Christmas as it were

Let me tell you, you kids nowadays have it easy.

When I were a lad there were none of these eelectronic doobedats you have nowadays, no little silver grammyphone records of a noise like dogs howling, no hundred-pound gift vouchers to spend on two T-shirts and a pair of socks. Socks! Our Mam would have sold the baby for a pair of socks, but she couldn’t get the price.

Christmas shopping, now, that didn’t start in August, way it does now. None of your frozen turkeys to buy months ahead. The only thing we had frozen was our noses. No shopping before Christmas Eve. Dad knocked off early Christmas Eve, round about seven o’clock, and the shops stayed open till half-past specially for the occasion. Plenty of time for Christmas shopping between seven and half-past.

We went to bed in turns, Christmas Eve. Mam had just the one pair of stockings, so us sixteen kids went upstairs in eight lots of two, and Santa Claus had to keep popping back. Not that there were a lot for him to deliver; she were a small woman, our Mam, and we had to tie a knot in the stocking because of the holes in the toes. But we’d all get a walnut, and a useful bit of rag, a lump of wood to play with and maybe a colourful stone off the road or an interestingly-shaped potato that had to go back to the kitchen in time for dinner. It were a complicated sort of occasion, what with having two kids going to bed at any given moment, and two sleeping, and two waking up and collecting their presents, and two more waiting for a turn with the stocking.

And all in the one bed, too.

It always snowed for Christmas in them days, a white mantle over the ground, the trees, the pillow if you lived upstairs. But except for noses and maybe lips if you talked a lot, we were never really cold. In October Mam put our warm clothes on us, mostly knitted woollies the Vicar had finished with, and a good layer of newspaper underneath, and sewed us in for the winter. Snug as a bug we were until the end of May, with a balaclava tacked onto the neckband for good measure. Fingers and toes, well, they stuck out; but they turned blue around Guy Fawkes’ Night and you said, ‘Good-bye, extremities’, and never felt a thing in any of them until next Spring.

Of course, there was a sort of escape-hatch in the trousers for when you went down the yard.

Christmas morning, we all went to Chapel. Not all at once, of course, we had to take it in turns for the clogs. But they had long sermons in them days, and the sixteen of us used to get a good ten minutes each. And then home through the frosty streets for Christmas Dinner.

You don’t get Christmas Dinners like that these days. Christmas Dinner were something special to us then. For a start, it were cooked. None of your stale bread toasted over a candle like the usual Sunday lunch. We weren’t poor, mind. My Dad worked hard, eighteen hours a day down the asbestos mine, and he always earned enough to pay the rent. Nowt for food and clothing, but enough to pay the rent. We were the rich end of the neighbourhood, too, our house had two bedrooms and only one family in each. Christmas dinner, we’d invite the neighbours down from the attic and there’d be thirty-seven of us at the table.

Well, I say table. We hadn’t got a table, not as such, and if we’d had one there were no chairs to go round it. We used to take up a section of the kitchen floor and sit on the edge with the boards on our laps and our feet down the hole. You could get them down a good fourteen inches before you reached the water underneath. The drains used to leak down our street.

And you won’t believe this, but there was always a roast bird for Christmas Dinner. We never had owt posh, like say chicken, but there was plenty pigeons in the park. Well, there was ducks too, but they were for the real snobs as had an oven big enough. Half a dozen fat pigeons make a grand meal for thirty-seven, though I remember one Christmas when we had to make do with a sparrow.

What d’you mean, each?

No, we never starved at Christmas. We saved up scraps of food. Many’s the time we sat down on Christmas Day to the first proper meal since November half-term. School dinners? Don’t make me laugh! School dinners! Schools didn’t feed you in them days, they eddicated you. Two times two and a belt round the earhole, twelve hours a day in a class of ninety, right up to the age of ten. After ten, you had to be out earning your bread. Or hunting for it. I’ll swear everybody in our area lived by going through each other’s dustbins. That’s what ten-year-olds were for. When you were eleven or twelve you were big enough to help your Dad down the asbestos mine.

So there we sat, this Christmas I’m telling you about, happy as sandboys with our feet down the hole and splashing each other merrily with the cold brown lumpy water underneath, with as much as maybe half a pigeon’s wing inside each of us, and most of a potato and some cabbage saved up from Harvest Festival, and our Mam stands up as if she’s about to make a speech. We all clapped and cheered, three of the babies had fits and Gran turned a funny shade of purple, and Mam says, ‘Right’, she says, ‘I’ve got an announcement to make. This year, we’ve got a Christmas Pudding.’

Well, we was all struck dumb.

Half of us didn’t know what a Christmas Pudding was. Turned out that included Mam, actually, because what she produced was not in the strictest sense of the word a Christmas Pudding. But we were prepared to make allowances, because most of us had never seen a fairy cake, either. And this was a fairy cake. ‘I tried to stick some holly in it’, said Mam, ‘but it kept falling over.’

‘Hey up, owd lass’, says Dad, ‘Yon’s a fair treat. We ought to pour brandy over that and set light to it.’ Brandy! The neighbours sniffed at him, showing off like that. But Grandad come up trumps. ‘Hang on’, he quavers, ‘I’ve got the very thing in me inside pocket.’

He had, too. It took a lot of time to get at it, what with him being sewn in for the winter, but we took the carving knife and cut the stitches on his woolly pully and his flannelette shirt, and took out six layers of newspaper and found his combinations. And there it was, in the pocket, one of them miniature bottles full of methylated spirits. How we cheered!

What we didn’t know, though, was where our Mam had got that fairy cake. Honest as the day is long, was our Mam, but around Christmas the days get a whole lot shorter. She’d nicked that cake from a display in the baker’s window. And it were made of wax. We poured the meths on, and brought a glowing stick from the cooking fire in the back yard, and you never saw such a blaze. The house would have burned down if it wasn’t for the damp. As it was, the cake melted and spread out till it was a foot wide, and we all huddled round and got proper warm until it burned right through. And for years afterwards, that neat round hole in the kitchen floor was the pride of the family.

Nobody else in our street ever had an inside lavvy.