24. Dec, 2016

Ghosts of Christmas' Past....

Once upon a time, rather more than fifty years ago, Christmas was very  different to what it is now.

It snowed, often very heavily, most winters. There were many fewer cars on the roads then, so the snow was very rarely cleared outside the city centre. Footfall pounded it into hard layers that eventually became harder than ice itself. Children made slides on the pavement, and wondered why the elderly widow in the end house spoiled things by throwing ashes from her fire on them. It didn´t matter though, as Mrs. Murphy – who had seven children of her own and liked to keep them from under her feet – always threw out a bucket of water to make a new slide.

In the evening, when the gas lamps that lit the street came on, the yellow glow from the gas lit the cap of snow that had formed on the top of the lantern, making it transparent and beautiful, like very good lace. The children didn´t have much of an eye for such beauty, though. They were far too busy slinging a rope from the arm at the top of the lights, where – before they were born, even  – the gas man had come round twice every day to lean his ladder against the arm, to light the gas and then put it out in the morning. The rope made an excellent swing, and if the children fell off, it didn´t matter as the thick snow cushioned the fall.

Few people had a television, so Christmas didn´t really begin to be noticed until mid December. Letters  were written to Santa Clause, of course, and burned on the fire so the message went up to the heavens and was sure to reach him. All the children knew what to expect, anyway. If they were lucky, and Mum and Dad said they had been good, then they would get one main present, and a stocking. The stocking was always the same; a few walnuts in the toe, followed by a tangerine or two and then some chocolate pennies, covered enticingly in gold foil. There might be some sweets, as well, and if Santa was being really kind sometimes a shiny new half-crown piece (twelve and a half new pence, around fifteen cents) carefully wrapped in tissue paper and stuffed in the toe.

Ah. Wasn´t it all lovely?  All innocent and sentimental? Yes, but ….

Nobody had central heating. Most houses only had one coal fire, in the main living room, actually the only living room. Nobody thought it odd that you had to scrape the frost (and such pretty patterns; really it was a shame to disturb them!) off the inside of the window when you got up. And  as soon as Mum got up – and she was always the first, of course – she would light the gas cooker in the kitchen, and leave the door open so there was some warmth to get dressed in front of. And because it was Christmas, everybody had to have a bath on Christmas Eve. If Mum and Dad were feeling well off, there might be the treat of going down to the local swimming baths, where sixpence (two and a half new pence, perhaps four or five cents) would obtain you a proper bathtub, with hot water and a towel. Even then, of course, two or three members of the family would use the bath in succession; money was too tight to be thrown away like that! If Christmas was poor, then the bath would still be had, but it would be a tin bath in the kitchen, with water heated in the copper and everybody using the same water until it ran grey.

No car, of course.  It was the bus or tram to work or school, and a brisk walk in the cold at each end.

School, now. That was different as well.There was an open fire in every classroom, piled to the chimney back at Christmas. The bigger children were expected to haul in the coal for teacher. There was a small bottle of milk every morning for each child – milk that was freezing in winter and warm in summer. And  there were daily school dinners, high in carbohydrates and intended to make sure each child had at least one meal sticking to their ribs each day. And none of this not clearing your plate; even if you hated the meal, you ate it. And anyway you were made to sit there until it was all gone. Runny mince, prunes, semolina, tapioca …. No matter what! Naughty children were given a smack with a ruler .Clever children were given stars, little foil stickers on a chart. At the end of each year, the child with the most stars was given a pat on the head and told they were clever. Nobody minded. That´s the way it was.

Funny how things change….