Christmas comes but once a year. Aren't you glad you're not a Christmas?
Christmas is supposed to be a family event. But when I was a child in 1950s England, the only family members within a hundred miles were my grandparents who lived about fifteen minutes walk away on the other side of the village. So each household took it in turns to host Christmas one year they'd come to us, the next year we'd go to them.
My grandmother had a huge and ancient fireplace with a built in oven off to one side. The fire itself was used to heat the hot water cylinder and it also kept the oven nicely warm. This gigantic oven was the only thing in the entire village large enough to contain a full sized turkey and so, once every two years, it would be ritually cleaned and scrubbed and serviced. This generally involved at least one, and possibly two, visits from a chimney sweep. He always came well equipped with oddly flexible brushes with which to poke and prod the oven's mysteriously convoluted pipes and grilles.
When all was deemed ready, the coal fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal. The turkey would go into the oven early on Christmas eve and cook slowly for at least eighteen hours. Occasionally it would be prodded, and the juices and giblets would be examined with all the care and attention to detail of a haruspex on the threshold of an important divination. Eventually the monster bird was deemed to be cooked to perfection. Time to overeat...
Despite all the careful servicing of the oven, when the bird was eventually brought forth it would reach the table dusted with a light sprinkling of soot. The really lucky diner would also get the occasional crunchy cinder to chew on.
When it was time to go back home, my grandmother would insist that we took the turkey carcass away with us. We always obliged, and then we lived on turkey for most of January. Eventually even the dog refused to eat any more of it, at which point the semi-stinking carcass would finally get thrown away.
When my grandparents came to us the following Christmas, they were always mildly disappointed to find that my mother was serving chicken. My mother claimed that her oven was far too small to accommodate the average turkey. My grandmother was not convinced by this story, and she always seemed mildly miffed that tradition was being so blatantly violated.
The chickens of fifty years ago were very different birds from the anaemic mass produced assembly line chickens of today. The breast meat was white and succulent and juicy and the flesh on the thighs and drumsticks was very dark, almost black, with a much smoother taste than the breast. Sophisticated carvers would always enquire:
"White meat or dark?"
Less sophisticated carvers would ask:
"Breast or thigh?"
Extremely unsophisticated carvers would demand:
"You a tit man or a leg man?"
When did the chickens of yesterday metamorphose into the bland, uniformly coloured, plastic tasting birds that we know and love today, and what caused that transformation?
After my grandmother died, the Christmas ritual changed. Now my grandfather came to us every year. He would arrive at lunchtime.
"Hello, Billy," he would say to his son William, my father. "Hello Mu," he would greet Muriel, my mother. "Hello Jumbo," he would say to me.
I don't think my grandfather ever called me by my proper name from the day I was born to the day that he died. He was very upset that I was the first male child in the family for untold generations who had not been called either Thomas or William. When I was christened Alan, my great-great-grandfather, who was called both Thomas and William and who was consequently an extremely important person in the Robson clan, began to spin like a top in his grave. This greatly upset my grandfather and therefore he refused ever to use my real name. I was always Jumbo. I do not know the derivation of the name.
One year, my grandfather arrived at our house clutching a bottle of wine. It was his first ever contribution to the festivities. We were utterly amazed. But he explained that he had found an absolute bargain which he simply couldn't resist.
"It only cost 2/6d," he told us proudly. "I bought it at the chemist's shop in the village."
Even in the late 1950s, half a crown was an amazingly cheap price for a bottle of wine. Normally you'd probably pay at least 10 shillings. What a bargain!
Of course, it tasted exactly as you would expect a 2/6d bottle of wine bought from the local chemist to taste. It had obviously been manufactured in the back of the shop from drugs that were past their sell by date and it had been cleared and polished by filtering it through damaged condoms. But none of that mattered; it was a bargain!
Once my grandfather had arrived and settled in, lunch would be served. He would chomp his way solemnly through his chicken and then retire to the lounge where he would fall asleep in the most comfortable chair and snore loudly all afternoon. He would wake up at 6.00pm whereupon he would declare, "Well, I have to go now," and then he would leave.
