Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The ghosts of Christmases past

My next sister and I belong to the baby boom generation, born in the years immediately after WW2. I say my next sister because I am one of five sisters. My father was a widower with a young daughter, when he met and married my mother in the early years of the war. The year after the war ended I was born, the first of her four children.

The photograph was taken in the kitchen of our terraced house in a cotton town in industrial east Lancashire. It shows my parents and my elder sister, A, with R sitting on her father’s knee and me on my mother’s, with a book on my lap, of course, even at that early age. Looking at us, I think I must have been 3 or 4, which dates the photo to around 1950.

What a different world it was then. Our house was originally a basic two-up and two-down, though by the time my parents moved there it was one of the posher ones in the street by virtue of an extension at the back, which housed a scullery downstairs and that greatest of working-class luxuries, a bathroom, upstairs. The photo shows that the kitchen was still equipped with an old-fashioned range, but in the scullery my mother was also the proud possessor of a gas-stove, alongside the usual wash-copper and mangle.

We left this house to move out into the country before I was seven, so the Christmases I remember celebrating in this house were very early ones. I don’t recall a tree, so perhaps we didn’t have one back then, but I do remember the homemade Christmas decorations, made first by my mother and elder sister and then, under supervision, by R and myself, painstakingly criss-crossing long, narrow strips of different coloured crepe-paper and then carefully unfolding the resulting plaits for my parents to hang around the room.

Both my grandmother, who lived next-door, and my mother were good cooks, so we had our share of Christmas goodies as far as post-war rationing would allow. Turkey was unknown to us and in fact even chicken was a rare treat, enjoyed only at Christmas and Easter. But we had Christmas cake and mince pies and even a few chocolates, so it all seemed very special.

But what I remember above all else about Christmas in this house are the presents R and I received two years running. Because we were so close in age (less than 18 months between us) we were usually treated exactly alike. We would go to bed at the same time on Christmas Eve in the room we always shared, each armed with her Christmas stocking (a laddered old lisle one which had belonged to our mother or grandmother) with its handwritten label so that our presents couldn’t get mixed up.

Oh, the excitement of putting the limp, empty stocking across the foot of the bed on Christmas Eve and then waking early next morning to the weight of the miraculously-filled stocking pressing down on the bedclothes. We never had many presents, but there were always the traditional orange, apple and tangerine in the toe of the stocking, together with the essential net bag of foil-wrapped chocolate coins. There would be small presents from our only set of grandparents and from a couple of elderly great-aunts, but that was all, since by then our parents had no living brothers and sisters.

But, and it is a big but, on the floor at the foot of the bed, would be the present from our parents. Just one present, which of course made it very special. When I was (I think) five and R was four, we were given a walkie-talkie doll each. We have no pictures of them, but I don’t need any. I can still see them both so clearly. R’s had dark hair and brown eyes, whilst mine was a blue-eyed blonde. Wonder of wonders, both would close their eyes when we laid them down.

Our mother, who was a fine dress-maker and made all our clothes, had made clothes for both dolls, a nightie, a day dress and a party dress. After this length of time I can only remember the party dresses and they were wonderful. Each was made of taffeta, with a net overskirt. R’s doll had a yellow dress and mine a blue one, and, as a crowning glory, our mother had painstakingly sewn tiny sequins all over the bodice of each. Even now I wonder at the thought of her, with a house to keep and by then four children to look after, working on these miniature garments in the evenings when we had gone to bed, so that our dolls would be properly dressed.

The following year it was our father’s turn to be the creative one. When R and I woke up on Christmas morning, at the foot of each bed was a dolls-house, made from scratch in the evenings and at weekends. Rather than the front wall coming off to show the rooms within, the long sloping roof lifted up and hinged back to reveal a kitchen and living room, a tiny staircase rising from the ground floor to the first, a little bedroom and a miniscule bathroom.  All the rooms were papered and painted (our father was a painter and decorator by trade) and neatly furnished. The crowning glory this time were the tiny lights in every room, made from torch bulbs powered by a battery, which we could switch on and off at will.

There were carefully chosen presents in subsequent years, and thanks largely to my parents’ example, Christmas has always been a very important time for me. But I don’t think any presents I have received since, however special, will ever replace in my memory and affections my beautifully-dressed and much-loved doll and my perfect little dolls’ house.


  1. Hello Perpetua:
    What an absolutely delightful post recalling your childhood Christmases. We have so enjoyed this, not least for the way in which Christmas for you as a child, and for us too as part of that post war generation, was so much simpler than of today but, we believe, so much more precious than for children today for whom, in many cases, too much is seldom enough. You have recaptured a time which has, sadly, long gone and for that we thank you.

