on Christmas Eve
left presents on my bed.
Just how this man
travelled here and then there
I was not sure
and so I would stare
when Santa appeared
at our school or a store
and then in a flash
be gone through the door.
How could this man
ride on a sleigh
that flew through the sky
on our special day?
How could he give
to so many so fast
such beautiful toys
that were made to last?
The strangest thing though
was that on Christmas night
he would climb down our chimney
which must have been tight.
So that when we awoke,
so early next day,
our presents were there
but not Santa's sleigh.
Still, as we all know,
now we are grown,
mostly its magic
that brings Santa to our home.
Its best not to wonder
just how things appear
but enjoy what you are given
for Christmas this year.
My final memories of Santa are from encounters in the local high street stores, and their Christmas Grottoes. It was usually my great aunt that accompanied us. This Santa was so big that he usually scared me half to death and his presents were often terrible.
Christmas food and drink
For various reasons my Dad hardly drank alcohol. Still the odd beer at Christmas seemed the usual. Mum would have her one or two cigarettes of the year and the occasional glass of sherry. We kids had Dandelion and Burdock or Cream Soda.
The Christmas lunch bird was usually chicken as it was much cheaper than a turkey. However we had all the trimmings. Homemade stuffing, mince pies, Christmas, cake and Christmas pudding. There was always a huge tin of Quality Street chocolates a large tin of assorted biscuits, a selection of nuts in their shells, a massive trifle and plenty of apples and oranges. Dad would roast some chestnuts on the fire as we sat and toasted our toes By Boxing Day everyone was bored of eating rich foods and wanted something simple such as egg and chips.
My family were really quite musical. We had a large upright piano at home and Dad would rattle out any tune as soon as he had heard it. The tune would be jazzed up or played in rag time style. He also had an old radiogram which had customised speakers added. This was great for belting out his favourites such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby or Elvis.
Added to this there was a harmonica and an accordion. These were taken to the Christmas Eve bash were everyone would join in singing or have a little dance.
The local theatre held professional pantomimes and we were sometimes taken by our parents or our school. Oh no you weren't. Oh yes we were. You get the picture.
We only had a television set from the late fifties so our early childhood was spent visiting, playing, listening to the radio, reading, drawing or whatever. The relatives who we visited at Christmas, those who had TV sets, were in general older. One family only had the BBC on their TV set and watched programs such as The Billy Cotton Band Show or The Black and White Minstrels. Imagine that these days.
On the whole
So there you have a brief glimpse into my childhood Christmases of 1950's Britain. Our small house had no bathroom and an outside loo which seems terrible these days. There was only a fire downstairs and so the bedrooms were freezing. With my Rupert Bear hot water bottle though and a large green eiderdown I was safe from the world.
You may be thinking that I was rich compared to you or thinking that I was deprived. Neither is right nor wrong.
I loved my childhood Christmases. They were wacky, even then, but such fun. I guess the one fact that made them so appealing was that they were shared with loved ones. So many of these people have not been around for many years, but they are such a big part of these memories.
So as you write this year's letter to Santa with your demands remember that is not really the point of it all. Christmas is the Season of Goodwill and, yes the gifts and the trimmings are great, but they are not the essential ingredient.
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