Our Christmased past
Merry Christmas! The title from this post comes from our Auntie Jo who, having answered my query of two years ago, which was for people of the family to contribute to our Christmas eve get-together, by telling what Christmas used to be for them when they were young, had made me think of this wonderful expression. I must have told you that I had received 10 accounts, some from the French family, but most from the English side, and, I must admit, a majority from the Wrights, and when we had huddled around the fireside, we had taken turns to read them and relish in all their details as if they were as much Christmas cake and punch! Today I'm posting some of the texts which were sent to me on that occasion, with many fond thankyous to those who wrote them and made us plunge into 9 Derwent road magic. Us Millous only spent one, or perhaps two Christmases in England (of course there were the times when we were too little to remember; the photo above, for example, is dated 1962), and it's a pity. But these accounts make up for it!
The first one I'll post is the one written by Monica (whom I thank for letting me post it), because it focuses on her family walking in the dark to celebrate at 9DR, which is exactly what this blog would have wanted her to do!
Christmas tea with Grandma and Grandpa at Derwent Road – always looked forward to, and completely out of proportion to the occasion.
One day between Christmas and the New Year the Wright family would don their winter coats and walk to Grandma and Grandpa’s –a 15 minute walk – excitingly when it was almost dark – to Christmas tea at number 9 Derwent Road. I guess my memories are from when I was 8 or 9 (in the late 1960s), so there would be about 7 children – Nick, Carmel, myself, Jane, Teresa, Ben and baby Tom … Grandma would make us so welcome with chuckles and her gentle way while Grandpa (always more severe and scary) would be in the background, just being happy that we were there. I remember Mum in the kitchen with Grandma with the baby while the rest of us had the rein of the big house, allowed to explore and play all sorts of old fashioned games especially hide and seek. You really could get lost in number 9!
Tea was always on an Enid Blyton scale – the highlight for me was creamy Cornish ice cream and homemade loganberry jelly – I think Aunty Olive or Aunty Maude made the jelly from their home-grown loganberries. We also always had chocolate buttons and I remember Grandpa wickedly pinching some from Carmel and she was a bit put out…
Towards the end of the afternoon, when it was quite dark, our Dad would join us – coming straight from work. Grandma always gave him Sherry which he didn’t like but was too polite to say. Naughtily, he used to empty his glass back into the bottle while Grandma wasn’t looking. One year, she remarked on her amazing bottle of sherry – no matter how much she poured, it never seemed to empty! A bit like the magic porridge pot story!
After tea, Grandma would give us a small present from her tree – maybe a necklace or a handkerchief embroidered by Aunty Maude and then we would make a tired way home with Mum pushing the big Silver Cross pram (probably with three little ones aboard). My memory is that the stars were shining and it was very cold but that we had stayed out LATE and had a great time!
Loved it! Vivi, would love to be able reminisce all day – so much more but so little time!! Have a brilliant Christmas. Love Monica x
Next, here's Jo's long and very detailed description. I find it especially interesting because of the references to family members which are so rare - for example she alludes to Grandpa's limited relationships with the family of his deceased first wife:
Memories of Christmases Past
Dear Yves and Frédérique,
Thank you for the opportunity to relive my childhood. Since you asked me to write my memories of childhood Christmases, I have remembered many things, but one thing is sure: no particular Christmas stands out in my mind, or at least no identified one. So many memories, so many years, they all roll into one composite memory.
For me, it would be difficult to abandon myself fully to the telling of the stories if I had to use the names by which you know the people involved, so I am going to use the ones we used as children. Thus, Monsieur-Père is "Daddy" and Grand-mère is "Auntie". Maybe some of these memories are seen through rose-coloured spectacles, but that makes them all the better. I, for one, wouldn't have it any different.
I was only 7 years old when the war ended, so I remember very little about Christmas then. We kept ducks, and I know we ate duck for our Christmas meal. Also, the duck eggs were preserved in isinglass in a huge tub kept in the cellar. These eggs could be used in cooking, and so we were able to have a cake for such a special occasion.
