When I was a child, living in a Victorian vicarage, we did Christmas in our own way. Over the next couple of days I shall describe to you some of our family traditions.
For our mother, Christmas was the most important time of year. Preparations began in the autumn, with the making of Christmas puddings and mincemeat; suet being scattered like long snowflakes into the bowl, unimaginable amounts of dried fruit and (sadly) mixed peel being added, and everyone having a stir to make the magic come alive. My mother had a set of stupendous cooking-bowls; a range positively Victorian designed to cope with a much larger family than ours, even though we had relatives coming.
For us children, Christmas began with Grandma and Grandpa. They came a week or two before, usually before we’d even finished school; and we’d rush back to see whether they’d arrived yet. Mysterious bags of presents would be unloaded and stowed in secret wardrobe compartments (a world that smelled of mothballs and was peopled by old-style coats and hats) and then the grandparents would creak downstairs for a cup of tea in the lounge. There would be some time with us and then some very dull conversation – our cue to go and play.
After that, Christmas continued when my aunt and uncle came. My Aunt, my mother and Grandma would hold complex conferences in the kitchen, surveying the contents of the larder and embarking on further preparations. Our part was limited to laying tables and wiping up, a chore which I hated.
One year – it was the infamous winter of 1963 – Dad shovelled a mound of snow for me to make a snowman. But it froze, and stayed frozen for so long that I never did get to make that snowman. I remember going out and periodically trying a spade in the side of what felt like rock. But that was before May was old enough to make snowmen. Usually Dad would donate a hat and an old college scarf; and Mum would find a long, pointed carrot. We were not encouraged to have snowball fights, but instead to throw them at the wall. I can still see the powdery marks they made.
Christmas was a long time coming, and even when the day came, the presents were a long time coming, too. We children had stockings – actually pillowcases – hung up after we’d gone to sleep, with strict instructions not to wake the grown-ups in the morning. Then after breakfast we all went to church; after which our Dad had finished for the day (I remember at one stage he used to do a 4 pm service on Christmas Day but eventually decided it wasn’t worth it). Glasses of sherry were doled out (ginger beer for us) and the kitchen became a hellish region of steam and activity. We laid the table and made sure there were enough chairs, bringing into service the horrible stacking wood-and-metal chairs which belonged to the parish and which I hated, and placing acres of mats in the centre, for the casserole dishes containing potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, gravy, bread sauce and later, custard and cream. Then there was nothing to do but wait.