Well, it’ll soon be upon us again: the Season of Good Cheer. Or, as some curmudgeons would have it: the Great Annual Splurge of Excess.
There’ll be the usual grumbling; ‘Christmas isn’t what it used to be.’ ‘It’s all too commercialised.’ These are perfectly valid points of view (although not the only ones). The intrinsic Christmas message of love and family togetherness and goodwill to all (wo)men is so easily lost in the welter of present-exchanging (or in the case of children, of simply giving) and all-round over-indulgence. And even before the Big Day we’ll probably have the usual unedifying spectacle of people squabbling and even fighting over monster plasma TVs on Black Friday. Except for a minority of spiritually-minded people, and for those selfless altruistic souls who do voluntary work, it’ll be one big glorious commercial opportunity, the outcome of which, retailers tell us, will determine their success for the whole year.
Were Christmases Past more ‘meaningful’ when they were less ‘commercial’ though? I’ve no idea and wouldn’t presume to venture an opinion. But I’m old enough, just about, to remember Christmases of the late 1940s and early 1950s when, with wartime rationing still in place, things were pretty frugal. I remember waking up excited on Christmas morning (having the previous evening shouted presents requests up the chimney to Santa) to find a mysteriously-appeared stocking filled with cheap little toys and exotica like (just one) tangerine. We never had them at other times of the year. And nuts; ditto. And dates (although, obviously, they weren’t stocking fillers).
Christmas stocking contents from 1942
And, for Christmas breakfast, another special treat: a half-grapefruit pre-diced into segments still nesting within its thick yellow skin. And pork pie, another once-a-year-only treat. But I remember our mum doing the best she could with what must have been very limited resources in the early years. She always made both Christmas cake and pudding – there was no question of buying them, but then you probably couldn’t anyway. And trifle for tea, with fruit and sponge cake captured suspended in jelly like gemstones in amber, topped with custard (the boring part) and wonderful, exquisitely sweet glace cherries.
Wartime Christmas pudding recipe. Ingredients became even scarcer later.
Ah, yes, those were the days! Christmas was eagerly awaited for weeks, and though the fare would seem mundane by modern standards, we thought it wonderful. Because, comparatively, it was. And compared with these modern times, when the major concern for many (but not all) is not so much being able to afford Christmas food treats but shedding the accumulated body weight afterwards, when we do indeed seem spoiled.
And of course, in our house at least, up until the mid-1950s there was no telly, so we made our own entertainment, our own interactive fun, with card games in the evening (although for some inexplicable reason, our rather serious-minded dad never joined in).
A making-the-best-of-things wartime Christmas
Happy (and not too over-indulgent) Christmas!
Here, for your delectation, is an abbreviated (to leave out some dark bits, as it’s Christmas) chapter from my novel Forebears which tells of an austere family Christmas in 1946. I hope you enjoy it.
Things came to a very unpleasant head at Christmas. Lisbeth had become increasingly irritated by the oppressive presence of Florence every Sunday, and the Christmas Day plans had threatened to be the last straw. Lisbeth had wanted them to go to her parents for dinner, but Sid protested that it would be quite unfair to leave Florence on her own for the day, and as usual, Lisbeth knew that he was right. But equally, her own parents were seeing less and less of her and the children. And anyway, why could not Sid’s siblings, Fred and Ethel (particularly Fred, as he also lived close by) accept responsibility for their mother just for once and invite her to either of them?
Sid agreed, but it seemed that both felt disinclined to do so and he could not compel them to. The only solution to the dilemma as Sid saw it was to include Florence in the invitation to dinner with Juniper and Herbert. He realised that it would be another mouth for them to feed, but said that he would happily contribute both for her and Lisbeth and the children; after all, these were still austere times. Lisbeth, relieved and pleased with the idea, said that she could contribute food, as far as the rationing regulations would allow. She would begin saving her coupons, any that could be spared, that very day. They would just have to live a little frugally for a while.
The only person unhappy with the proposal was Florence. She protested, frankly and selfishly in private to Sid, that she did not particularly like Lisbeth’s parents; found Herbert morose and difficult to look at, what with his face, and Juniper a snooty madam.
For once though, Sid defied his overbearing mother.