But where do we begin? I suggest we just let the memories tell their own story. Christmas Eve was always dark early on and it was often damp and cold. The kitchen of No. 9 Derwent Road was warm and well-lit. A comforting place to be, but the back room with its comfy chairs and open fire was where we spent most of the day playing, talking, wishing; knowing it would be Christmas Day soon. We mostly made our own decorations, paper chains with strips of paper which were strung from corner to corner across the middle of the room. We also had coloured paper bells and balls which folded flat for storage. We hung them from the lights and hooks round the room. Christmas cards were put on the wall with drawing pins. The wallpaper wasn't anything to write home about, and Daddy didn't mind because you couldn't see any damage afterwards. It was that kind of paper! We didn't have very many cards until we were older and starting receiving them in our own right. I can't remember when we first had a Christmas tree. Probably not till after the war. Daddy decorated it with tiny white lights, and the top one lit up the star at the top of the tree. We hung little decorations and chocolates on the tree, and put real metal tinsel on the branches. And of course, we had a crib Daddy had made. He fixed a light to the back of it where he had cut a star shape, so the star shone down on the baby Jesus. He was so clever.
We were sent to bed early and we would pin a stocking to the sheet on our beds. These were just our ordinary black stockings. When we woke in the morning, they would be bulging with little gifts. There were always an apple and an orange at the bottom of the stocking and other little things like packs of cards and painting books. One year I had a set of unusual cards which had come with cigarettes. Daddy never smoked, but colleagues at work used to give him the cards which came with the ones they smoked. These were very funny, about a cartoon character called Henry.
I discovered them not long ago, and still found them funny. A book came with them with the spaces for each card shown clearly. I thought they were wonderful, because none of my sisters had anything like them. [This paragraph contains answers to this post]
I shared a bedroom with Bonky, and we would have fun together looking at our gifts. But once we had finished, we got up, dressed quickly and went downstairs to the warmth of the kitchen. It was cold in our bedroom, no place to linger, and anyway, it was Christmas. After a hot cup of tea we would don coats, hats, gloves and scarves and off we would go to Mass. Fasting was normal if you wanted to go to Communion, and after I was 7, that was what I did. Christmas in church was so exciting. The baby Jesus was in the crib, which we always visited before or after Mass. Then the 20 minute walk home to breakfast. This was one of the very few days of the year when we would not have porridge. Bliss! I wasn't very fond of porridge. Christmas breakfast, once the war was over, was always egg and bacon, fried bread and tea. Bacon was a very special treat!
There was a sense of anticipation, and we were not allowed into the front room until Daddy said we could go in. The fire would have been lit and on the table in the centre there would be parcels. Everything was wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. Sellotape didn't exist! Nor did fancy wrapping paper. Not having known anything different, these brown paper parcels were just as exciting to us as any wrapped in coloured paper. We all took it in turns to open our presents, and everyone else had to watch. After all, there weren't many. We had one or two each, more when we were old enough to buy something for others out of our pocket money, so it was fun to string it all out for as long as possible. I always had a lovely present from my Godmother. I called her Auntie Jackie. One year she sent me a pair of rabbit-fur-lined mittens. Since I suffered from chilblains and poor circulation at that time, they were a god-send. I loved them and can still see myself walking down Derwent Road on the way home from Church wearing them. You could even wear another pair of thin gloves inside them if it was extra cold! I wore them till they fell apart.
Once we had received a box of chocolates from Auntie Lil. Daddy couldn't resist making a disparaging remark about her packing abilities: the chocolates were all squashed. I don’t remember getting many presents from that side of the family, but Daddy hadn't kept much contact. We always had to write our thank you letters for whatever we had received, immediately after Christmas, and I remember doing that, so we must have been given something. We hardly knew them. I don't remember ever meeting Auntie Lil and only once met my grandmother.
Daddy's mother, however, lived near us, and we always went there either on Boxing Day or the day after. We always had ham, which was carved on an old side carving table, which I have now. It was a formal meal - as they were so often then - but afterwards we made our escape elsewhere in the house. Nana had a wonderful rocking chair upstairs and we loved rocking on it. Heaven knows why she let us run wild in the house, but she didn't mind a bit, neither did Auntie Olive. I remember going through Nana's boxes on her dressing table and finding lipstick! She had a piano, too, and of course Daddy would sit down at it - after his afternoon rest - and play carols. We all sang except Auntie and Nana. Auntie Olive joined in too, and it wouldn't always be carols. The two of them knew lots of songs from the old shows, and enjoyed singing them as well. Later, there would be tea and mince pies.
