In a S&C Christmas exclusive, actor, playwright and S&C Contributing Editor John Bartlett recalls the Christmas customs of his childhood. Some of these customs remain with us, others now seem alien or eccentric.
In 1956, my father Reg fell ill whilst serving on board the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. He had to leave the ship at the earliest opportunity for medical tests at the Royal Naval Hospital, Plymouth, where it soon became clear his condition was terminal. Out of necessity and compassion the senior doctor arranged for a transfer to Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport, where at least my mother could visit him during his last days. (I know all this from a letter I still have dated 26th January 1956). During Reg’s last week he learned that his rank of commissioned bos’un was to be phased out and he was to become a sub-lieutenant. ‘A little too late,’ he observed ruefully.
Not long after Reg died my mother Marion took a few rooms in a house opposite my nana and grandpa’s house in Westbourne Avenue, Emsworth. I, the little boy, was adored by everyone but oblivious of the sadness that must have seeped into my mother’s core. She must also have been at a loss concerning the future. Fortuitously, my father had taken out several life policies a year or so before he died which meant she would now be relatively well off. It was her lifelong friend Eileen who suggested she should move up East Molesey in Surrey for a fresh start.
Surrey has a sense of self-importance and an outward sophistication. The neat houses, with their high walls and clipped gardens, are bastions of middle class England. An Englishman’s home is his castle as they say, but there’s another side to that equation – if these mini kingdoms keep their residents safe by shutting the world out, they also shut the occupants in.
The double bay frontage of our East Molesey house was, to my young eyes, enormous and imposing. A large central yellow door was reached by several stone steps. Splendid in their unassailable position protecting the house were two stone lions flanking the doorway. In later years I was able to clamber gingerly out along the edge of their plinths and ride on the backs of these magnificent beasts.
With the war having ended just a few years earlier and rationing now on its way out, Christmas in the late 1950s was an opportunity to celebrate one’s freedom and the coming of a new and thrilling world. The austerity of the war years had given way to a brighter future and change was in the air. This was evident in new innovations in fabrics to fashion, ceramics to advertising, and literature to cinematography.
As Christmas approached, my mother would retrieve the old brown battered cardboard box of decorations from the attic. Once more out came the tawdry glitter, the fairy for the Christmas tree, plaster cake decorations and crêpe paper streamers. The very first thing to be done was to unravel the streamers, which had been carefully rolled up prior to being stored the previous year. There was always slightly yellowed sellotape still attached to both ends of the vibrant paper garlands. With fresh sellotape applied, in no time at all we’d fixed the streamers to the light fitting in the centre of the room. After we twisted and twisted them to form a pleasing helix, we strung them one by one across the room. The first streamer was always fixed from one diagonal to the other, then across the centre of the room and finally from one side to the other in a Christmas version of the Union Jack.
To augment the streamers we constructed paper chains, as these never survived from one year to the next. This required, with plenty of lick, a single strip of coloured paper being stuck together into a circle. We then passed the next strip through the first circle and assembled in the same way. We continued this process until a long chain was formed. The next step was to suspend the chain from the picture rail in swathes and loops around room.
To supplement the overall effect, we also had a number of concertina paper decorations. These were constructed in such a way that when opened up and fixed back to back with the aid of a small brass split pin, they became three dimensional shapes consisting of innumerable paper diamonds all trimmed to form the desired bell or ball. We hung them in the corners of the room or suspended them from the central light. With much huffing and puffing, we suspended coloured balloons in a variety of shapes: long sausages, ovals and pears. Finally, we threw tinsel, much of it saved from the previous year, over just about everything. Tinsel in those days was made from very long narrow strips or strands of silver tin foil. Attempting to save and reuse it was quite difficult as it had a habit of folding over and over on itself, flattening into a useless lump like some fantastical earring. It is still possible to buy a silver plastic tinsel of the strand variety but, to my mind, it has largely gone out of fashion and not seen quite so often today.
