Wednesday 23 December 2009

A Childhood Christmas - Lucy Coats

It's white outside this Christmastide, like it used to be years back.  When I was a child. 

As writers, we need the knack of remembering what it was like back then when we were closer to the ground.  How it felt.  How it smelt. How it sounded. How it looked. Whatever our growing up stories were, how else can we begin to write our stories with the true eye of a child of any age--even if we imagine every bit of the rest? So in this, our last ABBA blog before Christmas, I'd like to give you all a small gift of memories--my memories--of childhood Christmases long ago.

The tree came first.  It had been chosen and marked months ago, and on the day before Christmas Eve the saw came out, and off we trudged down the fields to the fir wood.   The pungent smell of sap rose around us, and usually the saw was blunt and wouldn't bite--but eventually, with a creak and a crack the tree fell, and we dragged it home, fingers and hands sticky with resin and scratched by needles, leaving behind the stump and a sad pile of white sawdust.  The baubles and decorations were hauled out of the white cupboard above the boiler, hot and stuffy and just very slightly oily.  Dad sat in the armchair, puffing on his pipe and directing operations in a blue cloud of Balkan Sobranie.  Men didn't decorate.  That was the women's job.  Each bauble was oohed and aahed over as it was unwrapped from its cocoon of white tissue,  and the story of its origins revealed.  The icicles from Woolies, the treetop angel from the Swedish aunt, the chocolate umbrellas which grew staler every year, the red and silver chains, so delicate and beautiful.  The orchestra of  gauze angels (playing a variety of instruments) went at the top, and then all the rest*.  Dad liked gaudy tinsel and lots of it.  Mum and I didn't.  Dad won.

Then there was the ritual of the kissing bunch.  Holly and ivy and mistletoe were poked (more pricked fingers) into a round ball of oasis foam, together with gold and green baubles and the finishing touch of a red ribbon, and hung in the hall.  Every visitor was caught and roundly kissed--whether they liked it or not (most did). 

Christmas Eve was when the carol singers came--red-nosed and crowding into the small kitchen to sip mulled wine, munch mincepies, ring the handbells and sing--always 'Good King Wenceslas' as that was what Dad demanded.  Mum sometimes got 'The Holly and the Ivy' if she was lucky.  I almost never got 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.  Bedtime brought Scrooge and Tiny Tim--read from the precious red and gold morocco leather copy with silken ends which lived in state on the inlaid table along with the best ornaments and the Chinese bowl.  And then it was time for the glass of sweet sherry and the mincepie and the carrot for Rudolf to be left by the fireplace, together with the heavy knitted seaman's stocking stolen from my naval godfather .  Father Christmas never had any trouble getting down our chimney--it was a huge ancient copper hood with room for the fattest gentleman to land with ease and leave his ashy footprints in the hearth (along with a plate of crumbs). And then it was bed--thinking I would never sleep, wondering whether I'd been good enough, trying to stay awake just long enough to see the fat man in the red coat and always failing.

The lumpy, heavy feel of a full stocking on top of wriggling, questing toes under the blankets was the absolute, unassailable proof that magic existed.  Five in the morning?  What did that matter? The short, shivering run up the narrow cottage passage (no time for dressing gown and slippers), admiring the ice flowers which Jack Frost had painted on the insides of the windows, and a long leap into the warm middle of the parental bed.  (The fat man had been to them too--grownups were always good enough in Father Christmas's eyes in our house.)  The opening was another ritual.  Turn and turn about--usefulness (soap and toothbrushes) mixed with silliness (fake eyeballs) and wonder (a miraculous and long-coveted kaleidoscope).  Breakfast was a hurried affair of toast and boiled eggs, and then, firmly buttoned into the best blue overcoat with the tweed collar, beret and best velvet and lace dress, it was off down the street to the small flint and stone church with its fascinating ceiling of celestial blue strung with golden stars, and the ancient black and white painted panels with details of charitable bequests. 'Oh ye Ice and Snow, Bless ye the Lord...', sang the choir as the bells rang out a Steadman peal.

