This is the sixth and last installment of my mother’s memories of her childhood in Lancashire. You can read the other chapters here:
Now we can start the long, delicious, shivery countdown to Christmas . In the kitchen, tables are scrubbed and heavy with fat-bottomed, cream-glazed bowls of cake or pudding mixtures; curds of sugared, brandied butter and eggs by the dozen, all beaten within an inch of their lives till smooth and pale. These mixtures are thickened with dried fruit: with raisins, sultanas, currents, candied peel, angelica and cherries. Suet, grated carrots and bread crumbs are added to the pudding mixes, flour and spice is folded into the cake bowls. We take it in turn to stir, to make wishes, to fill the cake tins and pudding bowls, to scrape them out and lick the spoons, the raw mixtures being so infinitely more delicious to us than they will be after their long metamorphoses. Pudding bowls are wrapped up in butter muslin and steamed for seven hours then hung in the larder to await a further hour’s steaming on Christmas Day. The largest, deepest cake-tins, lined and covered with greaseproof paper, are slipped into the middle ovens of the Eagle range; Molly, the young cook, hovers over them until, after three hours or so, they are taken out and pierced with a skewer … if it comes out clean, the cakes are done and can be left on wire racks to cool before being covered with a thick layer of marzipan then coated and piped with a hard, tooth-cracking shell of royal icing. When finished, they are stored in sealed tins, to await Christmas Eve and the final trimmings of snowmen and esquimaux, of robins, logs, polar bears, miniature Christmas trees, gold and silvered-paper frills, scarlet ribbons.
Now the waiting for Christmas is hardly to be born although there are still one or two more excitements to distract us.
‘Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope,….’December 8th is the feast of the Immaculate Conception; Our Lady’s statue, temporarily displacing the Sacred Heart, stands on the altar at the end of the upstairs landing, just where the steps go round and up to the nursery bathroom. A freshly-starched white altar cloth is laid out, one of the many table-cloths of crisp linen and lace made by my grandmother. The red glass lamp is replaced by one of blue glass; in it a tiny wick floats on the oil,giving off a gentle glow. Silver candlesticks, their Corinthian columns and elaborate capitals polished to a blue sheen, hold tall, dripping candles which have been blessed by Father Hinde. We gather late roses, yellow leaves, bronze ferns, orange and vermilion berries for the silver vases.
‘to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we turn, mourning and weeping in this Vale of Tears….’ When the electric lights are turned out, we kneel in a half-circle of candlelight round Our Lady and say her special prayers. My mother leads us in the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, the fat ebony beads slipping through her fingers. From the kitchen, we can smell the Feast-day supper; roast chickens in their nests of bursting sausages and crisp rolls of streaked bacon which disintegrate as soon as we bite into them. There will be roast potatoes, white and floury inside their brown crusts, a buttery pureé of carrots and swedes, a rich dark gravy. Best of all, there will be a bowl of bread sauce; crumbs of white bread soaked in milk in which onions, nutmeg and yellow-fingered mace have been steeped until the sauce is fragrant with them, now thick with cream and glistening with butter. Afterwards there will be treacle tart and Queens Pudding.
Then there are Christmas-shopping expeditions to Blackburn and Preston. Before the war, these are made by car; we squabble on the back seat of the Humber, fighting for a share of the checked travelling-rugs, a turn to put our feet in the ancient foot-warmer, a sort of outsized muff … a blue-repp, fur-lined cross between a tea-cosy and a hat-box. The car has long running boards, small tables of polished walnut that let down from the rear of the front seats, and dangling, silk-netted handles to which we cling when the car shakes over the rutted roads or swings round sharp corners at a daring fifty miles an hour.
