My family always celebrated Christmas with enormous enthusiasm. Religion had very little to do with it. This was the big annual family party, more like the American Thanksgiving. Those parties left some indelible memories, and sometimes I find myself in a reminiscent mood at this time of year. Reminiscence is not the same as nostalgia, of course. People reminisce about their war experiences, or heart bypass operations, but they’re not usually nostalgic about them.
The family Christmas celebration was always at our house. For years I thought this was because we had the best house, or because my parents were so popular, or even because I was so popular. But long afterwards I realized that everybody came to our house simply because we were at the most convenient intersecting point of several bus routes, and nobody had a car.
Christmas in those days was a poor affair, materially speaking. We’re talking about London in the 1940s. Rationing meant that our seasonal feasting was limited, and new toys were simply not available. From time to time, just to liven things up, bombs were dropped on the city. But somehow our parents made do. They created ingenious home-made gifts and decorations, and hoarded food for the holidays, especially sugar. We had to compensate for the lack of material things with sociability. This explains why material things are so popular.
All my aunts all came at Christmas. There seemed to be dozens of them, but my grown up memory tells me there were only five. Four of them were unmarried – the quintessential maiden aunts. They filled the small house. They overflowed into the semi-sacred best room, which was only used for Christmas and funerals, they sat on the semi-sacred best furniture where even the sacred cat wasn’t allowed to sit, and they took far too much interest in me. And they talked, how they talked. The family rarely got together except at Christmas, which was just as well because it was like one of these Middle East peace conferences. It always led to a new outbreak of hostilities.
They talked mostly about their feet. All my aunts were, as they said, martyrs to their feet. This was because they insisted in cramming their very large feet into tiny little pointed shoes. Whenever I helpfully pointed this out all I got was a smack on the head. They talked about their feet and they drank port, which they mixed with lemonade to make it more ladylike. They sloshed this pale red mixture down by the pint, tottering around in their tiny shoes, getting unsteadier and unsteadier and louder and louder. P.G.Wodehouse writes somewhere about aunt calling unto aunt, like mastodons calling across the primeval swamp. That was how it was at Christmas. Eventually they would start to sing.
What I remember most about Christmas back then, apart from the aunts and their feet, is how dark it was. Outside we had the blackout – no lights showing to guide the bombers, not that they seemed to need any guidance. Inside, the lighting was dim, like an old movie. We didn’t have any white Christmases that I can recall. We had grey Christmases – grey fading to black. Now I’m older I understand why my family and all the others celebrated Christmas so passionately, the way we did. We were doing what we could to push back the winter darkness, as people of all faiths and none have done for tens of thousands of years, pushing back the darkness and the cold. It’s a great tradition.
Copyright: David Bouchier