I used to love reading tales of old-fashioned Christmases; stories like Laurie Lee’s or Flora Thompson’s where preparations begin as soon as summer is over and gradually ramp up to Chrismas Eve when puddings are boiled, vegetables prepared and everyone goes to bed after Midnight Mass and gets up at 5 am to light the oven for the turkey (or, more likely, the goose). Preparations were unbelievably elaborate back then; none of your pre-stuffed or pre-basted turkeys; you made your own stuffing from a secret recipe and basted the turkey every half-hour. If it was a goose, the bones would be boiled for broth and the fat saved to rub on when some child had a chest infection.
But, beguiling as these accounts are, you can’t help but be struck by the phenomenal amount of work they require. And it would be servants or housewives who did that work. Sure, the man might chop down a tree or dig the potatoes or kill the fatted goose but it’d be the women who did all the rest. That was still true until recently: last year I shouted at the TV during a repeat of a Christmas ‘Royle Family’ when the mother, having prepared and served Christmas dinner for six, groans at the thought of all the washing-up. ‘Get up off your big fat arse and get in the kitchen!’ I yelled at Ricky Tomlinson. But he took no notice.
But I was leading up to telling you about Christmases in the vicarage when I was a child. There were a lot of similarities with the accounts I mentioned above: for a start the house was a large Victorian vicarage built for a numerous family plus servants, so an old-fashioned Christmas suited it. Preparations began early: mincemeat for the mince pies would be made in October, as would the Christmas pudding (we all had to give it a stir before it was boiled) – and vast quantities of dried fruit, breadcrumbs and peel would be employed in the process. The stuffing, too, would be made ahead of time. But until we got a freezer everything else had to be bought the week before; turkey, sausages, vegetables and the fresh cream which, with custard, was served with the pudding. We always had an enormous tree (the rooms had very high ceilings) and spent hours as children making miles of paper chains to hang in every room along with balloons and tinsel.
But Christmas for us really began the week before with the arrival of our grandparents. Then on Christmas Eve my aunt, uncle and cousin would crunch round the drive in their Audi, which made nine of us. That was the usual number but one year Uncle Peter came with Aunty Joy and our four cousins Barbara-Richard-Lyn-and-David. That made fifteen, which was a bit of a stretch even with both leaves in the table.
We ate in the dining-room – the only time the place was ever used for meals – which had a hatch through from outside the kitchen. (This was now used as the dog’s room but presumably had originally been part of a Victorian kitchen.) The dining-room was generally used as a lumber-room but had a large oak-veneer table which, with two leaves fitted, could seat a dozen people. Sometimes we used it to play table-tennis but the fluted edges made the balls bounce all over the place.
With my aunt and grandmother here, the kitchen became a hellish region of pots and steam with three red-faced women frantically working to get everything ready. My grandfather lounged in the sitting-room with a glass of sherry or else walked the garden with his tobacco-pouch as he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house. My father, meanwhile, was busy with Church: we’d all been to Communion at 9.45 but the rest of us came back home quickly.
I guess every family has its Christmas rituals but ours had more than most. We children were allowed to open our Christmas ‘stockings’ (pillow cases) as soon as we woke and to play with the contents so long as we Made No Noise; but the main presents were not until the afternoon. The order of events was strictly planned and never varied: after we’d eaten dinner there was a short intermission during which the dishwasher would be stacked (men would help with this) and then the scene was set for pudding. The curtains were all closed, the lights turned off and then with great ceremony and split-second timing a thimbleful of brandy was poured over the naked pudding and set alight: my mother would pour the brandy while my father stood poised with a match as though waiting to set off a bomb. The flames licked the top of the pudding and spilled down the sides like a small volcano accompanied by oohs and ahs and sighs of satisfaction as the last blue flame flickered around the base and died. Then a small, crumbly slice for each person, infused with the flavour of burnt brandy, and a triangle of home-made mince pie; the option of cream or custard.
When everything was put away (this would be around 2.45 – we had our Christmas dinner very early) we would assemble in the living-room to watch The Queen. Total Silence. After the National Anthem my grandmother would say something suitably respectful about her maj and we younglings would give a sigh of relief that the royal platitudes were over for another year.
My parents, having been up since six, then went for a nap, as did all the adults. We children then played with whatever toys had been in our stockings, or perhaps set up the dining-room table for table-tennis and tried to cope with the erratic bounces. Excitement mounted as the hour of Four drew near, the Hour appointed for the Main Presents. After an age had passed the yawning adults came down: but not until every person had found their glasses, been to the loo, finished their soggy roll-up or done whatever tedious task they had to do and had settled in the living-room, could the present-giving begin.
No prior examination of the presents was allowed: we might wonder excitedly what was in the huge box wrapped in red and gold or whether the tiny oblong package in green was something even more thrilling, but examination of the labels was strictly forbidden. No furious tearing of paper, no chaotic free-for-all; no grabbing of gifts and opening them all at once – not for us. No sir! What happened was that the children took it in turns to fetch a present from the pile under the tree. Each label said not only who the present was for but who it was from, so we would then hand it to the person giving the gift, who would with great ceremony hand it to the recipient. They would then, in full view of everyone, open the present so we could all see what it was and whether they liked it or not.
These being pre-recycling days, the wrapping paper was stacked next to the fire to be burnt (on special occasions we had a coal fire made with smokeless fuel; this would be lit later on.) Then came tea and Christmas cake (I forgot to mention the Christmas cake earlier, which was made around the same time as the mincemeat and pudding and later covered with marzipan and home-made icing. It was decorated with a fat red ribbon round the outside and silver balls on top: I think there was also a tiny snowman in the middle but it may have been an angel.) After this came what is to my mind the most bizarre part of our Christmas ritual and one replicated in no other family I have ever known: the adults went upstairs to Dress. Yes, they actually put on formal evening dress; the women in long skirts and blouses with necklaces, the men in smart trousers and jackets. Was the Queen expected? If so, she never arrived. Perhaps like the smart soldier who salutes in the dark although no-one can see him, it was felt that standards should be maintained nonetheless. And then the evening began.
As a child I resented the lack of TV at Christmas. There were so many good programmes on Christmas Day and with no VCR or iplayer, there was no way to see them once you’d missed them. As a teenager I particularly resented missing the Christmas Top of the Pops though if we were lucky we could sneak in a bit before the tea and cake and do a bit of undisturbed bopping.
So. The evening unrolled without TV: instead we played parlour games. These I have to admit were quite fun; games like Squeak, Piggy Squeak or Twenty Questions (AKA Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.) We also played a version of Who Am I? but without the headbands and there were other games too but I have forgotten them. As a treat we would usually be allowed to Stay Up Late, though ‘late’ didn’t mean much as the cocoa was on by 9.30 and everyone was in bed by 10.
And that was our vicarage Christmas. Fun, ritualised, matriarchal and probably never to be repeated.