Christmas Extract from the Reso by Ambrose Conway
I always felt sorry for anyone whose birthday fell around Christmas and who would suffer the fate of relatives lumping together birthday and Christmas presents into a single present to serve for both. They would also miss out on the individual fuss that a real birthday demanded, lost in the hullabaloo that was Christmas.
I had lost one birthday, confined to bed with mumps unable even to sit up, and hearing a procession of relatives and friends arriving downstairs laughing and joking on my day, and unable or unwilling even to present themselves in my bedroom.
I was left there sipping Lucozade, which I only had when I was ill and which always therefore brought back unpleasant memories of illness. Only Auntie Dorothy had ventured upstairs to see me and left me the customary large bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. I came close to choking on this as I tried to guzzle it in one sitting to make up for the washout of the day.
I’d always felt sorry for Jesus, it was bad enough to have one’s birthday on December 25th, but the unpleasantness of Easter must have completely ruined the year for Him.
I’d also lost one Boxing Day when all the family came to our house for revels. This was a self inflicted loss as I had become greedy. I thought I could squeeze in a ride in my uncle’s car (a rare treat) with being back in time for joining in the fun with my cousins. Unfortunately we had gone to pick up my Uncle who was a vicar in Wrexham, and the slow journey in foggy conditions, coupled to meeting and being entertained by my uncle’s spinster landladies who proffered copious amounts of mince pies, led to my delaying the homeward journey by being sick in the car. We arrived home in time to see the last of my cousins disappearing down the road. I was gutted – a highlight of the year ruined.
Christmases always had a predictably cheery pattern. Third week in December, trim up and decorate tree – to do so earlier would have been vulgar. With luck my Dad would be on a night shift so that we could share the balloon blowing. Invariably we’d all be laughing when racing to blow up the balloons and would have one blow back on us filling our mouth and lungs with high pressure air and making a disgusting grunting sound emanate involuntarily from our noses. We would make our own trimmings each year from cheap crepe paper in garish colours. There was an art to intertwining the different colour papers which my dad had mastered. This was one of those surprise discoveries you make about your parents – that they have talents from past lives of which you know little. In this case my dad had worked straight from school in a grocer’s and had learnt such decorative arts as well as parcel-making at which he was a smooth master.
A number of wall mounted decorations were carefully removed from the cardboard storage box and placed in their traditional places on the wall. These decorations, comprising balls and bells which concertinaed out in coloured paper, were past their best but no one had the heart to throw them away.
The tree lights would be brought out and my Dad would wrestle with them as if they were an illuminated boa constrictor. He would always insist on checking them before they went onto the tree. They would never work and he would invariably have to check all the fittings before finding the errant bulb and replacing it. This he would do, commending himself on the foresight to have bought an additional bulb the previous year. He would then drape the lights around the tree trying to distribute them evenly. Finally satisfied, he would step back and ceremoniously switch them on – only for them to remain lifeless and lightless. There would be much cursing before another loose connection was found and eliminated. We would then dress the tree with a mixture of old and new decorations.
Again, many of the baubles had seen better days but were such a traditional part of the festivities that they could not be disposed of. One gold and silver bell predated my birth and I always treated it with particular reverence.
I played the ‘If’ game with it – the game I played on the pavement walking home from school. If I can get to the next telegraph post, walking normally, before the next car overtakes me then something good would happen, like chips and egg and beans for tea. And then I would walk maniacally if I heard a car approach to make sure of this treat for tea. If I was responsible for breaking this bell I knew terrible things would follow, so I always carefully placed it at the heart of the tree so that it could not be knocked in passing and, even if it did fall, would simple nestle in the branches. It was, thankfully, unlikely that it would be dislodged as I secured it every year with two paper clips and some sellotape just to be on the safe side, and took it off and placed it in an egg carton on each sixth day of January.
Luckily, nobody ever noticed my bizarre behaviour in the frenzy and I was never asked to account for this strange ritual. The child psychologists would have had a field day. Generally I was disorderly, but here were ‘obsessional’ and ‘compulsive’ making an early appearance.