The Christmas tree, which always stood in the corner of the room, belonged to the only variety of fir tree that could be purchased at the time. False fake Christmas trees did not make an appearance in any numbers until a decade or so later. Strange to think that originally the whole purpose of bringing into the home evergreens was to symbolise the ancient pagan belief in the representation of everlasting life during the winter solstice, a practice, for obvious reasons, readily adopted by the Christian faith.
The rather sparse pine needles stuck out from the branches at ninety degree angles. As the tree dried out and Christmas Day approached, more and more pine needles cascaded down, covering the floor to form a spiky green carpet around the base of the tree. So much so that, by the time the special day had arrived, large areas of the tree were quite bald. This annual needle shower was replicated in homes up and down the length and breadth of the country. After Christmas, when we had taken down and packed away all the decorations once more, no matter how diligently the area had been cleaned, pine needles would still surface throughout the year. I didn’t ever see goblins as Robert Herrick would have it in his poem ‘Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve’, but then again I suppose I’m not a maid.
Down with the rosemary, and so,
Down with the baies, and mistletoe
Down with the holly, ivie and all,
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
Once we’d propped the tree up and secured it with bricks and earth in a galvanised tin bucket, we festooned the base with red crêpe paper. We then covered the earth with cotton wool to simulate snow and adorned the scene with a few pine cones.
The next task was to decorate the tree with glass gewgaws – this is an archaic word for brightly coloured glass baubles. The tree was topped by the ubiquitous fairy dressed all in white with some glitter on her dress and wings that were crumpled from being stored in a cardboard box for eleven months. The only other tree decorations were twenty or so miniature candles, which came out every year but were never ever lit. The fading pink barley twist candles were secured to the tree by cheap pressed tin candle holders, reminiscent of miniature daffodils.
The tin was painted in gaudy colours on the outside and silver on the inside, each holder had a pegging device similar to a tiny clothes peg by which they were fastened to the tree. Trying to make the candles stand upright was almost impossible. Each candle leant at a crazy angle either to one side of the pine twig or the other. The concept of having a naked flame anywhere near a highly inflammable Christmas tree was left over from the Victorian era. When the candles were lit the butler in the ‘big house’ was obliged to stand next to the tree with a large bucket of water just in case the tree caught light, which it sometimes did.
The final element of dressing the tree was, of course, more tinsel, partially saved from the previous year and augmented by a new card. Undoing the flat cardboard package with its mini window onto the partially hidden glitter inside, was always a source of great excitement. The slightly dull – by today’s standards perhaps – silver strands were all neatly laid out and wound round the card from top to bottom. Seeing them there was always an exciting precursor to the festive celebrations to come. Under the tree, packages and parcels wrapped in thin festive Christmas paper, jostled for space.
At this time I was an only child and my mother, from a 1950s perspective, did rather spoil me. There were such things as a cowboy hat, a pair of silver guns in holsters, a sheriff’s badge, colouring books and puzzles. But one year my most prized present was a magnificent castle bought from Bentalls at a knock-down price owing to some slight damage. Dating back to 1867, Bentalls in Kingston is a large household store and according to their website ‘offers the best brands outside the west end of London.’
I remember their children’s section which had a number of customized seats, a racing car, a showground style horse and a large – but not real – ostrich to sit in. Children by and large don’t like having their hair cut so these specialized seats made the ordeal less of a trauma. That is until the hairdresser accidentally caught the lobe of my left ear in her scissors and drew blood, snip! I didn’t much care for the barbers at Bentalls after that.
The base of the castle was in the shape of a frustum or truncated pyramid. To give the impression of height it was partially sponge painted with a canopy of dark green trees. A path was set into the base which wound its way up on three sides to arrive at the castle’s entrance, equipped, of course, with two towers and a portcullis. The castellation continued around the walls where, at the back more towers and walkways completed the edifice. Set into the base was even a secret Norman arched door which could be opened with stubby children’s fingers, by carefully sliding the door upwards. The top section of the castle could be removed to reveal a void in which the soldiers and knights could be safely stored when not in use. Rather incongruously I had a collection of ‘sons of the desert’, which, when attacking the castle, I used to place in long rows on the inclined path. Their curved scimitars were drawn and raised threateningly above their heads. Their red Arab robes were sculptured in such a way as to look as if they were running, and very formidable they looked too.