‘Well I’m sorry Ma, but this is the only arrangement that more or less suits everyone. Lisbeth’s parents don’t want to be alone for Christmas either. They’re not bad sorts really. We’ll have a fine old time. And it’s easier for us all to visit them than they come here. I’d have to fetch them and take them back again, two double journeys, and there’s the petrol to think about. I’ll have to go to work on my bike for a bit and save coupons up as it is. It’s a good thing we don’t live any further away from Sleaford. You surely don’t want to stay at home by yourself, do you?’
Florence could only confirm, grudgingly, that no, she did not.
‘Right then,’ said Sid, greatly relieved, ‘that’s settled then.’
They arrived in Sleaford nice and early in Sid’s grey Standard Ten, the one he had bought in nineteen thirty-eight only to be mothballed for most of the war, because Lisbeth had obtained a good sized (if rather elderly) quietly off-ration chicken and it would need plenty of cooking time. She had got it from Bateman’s farm just outside the village. Joe Bateman had done a roaring trade in them in fact, supplying most of the village, and had spent a couple of hours on Christmas Eve pulling the necks of his geriatric, past egg-laying flock. Along with plenty of vegetables, many of which had also come from Sid and Lisbeth’s garden, it would give the five adults and two children a decent taste each, at any rate.
Of course, as usual sweet things were more of a problem. Because they were a family and had a bigger combined ration allowance from which exotica like dried fruit and sugar and spices could be saved up, Lisbeth had taken responsibility for the cake too. She carried in her slightly grey-looking creation, carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper, and set it on the kitchen table for her mother’s approval. Juniper was impressed. ‘Oh, you’ve iced it too!’
Lisbeth felt quite pleased with herself. ‘Yes; pretty good isn’t it!’
‘But where did you get the icing sugar?’
‘It isn’t; it’s ordinary sugar and milk, dried of course, I couldn’t spare fresh, and a little vanilla essence. I’ve still got the Ministry of Food leaflet for how to make it. There’s even marzipan. Well; semolina, sugar and almond essence, anyway. I’m afraid there’s not a great deal of flour or much fruit in the cake, so it’ll probably be a bit dry, but I’ve done the best I can.’
Juniper patted her daughter’s arm. ‘Yes, I know you did, dear. Don’t worry; my pudding’s hardly a culinary masterpiece. It hasn’t got much fruit in either; I’ve put in carrot and potato to moisten it. I saved some sugar for custard, so it shouldn’t be too bad.’
Lisbeth laughed. ‘The things we have to do to improvise! I’ve put some beetroot in the cake too; it gives it a bit more colour, if nothing else. Oh well; at least the war’s over now and things can only get better. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to buy whatever we want!’
With the chicken slowly roasting in the oven, the women busied themselves preparing the dinner. Disinclined to offer help, Florence plonked herself down in one of the armchairs and graciously accepted a small glass of sherry from Herbert; he and Sid were already making inroads into the crate of brown ale. Martin, flushed with excitement, sat on the hearthrug before the blazing fire, entranced by his pull-along train (two coaches) made by his father and the stuffed furry monkey, sewn from scraps of brown chenille and stuffed by Granny Juniper, which currently sat astride it. June sat on the sofa gazing in no lesser wonderment at her Osmiroid fountain pen with italic nib. Sid had been saving up for it for weeks. She could hardly wait to try it out. Alerted to her parents’ present-giving intentions, Granny and Granddad had bought her a new maroon-red rexine-bound exercise book, the sort proper professional journalists used, as her first diary notebook was almost full already. Florence, showing a total lack of imagination, had given the children two half-crown pieces each, although Martin’s were entrusted to Lisbeth until their next shopping trip into town.
At last the feast was ready, and they gathered round Juniper’s table, which was dressed virginally white in her best tablecloth and festive with sprigs of holly, donned their paper hats and tucked in. It was a jolly repast. The chicken was commented favourably upon. ‘Lovely; not too dry,’ was the general opinion, although in truth, and everyone knew it, it was, actually. A drop of brandy was spared for the pudding and it was set ceremonially alight to the great consternation of Martin, but his tears subsided when he was urged to help June blow it out again. He did so with two-year-old gusto, spraying it liberally with his food-speckled spit, but everyone still had a helping, followed by another, to empty the plate.
