Christmas Blues and the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

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Actually, this title is a bit misleading as there is NO NEED for Christmas to get you down – all you have to do is avoid the crowds, the shops and the demands for the latest must-have toy or gadget! Were Christmases less commercial in my childhood? Perhaps they were, or maybe we were just a bit poorer in the fifties. I suppose we all have a tendency to look back and imagine things were better and simpler “then”. Maybe it’s just that WE were simpler. I remember that when my own children were very little we didn’t put up the Christmas tree until after they’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve and they’d wake up in the morning to find that Christmas had magically arrived and Santa had been.

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At this time of the year, there’s always a strong element of nostalgia intermingled in the celebrations, isn’t there? We recall how things used to be, and those who are no longer with us. So there is often just a hint of sadness in the mix, which makes it all the more precious I suppose. I’ve been looking back through my – somewhat random – collection of family photos and memorabilia in order to connect with those far off ghosts of the past and to get an inkling of the origins of my family Christmas.

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1931 – I’ve written before about my grandmother – and namesake – Beatrice, who died of TB in 1932. She spent the Christmas of 1931, which of course turned out to be her last, in a sanitorium far from home. We have letters from that time to “Dear Mamma”, which give a flavour of Christmas at home without Mamma for John, Mary and Donald (my Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Donald), aged 10, 9 and 6. In John’s letter dated 25 December, he hopes that Mamma “likes the Gramophone that dada took up to you”. I like to imagine Beatrice and her fellow inmates and staff gathered round said gramophone to enjoy the hits of the day – Stardust, Minnie the Moocher and this one, Goodnight Sweetheart by Al Bowlly, which was also a hit that year for several other crooners including a certain promising young baritone named Bing Crosby.

Perhaps you’d like to listen as you read the childrens’ letters. First Mary.

And John. I notice that he says they didn’t decorate the room other than putting up holly and mistletoe. Probably that was Mamma’s job…

John 25 decJohn 26 Dec #1John 26 dec #2John 26 dec #3John 26 dec #4

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1945 – Here we have a menu from wartime. I think that the No. 120 Maintenance Unit might have been in North Africa at the time, somewhere in the desert. No doubt my Dad and his mates enjoyed their traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – a taste of home and another big turkey.

If they’d had a gramophone in the Mess, they could have listened to Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas or the Vaughn Monroe orchestra with Let it Snow.

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1959 – These are Christmas cards sent to us individually by our Great Aunt Ettie, who was a nun in Dundee and went by the name of Sister Mary Evangelist. There were four of us girls by this time and the family still lived in Govan. Christmas hit that year? Little Drummer Boy by the Beverley Sisters.

I don’t know what, if any, were the childhood Christmas traditions followed by my Mum’s family in Ireland – if you remember, I’ve not been able to track down any photographs of the young Nellie – though I’m certain it would have involved a ceilidh or two and plenty of poteen. So maybe the excitement of us unpacking our knobbly stockings at the end of our beds came from our Dad’s bank of memories (though I never got an actual onion in my stocking!), as did the paperchain decorations which were always carefully folded up and put away, ready for the next year. Another thing that would be brought out was a small candle holder where the heat from the candles made four little cherubs spin round and a bell ring. I loved it so much that years later I bought one of my own and enjoyed the annual ritual of unwrapping it from its tissue paper and setting it up year after year until it literally fell apart. cherub candles

We like to imagine that we are following well established traditions when we celebrate Christmas with our own familiar family rituals. But of course these traditions are constantly shifting because our families are always growing or shrinking, as does the whole notion of what is the “norm”. The very idea of a celebration of the winter solstice goes back to Neolithic times, and people still gather at Stonehenge to this day to mark both the shortest and longest days of the year. These are customs that stretch back into the mists of history, creating a convenient festival ready made for the church to eventually come along and weave in the idea of the baby Jesus. Did you know that Jesus may not even have been born in December? But if it’s a myth, it’s a wonderful myth, and whether we are rejoicing in the incarnation of God on earth, or simply the love of family and friends, its a fitting way for us to mark the deep midwinter and the far off hope of the spring to come.

