I suppose most of us have memories of childhood Christmas. For me, the classic Christmases past are the times we went to my grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner.
We’d start the day, as children always do, by waking as early as we could to see what Father Christmas had brought us, and then unwrap family presents in the living room. Then it was off to chapel for the Christmas morning service, and then to Grandma’s house for dinner.
My extended family is quite large, and there always seemed to be a houseful. Three generations were there, we children, our parents, aunts and uncles, and then as well as our grandparents, lots of great uncles and great aunts that I rarely saw any other time of year. We weren’t a particularly close family, but we were a congenial one, and these annual get-togethers were an opportunity for the gown-ups to catch up with each other’s news over the past year and, as always, tell us children how much we’d grown.
The routine was always the same. After dinner, the men would go for a walk, leaving the women to do the washing up, and then we’d all congregate in the back room to swap presents and play games. No fancy electronics, of course, or even the latest board games – instead, we’d play “Hunt the thimble” and “How many eggs in the nest?”. The air was smokey, partly from the fireplace and partly from the men’s pipes. Even now, the smell of pipe smoke instantly transports me back to Christmas afternoon at Grandma’s. We’d take a break from games and presents to listen to the Queen’s speech on the radio (not on TV, my grandparents didn’t have one!).
Eventually, the games and presents would be done, and our immediate family would move on – typically, mum, dad, my brother and I would go either to my other grandparents (dad’s side of the family), or to my aunt and uncle’s house, for tea. There would be more presents to swap there, and more games to play. And then home, eventually, to bed. As we got older, the routine varied more, and my teenage memories of Christmas are quite different. But my most precious memories of childhood Christmas are those early ones, where the routine seemed to be fixed in stone – this is how it had always been done, and this is how it ever would be.
What I didn’t know then – and didn’t learn for a long time – was how difficult my grandmother found it, sometimes. Not difficult physically – she enjoyed hosting the Christmas dinner, and with plenty of people to muck in and lend a hand the cooking and cleaning wasn’t an arduous task. But, emotionally, it could be challenging, because of the memories it brought back for her.
One of the things I remember from those early Christmases is sitting on my Grandad’s knee. That was usually the point at which Grandma had to leave the room for a moment to “wipe a speck from her eye”. And why, for a little while, she seemed a bit quiet, and distant.
Because Grandma’s own children – my mum and uncle – never got to sit on their grandfather’s knee. Their grandfather (my great-grandfather, and Grandma’s dad) died when Grandma was still only 13. And, of my grandparents’ generation, there was one missing from those Christmas gatherings that Grandma would dearly have loved to be there. Her older brother Ralph was killed in action at Ecoust-Saint-Mein, France, in August 1918, just six months after her father had died.
Christmas 1918 was a very different occasion for Grandma’s family to how it had been before. The loss of both of the family’s breadwinners caused an upheaval that uprooted them all from their home and not only cost Grandma the people she loved most but shattered her hopes and dreams for the future. I can only imagine how they felt, trying to celebrate Christmas that year. To be honest, I don’t even know if they did. Maybe my great-grandmother tried to keep it going, for the sake of the younger children. Or maybe it was too hurtful even to bother.
Fifty years later, with her own grandchildren sitting at the dinner table on Christmas Day, Grandma still carried the memories and pain. And she carried them with her until she died. My childhood memories of Christmas are all happy ones. So, for that matter, are nearly all my adult ones. But in this, the centenary of Grandma’s first Christmas without her dad and big brother, I’m uncomfortably aware that the ghosts of Christmas past still have power to haunt me.
I don’t have any actual photos of an early family Christmas, but the one on this page is from the same era and location. It’s taken in the vegetable garden of Grandad and Grandma’s house in Lakenheath, Suffolk (more recent owners seem to have tarted it up a bit).
From left to right as we look at it, the adults are my mum, Uncle Peter, Aunty Jill, Grandma and Grandad. The children are my brother Stuart, me, and our cousin Judith. Dad isn’t in the photo because he’s behind the camera.