  2. Oh, I wanted a doll house like that so very much! I, too, had dolls with clothes made by my mother, with pleats and tucks and tiny buttons and all, and a wicker cradle that had been my mother's doll cradle. But such a wonderful house! No wonder you remember it so well. What a lovely reflection and reminiscence!

  3. Thank you so much, Jane and Lance. I'm glad you enjoyed it. This is the post that has been simmering in the back of my mind during these disturbed nights and I've at last managed to capture it in words. Thanks too for giving me the correct plural for Christmas. I thought it looked odd. :-)

    Yes, Christmas was so much simpler then and in many ways happier as we treasured each new toy so much. It was fun making the decorations and then unplaiting the chains and rolling the paper up for reuse next year.

  4. Penny, you would have loved it. It wasn't an old-fashioned house, looking back to a previous century, but a very modern post-war semi-bungalow and I though it was wonderful. My father was very good with his hands and took such care over every detail. Sadly, for lack of storage space, both houses were passed on to other children when we grew up. I wish I could have held onto mine for my daughter to play with in her turn.

  5. How thoughtful and caring your parents were in the presents they gave you...not going out and buying something...not making post war scarcity an excuse either.... but making something exquisite in the limited amount of free time they had.

  6. I can imagine it all so well from you telling! And the doll house sounds just wonderful -- At one time I had hoped to build a doll house of my own -- but in the end gave up as it such an undertaking! I've been thinking about my past Christmases and have been up late tonight writing the 3rd in series I'm planning to publish over the 12 days of Christmas -- it would seem there be a wave of nostalgia in the air!

  7. What a beautifully endearing post filled with such loving memories and wondrous gifts from the hearts of your parents.

    We, too, had stockings and they always had an orange and some walnuts on the bottom. I carried that tradition over with our own daughters. Of course, in the '40's and even the '50s, oranges would have been quite a treat in winter. By the time our girls came along, it was a good and healthy way to help fill up the stocking.

    You've made me smile with this post; so evocative of a time now long past. Thank you, Perpetua.

  8. Absolutely, Fly. They were both so skilled at making things, though as time went on, they had less and less time and energy for it and presents were mostly bought. However, I will never forget the Christmas when I was at college and two of us girls stayed up almost all night on Christmas Eve to help my mother finish the trouser suit our youngest sister had been promised for Christmas!

  9. Thanks, Broad. It really was and I could never forget it.

    I think Christmas is always a time for nostalgia, especially when the ones behind us number far more than the ones in front of us. :-) You're being much more ambitious than I in planning a series of posts for the whole 12 days. I'm looking forward to them already.

  10. Thank you, Penny, I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. It seems to have struck a chord with its depiction of a vanished era.

    Yes, I think people divided into those who had stockings and those who had pillowcases at Christmas. We were definitely stocking people, but the advent of tights meant that our two grew up with pillowcases, though our daughter has now knitted Christmas stockings for her two boys.

    Nuts - I forgot the nuts! Ours were always peanuts and raisins in the days before peanut allergy was recognised.

  11. Hi Perpetua
    I remember Daddy doing a restoration on one of the doll's houses (I did not realise there had been two identical ones) for baby sis. Do you remember also the wooden play cooker Daddy made?
    With very limited resources they always managed to make Christmas a special time for all of us.

  12. I have so enjoyed reading this Perpetua. It has made me reflect on my own childhood Christmases when presents were delightful surprises rather than, as seems now, a list of demands.

    Merry Christmas

  13. Hi PolkaDot. Help, you're making me doubt my own memory. I certainly remember the wooden play cooker, though it wasn't my present, but I could have sworn R and I had a dolls house each.

    If my memory has failed me (by no means impossible) then it was definitely I who had the dolls house, because I played endlessly with it. I had assumed one was passed onto the little girls at the end of our terrace before Baby Sis was born. Oh for the good memory of yesteryear.....

  14. Hi Anna and thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. Yes, presents do seem to have taken over nowadays, at least in terms of quantity. I can remember writing my annual letter to Father Christmas, along with my sisters, but it was very short and written with hope rather than expectation. :-)

    A very happy Christmas to you too.

