Old Father Time: Is traditionally associated with Christmas and New Year, and the passage of time more fondly recalled during this season than any other. As childhood summers are remembered as endless days of warmth and glorious sunshine so too are our pre-pubescent winters fondly re-imagined as annual wonderlands of snow-filled fun; a parade of White Christmases (more of which, probably, in eight day’s time) spent dashing through the snow in mittens and hand-knitted woollies, and baking tray sleigh rides down the bank on the green at the bottom of the road. And it’s all bollocks, of course.
Winters then, just as now, were cold, damp, miserable experiences that killed off pensioners by the truckload (or possibly cartload, depending on how far back your personal memories travel) and left us shivering in our homes like victims of Parkinson’s disease, moaning about the costs of our soaring fuel bills. But let’s not dwell on the bigger picture, because it’s Christmas after all, and Nostalgia is the name of the game as far as Christmas goes.
My own childhood memories, up until the age of about eleven when it all went tits up, are bloody wonderful. I also carry the bittersweet emotional baggage of six older siblings vicariously in the Santa Swagbag on my shoulder, in the form of anecdotes passed around and shared at Christmas like a tin of Lucky Numbers.
Ahhhh. Lucky Numbers. Now that seems a good place to start! Lucky numbers were a chocolate and toffee selection made for the poor of the parish who couldn’t quite run to Quality Street or Roses. Like Quality Street, their direct competitor, they were a mix of toffees and soft centres – keeping the price down over the all-chocolate premier Roses brand – but they bore the coveted Cadbury logo on the tin, and were, I think, a bit cheaper because the chocolate to toffee ratio was a bit meaner. Whether it was the lower price or the branding I don’t know, but Lucky Numbers were what my mum bought for Christmas, and what she kept safely “hidden” in the top box of the built-in cupboard behind dad’s wardrobe in their bedroom.
You’ve probably guessed by the ironic quotes around the word “hidden” in the preceding sentence that mum’s cunning plan to keep the Lucky Numbers safe had one major flaw – to whit, somebody knew they were there. That somebody was my brother Richard, and during the fortnight leading up to Christmas he would occasionally sneak into my parent’s room, unstick the band of sellotape running round the tin’s lid, and grab a small handful. Having eaten his ill-gotten gains he would then replace the empty foil and cellophane wrappers (assuming that on Christmas day the empties wouldn’t be spotted what with all the greedy hands dipping in and out) and reseal the tin.
He was foiled, if you’ll excuse the pun, by his own success, because come the day itself and the official opening of the tin there was not a single chocolate or toffee left – just an extremely lightweight tin containing small squares of brightly coloured wrappers. When confronted Richard made like Abe Lincoln after the famous apple tree incident and confessed his crime, presumably in the hope of a reduced sentence or even a Christmas pardon. What he actually got was what we knew affectionately in our family as a ‘bloody good hiding.’
My mum, to be fair, had a lot on her plate with seven kids and a largely absent womanising husband to contend with, so her very occasional slips into physical abuse as a method of controlling her unruly offspring can in some ways be forgiven. That said, it would be disingenuous to suggest that she didn’t from time to time resort to the back of her hand or even, as age took its toll and slowed her, to the handle of the broom, which she could wield with uncanny accuracy to devastating effect over much greater distances.
The punchline to this joke was Richard’s utter bewilderment at the extent of his crime – he couldn’t possibly have nicked that many? The truth was revealed many decades later, when my sister Rosalyn – one of the chief finger-pointers when Richard’s possible guilt was being investigated – admitted that she too had been ‘on the dip’, and far more ambitious in the scope of her operation. Oh how we laughed.
Another favourite Christmas anecdote concerns tinned peaches, which, with tinned cream, were high on list of must-have teatime treats before being knocked from their perch by Birds™ trifle. My mum, half-pissed on snowball’s and gin, was becoming increasingly vocal in the kitchen, having opened tin after tin only to find the peaches inside mouldering and black.
It took my father’s keen (or possibly just unpissed) eye to spot the problem – two tiny holes at the base of each can. We were, dear readers, so starved of sweet treats throughout the rest of the year that my eldest brother Clive had taken to the tins with a hammer and panel pin, sucking, over a couple of weeks, the juice from every can in the house in his desperate quest for a sugar rush. I’m guessing mum’s broom had an outing that Christmas afternoon too. Oh how we laughed.
I could, dear reader, regale you further with heart-warming tales of crushing poverty and dysfunctional family interactions, but fear I run out of space and possibly test your patience. But for my siblings, who know the stories by heart and only need the gentlest of nudges to set the wheels of memory in motion, I would offer the following headlines:
- Mum and the paint water.
- Me as the ikkle baybee jeeezuss in Dad’s piano stool nativity plays.
- Mr Popper and his helicopter.
- Joysticks and Sobrane cocktail.
- Robert and the chocolate tree decorations.
- Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
- Toni’s Apple-catchers (‘hold me like a woman, not a sister-in-law’).
- Happy Annie coming up the path.
- Bath Nights and Nit Nights.
- Sarah’s WVS Christmas Peapod.
- Mum’s Ornaments (the orchid egg & other abominations).
- The arrival of Clive (there’s a pome here you might like: Christmas ’68)
- Dad’s annual ride home from Smithfield Market on a ‘turkey as big as an ostrich’ and mum’s battle to get it into a two-sizes-too-small oven.
- Me and Robert fighting in the hallway.
Apologies if today’s post has been even more self-indulgent than usual. Merry Christmas, Mum – you are greatly missed. Merry Christmas to you too, dad, you old bastard – it all came out in the wash in the end, and you’re remembered too: Smoke
With that I wipe a bittersweet tear from my eye and sign off until tomorrow’s “P”.