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When I was young – even when my family were young – there was not such a vast over-abundance of stuff in the shops or the possibility of choosing from a seemingly endless array of consumer goods from every corner of the world. I remember, some time in the 1960’s, finding out that some of my friends put out not a stocking, but a pillowcase for Santa to fill. Of course part of me envied this, with my knobbly stocking plus one modest present, but mostly, my frugal wee soul felt appalled at this display of overindulgence. I suppose that even as a child I felt a sort of loyalty and defensiveness towards my parents: towards John and Nellie who worked so hard for their family and, I felt, deserved our appreciation and gratitude. I’ve probably never really got over this nervousness of excess in any form.

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But the best Christmas memories aren’t about the presents, are they? In fact I can hardly recall what presents I’ve received or given over the years. I do remember the childrens’ nativity plays; the home made crib (pictured at the top of this page); the toddlers who played with the box rather than the toy inside; the trips out to see the Christmas lights; Christmas carols at Midnight Mass; the year when Santa’s little elves left beautifully wrapped tiny gifts for me and Peter; or the one where the children dressed up as the characters from The Snowman (including the Christmas tree!) and performed the entire story with music and actions….

And of course there were the Christmases when we ventured away from home in order to enjoy a family get-together. This picture is from 1989 when we all managed to gather at Jane’s flat in Glasgow and capture this image of Mum – Granny Ellen – surrounded by ALL of her existing grandchildren (only Magnus, now 21, is missing from the group as he wouldn’t be born for another 7 years).

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In latter years while Mum was still with us, me and my sisters used to congregate at some point at “Number 8” with our families where we would cram into the front room to have a grand exchange of presents (I’d learned by this time how to actually enjoy this cornucopia of goodies). Mum would have made her usual marvellous pot of soup and would preside over the proceedings, smiling benignly at everyone from her cosy armchair. As I say, I don’t really remember the gifts, but I do remember the fun, chaos and warmth of those special times.

Nowadays, as a granny myself, I rejoice in being able to share Christmas with my lovely children and grandchildren. I’ve found plenty of ways of keeping things simple and meaningful, despite the commercial “bah humbug” that assails us from every direction, and I’m happy to say that as far as this family is concerned, the magic is alive and well and safe in the hands of the next generation. And to all my readers, I can do no better than sign off with these words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim: “A merry Christmas to us all, God bless us every one”

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This year, Maggie and Jamie took the boys all the way to Lapland to visit Santa in person.
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Beatrice and George: a love story, a young family and a great loss.

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My grandparents, George MacFarlane and Beatrice Bentley, met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime in 1914 or 15 and married in Market Harborough in 1920. I know that statement probably raises more questions that it answers, but I’m afraid I don’t really know very much more than the bare bones. George, newly qualified, had been sent out to work as a chemist in Kandy, don’t ask me why, but there is a theory that it had something to do with taking medicines out there to help fight an outbreak of plague which had taken place in the country round about this time (which I CAN verify thanks to Wikipedia!). In true Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are fashion, I have found him listed as a passenger on board the P&O steamer SS Malwa which set sail from London on the 7th of April 1911, calling in at Colombo, Ceylon. However that’s where the WDYTYA similarity ends because I can’t find him on any returning voyage, nor is there a team of helpful experts ready to tell me where to look for evidence of how George would have spent his time in that far off outpost of empire. So we’ll just have to imagine – think elephants, temples, tea plantations…

As for Beatrice, she was 17 when she set off from Liverpool on the 10th of December 1914 on board the SS Leicestershire. She is listed as a governess, accompanying Mr and Mrs WG Wishart and Miss Jessie Wishart. Miss Jessie was probably only a year or two younger than Beatrice herself. The return journey was made by the three intrepid ladies in December of the following year on board the SS Gloucestershire, William Wishart no doubt remaining behind to pursue his business interests.

So, we can only speculate about the 25 year old George and the 18 year old Beatrice falling in love during that year when she was out in the far east. Did they maybe meet at an afternoon tea party, dance together under the moon, share their hopes and dreams, make plans to be reunited back in Blighty and then write letters to each other during the months and years they were apart. I have no idea. All I know is that the next we hear of them is their wedding on the 8th of September 1920, so SOMETHING must have happened!

The young couple settled in Fort William, where George took over the family chemist business from his widowed father, Peter, and they lived with him in the commodious flat above the shop at 50 High Street. It wasn’t long before the family began to grow, and at last I have some pictures to show you – here’s a wee slideshow. I particularly like the ones where the children are grubby… and that one with the whole family out with the pram, doesn’t John remind you of “Just William”?

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I am named after my paternal and maternal grandmothers, Beatrice and Margaret. I know little about my mother’s mother, Maggie Hynes, though I’m working on it… But it was always going to be on the cards that my dad would call his eldest child after his beloved mother, for she died when he was only 11 and that loss affected him deeply for the rest of his life, I think he never really stopped longing for her.

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As a child, you don’t always appreciate what it means when you are told that someone in a previous generation died before you were even born – it seems like the natural order of things. Now of course, I can understand what a tragedy it was that this grandmother of mine died of TB in 1932 at only 35 years of age. It’s quite a shock to realise that had she lived she’d only have been 57 when I was born in 1954. It is also painful to know that a diagnosis of TB in the 1920’s and 30’s was more likely than not a death sentence, as antibiotics did not become widely available until the 1950’s.

Beatrice left behind the three cherished children, John aged 11, Mary aged 8, Donald aged 6 and her distraught husband George, who was probably singularly ill equipped to deal with this bereavement given that he had lost his own mother when he in turn was only 6. His wife died far from home at the Tor-na-Dee Sanitorium, Aberdeen and due to a mix up, the telegram notifying George was delayed by three days. It’s said that he wept inconsolably when he heard the news. I rather think he found himself unable to be of much comfort to his children and I’ve heard that they became rather neglected and that George took rather more refuge in the bottle than was healthy.

Beatrice spent at least two extended periods in sanitoriums being treated with rest and fresh air, the prescribed therapy at the time. The family wouldn’t have been able to visit as the disease was so terribly infectious. So, starting in May 1931 George made sure that John, Mary and Donald wrote letters to their mother every Sunday, many of which are still in existence, though as far as I know none of the replies from Mama. Here are the first couple of letters sent by Mary to her mother. Reading that second one especially, you get a strong sense that Mary felt as if she had just gone out of the room for a short while.

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All three children wrote regularly, the letters of the older two being full of all the things they were busy with – how they were doing at school, what games they were playing, what cousins they were visiting, how tall they were, the excitement of the talkies coming to Fort William…. and so on. Donald, being only 5 or 6 would dictate his letters and either George or Mary would write them out for him (John didn’t seem to have the patience!) and he would fill up the rest of the page with kisses, letters or numbers …. like this. (Mary has added the explanation, but Donald has signed his own name at the bottom.

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I suppose over the months the children gradually grew more used to not having their mother at home. She was still absent by Christmas, and I have to say it’s heartbreaking to read their letters wishing her a happy Christmas and telling her about the presents they received. I’m sure she wept many tears over those words. There’s a gap in the letters once we get into 1932, but I’m not sure if Beatrice was allowed home for a while, or if it’s just that those ones are missing. I’d like to think it was the former. At some point she was transferred from the Sanitorium at Kingussie to Aberdeen. The letters have got rather darker by the autumn and George seems to have gone for a visit in September as Mary writes to him asking how Mama is doing. (He couldn’t visit much, as he had the business to run and the household to supervise, also he didn’t have a car.)

All the children talk more about how they were praying for her. John’s final letter to his mother was written just five days before she died, and I find it very touching that he was finding a little comfort from sleeping in her bed…

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Beatrice Headstone

Beatrice is buried at Cille Choirill Graveyard, Roybridge, where many MacFarlanes have been put to rest. Many decades later, her daughter Mary’s ashes were scattered at her mother’s grave by my cousin Michael, who, like me, would have been one of Beatrice’s 16 grandchildren.