  15. oh, how wonderful! this reminds me so much of my granny who made all her own clothes and some for us too. She also made clothes for my sindy doll, including a day dress and a negligee (words that I never use but always remind me of her..)
    Seems Christmas presents would be much more memorable if we took a leaf from our ancestors books...
    Hope you have a lovely, blessed Christmas...
    red x

  16. Hi Red. It's obvious you enjoy the nostalgia and I'm glad my post reminded you of your dear granny. Gosh, your doll was much classier than mine with her negligee. :-)

    I agree about presents that have been made not bought, but sadly people are so often too busy or don't have the skills. I do my best with my hand-knitted socks....

  17. There were two dolls' houses, but one went to the girls at the farm. I also remember the electric cooker, which had rings that glowed from torch bulbs. Mummy told me how she and daddy managed to perfect the Father Christmas magic without waking up the chidren. Another stocking was stuffed downstairs for each child, and then it was swopped for the empty one and the labels moved over.

    The trouser suit you helped finish was bottle green tweed with a lime green lining. I was so excited I dashed into our parent's bedroom to show what Father Christmas had brought, but my route was barred by Daddy saying Sssh don't wake Mummy, she was up until bloody half-past six finishing it!

    I guess that was the year I knew for sure how the magic was done. But they did it so well it was brilliant to get my chance to do ghe same for my darling daughter.

  18. Hi Baby Sis. Thanks for reassuring me that this old memory hasn't yet failed completely. I laughed out loud at the neat stratagem devised by Mummy and Daddy. One advantage of using anonymous things like old stockings.

    As for your story about the Christmas of the green trouser suit, DH and I went into helpless giggles when we read it. I can so easily picture the scene and the reaction from Daddy. :-) Polkadot and I wouldn't have heard it for ourselves, as we were fast asleep too.

    You're right about how very well our parents did Christmas for us, and as PD saydo s, with very limited resources. I hope we all did it as well for our children.

  19. Your Christmas memories are so delightful, Perpetua! I remember, too, the excitement and anticipation of Santa's visit. We didn't have many presents either, but the number of presents didn't matter. It was the carefully chosen nature of the gift - a beautiful doll one year, a bicycle another year, a ballerina keepsake box another -- that made each Christmas special. My brother told me the other day that he isn't doing the Santa thing or, in fact, any Christmas presents for his young daughter ever. I understand his feelings. But I feel sorry that she won't grow up with the same magic of anticipation that we did.

  20. Thanks, Kathy. I'm glad you liked them, as I found it so enjoyable to recall them. Yes, it really wasn't the number of presents that mattered but the care that went into buying or making them. I'm not sure anything in adult life quite matches the excitement experienced by a small child on Christmas Eve. :-)

    I know from your blog that your brother is in a cross-cultural marriage, so I can see why the Santa thing may not be appropriate. But I would have thought that giving presents and celebrating must find a place in every culture at some point, so perhaps in the future she may experience something of that excitement we remember

  21. What a lovely post Perpetua, and suddenly memories of my childhood Christmases come flooding back. My parents weren't clever at making things like yours but they put a lot of thought into the few presents we received. We didn't have much but we were so excited and appreciated everything.
    We also used to make decorations from crepe paper...and I don't recall having a tree until I was older...maybe 11 or 12 yrs old.

    Have a lovely Christmas and I wish you health and happiness for 2012 xx

  22. Thanks, Ayak. Gosh, my post does seem to have opened the floodgates of memory until we are all, to borrow Tom Lehrer's immortal phrase, just soggy with nostalgia! Your childhood Christmases sound very like mine, with no memory of a tree when very young, but definitely crepe paper decorations and only a few presents.

    A very happy Christmas to you too.

  23. I had a difficult mother, but she created wonderful Christmases, which I tried to pass along to my own children. Your post brought back such memories!

    This year my granddaughters will be getting stockings at my house. Among other things, they'll find an apple, an orange, and a little bag of foil-wrapped chocolate coins!


  24. Hi Linda. Glad the post brought back lots of happy Christmas memories. Given that not all your memories of your mother are easy ones, it's good that she gave you such wonderful Christmas experiences to pass on to your children.

    I'm delighted to hear that you will be handing on the old traditions to your granddaughters, right down to the foil-wrapped chocolate coins!. :-)

  25. What a lovely post, reminding us of the joy of presents made and given with love.
    Being born in 1951, I also remember the Christmas stocking with the tangerine and a couple of walnuts in it, with a few small presents at the foot of the bed. My favourite was a black doll - it would be frowned upon these days I think.

  26. Thanks, Jean. I seem to have tapped into a wealth of Christmas memories here.:-) I think most people of our generation probably had similar experiences of quieter, simpler and certainly cheaper Christmases than we're used to nowadays.

    Your black doll was not uncommon back then and would be a collector's item today.