No matter how excited I was or how hard I tried, at some point I always fell asleep on Christmas Eve. But when I awoke there at the foot of my bed was a pillowcase full of all sorts of delights. These small toys were a precursor to the main event and much larger toys were placed under the tree by my doting mother. My Christmas stocking contained many little trinkets, many gleaned from Woolworths. A monkey on a stick, plastic puzzles, a comic book, a sort of helicopter device which if you pulled the string a circular disc flew up into the air, crayons, a toy trumpet, a selection box of sweets covered in red netting and held fast together by a festive cardboard boot, a variety of nuts and of course there was always an orange.
I suppose in life everyone has some regrets and one of mine years later was to tell my mother that I didn’t want a stocking full of trinkets and knick-knacks anymore. These little gifts which were had been so exhilarating a few years earlier now just seemed like a waste of money and items I didn’t want or need. I can still see her troubled face, so deeply pained and hurt by my thoughtless, but well-meaning, utterance. To her I was always her little boy, but things change and I was growing up. Things seen from one point of view are different from another. As far as I was concerned I was saving her the trouble and helping with the cost of Christmas but from her perspective the stocking was a demonstration of her love to me and by refusing it I was in some way pushing her away.
The giving of gifts over it was now time to concentrate on the turkey. Apparently turkey only became popular towards the end of the 1950s but I don’t recall anything else for Christmas dinner – we certainly didn’t have goose. We may, perhaps, have had a large joint of beef but being only five years old in 1958 I don’t remember. Cooking the Christmas turkey always seemed to be a mammoth task and not to be undertaken lightly. Huge amounts of pork mincemeat mixed with sage and onion stuffing were placed in the cavities of the bird and slices of streaky bacon placed over the breast.
Eventually, all was ready and the cooking could begin at last. Once in the oven it seemed to take forever before it was cooked and ready for the table. In the meantime the vegetables had to be prepared. Potatoes were peeled and par boiled. Mum always sliced them length ways which made them shallow but deliciously increased the area to be roasted – I still roast mine in the same way. Parsnips were added to the mix and both potatoes and parsnips were placed reverently around the bird, to cook and crisp up.
We always had sprouts with the outer layers removed. To speed up the cooking time the base of each sprout was trimmed with a cross cut into the base. Prior to cooking – and to kill any slugs and bugs that might be nefariously lurking amongst the mini taste explosions – the sprouts were then left for an hour or so in water with enough salt in it that it could have rivalled the Dead Sea. Carrots were peeled and cut into rings and cauliflower was divided up into manageable florets.
When the turkey was nearing completion it was time to deal with the vegetables. I don’t use the word ‘deal’ lightly as deal with them my mother certainly did. The sprouts were redeemed from their briny repository and along with the carrots and cauliflower were placed in one of three perforated aluminium containers that fitted together to make a circle. These holey receptacles were then placed snugly into mum’s pressure cooker. With its insistent hissing from escaping pressurised steam, demonic is the only word to describe this beast of the kitchen. The exterior of the cooker was barrel shaped and a dull grey in colour. A number of raised ribs ran from its top to bottom and along its girth. The silver chrome safety valve, which presumably kept the contraption safe, was situated on the top. For the most part this potential bomb behaved itself and it was only when the pressure had to be released that it really came into its own. Held reverently in front of her, Mum used to take the whole device to the sink where she, cloth in hand, would remove the valve. Immediately a jet of steam, reminiscent of an escaping genie in a bottle, would rise to the ceiling and envelop the kitchen. The noise was quite deafening and certainly very scary. As to whether it was safe or not, I still have my doubts.
Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings, was much like any other Christmas dinner – in many ways not a great deal has changed. I have yet to ascertain what ‘trimmings’ are, as I once asked for these in a variety of shops, a butcher’s, greengrocer’s and a general store, and got some strange looks. All the vegetables were over-cooked, especially the sprouts which had been transformed into a dullish green mush quite unpleasant to the taste buds. We did have a mysterious white lumpy concoction, which thankfully mum only made once a year, which went under the heading of bread sauce. Having pulled the crackers, donned the hats and read the terrible jokes – jokes that still seem to be doing the rounds – it was time for the Christmas pudding.
Today the Christmas pudding seems to be as popular as ever but I think a much lighter version obtained back in the fifties. Puddings in those days were almost black and far too rich to be enjoyed after a large meal, but, no matter, the ritual of the pudding had to be observed. Once devoid of its muslin cloth and the ancient, slightly chipped and cracked pudding bowl, the pud was doused in brandy and set alight.
Then it was time for the procession to begin and in it came from the kitchen, replete with a sprig of holly. A bluish flame hovered around the circumference and flickered over the top of the black morass of fruit and boiled pudding. Inside there were several Victorian and Edwardian silver threepenny bits (3d) which previously been boiled before being stirred into the mix. It was a great honour to find one but was instantly replaced with a sixpence. The old threepenny bit, usually pronounced ‘thrup-penny bit’, was then washed and stored for future use. I wonder where they are now?
Boxing Day was always cold turkey with a salad of lettuce, hard boiled eggs cut in half, tomatoes and hot buttered potatoes. Heinz salad cream, Branston pickle and a jar of pickled onions also graced the table. In a jug, a stick of celery, split into sticks and washed clean from the soot it had been grown in, thrust green fingers towards the ceiling. Looking back I don’t know why, but tea was always served at the beginning and again at the end of the meal.
In case you were hungry thinly sliced brown bread and butter was very much a part of the proceedings. More often than not a trifle had been created which consisted of a rusk covered in tinned strawberries that had been mixed with red strawberry jelly. Layers of custard and cream were spooned over the top and finally, to complete the concoction, sprinkled hundreds and thousands dotted the surface. At some point the platters were cleared away to make room for the Christmas cake, which had not been touched from the previous day.
For some reason I remember the cake being square rather than round and again like the Christmas pudding, seemed to be much darker and heavier than modern versions. The sides of the cake were always adorned with a red and gold band or sash, which to complete the festive look, had a sort of red frill attached to either side. The band was rarely if ever replaced from one year to the next. At the end of the Christmas period or the cake whichever came first usually the latter, the band was carefully rolled up and stored with the rest of the Christmas paraphernalia. The cake itself was covered in an almost impenetrable white icing, so hard it was in danger of breaking one’s teeth. The icing, to simulate drifts of snow, was lifted into little sharp peaks like a frozen sea. Placed in a prominent position and presumably before the icing had time to set, was a little plaster Father Christmas replete with vestiges around its base of the aftermath of the previous year’s icing snow storm. In addition to Father Christmas, there was also a little snowman, scarf, buttons and all, growing out of the sweet sugary winter icing. At either corner of the cake imitation holly with shiny red berries, quite out of proportion to everything else, helped the overall look and feel of the cakey ornamentation. To complete the picturesque festive scene in curly italic writing a decorative semi-circular gold inscription boldly pronounced, as you might suspect, ‘Happy Christmas.’
All I have described remains to me familiar and yet, somehow, quaintly distant. Christmas, in many respects, is exactly the same but like all things there are subtle differences that are perhaps elusive and difficult to pinpoint.
Was a 1950s Christmas better than today? Probably not. It was just, well, different. Maybe there was a different set of priorities, a different focus. But when all is said and done, what I remember the most is the cosy all-enveloping family warmth and love of a mother who wanted the best for her child.
Photography by Moshe Tasky