One year, I had been badgering Daddy to give me a workbox. I had begun to sew - we were taught very young - and my two older sisters already had their own workboxes. Daddy told me I would get one when I was a bit older, so I had to be contented with the thought that I wouldn't get one that year. But on Christmas morning, imagine my surprise and delight when I opened my parcel. There I found a beautifully made wooden workbox, about a foot long and six inches wide and as deep. It had a lift-out section with space underneath and a beautiful damask padded interior. A box of silks, needles and cotton, and other threads completed it. It had a slightly domed lid, and the workmanship, which obviously I didn't appreciate at the time, was remarkable. Daddy had made it himself, secretly down at his bench in the cellar after we had gone to bed. When I expressed my surprise at getting it when I had been told I had to wait till I was older, Daddy said, "But you are a little older!"
I think this is what made Christmas so special. Toys were made for us: we were given things Daddy had made: bows and arrows to play at being Robin Hood and his Merry Men (I was Will Scarlet, your mother Robin Hood). From my perspective now, I think these gifts gave us ever so much more pleasure than the things that are so easily bought.
Food was special, but not overly important. Christmas dinner was not that different from other Sunday lunches. We usually had beef, I think. Later on we had chicken. I can't remember ever having turkey when we were little. We would have roast potatoes and sprouts and were allowed very small amounts of Woodpecker cider out of sherry glasses! Such a treat.
The Christmas pudding had been made in September! We all shared the making of it by preparing the fruit, but it was Daddy's speciality. He always made four large puddings and insisted that the only way to mix it was with your hands, in a washing up bowl! Then, covered with a pudding cloth made of calico and tied so that the knot made a handle, they were steamed for 10 hours and put away on top of the cupboard in the kitchen. On Christmas morning one was put on to steam again for 6 hours. The result was to me the most gorgeous, succulent, black and tasty pudding. We didn't have brandy to burn, but white sauce - like custard only made with just cornflour and milk - was poured over it. Afterwards Daddy would sit down at the piano and we would sing carols, play a bit and feel totally at peace with the world.
At teatime, we cut the Christmas cake. Auntie always iced it with royal icing and made it look like a snow scene with children on toboggans, a tree and Father Christmas, and a robin on a spring on a log. This cake had been made at the end of November. We sat round the kitchen table to prepare the fruit, which was then washed. Currants, particularly, were very dirty then, and often the big ones had stones in them. We learnt how to recognise these and put them aside. We were allowed to share these out at the end and eat them. Sultanas had to be checked for stalks, and the raisins were always the big ones with pips in. You don't see them very much these days. You had to cut them open and remove the pips, just as you do with grapes which have pips in, and then they had to be cut up a bit. Then there was the glace cherries to quarter and mixed peel. You couldn't buy it ready chopped. We did it all ourselves. When it was time to mix it all together, Daddy and Auntie would prepare the bowl and the baking tin would be lined with greased greaseproof paper. Everything was done by hand. Once the oven was warm enough and the cake was in, the back door was locked to prevent anyone opening it by mistake. The oven wasn't totally secure and a draught from the back door could have disastrous results. But the smell was divine. A promise of the feast to come. Anticipation! December and Christmas: so much to look forward to.
I still use the recipes for Christmas cake and Christmas pudding handed down to us, and I still maintain that my puddings are the best in the world! One year we wrote a Nativity Play. Probably Cath did most of it. We rehearsed, and when it came to performing Daddy rigged a proper curtain in the back room so we could have proper "scenes". So exciting. We invented most of our games because we didn't have many toys.
But the most wonderful thing about Christmas was when Daddy became the organist at Church, and we began to go to Midnight Mass. I was ten years old when this started. We were put to bed at about 8 o'clock so that we would not suffer from lack of sleep later, and were woken at 10. After a hot supper which we had to finish by about 10.30, (you had to fast for only 2 hours before Communion when it was Midnight Mass), we went off all together filled with a special glow because being out late at night was so exciting. In the dark, but with many Christmas trees twinkling at us from the windows of the houses; up Derwent Road, down Fox Lane, along Caversham Avenue and down the footpath to Green Lanes, then along to St. Monica's Church. A 20 minute walk, or hop and skip if you were ten years old!
