Reading posts across various blogs about Christmases-past-and-present has set me thinking about the family traditions of my own childhood, and at the risk of sounding terribly boring ours were nothing out of the ordinary.
My family did the usual things familiar to all the length and breadth of these islands. We ate too much food, watched too much tv, played board games and ate even more food. As my father had just one sister, and Sussex was too far from Mother’s Welsh clans, Christmas was always celebrated among we five; my parents, my two elder brothers and me.
Looking back at the age when Christmas means the most to most people (under ten) my personal Christmas preparations began the week in advance with the gathering of greenery. To call this a family tradition as such would be pushing things a little because my family were totally innocent.
It was I, who had read of Christmases in so many books where houses were filled with holly and firs, at age seven (ish) took it on myself to create what I considered to be a proper Christmas. I was determined to ‘Deck the Halls’ within the strictures of purse, and lets face it artistic restrictions of my seven year old self. My parents, bless them, indulged me until I gave up on the idea at somewhere around eleven years old.
My father was a shepherd in those years and so we had plenty of opportunity to trail across the Sussex Downs picking holly and ivy. We would stagger back to the house laden with armfuls of prickly boughs and swags, only about 10% of which passed muster for my weird and wonky yuletide creations.
I would commandeer half of the farmhouse kitchen table, swathe it in newspaper, and spend days smothering the greenery with Lion gum and liberal amounts of glitter; whilst mother tried to make mince pies and the like on the other half. I shudder to think how much glitter the family must have inadvertently consumed over the years, doubtless far more than they should!
It was my father and I who decorated the tree every year. We spent a long while placing precious glass baubles and our set of Nativity pieces among the branches. The nativity was made of Perspex and included the usual manger, Mary, Joseph, Angels, donkey and sheep – but also for some odd reason one solitary reindeer for which I always felt an odd affinity.
Mother would buy me packs of gummed paper strips to construct yards and yards of paper chains whilst she used her sewing machine to make rolls of crepe paper streamers, and these were added to the greenery to smother every available inch of the sitting room in Christmas cheer. Of course half of them had fallen off the walls by Boxing Day… but they had served their purpose by that time!
Despite all my best efforts I never did persuade them that this was how Christmas should be, which is probably just as well because if everyone decked the halls on that scale the countryside would never survive! I was just a tad OTT!
Christmas Eve was marked by the farm’s ‘Guv’nor’ and his daughter touring the cottages to distribute gifts for each of us and a Christmas turkey (raised on the farm). In retrospect that sounds a bit Downton Abbey but nevertheless it was still a tradition in the late 50s/early 60s, and I still have an illustrated copy of Little Women that was a gift from The House.
My brothers and I hung out pillow cases rather than stockings but only opened one gift on waking. There was often a bit of a relay going on for Christmas morning. Our father would be up and out before dawn feeding sheep or milking the cows so we waited (impatiently) until he got home for breakfast to open the rest. Then Mother, as part-time maid at The House, would scoot off for an hour or so to make beds for the Guv’nor’s house guests, leaving us to watch over the dinner.
As with most families it was food that played a huge part in the celebrations. Mother would have made Christmas cake and puddings in October from family recipes handed down through three or four generations of my father’s family (recipes which are included in my book, Sussex Tales).
Icing the cake was a family affair and as close as we came to a family tradition apparently peculiar to us. Choosing the cake-theme for the year was discussed at length and watched with interest. It was one of the few times my father did anything much cooking-wise. He loved to draw and had a steady hand with an icing bag – and I suspect mother was happy enough to pass at least one job over to him when she had so much else to do.
Christmas was a time of year for treats that almost never appeared in the house during the rest of the year: satsumas, bananas, nuts, dates, mince pies and the inevitable tin of biscuits. Mother’s special treat was a box of sugar-dusted Turkish delight and my father’s a bottle of Drambuie (often the only bought alcohol in the house with Mother being Welsh Chapel – though he did brew country wines – more recipes for which are included in Sussex Tales!). We kids were given the obligatory Selection Boxes.
Christmas in the Graham household may not have been one of quirky rituals or boisterous family gatherings but it was fun and remembered with great nostalgia.
I still make the puddings and cake from the same family recipes but other than that battered copy of Little Women only one other piece remains from that time.