Memories of Christmas day growing up: Rituals of Christmas Past

Here, our reporter Gill shares her memories of Christmas day when she was growing up and what is means to her.

“Has he been?”

That was always the first question on Christmas morning. 

And what a relief when Mum answered, “Oh yes, he’s been.” 

My mother would get out of bed and take a red cloth off a big box that was full of presents for me, my parents and my grandparents. There would always be one larger one for me, from Father Christmas himself. One year, there was a doll in a carrycot, another year a bride doll – which gave my grandfather palpitations when I stripped her down to her bra and pants – and one year even a small typewriter that worked just like a real one.   

It was lovely as well, opening the other brightly coloured packages containing selection boxes of yummy chocolates, which always had an intriguing game on the packaging, jigsaw puzzles, colouring books, reading books and cosy hats, scarves and mittens.

Grandad would appear with a pot of tea – and usually some lovely biscuits that he and Grandma had been given. Biscuits before breakfast. What a luxury.  

We always stayed with my mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandad, from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day. I slept on a trundle bed next to my parents in the room that was normally my grandparents’ whilst they occupied the spare bedroom that had been my mother’s when she lived there. 

The lead up to Christmas was busy for my grandparents; they were greengrocers and also sold chickens and turkeys at that time of the year – with the full blessing of the butcher round the corner. 

He specialised in duck, goose and joints of pork, lamb and beef. Between them, they managed to provide well for the whole neighbourhood. 

It also meant that despite some continuing austerity in the 1950s we generally had plenty for Christmas: tangerines, crystallised fruits… before five a day became fashionable. 

One year there were even bananas. What a thrill to prise open the deep orange-coloured wooden box to find these wonderful yellow fruits inside. As for the year of the pineapple – well! 

A feature of Christmas at the house above and behind the greengrocers’ store would be hearing the men coming out of the pub at just after 10.30. They invariably woke me. Usually my parents had not yet come up to bed, but they were sure to soon. 

There was no indication that the big man had been yet but no doubt he would also come soon. I was always a bit scared, though, of waking up in the middle of the night and meeting the big man in the red suit. It was cosy lying there listening to those happy sounds and knowing that the next day was going to be glorious. 

After a filling lunch we would go for a walk, ending up about a mile away at my aunt Dolly and Uncle Harold’s. Really, Uncle Harold was my mum’s cousin. They lived next door to my Great Aunt Gert. At some point in the afternoon we would be joined by my Uncle Ernie (Harold’s brother) and his family. 

We would give and receive even more presents. Despite the big lunch, the walk made us ready for an afternoon tea of salmon sandwiches, salad, tinned fruit, jelly, mince pies and Christmas cake. 

This was followed by an evening of pub games: shove halfpenny, skittles, dominoes etc. while the men drank beer and the ladies sipped sherry and we youngsters had lemonade or orange squash – quite a treat in those days. My second cousin Susan, though, Harald’s daughter, and quite a Tom boy, would try all sorts of tricks to get a small glass of beer out of her dad. She was usually successful. 

We actually lived full time with my dad’s mother, known to all of us grandchildren as Granny. When we went off for Christmas to my other grandparents’, Granny would go and stay with one of my dad’s eight siblings. He was the youngest of the nine so I had a lot of cousins. Even now my husband and my own two children despair of trying to understand the structure of this part of the family. 

On Boxing Day, everybody descended on whichever house Granny was staying at. This meant another round of exchanging presents. Everybody brought along a contribution of food and drink. Again the men drank beer and the ladies sipped sherry. Here though, there was a little more variety – port and eggnog were on offer as well and we children also tried to snatch a sip.  

There were some talented musicians in our family. Two uncles and several cousins played the piano. One uncle, an insurance man by day, taught violin but I would say rather that he played the “fiddle”.

One cousin has a rich tenor voice – though he was probably he was a treble back then. We were all pretty good story tellers. My father was a talented artist and would do little sketches to illustrate the stories that some of the aunts and the older cousins would tell. It was fun, anyway, being with the cousins. 

Two aunts in particular took on the Christmas Granny duty and one kept moving house between Manchester and the Midlands, spending two or three years in each location and eventually settling in Goostrey.

In the early Manchester years she and my uncle ran a boarding house, offering accommodation to people who worked in the theatre, often at Christmas time those involved in pantomimes. They brought a professional edge to the Boxing Day fun though they would often have to leave early for a panto performance.  I

If it was a Manchester year we would stay a couple of nights and the middle day included a trip up to Blackpool for a bracing walk along the prom.  

The last of the Granny Boxing Days was 1962. She died the following summer.  She was staying that year with the commuting aunt who was at the time living in the Midlands. We were all growing up.

Cousin Martin now had his adult tenor voice and his younger brother Geoff had become quite competent at singing and playing the guitar. Some of the girls were looking at careers or going to college. Even I, the baby of the family, would start Grammar School the following September. 

Just as we left Auntie Vi’s it started snowing.Dad realised he was running short of petrol so dropped Mum and me at a bus stop, just in case. Not many petrol stations were open – but the buses were running, if somewhat infrequently.

Twenty minutes later, he drove past us. We waved frantically but he didn’t see us.  Still at least when we got home he’d got the fire started. That was the beginning of the freezing 1962-1963 winter. 

Sadly, Granddad also died that year so we created another set of rituals. This involved Grandma and some of her friends, also widows, joining us for Christmas. 

One year, dad’s car broke down when he was driving them home and all four old ladies had to get out and push. They didn’t complain. In fact, they seemed to quite enjoy the experience. 

The family has shrunk. My mother was an only child and my husband and I are also both only children. We have two daughters but neither of them have children or are likely to have them. So, once again we create other rituals.  

What might the rituals of the new Christmas Present and of Christmas yet to come look like?     

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