We were never sure why he felt he had to leave just before tea time. The full secret was not revealed until many years later, after he died and his will was read. That was when we discovered that the randy old goat was having an affair with a lady in the village. He left her most of his estate; my father got almost nothing. Not surprisingly, this annoyed my father no end and I'll swear that if the old bastard hadn't already been dead, my father would have killed him.
And so, every year, when my grandfather left us at tea time on Christmas day, he would trot off to visit his fancy woman where he'd have yet another Christmas meal, and a quick game of hide the cracker to round off his day.
While my grandfather was busy getting the last turkey in the shop nicely warmed up, the rest of us would take the opportunity to indulge in another Christmas tradition. We'd huddle round the television set and listen to the Queen's Speech. Queenie herself was always nicely dressed, sometimes formally and sometimes in a cosy twinset and pearls. Her hair was freshly permed. There was always a Christmas tree in the background of the picture and Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. She spoke to us with the precisely enunciated glass-etching vowel sounds of the English aristocracy.
"My husband and I..."
I feared for the integrity of our cathode ray tube, but it always survived unscathed. Once Queenie was safely out of the way, the BBC would broadcast a movie. Throughout the 1950s this was always an impossibly young looking John Wayne in Stagecoach, a movie I detested because there was far too much dialogue and no shooting until the very end. As a child, I liked my cowboy movies to have shooting all the way through.
Nowadays it is strange to think that there was once a time when Christmas television did not involve The Sound Of Music or Mary Poppins because the films hadn't even been made yet. The Wizard Of Oz had been made it was released in 1939, the year the second world war broke out; the two events may not have been unconnected. However in 1950s England The Wizard Of Oz was still doing a roaring trade in the cinema (which is where I first saw it, circa 1958) and it would be many, many years before it eventually appeared on television.
As soon as they decently could, my parents would send me off to bed and my Christmas day would come to an end. Because I'd been up since 4.00am tearing paper off my presents, I was usually ready to go. December 25th was always a very long day for all of us. Every year, my parents made me promise not to wake them up early after Father Christmas had been, and every year I broke that promise. I was always so excited on Christmas eve that I was sure I'd never get to sleep. Periodically my parents would check up on me.
"Has Father Christmas been yet?" I would enquire anxiously.
"No," my father would say severely. "And he won't come while you are still awake."
My parents would force themselves to stay up until about 3.00am to make sure that I was really sound asleep and then they'd put a huge pillow case full of excitingly wrapped presents just inside the door of my bedroom before they went off to bed themselves. In retrospect, I can't help thinking that they brought the full horror of what came next on themselves...
An hour or so after my parents went to bed, I'd wake up, spot the pillow case that Father Christmas had left for me, completely forget my solemn promise of the night before, and start investigating all the parcels.
Often there would be drums to bang, racing cars to vroom, vroom around the bedroom and science kits (batteries included) with which the adventurous boy could make door bells, air raid warning sirens and atomic bombs. One year I got an electric kit which contained an induction coil with two bare metal handles. I connected the batteries, turned the circuit on and grabbed hold of the handles. A massive electric shock threw me out of bed on to the floor, and I screamed.
"Go back to sleep," my father would yell every year. He was a very na´ve man, with no understanding of the ways of children. My mother would put on her red flannelette dressing gown and come into my bedroom. Between jaw breaking yawns she would examine my presents with me and agree that, one and all, they were the best presents ever.
Once my father was finally persuaded that further sleep was simply not going to happen, we'd go downstairs for breakfast. Often it was still dark outside and if I was very lucky there might be swirls of snow, with the promise of a snowball fight later in the day. Perhaps I'd get a chance to throw a snowball at my grandfather.
"I didn't do it, grandpa. It was a boy called Alan."
There would be Christmas Carols on the radio. I'd listen while I ate my toast. What carol do they sing outside German lunatic asylums?
"God rest you jerry mentlemen let nothing you dismay..."