  27. Addendum. My memory really isn't what it was. My sister R has just reminded me that our dolls houses were so modern that there were "patio" doors leading from the bedroom (one, not two) onto a little balcony. How I've forgotten that I do not know. :-) She also confirmed that all the furniture too was homemade.

  28. We must be about the same age as I was born a couple of years after the war, but your memory is much better than mine of those years. I do remember my dolls and doll house though, and also my mother making clothes for both the dolls and my sister and I. This is such a lovely post.

  29. Hello, Rubye, and welcome to my blog. I'm glad you liked the post.

    I was born in 1946, so we are definitely contemporaries. I used to have an extremely good memory, but it's starting to show its age now and some past events are getting very fuzzy.

    I think I remember these Christmases so well because of the gifts our parents made, yet even so I can't recall all the details, as my sister just pointed out. :-) Fancy forgetting that my dolls house had a balcony!

  30. We certainly had trees by the time I was old enough to remember, small real trees on a table top, rather than tall floor-standing ones up to the ceiling, and we had very delicate mirrored glass baubles and little glass birds with soft tufty tails, also candles in clip-on holders, not electric fairy lights. These all had a venerable vintage look about them so perhaps they had been grandma and granddad's first.

    I remember the care that had to be taken when the candles were lit, with a grown up in the room at all times. It was a five-minute treat after tea to light them, and then they were blown out for another five minutes another day. I also remember that all decorations were left up until the evening of Twelfth Night as PolkaDot's birthday is 6 January.

    One year we had a big birthday tea for her in Grandma and Granddad's front room, all sitting around daddy's pasting table with a cloth thrown over it as no other table would have been big enough for five girls of assorted ages, two parents and two grandparents. Grandma died at the end of that year (1960?) so I think I was only two in the January when this happened, yet I can see it now in my mind's eye so clearly.

  31. Hi, Baby Sis, Yes, we had a tree once we lived in the country, a tiny one with a root, which got dug up each Christmas and planted out in the garden again after Epiphany. When it finally succumbed to this treatment after a good number of years, Mummy bought a small artificial tree. Both, as you say, were table-top, not floor-standing.

    I clearly remember all the lovely tree decorations you mention (especially the birds) and the tiny candles which looked so wonderful when lit.

    However I'm scratching my head without success to try to remember the birthday party you mention. I'm guessing this is another case of a very early memory sticking in a way that doesn't happen when one is older. If Grandma was there it must have been 1960, as she became ill in the February and died in December.

    Between us we remember quite a lot, don't we?

  32. How wonderful Christmas must have been for you Perpetua.

    A really smashing post.


    PS Like GB, my blog reader has taken agin you as well and you're not appearing in my reader. I thought you'd gone quiet so thought I'd pop by to check.
    Don't know what the problem is.

  33. Many thanks, SP. Life wasn't always plain sailing when I was a child, but yes, my parents did their very best to make sure Christmas was very special for us all.

    As far as the blog reader problem is concerned, I think I just may have managed to crack it. When Christmas is over I plan to do a quick post on what I've discovered to see if it works for others. Watch this space....

  34. Perpetua, you have such good memories. It amazes me how your mom and dad made you dolls' clothing and a doll house. They must have done this after tucking you and your sisters to bed. And now I am reflecting on my own Mr6, and how hard I must work to not let him get sucked into today's throw-away consumerism. Thank you.

  35. Thanks, Nerima. Yes, my mother and father must have done all this in the evenings, as our house was too small to have anywhere private for them to work in the daytime and anyway they were far too busy with work.

    You're so right about how hard it is nowadays to stop children become mere consumers at a very early age. I see it with my own children and their children.

  36. Dear Perpetua,
    What a wonderful posting! You took us back to a time that speaks so strongly to you and to me also because I was born in 1936 and I can remember the rationing in the US and also the Christmases when one present was a kingdom. For me in 1944 it was a series of nursery rhyme. Each was a pop-up picture.

    I also remember that because of the war I didn't get a bike until I was 12 in 1948.

    The site about rationing was informative and made me realize just how inventive your mother must have been with the cooking.

    Oh, I so enjoyed this posting. Thank you.


  37. Good morning, Dee. I'm glad you enjoyed it and that it triggered your own happy Christmas memories. Yes, I think these childhood Christmases back in a time of considerable austerity stand out in the memory even after so many years. Because our presents were few in number they were much cherished.

    I can remember my mother telling me in later years how hard it had been to make the rations stretch, but we were never aware of that as children as she was a marvellous manager.


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