Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Tale of Two Christmases

As the only child of two teetotalers, my first Christmases were not riotous affairs. We would get up at seven o'clock, eat a bowl of cereal and wait for the electric fire to warm up the 'lounge'. Like many working class people of that time, my parents had a strange habit of only using their front room on special occasions.

After our perfunctory breakfast, we would change rooms and my father would put his 'Christmas with James Last' LP on the stereo. 

The music was pure kitsch, but I still have a soft spot for it:

Every year, my presents would be stacked underneath a formica coffee table with wobbly legs. I could barely contain my excitement. In contrast, my parents treated their presents with the dogged professionalism of someone cataloguing a crime scene: "Soap on a rope from Chris and Lesley".

In spite of being very religious and patriotic, my parents didn't attend a church service or watch the Queen's Christmas Broadcast to the Commonwealth. I've no idea why.

At 11.30, my father would collect his parents from Twickenham, a mile away. It would be an understatement to say that my grandmother was not the most cheery of souls and for the duration of their visit, we felt as if a dark spell had been cast over the day. Christmas 'dinner' - always served at midday - was consumed in semi-silence.

There were no games.

But if my recollections sound rather melancholy, I should add that I always enjoyed Christmas Day. The misery of being with my grandmother was a minor distraction compared to the excitement of having a new train set, or a box of Lego.

In my naivety, I assumed that most families had similar Christmases to mine, following the same routine. However, when I spent my first Christmas away from home, with my wife's family, I had a rude awakening.

My wife's family were the polar opposite of mine in every respect and teetotalers were regarded with the same horror as child molesters and trade unionists. If you wanted to be accepted in their solidly upper middle class world, you had to show that you knew how to drink.

Christmas day began with a champagne breakfast and cold meats at my wife's grandparents' home. I'd never drunk alcohol at breakfast time before and could almost feel my body recoil in horror. How would I get through the rest of the day?

At mid-morning, a succession of visitors arrived, while the grandparents held court in the bar of their sprawling Tudor house. Everyone became increasingly drunk and my memory of the period between 11.00 and 3.00 is almost non-existent, but at some point we must have walked back to my mother-in-law's, as I remember waking up there in the afternoon.

In the evening, we returned to the grandparents' home, where more guests arrived and the drinking resumed. By nine o'clock, the grandfather walked over to a grand piano (which had weeds growing underneath it) and a singalong session began, with a medley of music hall favourites and songs from the 1930s and 40s. A rude version of 'These Foolish Things' was the highlight.

Christmas dinner - a well-hung pheasant - was finally eaten at 11.00pm (apparently it got later every year) in a large hall, warmed by a roaring inglenook fire. More bottles were opened. 

After the main course, it was apparently traditional to have indoor fireworks. By this point in the day, everyone was so drunk, they barely noticed when one of the fireworks rose from the table and set fire to the Christmas decorations. I felt as if I had entered a madhouse.

The contrast between the two family Christmases couldn't have been greater: one, a sobre, muted affair; the other, a fun but exhausting bacchanale. Since those days, my wife and I have aimed at having a Christmas that is somewhere between the two extremes.

However, as a homage to our dear departed, there will be five minutes of James Last, accompanied by the carcinogenic smoke of an indoor fireworks display.

Merry Christmas.


Roger Allen said...

"I'd never drunk alcohol at breakfast time before... How would I get through the rest of the day? "
Nevermind the rest of the day- the rest of your life?- everything is an anticlimax after that!

David said...

Our traditions were much closer to the first than the second. Ritual trip to my maternal grandparents (my father and grandmother detested each other). Sometimes there would be a bonus visit my my uncle (my grandmother detested my uncle's wife).

My cousins and me would be sent upstairs to play with the new toys so that the adults could have a flaming row. We just took it as a matter of course.

This was all in the 70s so of course the world was monochrome anyway...

George said...

Back then, a large number of Americans, who would have described themselves as middle class, seldom used their living rooms. I remember the jokes about this, but don't know what it was all about.

Annabel said...

Merry Christmas Steerforth!

Our traditions are a bit in between. When I was little - We usually got Christmas lunch over with just in time for Top of the Pops on the telly. Then we used to try to get my Mum tipsy so she'd dance to The White Heather Club - her James Last equiv. She usually obliged.