We decamped to the front room for Christmas which gave it an extra edge. Knowing that we were living in the special room heightened the appeal. It also meant that when the presents had been distributed I could stretch out on the carpet and play to my heart’s content with my latest goodies, model soldiers or tanks, a train set or Scalextric.
The train set was one of the best presents. It amused me for hours, recreating scenes from my train-spotting on a small circle of track. There was also the added advantage that if I set out the track near the cat’s traditional sitting spot, she would invariably play with the train as it came round towards her. As she settled down with her tail across the track I’d suddenly turn up the voltage on the transformer and she’d shoot out of the room like a scalded… well, like the proverbial cat. I’m sure it did not hurt her as we would repeat this experience day after day. Looking back, this either meant that this did not hurt her, as I suspected, or alternatively, perhaps she just had a short memory which is not something I had considered at the time.
Late Christmas Day we would all make for my Nain’s for a gathering of the clan. There were never less than twenty of us for Christmas Tea. The table to accommodate us stretched from one end of the room to the other and comprised every table in the house, interlocked. Once you were sat down there was no further movement allowed.
On top of the electricity cupboard was an artificial tree and I obviously followed my Nain in hoarding Christmas decorations, as she had some small decorative crackers with photographs of grotesque clowns on them. These predated the war and always gave me the creeps. I thought the clowns must all be dead or well beyond their clowning prime by now and every year the sight of them made me sad.
In the table placing lottery I once drew the short straw and wound up with my back to the roaring fire. My Nain had a way of building a fire, learnt in service in a big house as a girl. She would stack the coal so that it took up all the space in the grate and spread right up to the chimney. Suffice to say that had my Nain been a stoker on the Titanic it would have been moving so fast as to have scythed though the iceberg – melting it as it went. In the unlucky year in question, I could feel the lacquer on the chair melting and although the heat was intense and made me feel sick, I would not forego the marvellous treats on display on the table.
My mum and aunties, once we were settled, would bring us an unending array of goodies. Many of these were only seen and tasted at Christmas. There was cold turkey, beef and ham, potted pastes, shrimps for my uncles and thickly buttered bread. My Nain used Lurpak butter which always tasted luxurious and I always associated its taste with high living. For each of the children there was a special Hovis loaf, a large un-sliced loaf in miniature.
Adorning the table were some highly seasonal treats which we did not see from one year’s end to the next. Pickled onions vied with red cabbage, beetroot and bits of cauliflower and other vegetables in vinegar of which the most offensive were gherkins. One of my cousins had once told me they were pickled slugs and I can never get that image out of my mind. There was fiery mustard and unusual cheesy biscuits in sticks and balls, all within arm’s reach.
I think it was at this meal that I developed the habit of constructing sandwiches with such precision. Beef with mustard on the Hovis roll followed by turkey on white bread with pickled onion, repeating until I could eat no more.
The sound track to this meal was provided by my uncle, who, somewhat surprisingly, given his usual persona, and no doubt fuelled by drink, would delve in his record collection and provide the habitual record for the meal: One thousand Welsh voices singing arias from the Albert Hall, and The Vienna Boys Choir seasonal message or lessons and carols from Kings College, Cambridge. It boomed out over the meal adding to the mood of excess – heat, food and sound.
Jelly, trifle, mince pies and Christmas pudding was the unvarying sweet selection and despite feeling fit to burst I was not going to pass up on this second phase. By now the parents had retired to the kitchen to pick at the turkey carcass and open the bumper beer can. Laughing and joking and reviewing the year and previous Christmases, which always seemed even better than this one. This allowed us cousins to renew old rivalries and do disgusting things with the food.
By an act of will, when the meal was cleared away and we were sunk in settees, chairs or sprawled on the floor, we would manage the odd After Eight mint or Matchmaker as we drifted off to sleep, with full stomachs, in the hot, airless atmosphere. This I felt was how it was meant to be and I always hated it when the mood was broken by the late night walk home, even though it was made special by seeing the coloured lights displayed on the white ice cream dome of the Pavilion Theatre, which then towered over the other buildings on the West End of the town.
Copyright Century film
Nadolig Llawen – Happy Christmas!
Copyright David Hughes 2007