The Church would be all lit up, with lots of flowers and candles. The crib was in the Lady Chapel, but there would be no baby yet in the manger. We all went straight up into the organ loft, and Daddy would begin to play. The Church was always full by 10.45 and later people were standing at the back and up the aisles. It was packed. This was mostly because we began singing carols at 11.00. This was no ordinary carol service. This was a perfectly timed concert of continuous music. The carols were linked by the refrain of We Three Kings: Star of Wonder, Star of Night, Star of Royal Beauty Bright, Onward leading, Still proceeding, Lead us to Thy perfect Light. And the next carol would begin. With consummate musicianship, Daddy would change the key of Star of Wonder to match the key of the next carol, and so we sang, and sang, and sang, non-stop for a whole hour. Then, on the stroke of midnight, as the Procession came out from the Sacristy, down the side aisle, and up the central aisle, we sang Come, Come, Come to the Manger. The Priest would slowly process, holding the "baby" and go to the crib, carefully laying the baby in the manger beside the figures of Mary and Joseph. It was magical. Mass then followed. Always a sung Mass with plain chant, which somehow Daddy managed to make much more musical than anyone else. At the end, while people left the church, we would sing one more carol, probably Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Then we, too, would go out into the darkness and walk home with such joy in our hearts we thought they would burst. Straight to bed, not forgetting to pin the stockings to our sheets at the side of our beds, long after we stopped believing in Father Christmas!
Looking back, so many years after these events, I can truly say that Christmas was the highlight of the year, lighting up those dark days of winter with a celebration which didn't depend on how much money you had; when you saved and paid for what you bought and didn't have any debt in January, and even now, the memories bring back a warmth and a smile and a sense of deep joy and memories for which I am very grateful.
Here's Cath's account now - surprisingly rather different as you'll see (but also shorter, so it's normal)!
I’m starting by the period of Advent. As my father was the parish organist and choir-leader, we would prepare the Midnight mass, sung in Gregorian, and the Christmas carols concert. All the favourite carols were sung, and in between Daddy would play “Star of Wonder” to make everybody understand that the three wise men were on their way during the Christmas night. At school too there was a Carol service and each class prepared one. The last day of school, no class: first we cleaned our desks, and we received our letters, cards, sometimes presents, from the other girls in the class, and sometimes from the other classes. Then there was the concert, and we would always leave early. At home, we would often do our own decorations in the dining room and the hall, and we would pin or stand all the cards we received. My parents would set up the tree, the lights, the garlands etc. There was often some holly, which Daddy brought back from the cemetery near the factory where he worked.
On Christmas day, we children were delighted to open our stockings, pinned at the end of our beds the previous evening, and filled as if by magic with little presents, sweets and fruit. We never mentioned Father Christmas. We knew where these gifts came from. I think that this very British tradition came from my mother, because Daddy couldn’t have enjoyed this practice in his own childhood, and so couldn’t have had the idea of perpetuating it. The presents, which quickly enough also comprised some which we children offered to one another and to our parents, were at the foot of the tree, and Daddy was responsible for the distribution, a practice which we continued in France. Dinner was often roasted duck with baked potatoes, and Christmas pudding with, not custard but a white sweet sauce. The afternoon, or what was left of it, we played with our presents or sang Christmas songs and for tea, there was Christmas cake, which you all know about. I don’t remember when we had mince pies. I may have forgotten some things; but I hope that you will remember that Christmas in La Gacilly when Tiny, Vivi and Paco (Noël wasn’t born yet) had been part of a live manger in the basement. There’s a photo of this moment. And also of the years when your father had made a manger with life-size characters, which the local pharmacist and the people who had come to sell their annual calendars, had admired so much. There! Happy Christmas to all of you, Love, mum.
(She phoned the following day to indicate she had forgotten to speak about the Salvation Army carol singing band, which was composed of 7 or 8 musicians and 4 collectors who went from door to door to ask for money. They would appear a few days before Christmas at the top of Derwent Road, and make their way down and people would be at their windows to listen to them, not only when they were in front of their particular doors, but before and after too. She believes this practice has now stopped in London at least.)
To finish and still in keeping with the spirit of the season, here's the recording of a Christmas message we had sent to Monsieur Père and Auntie back in 1972:
And this contains the French song of "Mon beau sapin", and "Good king Wenceslas"!
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