Ghosts of Christmas Past

Over fifty years ago now, Christmas in the Sixties was so different.

Many families lived much closer together, horizons were narrower. Where we lived in Lower Crumpsall, the centre of Manchester was 3 miles to the south and seemed a long way off, and was known to everyone as “Town”. Lower Crumpsall was our “village”. It consisted of eight or nine streets of mainly terraced houses bounded by steep valley sides of the river Irk on both sides , the CWS biscuit works to the south and the ICI dyestuffs factory complex made up the Northern boundary. About a hundred and fifty households in total. We were served by a complete range of small shops from Butchers and Bookies to Greengrocers and Sweet shops and our small community sustained three pubs: The Swan, The Waterloo and The Crumpsall Hotel.

In the first weeks of December there would be a church Christmas fair held in our adjacent primary school; ham salad teas, a bran tub, tombola, stalls selling tat and home made cakes and gifts. The fair had its own Father Christmas who was actually a local old spinster who reeked of Parma Violets perfume.

As the days shortened and the nights closed in, the smog and fog seemed to last for weeks, local shops would begin to decorate their small windows with Christmas fancies, cheap tinsel and lights in the Post Office and the Paper shop

The dustbin men, milkman and the paperboy would all knock on the front door and offer their ” Compliments of the season ” which was a coded request for their annual tip or Christmas Box as it was known. The Christmas and New Year special double edition of The Radio Times would be eagerly awaited and read, each laying claim to what they wanted to watch on the 3 TV channels available.

Click on this image to see it in a readable size Rolf Harris & Jimmy Savile both on the same page, so to speak!

As the month progressed in the early evenings a tentative knock at the door might be followed by a couple of tuneless verses of “Away in a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as groups of kids would come looking for a kind shilling or more usually the invitation to “Bugger Off!”

At home, our own Christmas preparations would begin in the middle of the month as we decorated the house. Ancient decorations were retrieved from the cellar, fold out paper bells under the lights, crepe paper twisted streamers criss crossing the living room with balloons at each corner, paper chains made from different coloured pieces of gummed paper, home made paper lanterns cut out and decorated with a splash of glitter. Lametta and Tinsel for the tree, always a Norway spruce needle dropper, carefully packed glass baubles were added and the whole job finished with a fairy or angel on the top. The lights were a perennial problem constantly needing remedial fuses and paternal oaths to ensure their continued working. No twinkling LEDs then, just a few colours but promising magic and that unique resin smell of Christmas that persists down the decades.

Holly branches might be gathered from some random roadside spinney in Cheshire during a Sunday drive, mistletoe from the local lecherous greengrocer who tried to test the sprigs with illicit kisses from the younger and more attractive local housewives

These two verses are from the John Betjeman poem “Christmas”,
probably written in 1953 the year I was born.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

(You can read the whole poem here)

The lead up to Christmas continued with additional shopping trips. Firstly the annual purchase of alcoholic drinks for our house which remained teetotal for the rest of the year. From Willoughby’s, the wine merchant in “Town”: bottles of scotch, gin and the then exotic vodka,  Advocaat for snowballs, Dubonnet, port and Stones ginger wine. Of this last elixir, we were sometimes allowed a nip watered down with hot water and sugar if we managed to fake a convincing enough sniffle.

I remember some years Dad set up a small barrel of beer, a firkin of 9 gallons, next to the television. He used a home made sturdy wooden stool upturned as a stillage and educated us about the use of hard and soft pegs to bring the beer into condition. Being under a single glazed window in a house lacking central heating meant there was little threat of his 72 pints of Boddington’s bitter spoiling. In fairness these were years when Mam and Dad would often host a New Years Eve party

In these days before freezers, and even refrigerators in many homes, as all shops would be closed for several days, people would lay in large stocks of food. Many items made an appearance only at this time of the year: Turkish delight, Eat Me dates tightly packed in palm boxes with a strange plastic twig, tangerines from Morocco or Spain sometimes with paper or foil wrappings, boxes of chocolates, tins of Scottish shortbread, nets of mixed nuts in shells: hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and those impenetrable almonds that defeated all but the mightiest nutcrackers.

