Have I ever told you about my childhood Christmases? Desperately anticipated, the day itself was always a bit less than it could have been. We had a large hall where the tree was put up. It usually reached the height of the banisters on the landing. It was put up sometime in the week before Christmas – my mother told us that, when she was a child the tree was decorated on the evening of Christmas Eve after she’d gone to bed so it looked surprising and wonderful the next morning. I thought that the pleasure of actually trimming it yourself was more than half of the enjoyment of it; she didn’t agree as everything that happened to her when she was a very small child was set in her memory as the best thing that could happen (her later childhood was by no means as pleasant, so it’s no wonder) – nevertheless, this was a tradition that didn’t carry on, probably because she would have been far too busy on Christmas Eve to decorate the tree.
I loved those decorations, but unfortunately, and I don’t know how it happened, they all got lost, broken or thrown away over the years and I haven’t got any of them. I wish I did, they’d mean a lot to me. I think that possibly when my mother remarried she thought that it wouldn’t be tactful to use them and remind my (beloved) stepfather of a time before he was part of the family.
We always had a massive turkey and a whole gammon, which were both cooked for Christmas Day. We had our main meal in the evening. I can’t remember what we ate the rest of the day. It took my mother the whole day to prepare the meal, even though the table had been laid several days previously and we’d eaten meals elsewhere – no, I can’t remember that either. Off our laps in the drawing room, on a small table in the study? The dining table was decorated with red and green satin.
When my parents’ hotel in Weymouth had been sold, they had bought Mr Dyke, the pastry cook, a guesthouse to give him a livelihood for the rest of his life. It was an outright gift, and in appreciation he used to send us a huge Christmas pudding and a beautifully decorated Christmas cake each year. It has to be said that these rich, yet strangely dry splendours were received with more politeness than enthusiasm. They were just so big, we could never finish them. The last of the cake was occasionally retrieved from its tin in December to make room for the next one, the rock-hard royal icing chipped off and the cake given to the birds.
There were four of us, my parents, Wink my sister and me, but we were never alone for Christmas. My mother gathered together several ladies who would otherwise be alone. There was Miss Fitt (honestly) and her sister Mrs Dare, who was blind, and Gwen Jago and possibly others. Sometimes, my grandfather came to stay too, from Weymouth – my father did a Father Christmas run, as we called it, to deliver presents and pick up the cake and pudding the week before Christmas
Presents were opened at noon – of course, everyone had had their stocking on waking up – although sometimes noon came late, depending on how busy Mummy was. After lunch, whatever that turned out to be, Mummy disappeared into the kitchen again for many more hours of cooking. I don’t know what took all that time. I’ve no idea. Surely, the turkey and ham pretty well took care of themselves for hours. I suspect she didn’t want to have to entertain the guests. My father certainly didn’t want to and took himself off, I don’t know where. But Mummy certainly was always working, she didn’t take the opportunity to nip upstairs and sit down with a book for an hour or two. The old ladies scored points off each other, each wanting to demonstrate that she had the best presents and was therefore favourite. My grandfather was gallant and polite to them all. My sister and I sat and watched Disney Time and whatever else was on television on Christmas afternoon. We never watched the Queen’s Speech. I’ve never seen it in my life. We tried not to hear the polite bickering going on the other side of the room.
At four o’clock, tea was brought in, and the cake was cut. Mr Dyke also made us a chocolate Yule Log, I’ve just remembered. That was nice, although I usually left most of the icing because I prefer cake to icing.
I seem to remember that, with practicality to the fore, the first course was simply consommé – tinned, with sherry added (this was not unsophisticated in the 60s). Entirely sensible, we all liked it, it was little trouble and it was light and didn’t spoil your appetite for the rest of the meal. Then came this turkey. It had sausagemeat stuffing in the neck end and chestnut stuffing in the cavity. There were bacon-wrapped chipolata sausages and all the usual vegetables. The gammon had been boiled in a huge pan and then taken out, the skin removed, the fat underneath scored in a diamond pattern , rubbed with brown sugar and mustard powder and studded with cloves and then it was baked for a final half hour or so. There were all the usual vegetables of course, and redcurrant jelly and freshly-made mustard, but no bread sauce. I liked the ham best. I ate a little of everything though – I was terribly good and always tried everything, though I was rarely able to clear my plate.
I say, I can make this last the whole week. Splendid. Believe it or not, I have rarely if ever reminisced to my children about much of my own life – it’s so jolly to have people who are willing to be victims of my vague memories