A Christmas in 1959
Christmas presents were always left in the kitchen by Father Christmas (never called Santa Claus in England in those days). He delivered all the presents to all the children who’d been good in all the world during the night of Christmas Eve, by the traditional method of flying sled, pulled by reindeer. The impossibility of this never bothered us, although, looking back, the clue might be in the phrase “who’d been good”!
In our house he didn’t come down the chimney, although, in common with everyone else, we had a coal fire. I think my parents thought it was stretching credulity a bit too far, because we would have a fire burning in the grate for most of the Christmas holiday. He arrived at the front door, like all civilised people, and, because he was obviously tired and cold, he would stop off to eat the mince pie and drink the sherry left out for him. Sure enough, by the morning it was gone, and only a few crumbs were left on the plate as witness to his midnight hunger.
The presents were all individually wrapped up and placed in the waiting pillow case on the kitchen floor. We never saw him deliver them, because my sister was freaked out by the thought of a strange bearded man in our bedroom. This was fortunate for my mum and dad, who never had to go through any kind of tip-toe farce in the middle of the night. It would have been courting total disaster, of course, and the instant cancellation of Christmas, had we been awake when the red man came visiting!
We were not allowed to go downstairs to see if he had come until Mum and Dad got up to witness our delight. Partly, I think, this was because they didn’t want to miss our pleasure, and partly because the combination of an open fire, wrapping paper and excited children is not a stable mixture. Also, Father Christmas delivered all the presents from grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and so scrupulous records had to be kept by a responsible adult, so we would know who to thank for what.
How we managed to conform to this is a mystery to rate with the annual migration of the arctic tern, but these were the Rules!
Presents were ripped open straight away. My pillow case would contain a Corgi model car, some plastic soldiers, an Airfix model plane, a book (the Famous Five, or a Jennings book, or a Treasure Island picture book), and some kind of game. In 1959, there was a cardboard castle with cardboard Norman knights, with a little plastic longbow and a set of plastic arrows with rubber suckers that I could use to fire at the knights on the castle ramparts. This was called being Robin Hood.
I really wanted an electric model railway or a Scalextrix, but I never got one. I got the cardboard castle walls instead.
Sometimes, I would get a big thing, like a Triang scooter, or Dad would have made me a wooden wheelbarrow, or a sledge, or I would get a miniature cricket bat and ball.Once I got a brown, curly-haired dog on wheels who I named Ruff-Ruff.
There was a yo-yo once, when they were the fashion in the playground, some marbles, once a cowboy gun in a holster, though guns were not approved of. I must have pestered them a lot that year to get that.
The morning was spent playing with the new toys. Contrary to popular myth, it didn’t snow on Christmas Day, except in Victorian novels. Snowballs, sledging and lethal slides of black ice had to wait till January. Nor did we go round the streets wassailing or roasting chestnuts in street markets.
Christmas dinner happened when my mother said it would, and Dad didn’t get drunk, because he was teetotal. It was always chicken, because chicken was an expensive luxury then. Inhumane chicken factories didn’t exist. There was no discussion about what you liked or wanted, with the result that I now love Brussel sprouts and cabbage.
No-one watched television after the meal. There were only two channels, it was all black and white, and the programmes only ran for a few hours in the evening. So, in the afternoon, the grown-ups slept or ate mince pies or read, and some would gather round the radio to listen to the Queen’s speech (the left-wing radicals in the family, of whom there were a good number, would scoff) and we kids kicked our heels till the extended family arrived for a tea of cold meat, pork pie, cheese, trifle and lashings of tea and bread and butter, and a Christmas cake made by my granny.
Then, after a mass washing-up, everyone adjourned to the piano for carol-singing and party games, like pass the parcel, ring on a string, apple apple apple, musical chairs, and stations. Everyone joined in with gusto and got really sweaty, and the fire would be allowed to go out. The two grannies would sit at the edge of the room and smile, till they weakly said they had had enough excitement to last them another year and the family would drift away to their respective beds and hot water bottles.
By this time I would be over-tired and tearful and would refuse to go to bed, but, once my favourite uncle had gone home in his sky blue Morris Minor, I would be carried upstairs, slung over my dad’s back in what he called a Fireman’s Lift, and I would drop off to sleep, curled round the rubber hot water bottle, with its embossed relief picture of Androcles and the Lion, and curl my hair round my fingers as I dreamed.