A 50s’ Christmas
Peter Kelly recalls Christmases of 50 years ago, when greetings cards celebrated the Nativity and carols held sway over the latest Christmas ‘hits’.
When I think back to Christmas in the 1950s it’s the build-up I recall. We had a ‘Christmas cupboard’ holding tins of fruit, mincemeat, Christmas pudding, red salmon, dates, special biscuits, and a bottle of sherry. Woe betide anyone even suggesting touching anything before Christmas Eve.
Shops ran Christmas clubs. Customers saved a few shillings a week for the ‘Christmas shop’ or for turkeys at the butcher. They were fresh, not frozen, and ordered well in advance.
Our parents made lots of sacrifices for our Christmas. With the Post Office at full stretch Dad, a civil servant, earned a few extra pounds as he went to the station after his day’s work to load and unload sacks of mail late into the night.
As children, the excitement began when the Christmas annuals arrived at our local newsagent and Woolworth’s blazed with bright paper garlands and glass baubles.
At school we’d make hats and Christmas cards and practice a Nativity play. On the last afternoon we had a Christmas party with sandwiches, jellies and cakes, and Santa would appear (walking and talking uncannily like our kindly headmaster, Mr Lewis) and we’d take home simple gifts.
We’d knock on doors singing carols. There were a few grumpy ones who would tell us to go away, but most would let us sing a few verses of Once in Royal David’s City then give us a few pence. We weren’t collecting for ourselves. One bitter cold night my brother and I sang our hearts out for two hours, until we’d amassed five shillings. The required magic total reached, we ran to the corner shop and bought Mum a tin of caramel toffees with a picture of a grey cat on it. Naturally, she cried…
The week before Christmas saw chickens, turkeys, and game hung in the fish and poultry market. Extra milk came in bottles with colourful Christmas tops; butcher’s boys delivered; the horse-drawn greengrocer’s van trundled into our ‘backs’ late at night, paraffin lights swinging, to bring fruit and vegetables; a Bedford lorry brought bottles of pop and postmen made multiple deliveries.
There was the tangy smell of tangerines, and boxes of dates. These were eagerly looked forward to, as was a supply of nuts to crack.
Until the age of nine I sincerely believed in Father Christmas (but I could never understand how he was in Lewis’s in Liverpool and other grottoes at the same time). We’d send messages up the chimney, and before bed on Christmas Eve, my younger brother and I would look up for reindeer.
After hanging small stockings we’d try to sleep – but I remember being awake when ‘Santa’ came into the room. I didn’t dare open my eyes.
Next morning the stockings bulged with an apple, a tangerine, a few sweets and nuts and some very small presents.
On the carpet were toys, once including a bright red box with a picture of an express train leaving a station. I thought that was exactly what I’d find inside but the little tin Hornby clockwork engine, with two carriages and circle of track seemed no less exciting.
Typical presents would be books; Snakes and Ladders or Ludo; a beginner’s Meccano kit; a sheriff’s outfit of hat, badge and cap gun; and perhaps a small Dinky toy like a Trojan van. I never owned an electric train set nor a Scalectrix, but I did get a space gun that flashed red, white and green. Nothing we had cost much, but everything was treasured because of the sacrifices our parents made.
On Christmas morning we’d venture outdoors to see what our friends had received. Little girls pushed dolls’ prams or showed off nurses’ outfits, the boys were ‘at war’ in cowboy and Indian outfits. New bicycles and tricycles clattered by, and we compared Dandy and Beano annuals and Dinky toys.
At Christmas 1952, we were given two identical bright red and yellow ‘Mobo’ scooters, which we duly raced up and down the back yard for days on end.
Many terraced houses had a ‘parlour’ that contained the best furniture, the most precious ornaments and perhaps a piano and a grandfather clock. This room was only ever brought into use at Christmas (and for weddings and funerals). After Christmas dinner we’d move into the parlour for party games by the fire.
Nostalgia is one thing – but it’s still possible to rekindle the Christmas spirit of old each time this wondrous festival comes along. May it refresh your soul and bring you peace and happiness.