Home again, and a small, shiny pile of presents under a slight dusting of needles. Then a heap of wishes granted (or sometimes not) and bright paper scrumpled and torn.  Lists of letters to be written on Boxing Day.  A magnificent turkey, borne in in triumph, commented on, eaten, and then a pudding, stuck with holly and aflame with blue and yellow fumes.  The Queen's Speech--and the amazement of that famous 'family' broadcast when we all had our first glimpse of the Royals as nearly (but not quite) normal.  Crackers and hats, and the steamwhistle snore of Granny Grin with its bass counterpart from Grandad Gumps in front of the 3.30 film.  Later, a morsel of leftovers with a chicory and orange salad, just to fill in the corners.  Bed, and the realisation that there were 364 whole days to go before the next time.  A year was forever and ever back then. 

Happy Christmas to all our lovely blog readers--we appreciate your company and your comments all year round, and hope you will join us again at ABBA in 2010.  A whole new decade for  us to fill with the joy of children's books--that's a good thought to end my blogging duties for this year on. 

* Those very same decorations were put up on our tree last night (all except the chocolate umbrellas, which were eaten by a long-ago dog)--and we still tell their stories each year.  These stories are important--to me at least--their annual retelling weaves the memory fabric of our family lives through and across the generations.  And in time to come, who knows--there may be new tales of my now-teenage children still fighting over who should have the honour of placing the Swedish angel on top of the tree. This year's kissing bunch--with the same green and gold baubles, but a different red ribbon is hanging in the hall.  I stand under it, lying in wait for the Boy and the Girl.  They groan, but oblige with hugs.  Christmas wouldn't be Christmas for us without these things.

You can read Lucy's blog HERE
Lucy's website is HERE
You can follow Lucy on TWITTER too!


Unknown said...

A beautiful account, Lucy, that brought back memories of my own childhood.
Happy Christmas, Carole.

steeleweed said...

Always knew you Brits did the holidays a little bit better than the rest of the world.

Bless you for sharing the memories. May your family pass them on as lovingly as you have.

catdownunder said...

Oh, I am purring! Merry Christmas!

Lucy Coats said...

May all YOUR Christmases be merry and bright, catdownunder, steeleweed and Carole! Glad you liked it. x

Stroppy Author said...

That was lovely, Lucy - thank you. We had Christmas traditions as a child, but with my own bints Christmasses have been rather different (and half of them, as this year, take place on 28th). I hope you all have a lovely, lovely time xxx

Marshall Buckley said...

I loved reading that, Lucy, and it made me think about my own Christmases past... and then made me write about it!

It's a little different to yours, which shows how something we all have in common can be so different!

It's on the blog:

Leslie Wilson said...

lovely post, Lucy, particularly welcome as the whole thing approaches!! Lovely to hear of you getting your very own Christmas tree out of the wood!
Have just been out walking la dog in a white park, grey hoar frost on top of the snow.. so nice that you still have the same angel on the tree. Our tree is still topped with the German angel who was up there when I was a kid, her wax face is a bit battered but she still looks lovely, so much better than some swish new thing. And we have the painted wooden Christmas bells that I bought in a posh shop in Hong Kong in 1982, with my little Jo in the buggy..thanks for putting us all in the mood! And a very happy Christmas to all of you and everyone else, bloggers and readers.

Lucy Coats said...

So nice to have a little window into other people's Christmases--I hoped that might happen--and thanks for being inspired, Marshall. A very happy Christmas to you, and to Anne and Leslie. I hope there will still be a little wonder for you. I've just put the Christmas ham on, and the whole house is redolent of cloves and cinnamon and apples--and simmering cider!

steeleweed said...

West of The Water, it's milk & cookies (biscuits?) left for Santa.
And it appears new traditions are arising in UK:


Warm wishes to all

Anonymous said...

Happy Holidays! :)

Unknown said...

What wonderful Christmas memories, Lucy! Hope you had a wonderful day and that the ham was as good as it sounded! :-) xxx Nicky