Our turkeys and sometimes goose or capon would always be bought from the local Butcher often accompanied by a fresh cow’s tongue. I can still see the tongue now, a horrific vision in greaseproof paper, almost as it had been torn from the poor beast that very day, ready to be cooked and then pressed using a heavy weight on a saucer in the pan. The red meat, now cold, encased in its jelly, promising  delight for some but not me. There always had to pickled onions or mixed pickles, perhaps a call to a Jewish delicatessen in nearby Cheetham Hill where a large jar of pickled cucumbers could be secured.

On the day itself, we got up very early to see our presents downstairs,over the years we received Plastic toy soldiers, army sets of tanks and artillery pieces, a football strip, then free of badges, numbers and sponsor’s logos, red for United, a cowboy outfit, hat, pistols in a bullet belt with a nifty string to tie the holster to your legs, a neckerchief and perhaps a waistcoat, a football, a robot with batteries from Taiwan, a paintbox and colouring books, a compendium of games, books and inevitably the selection boxes filled with weeks of rations of chocolate bars that had little chance of surviving until the new year. One year we actually were up before my dad came in from a neighbours Christmas Eve party, needless to say he packed us off back upstairs .

Christmas day continued with Mam up at “God knows what” hour to get the turkey on, an annual battle to get oversized poultry into a small gas oven, there were vegetables to prepare, puddings to boil, gravy to make, tables to lay. I am ashamed to say she got little help.

My brother and I would go to church for the Christmas morning service stopping only to exchange boasts about our presents with other kids or watch enviously as some kid showed off their new bike in the street. Church was pleasant with carols and a joyously short sermon. Soon over. We would sometimes cross paths on our return home with our Dad who nipped out for a restorative festive “gill” at the Waterloo Inn, a beer only licence Boddington’s street corner local midway between our house and the church.

We invariably ate around 1 or 2 o’clock, following the visit of our only grandmother and two uncles who lived a couple of hundred yards away. Uncle Bert, an ex-Coldstream guard who had served in Malaya in the Fifties, would enjoy tickling us mercilessly. In the years we had Nana and uncles Bert and Frank to Christmas Dinner, then the extending table would be moved into the living room and the settee pushed back to the wall. It was not uncommon for them to bring their own dining chairs or a makeshift bench be fashioned from two chairs and a plank.

No starter of course, the meal began with turkey, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, carrots and sprouts. No bread or Cranberry sauce then, we did have Chipolata sausages but without a bacon wrapping. They were never known as pigs in blankets. The stuffing would be Paxo sage and onion made from a packet and stuffed into the cavity of the bird. Gravy was home made and used the turkey giblets as a base finished with scrapings from the roasting dish and thickened with cornflower and Bisto gravy mix. Afterwards there was Christmas pudding, boiled for an age and served with white sauce spiked with dark rum. No wine was ever served, perhaps some glasses of beer and a Dubonnet and lemonade for Nana.

As the food was cleared away, cigarettes might be offered from a special Christmas gift pack of 50 and perhaps a small Panatella cigar from an exotic thin tin as a treat for the men. Everyone would then watch the Queen’s speech on TV and then as older members of the family dozed, we watched Billy Smarts Circus on TV and waited for the once a year treat of Disney clips at around tea time.

There were only 3 channels to watch and obviously no video or DVD, no smart phones or PC’s. Everyone would look forward to the big comedy shows with Morecambe and Wise or Bruce Forsyth, later there might be a classic film to watch. “It’s a Wonderful life” , “Miracle on 34th Street” or the superb 1951 “ Scrooge” all seemed to be on at this time of the year.

Despite our substantial turkey dinner, there was always a Christmas tea, often salad with cold turkey and then home-made Christmas Cake with its thick icing, marzipan layer and plastic decorations of snowmen and Santas brought out each year. A trifle was often offered made with sherry and Italian sponge fingers.

It is difficult to remember much after this day of annual feasting. Boxing day was another bank holiday with more televison and turkey and an opportunity to finish off the less attractive items from the selection boxes. As said earlier, they were always unlikely to make it to New Year’s Eve.

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