Nowadays, a civilised glass of champers with Christmas oldies in the background while picking at the bacon off the turkey mid-morning sets the rest of the day off nicely.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Merry Christmas, Steerforth. An unused room? Every inch of our modest middle class home seems always to be draped with reclining children, tired parents and snoring dogs. Can't imagine not using any room in this house. Anyway, I'm off to the indoor fireworks store...

Tororo said...

Merry Christmas Steerforth! No indoors fireworks for me this year... next year i'll give a try at this; I promise!

Canadian Chickadee said...

What a wonderful post! My husband has similar memories to those you have of your inlaw's Christmases. His father used to stock the bar of the house with enough liquor to open a pub - the vast sideboard groaned under the weight of the bottles. One year, Rob's mother baked the turkey with a tea towel inside.

Like you, Rob and I have tried to strike a happy medium in the festivities.

Happy Christmas to all, and keep the fire extinguisher handy for the inevitable flames from the indoor fireworks!

xoxox Carol

Rob said...

We had a living room and a lounge. The lounge was too expensive to heat in winter so we lived in the living room.

Steerforth said...

I think Rob has hit the nail on tbe head - it was simply too expensive to heat an additional room. My mother and her family spent most of her childhood in their kitchen, where a 'range' provided the only heat.

The moment central heating arrived, we were no longer forced to be together.

I must apologise for the general reply, but I'm supposed to be wrapping presents. I don't think I'll get away with more than five minutes' absence.

Carol - Thank you for the lovely card. I would reciprocate, but I'm absolutely hopeless at getting my act together and have only sent three this year.

Dale said...

Christmas (in New Zealand) was always at my maternal grandmother's, and was quite crowded. In 1946 for instance, there were the grandparents, grandma's mother, my parents and me, and my mother's brother newly returned from his RAF service with a London wife. We were all living in that 3.5 bedroom house, due to the war-induced housing shortage.

Even then, with all these people, the "front room" was only used for special occasions - but as it housed both the piano and the Christmas tree, it got good use on Christmas Day.

As we grew a little older and more children joined this merry band (who by 1949 had their own homes), we children were allowed the special treat of eating Christmas dinner in the location of our choosing.

My sister usually chose a wheelbarrow in the shrubbery (though once she chose to crouch in a bucket), and I always chose the mattress in the garden shed - in reality a retired 6 man barrack hut from the newly dismantled RNZAF base nearby. I liked the airmen's wartime pinups still stuck to the wall, especially the famous one of Betty Grable looking backwards over her shoulder. And the pile of Saturday Evening Posts to read.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Not to worry, Steerforth. Just wanted you to have something in the mail besides the inevitable circulars and bills!

Hope you have a happy Christmas. By the way, don't worry about the wrapping. Kids don't really care, and can't wait to rip the paper off anyway.

Everything will get done eventually. Of course, there was the year my sister-in-law wrapped up a sweater with the knitting needles still hanging on the sleeve. She did finish it in time for New Year's though!

Brian Busby said...

Between the dry and the drenched, it's probably wise to try to play things down the centre - but oh what I wouldn't give to have experienced just one Christmas with your wife's family.

Wishing you all the best in the New Year.

joan.kyler said...

Merry Christmas! I'm glad I found your blog.

Here in the US, we, too, had an almost unused front room. Seems like a great waster and it had nothing to do with heating it.

Our childhood Christmases seem so perfect in retrospect, but I don't remember being unhappy at the time, so they must have been perfect. I find Christmas as an adult to be sadly lacking for many reasons. But, still, have a wonderful Christmas!

Steerforth said...

Dale - I'm intrigued that the comments have revealed so many unused front rooms and in your case, heating can't have been an issue. Your Christmas sounds like the perfect solution for adults and children alike.

Carol - You're right about the paper. Next year I'll use the brown paper they put in Amazon boxes.

Brian - I think once would be enough for anyone's liver. But it was very entertaining - like entering a Nancy Mitford novel.

Best to you for next year too.

Joan - As a child, Christmas just meant presents, not going to school and watching more television than usual. It's much more complicated now isn't it? I don't like the consumerism and the pressure to have the 'perfect' Christmas.

This year, our sons had far fewer presents and I'm pleased to say that they were perfectly happy with their lot, so all hope is not lost.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Oh mine was far more like your Christmas, minus the James Last. Happy Christmas! Lx

Anne Roy said...

Happy New Year ... where are you?

Anne in Cambridge (the U.K. one)

Rog said...

Wonderful! Evokes for me the smell of a warming Rupert Annual in front of a coal fire.

Champagne breakfast and 11.00pm dinner would be my idea of torture.