Then, with the table cleared, they repaired to the living room, at least everyone except Herbert did, to listen to the King’s speech on the wireless. He, true to his Republican ideals forged in the hellish cauldron of the Western Front, made a start on the washing up. June, hating to see him standing uncomfortably at the sink, got up and went to help, and he gave her a brief appreciative hug and called her a good girl. With duty done and the fire recharged they relaxed in a soporific fug of warmth and alcohol to chat about old times and daydream of times to come. Sid was getting inebriated as usual, Lisbeth noticed, but then he always did. It was a good thing home was only three miles away, but all the same his erratic driving in this condition was always a worry. She really ought to learn to drive, she thought, but then if she did, her husband still would not relinquish the steering wheel to her at times like this; he would regard it as an affront to his male dignity.
Florence had had a drop too much too and was becoming both voluble and morose, reflecting glumly on her family’s troubles and sorrows in the recently ended conflict.
‘Ay; it was a terrible time; losing our Harry like that just when we were beginning to think that it was almost over.’
She pointed at Martin, who was now curled up on his big sister’s lap, exhausted by the excitement of the day, thumb in mouth, being shown the pictures in the book she had saved her pocket money to buy him. ‘If it weren’t for that, this little chap wouldn’t be with you now, would he Sidney?’
‘No, Ma,’ Sid agreed, wishing she would change the subject.
But she was into her stride now. ‘And then there was William, Sidney’s uncle, who was lost on the Somme.’ She heaved a huge maudlin sigh.
Juniper was becoming irritated. Why could not the silly woman just be thankful for small mercies, forget the past, enjoy her hospitality and look to the future?
‘Yes, well, our family had its share of tragedies too, Florence. There was my brother Walter, and of course my Herbert didn’t exactly escape unscathed, in case you hadn’t noticed. But let’s talk about something more cheerful, please.’
Florence had not failed to notice the sarcasm. She was not used to being spoken to in such a manner. She replied cuttingly, ‘Oh yes, I’ve noticed. Yes, your family’s had its tribulations too. And then there was your little bit of trouble before the Great War, wasn’t there, when your father rode heroically to your rescue?’
Sid was suddenly all ears. He looked at Juniper. ‘Oh, what was that all about?’
Juniper blushed but kept her voice level. She met his gaze. ‘Nothing that we should be discussing here, in front of the children. Now let’s please change the subject!’
But Sid was all agog. ‘Oh no, Mother-in-Law; do tell,’ he leered, his blurred senses detecting possible prurience.
Now Herbert cut in, his face like thunder. ‘Sid, you heard what my wife said! How dare you speak to her like that? Now drop it, or I shall have to ask you to leave!’
Sid was not a brave man; he could see that Herbert meant what he said. He raised his hands in supplication. ‘All right Herbert. Just joking. None of my business. Yes; let’s change the subject.’
And so, after a lengthy embarrassed silence, broken when Juniper suggested putting the wireless on to see what was on the Light Programme, the talk did drift to other things. As if willing the passage of the rest of the day to accelerate so that she could be rid of the obnoxious Sid and his equally foul mother, she got up and busied herself in the kitchen getting tea ready. She had made a trifle, mainly for the children, a concoction of split buns soaked in water-thin apple puree, covered with proper but thin custard and topped with the contents of a long-hoarded tin of pears (the juice from it having gone into the pudding). Other than that there were cheese sandwiches, toasted as a treat, and Lisbeth’s cake of course.
Lisbeth followed her in, pulling the door closed behind her. She noticed her mother’s barely controlled anger.
‘God, that woman! I could wring her neck!’ Juniper hissed.
‘Yes,’ agreed Lisbeth, trying not to raise her voice either. ‘I often want to.’
‘I didn’t think she knew about my past. You know what will happen now. She’ll blab to Sid about it; he’ll get it out of her, having had his curiosity aroused.’
‘I know,’ Lisbeth murmured glumly. ‘And I thought the past was dead and buried.’
Juniper wiped her hands and caught her daughter in a tight embrace.
‘Oh my dear. I’m so sorry. No one can hurt me anymore but it’s you and Sid I worry about.’
Forebears is available to buy on Amazon, and this pre-Christmas weekend for two days only, absolutely free!