In wartime, we have to take the bus. We walk up the eerily dark lane, between the crowding trees, looking over our shoulders, picking our way between the ruts and pot-holes, past Ma Jones’s shop and the farm on the corner, on to the main road and to the bus-stop at the Boar’s Head, a mile from home. Once,when walking up this lane, our cook has to hide in the ditch,her hands over her head, as a German plane strafes it with a machine gun. When at last the bus comes swaying and snorting, to a halt, we climb in for the cold, five-mile journey to the blacked-out mill town, my mother laden with empty wicker baskets. The bus labours up the hill, past the twin lodges, the enormous stone gateposts and the long drive of Hoghton Tower, past the Traveller’s Rest and Brindle Church, round the corner and along past Barton’s farm. We lumber down a steep hill of granite sets through Fenniscowles, past a glum river, the forbidding ruins of Feilden Hall and the long-chimneyed paper-mill. The bus climbs up again, to Cherry Tree and past Cissie Burke the hairdresser’s shop, past Duckworths, the red-face butcher’s and then, at last, rumbles into Blackburn.
There are blobs of cotton-wool snow and paper snowflakes stuck to the shop windows, chains and bells of honeycomb paper strung from side to side, glittery cardboard cut-outs of snowmen and Santa Clause with his sleigh and his reindeer but there are no Christmas lights after dusk because of the blackout.
We go to Seed and Gabbut’s book shop at Sudell Cross for the latest from Arthur Ransome or de Selincourt; for Bunkle books, Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, for Tiger Tim’s Annual, Mary Plain and Milly Molly Mandy. In Mr. Carrisforth’s antique shop in Penny Street we search out small prints in Hogarth frames, samplers, lustre jugs, crystal balls, automata, pewter plates and mugs. We graze along the glittering counters of Woolworth’s which are piled high with pink, mauve and green bath crystals, with blue glass scent bottles of Nuits de Paris, gold-labelled bottles of Californian Poppy, sickly scented Phu-nana; with cuckoo-clocks, weather houses, glittering jewellery and cheap watches.
Under the elaborate glass and iron tracery of the covered-market, the marble slabs of Mr Tomlinson are covered with shiny patchwork quilts: silver, grey, blue and white fish, yellow smoked haddock, purple mussels, coral shrimps, crabs and lobster,all spangled by crushed ice and fringed by green parsley or black trails of bladder-wrack.
The stall of the butcher next to him is similarly draped but here the colours are predominantly shades of pink and red; strings of bright pink sausages, the scarlet flesh of rolled ribs, sirloins and steaks, the darker red of lamb chops and saddles of mutton, the pearly dawn-pink of pork loins and pie veal, the trays of marbled brawn and faggots, of chestnut brown offal, the yellow-breaded sides of Bath chaps and ham shoulders, all dotted here and there with black puddings and parsley. Above this, turkeys, geese, capons, ducks, guinea fowl and game of every kind hang from shiny steel hooks . Country-bred realists, this feast of death seems appealing and entirely natural to us … only the grinning teeth of the pig’s heads discomfort us.
At the stalls of the open market we buy nuts, great bunches of mistletoe, strings of tinsel, packet of artificial snow and frost, second-hand books, junk and curios .. a wooden thimble case like an brown egg in an ebony cup, a pin-cushion of blue velvet and silver filigree, a marble paper-weight of St. Cecilia, a pair of gold pince-nez in a slim case of black papier-maché and mother-of-pearl. If we make a morning trip, we have lunch at Booth’s Cafe, above the Grocer’s. Two courses, with coffee after, cost two and sixpence; we never have the five shilling lunch. I have roast mutton, mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage, with jam roly-poly for pudding. The Aunt Twins are there, in pink and purple tweed coats-and-skirts, maroon felt hats, thick ribbed woollen stockings and sensible brogues; each wears a bar brooch with three large diamonds. In the lavatory, they relieve themselves noisily, chattering like budgerigars from adjacent cubicles, while we, crippled by modesty, contort our selves to perform silently, round the edge of the lavatory bowl, without disturbing the leaves of Izal that my mother spreads all round the seats to make sure that we do not Catch Something. Something has eaten away the nose of the man in the Market; my brother says that it is VD but my mother says that it is the wages of sin and a punishment from God which leaves me confused about the lavatory seat.
Back at home, we draw and colour Christmas cards and make decorations for the nursery; cutting short lengths from sheets of coloured paper and gluing them into long chains. The elderly boxes of Christmas-tree balls and other well-beloved and ancient decorations are taken down from the attic. We take out the folded-paper crib from its envelope and put it on the shelf over the nursery fireplace in front of a sky of black crepe-paper which we pierce with small holes; behind this is placed a nightlight in a glass jar, a perilous arrangement which, when lit, produces a starlit sky,with one larger hole for the comet. Christmas cards are pinned up all round the room; we prefer the pop-ups and those that are thickly crusted and dusted with frost.
