Tea: Every Christmas that terrible moment arrives when – following the buck’s fizz breakfast and the wonderful selection of beers, wines and cocktails preceding and accompanying Christmas dinner and the post-pud Irish coffees, brandies, ports and whiskies – some party-pooping lightweight responds to the question, ‘Who wants another drink?’ with the depressing answer, ‘Oooh, I’d love a nice cup of tea.’ Bastards.
Of course, what with it being Christmas you can’t just kick ‘em out, and if all attempts to entice them into drinking more alcohol fail you will have to go and put the bloody kettle on. Bah. Humbug.
Tablecloths, PVC: I remember as a child watching my mum drag our battle-scarred teak dining table from its resting place against the wall into the middle of the living room. As I watched, wide eyed and slack jawed, she would magically produce various extension pieces from points around the table and with a few deft manipulations turn it from a comfortable but workaday six-to-eight place dining surface into a gigantic banqueting table that could accommodate not just my entire family but the families of my older, married siblings too. There was even space for Auntie Nancy, who joined us every year despite the noise and unruly behaviour. Ours, I mean, not hers; she was always impeccably behaved.
After unfolding this marvel of space-saving engineering mum would produce two or three matching PVC tablecloths and, after sellotaping the joins and corners, start laying the table for dinner. God knows where it all come from, but over the next half hour she would produce quantities of cutlery, glassware, placemats, coasters, serving dishes and serviettes that could have filled at least three sections of our local (Weekes’) department store. God it was grand!
After many red-wine-on-linen accidents down the years I joined Beattie’s PVC tablecloth brigade a few years ago, and I must say it does make life a lot easier. You can lick any spillages directly from the cloth, and though the wine tastes a bit ‘burny’ it does save on kitchen roll. Funny thing is I remember mum’s tablecloths reappearing every year, whereas I can never find mine again. In fact, mum’s were so well-worn that the creases from folding and storage developed a light craquelure effect like some century-worn old master, which only seemed to heighten the sense of tradition.
Tins: I mentioned elsewhere (under “P”, I think) that I don’t like salmon, but I’ll add a qualifier here and admit to an occasional fondness for a bit of the tinned stuff. Quelle horreur! I hear you cry – tinned salmon, in this day and age? Yes. In this day and age.
In my childhood we had quite a few Christmas treats from tins, purely and simply because there wasn’t enough fridge space to accommodate and keep chilled enough food for the army my mum had to cater for. As well as tinned salmon we had tinned fruit suspended in the jelly of our teatime trifle and – my favourite – tinned cream to top it off. Mum would buy a couple of pints of fresh cream from bog-eyed- Bob-the-milkman for the Christmas pud, but once that was gone it was tinned stuff all the way, and of the two my personal preference was for the longlife stuff from the kitchen press.
I also loved the ritual of tinned cream – the passing round and shaking of the tin to ensure that it was whipped to maximum capacity before going at it with the can opener. This could take up to ten minutes, my brother Robert and I passing the can back and forth as our arms tired. We would contort and gyrate like a couple of wriggling worms, trying to outperform each other with displays that would have put Olympic gymnasts (were there a tinned cream shaking event) and world class jitterbuggers to shame. When the can was finally opened we would argue about whose shaking had achieved the desired effect. It was mine, of course.
The other things that came in tins at Christmas were Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies and Goblin steak and kidney puddings. Every year my mum would buy a hamper from her club book and every year she would take these items out and moan, ‘What the bloody hell do they put these things in Christmas hampers for? I wouldn’t feed then to the dog!’ We didn’t have a dog, so my dad would get them for dinner sometime towards the end of January when the last of the turkey stew had been eaten.
Trainset: When I was little my Auntie Nancy bought me a trainset. It wasn’t an extensive electric set with sidings and tunnels, just a little tin windup thing with a circular track that could fit on a medium sized coffee table. I played with it all morning, as happy as a pig in poo, until my brother Robert overwound and broke it. I can still remember the sound it made – a sudden PING! as the key cranked uselessly through dead air and a grumbling ratchety sound as the small spring of flattened stainless steel that drove it uncoiled like a slinky within its guts. I cried, I remember, but not as hard as Robert cried when I jumped on the Scalextric he had received from mum and dad as his main present. I had just turned six, so crying was okay. Robert was only a month shy of ten – WHAT A BABY!
TV and Radio Times: Back in The Good Old Days, before Technology Killed Christmas, the arrival in newsagents of the Christmas editions of the TV and Radio Times led to stampedes reminiscent of, erm, a stampede. In living rooms all across the land dads would sit with A4 pads and both magazines in their laps cross-referencing the cavalcade of crap that was being served up over the holiday season. (‘Noooo! What prat of a programmer put The Great Escape on at the same time as part two of the Only Fools and Horses special? He should be strung up!’)
Having worked out the What, When, Wheres and Whys it was then off to Woolworths for a bulk pack of E180 tapes (don’t get 240’s – they always stretch) and several days spent in front of the trusty Ferguson setting up the 8 day, 36 programme recorder. On Christmas Eve the hand-drawn colour-coded chart would go up, detailing tape changeover times and any relevant Long Play / Short Play settings. The tapes too would be colour-coded for quick and easy reference – the last thing you want to be doing is trying to read labels when you’ve only got a 2 minute ad break to execute a neat swapover between Tape 1 (Comedy: Christmas Specials) and Tape 4 (Drama: Feature Length) and delete timer settings for the previous day’s viewing in readiness for New Years Day’s entries…
Thinking about it, when I first mentioned “Technology that Killed Christmas” above I was thinking more of smartphones and tablets and laptops and stuff, but looking back I think the VCR might have been where the rot started to set in. Of course, our parents before us would have moaned about televisions “forcing” families away from the radio and their parents probably moaned about radio “forcing” families away from a good old sing-song round the Joanna, but it’s definitely worse now. Definitely. Not like to Good Old Days…