A Christmas Essay
Back in 1984 members of the Market Lavington and Easterton Darby and Joan Club wrote essays for the Age Concern Wiltshire Essay Competition.
The essay below is by Isobel Burt who wrote about Christmas memories.
An Old Fashioned Christmas
By Isobel Burt
My father died in the First World War and my brother and I lived all our childhood with Grandmother. She made for us a Christmas which was always a time of wonder and magic. Excitement began when she brought out the big earthenware bowl. Then, in the lovely warm kitchen, we prepared the fruit. Peel had to be chopped (I can still, in imagination, taste the sugar that was in the middle) cherries prepared, raisins, stoned, almonds skinned and suet grated. Then mixed with other ingredients, all was stirred and we wished. Often, I wished that I could be chosen as the Virgin in the Church Nativity, but alas, plump and fair, I was always an angel!
The puddings made, we prepared the mincemeat. Next day, the puddings were boiled, rolled and tied in a cloth. Never did Grandma steam them in a basin – the kitchen was full of steam and happiness: Christmas cakes were baked and stored.
We wrote our Christmas cards and the postman brought cards and parcels which mysteriously disappeared. The shops were not decorated as early as they are these days, but suddenly they would become like fairyland. How we pressed our noses to the window panes, longing to possess some of the wonderful toys within.
Soon the Carol Singers came nightly and we too went with our Sunday School friends and sang, often with more gusto and glee than tune. Often we were asked into the houses for biscuits and mince pies and a hot drink, returning home hoarse, but replete.
As Christmas Day drew near, we gathered evergreen and decorated the Church and then came the Carol Service when we performed our Nativity Play. We had a party at School and Santa Claus came, looking very like the Vicar and, hooray, we were home for Christmas.
Did it always snow for Christmas? In my memory it did. So being home all day, we decorated the house. The tree came to sit grandly in the sitting-room, where we children rarely went. Out came Grandma’s treasure box, we decorated it, sitting the angel doll right on the top. Parcels were put under it and breathlessly we waited for next day.
First the bird arrived, it looked so cold minus its feathers, it always aroused my pity. This day we always went into the town. Our great pre-Christmas treat, to visit Santa in his grotto and have a present which we could open straight away. So to Christmas Eve, when many of the family arrived – Aunts, Uncles and boy cousins, Mother and step-Father and young step-Brother. The house was full of folk and a wonderful smell of baking! That evening we played party games, sang with Aunt at the piano and just before bedtime Grandma would tell us of that first Christmas Day. Then with stockings hung on the doorknob, we were off to bed. As I lay there, one girl among the boys, I could see from my window, that star and would peep to see whether there were shepherds or Magi outside. How I wished the boys in their rooms would be quieter. They might awaken the Baby! Dreaming sleep would come and I would waken to find that magical stocking on my bed -“Happy Christmas” was shouted by one and all. After breakfast, we all went to Church for a short service. On the way home, we took small gifts to Grandma’s friends, older and more infirm than she was. The ladies hurried home and on our return the wonderful smell of lunch greeted us. We ate until we could eat no more and then most of us went for a ramble. Who washed up? With red noses, cold fingers and toes, we came home to tea. Scrumptious my brother called it. How we pulled crackers and laughed until that lovely long awaited moment!
The candles on the tree were lit and shone like myriad stars, the heap of gifts distributed. What magic caused me to find in mine the things I had coveted in the fairyland shop window! There was, of course, no television – parlour games were played. Oh! What great fun they were, yet so tired were we with our happy day, we willingly went to bed to dream of it all.
I was about eleven years old when, preparing the puddings, I asked “Grandma, is there really a Santa Claus?” She told me about St. Nicholas – “You see Santa Claus is love, remember at Christmas we celebrate Christ’s birthday – He was the greatest Gift that God in His great love could give us.” So I still hung my stocking with a greater feeling in my heart, for I knew love would fill it. So each Christmas passed, the same yet ever new.
In May 1931 I came as a probationer to a private mental home and loved both the work and Wiltshire – I was just seventeen. In December I was junior in a ward for the worst cases – it was hard work and I had little time to be homesick.
Christmas Eve came and we decorated the big Day Room. The gardeners brought in the tree and we loaded it with gifts. The local Churches came and sang Carols to us and some of the patients were very excited. One, whom I learned to love, was a wonderful pianist and when she was feeling pretty well, would play anything we requested. Today she played Carols, everyone began to feel Chistmassy. Next morning we were up early and made the day a time of merry-making. The village Band came to entertain us – those who could went to the Chapel in the Home, but I was kept busy on the ward. After a marvellous lunch, the Staff had a very hurried one, then everyone connected with the Home and their families came to the Day Room. Each one had a present from the tree. There we danced and sang until the kitchen staff went off and returned bearing a superb tea for us all. When everything was quiet again, we made the remaining time as happy as possible. It was sad that some patients had not seemed to realise that it was Christmas. After supper, we put them gradually to bed. How tired we were, but we enjoyed our cold supper provided by Cook. In front of a lovely fire in the staff room, we had time to open our presents. I left Grandmother’s until last – was I the only nurse who suddenly wondered, “What is happening at home?” Then from the parcel came mince pies, a round Christmas pudding, a cake and a small stocking with tiny contents -how did she know I had been coveting a wrist watch? And a card on which she had written “Don’t forget Love came down at Christmas.” Sister joined us, “Have you been homesick?”, she asked and truly I replied, “No thank you Sister, I’ve been too busy”.
Grandma’s words are still true! A real Christmas is always old fashioned for Love came down nearly two thousand years ago and we celebrate His birthday at Christmas.