The Christmas tree in the front hall and the big crib in the back hall are not put up until Christmas Eve. A large box, disguised by branches of evergreens, provides the stable, silver foil from the tea-chests makes the sky. There is straw on the floor and on the roof; inside, just an empty manger, a patient ox and an ass. Outside, shepherds wait with their flocks….
Christmas Eve is a Fast- day; we eat only two ounces of food for breakfast and supper, four ounces of potatoes and roast hake for lunch. The big children wait up and go to Midnight Mass; we smaller ones are put to bed early, each with one of our father’s large shooting stockings tied to the end of our beds. Often we wake in the small hours, four o’clock or even earlier,to feel for our stockings, now heavy and lumpy. There is always a silver sixpence and a threepenny bit in the toe, an apple and a tangerine in the heel, two red and gold crackers sticking out of the top. The cheaper and more garish the contents, the better we are pleased … mouth-organs, tinny trumpets and penny whistles, little gold-net bags of wooden houses, trees and farm-animals, carved by Austrian peasants, tubes of marbles; pencil-cases, silvery patty-pans, minute china tea-sets, tiny celluloid dolls, regiments of lead soldiers, flashy mechanical toys that will be broken or over-wound by Boxing Day … we are deliriously happy with all of these.
‘Go back to sleep or there will be no presents tomorrow’ my father threatens from the next room, woken by our cheeping. We sit up in the dark, smothering giggles, silently feeling the stockings, trying to guess what each lump can be, those of us who have not yet made our First Communions cramming down chocolates and sugared almond before falling asleep again, our beds strewn with tissue-paper and treasure.
In the morning; we come downstairs to find that cotton wool snow has fallen on the crib in the night; an angel with outstretched wings hovers over the sparkling roof, another prays inside. Baby Jesus lies in the manager, Joseph and Mary bend over him in humble adoration. The Three Wise Men and their camels have come early but bearing gifts.
The house is festooned with evergreens: on every shelf, behind every picture, are tucked sprays of fir, pine, ivy, holly, mistletoe and rhododendron leaves; the air is full of their crushed green scent, their bitter-sweet incense. We long to open our presents now, but first we must go to Early Mass, walking the mile or so to church and back through a silent, frosted world. There the Crib is a realistic wooden stable,with brightly-painted, almost life-sized figures; we light candles in front of it before taking our place n the family pew.
Mass seems endless; the church is full of coughs and sniffs … when we breathe-in the cold air, pain shoots up our nostrils … but at last Father Hinde says Ite, Missa Est, and wishes us all a holy and happy Christmas.. Deo gratias…. we pipe fervently and trudge home home to breakfast with those who have slept-in after Midnight Mass.
Even in wartime, my mother manages to produce a special breakfast on Christmas day. Bowls of porridge, swimming in pools of cream and golden syrup; a plate of fried eggs, streaky bacon, slices of fat-pocked black pudding, triangles of bread fried brown in the bacon fat, grilled tomatoes, casseroled kidneys; thick slices of toast, butter and marmalade, steaming cups of hoarded Ceylon tea. Only when breakfast is finished, cleared away and washed up can we open our presents. We line up in front of the thick curtains that divide the two halls, the eldest children in front, the smallest, me, at the back. My father opens the curtains and we file in. There is the Christmas tree at last, sparkling with tinsel, its branches weighed down with baubles, its trunk hidden by a tumbling pile of parcels. My mother hands them out to us, apparently at random; it is agonising to see others opening their parcels while I wait for mine.
