CHRISTMAS ALL OVER THE WORLDll over the world, particularly the New World, people think of English Christmas as the epitome of seasonal jollification. We seem to have lost some of the feeling which helps to make Christmas what it is in our hearts and memories. Perhaps in the recent stage-sets of Victorian Christmas, we have all forgotten our own Christmases. The following account is set firmly in the immediate postwar period, which everyone over forty will remember with nostalgia as a real English Christmas!
I was brought up in Leeds in the County of Yorkshire. A baby-boomer born in 1945, my early years were a memory of ration books and bombed-out buildings. The first Christmas I can really remember was when I was six, and I was taken to the Santa grotto in Lewis's department store in the Headrow. The queue seemed to last forever, but it was worth the wait. The air tingled with a magic. We waited, over-looked by Santa's Elves to see we did not wander off, while parents made surreptitious forays into the toy department!
Every year was different - one year it was a space rocket going to the moon, but back in 1951 it was a magical sleigh ride. I can only think it was some kind of early motion simulator You sat in the sleigh in rows, and it flew off into the skies. It must be true - you could feel it take off, and then the sky sped past the windows for what seemed like an age until you landed, a very bumpy landing in the snow at the North Pole; look, there was the North Pole outside the window! Then we all had to get out of the top door, this was important as the door we had entered was, we were told, buried in a snowdrift, and was stuck.
The grotto was everything we hoped it would be, a series of `caves white with glittering frost, an elf led us all through the dark cave, showing us side-caves which were hives of activity .= life-size animated scenes of elves cutting trees to make another toy store for the ever-growing workshops; elves making toys and packing the sleigh - and then, on a gorgeous crimson and gold throne sat the-great man himself, assisted by the Christmas Fairy, that every little girl wanted to be, in her pink and tinselled dress. We would tell Santa our most secret wishes: a walky-talky doll, a clockwork train set, a Christmas annual. Very modest by today's standards.
Santa would ask us if we had been good, helped Mummy, said our prayers and added up our sums for teacher, to which of course we had always the same whispered `yes'. Then, promising to do what he could, he would pass us to the Christmas Fairy who would tap each child with her magic wand and then tap Santa's bag - that was to make sure that each child got the gift Santa intended for him or her!
All too soon we were returned, filing out through the now `unstuck' rear door to be deposited back with our parents - who were trying to hide huge door to be deposited back with our parents -who were trying to hide huge bags - clutching our present from Santa. It did not matter to us that it was a packet of chalks and a slate, or a magic paintbook which only required water to make the pictures coloured(my favourite).
What mattered was that it had been a trip of a lifetime and we were brought up to appreciate the simple things in those postwar years. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the wonderful Christmas windows in the big stores. Always animated, often with carols and Christmas songs coming over a tannoy system. In those days the shops in all the towns saw the value in such an expense as an elaborate window, the like of which you will only find in a very few shops in London today. Shoppers who stopped to look at the windows were tempted inside by the windows, or the appealing offer of `Christmas teas for weary shoppers'.
Looking back, I can remember even the small corner shops made up a Christmas window with all their best merchandise on display among cottonwool snow and paper icicles, confident that they would make their best sales that season despite the lure of the big town shops - hadn't they a pile of `Christmas Club' cashbooks in their safe with the accumulated savings of their customers, which would have to be spent in their shops?
They would order annuals, hams, pork pies and whole cheeses. You could buy Christmas decorations, stocking toys and boxed compendiums of games. Specially packed stockings and hankies and tobacco goods were sitting in the windows side by side with chocolates, sweets and the jars of coloured bathsalts. Even the florists had a healthy-time at Christmas. For in my part of England it was popular to have a wreath of Christmas roses, and evergreens and hollyberries made to put on the grave of any relative who had passed on, a sign of--remembrance for loved ones at this special time of year when everyone was thought about.
At the age of twelve I was allowed to catch the tramcar after school to town to do my own Christmas shopping. Most schoolchildren made straight for Woolworth's where they could, for sixpence, buy a packet of violet-scented notepaper and envelopes for granny, and many other gifts cheap enough to be bought from accumulated Carol-singing money. The Christmas-card counter sold out of the best designs daily, and often the only evidence of the glitter cards was a little sprinkling of glitter dust left on the counter But go a little earlier and you would find cards from 1 (old) penny up to a whole shilling, loose in glass-divided bays on a long counter just inside the main doors.
By 4.30 p.m. the sky was darkening and all the Christmas lights were lit, the Salvation Army were always there playing carols by the live crib in the city square; the baked-potato stand and the hot-chestnut man were always to be found on the most populous streets, and the hot-pie-and-peas man did a roaring trade! Leeds Market was an exceptional shopping venue, this big Victorian building resounding with the cries of the different traders, and the brass band playing from the centre could be heard all around. THIS was Christmas entertainment. It was provided free by the shops and city council; it gave the public a feeling of well-being and they spent freely within their own individual limits. The spirit would spill over to the traders who would slip in an extra few oranges, or a few extra mince pies, with a cheery, `There you are, mother, Happy Christmas' They knew that `Mother' would be a regular customer all next year as a result, so it was a worthwhile gesture.
The buses and trams were filled with happy shoppers, crowded against each other with their bags. Happy because they had had a Christmas experience, and because they were not worrying already how they were going to pay for it. They had saved from their budgets for weeks for this holiday, put money away into Christmas Clubs which were run by a wide variety of shops. The money was there, already allocated, to spend, and spend it they had, with all the joy of spending a windfall! By the time the Christmas tea was on the table, and the children were all playing with their presents, the older ones sitting reminiscing or listening to the radio, everyone was calmly happy.
It had been yet another good Christmas and one looked forward to the next. No one worried about the debts incurred, and the shops still had their decorations up, for those who ventured into town to see them right up to New Year's Day, when the January sales began. But that is another tale!
Read these excerpts from Christmas Around the World:
- America: Christmas with the American Presidents
- Japan: Old Japanese Christmas and Samurai Santa
- Poland: Christmas in Poland
If you would like to buy this book, Christmas Around the World is available from the Internet Bookshop now and from Amazon.com soon. Choose one from the links below: