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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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”