What do I remember? First of all, a giant spinning top; I learn to press down the handle several times, release it and send the top spinning off with a deep-throated hum that drowns out all other sounds, its red, gold and blue stripes melting into one dizzy smudge of colour.Then there is an oblong wooden box with a sliding lid, packed to the brim with building-bricks, doors, windows, arches, columns and porticoes; these are to be my favourite playthings for years to come; … they will be transformed into e villages, castles, forts, dolls’ houses, harbours, hospitals, farms, zoos,garages, magic mazes and a hundred and one other projects as the years go by. Once there is a baby doll, Benjamin, in hand-knitted clothes and shawl, often new furniture for the doll’s house, a toy sweet-shop with scales and till, a bus-conductor’s uniform complete with cap, badge, money-pouch, tickets and a ticket-clipping machine. There are always colouring- sets and, above all, books; books to read and cut-out or pop-out and pop-up books. Older brothers and sisters make lists for us of our presents and their senders so that we may spend most of Boxing day, tongue between teeth, writing slow, painful thank-you letters … ‘Deer gOdmUther, tdhank -yew for the embrOyded hanKYS,I hop YEW ar wel… xxxxxx …….
While the two little boys and I are small, Christmas dinner is taken at midday, as soon as the wrapping paper and ribbons have been cleared away. A white damask cloth covers the dining room table. Down the centre is a cream satin runner, edged with heavy, raised embroidery in
silver thread and blue-and -green peacocks; my father bought it in India during the two-year tour of the world that his Godfather gave him for a twenty-first birthday present… I think it is the most beautiful cloth in the world and I long to own it. Above it is another object of desire to me, a lamp shade in the Art Nouveau style; a ring of hammered pewter suspended from the ceiling by a system of pulleys and weights which enables it to be raised and lowered at will. From the pewter rings hangs a shade of yellow satin, its zig-zagged edged by a heavy fringe of tiny amber glass beads. The minute the war is over, my mother inexplicably jettisons this treasure and I claim instantly , to her great bewilderment.
Dotted up and down the table are silver bowls of nuts, fresh fruit, dates and sliced of candied oranges and lemons. There are piles of red and gold crackers, green and gold tins of sugar-dusted Turkish delight … the pink squares thick with nuts, the green tasting of mint. We are using the best china: red, blue and gold Coalport. There are silver pots for salt and pepper, mustard pots and sugar castors, these last two lined with dark blue glass; there silver bon-bon dishes, grape -scissors and nut crackers. White candles flickering the candelabra; I long for twisted red candles like those on the Christmas cards, but my mother says that these are MOC ,which her code for being common, like putting the pudding spoons and forks above the plates instead of lining them up alongside with the knives and forks or saying ‘serviette’, ‘pardon’, cruets’ and ‘toilet’. It is very important not to be MOC.
Now the damask napkins lie folded on each side plate; finger bowls and wine glasses wink , chink and chime out when they touch … ‘Quick, stop them, .. save a drowning sailor’, says someone. My mother says grace and we sit down at last. The food is always the same, none of us will allow the slightest variation in the traditional menu. I cannot remember there being a first course but the twenty-pound turkey has three bread-crumb stuffings: lemon and thyme, chestnut and onion, sausage meat and onions. ‘It’s a poor carver who cannot look after himself’ says my father has he sharpens the worn blade of the carving knife on a ribbed steel and sets to work.. . there are sprouts, roast potatoes, sausages, bacon-rolls, gravy, bread sauce… somehow we find room for mince pies, trifle, Christmas pudding, rum sauce and brandy butter, searching through the pudding slices for shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits and the traditional silver charms: button, wishbone, bell, thimble and wedding ring, all of them wrapped by my mother in scraps of greaseproof paper… ‘you might swallow them and one never know where they’ve been.’ I think the white and gold coffee cups are very pretty with their little fluted spoons. I am not allowed coffee but when the grownups have finished, they let me scoop out the remaining soggy grains of coffee-flavoured Demerara sugar from their cups. It is a rush to get through all this in time to settle down by the morning-room fire for the King’s Speech …
‘ I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year’ … King George’s strangulated vowels and barely-repressed stutter drift out from the Bakerlite Echo . . will he get through it all, we wonder? When the National Anthem booms out we all stand stiffly to attention, arms pressed down to our sides , overcome by feelings of loyalty and patriotism difficult to explain to postwar generations who have no experience of the nightmare paralysis and the hollow pit in the stomach as the rising moan of the siren wails out into the air, the long nights of bombing and the ever-present fear of invasion.