One winter morning I opened the front door of my childhood home, stepped out onto the garden path and fell flat on my back. It was Christmas Day 1962, I was sixteen, and though we didn't know it at the time, this was the beginning of one of the longest and hardest winters of the twentieth century in Britain.
The rain that had been falling as my sister and I came home from our first ever Christmas Eve party had frozen solid overnight, coating paths, trees and, more significantly, power lines with ice. We had woken to find ourselves without electricity and my mother had sent me to the neighbouring farm to investigate and, if necessary, to report the power cut, as we had no phone at home. Picking myself up, I did as I had been asked and gingerly made my way home with the news that we had company in our misfortune, as the entire village was without power.
|Our cottage was the second from the right, with my grandfather living in the end cottage next door|
Thus began one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmases of my life. Not only had it been heralded by my very first kiss under the mistletoe at that Christmas Eve party, but it would continue to provide experiences which are still vivid in my memory after fifty years.
Luckily the weather was clear, cold and sunny, so that the only immediate problem was how we were going to cook our Christmas dinner. With the electric stove out of action, everything had to be cooked in or on the coke-fired Rayburn range which was our only source of hot water. Christmas dinner was later than usual, but the chicken (no turkey for us back then) was mouth-wateringly tender and delicious after its long, slow roasting.
It was only when the last mouthful had been eaten and the last plate washed and dried that the real difference of this particular Christmas Day came home to us. No electricity meant no lights, no TV or radio for the Queen’s Speech, no Christmas specials from our favourite TV stars – in fact, no ready-made entertainment of any kind.
Instead, as the short winter daylight dimmed towards evening, out came the candles in jam-jars, the playing cards and board games, and we settled down round the kitchen table for a mammoth session of games until it was time for tea.
In the Lancashire of my youth, Christmas tea was always a highlight of the day. Not for us a desultory pecking at a sandwich or a mince-pie because we felt too full for anything else. Instead the table would be laden with ham sandwiches and salad, with jelly, trifle, mince-pies and Christmas cake and of course a large pot of tea. How we managed to do justice to it all after so much Christmas dinner I will never know, but do justice we did. Eating by candlelight made it even more special that year, and in my mind’s eye I can still see my parents and grandfather and my sisters round the table in that gentle glow.
After the tea-things had been washed up, it was back to the games until it was time for an essential part of all my childhood Christmases – singing carols round the candle-lit Christmas tree in our little front room. The tree was minuscule, a two-foot tall fir which was dug up from the garden each year and brought indoors to stand on a small table, ready to receive our much-loved collection of delicate glass ornaments – baubles and bells and two fragile glass birds with long silky tails.
Tiny birthday-cake candles stood in star-shaped holders clipped to the ends of the branches, which were draped with long strands of tinsel: red, blue, green, purple, gold and silver – no tastefully colour-co-ordinated Christmas trees for us! The kitchen and front room were hung with home-made paper chains and the tiny, flickering candle-flames on the tree were reflected as an infinity of points of light by the tinsel and ornaments – a moment of sheer beauty which tugs at my heart-strings even now.
Finally we made our way to bed, still by candlelight, and woke next morning to that special light which told us immediately that it had snowed in the night, snow which wouldn't completely disappear in many places for almost three months. But that is another story…..