Christmas used to come ridiculously early to our house. That’s because my parents had a grocery shop and September was the time we started looking at the stock for the festive season. For all retailers, even small ones like us, Christmas is the most important time of the year because it’s when you make the money to tide you over the leaner months of the new year. On the one hand I used to get very excited at the approach of the festive season, on the other, it made the run-in interminably long – as a result I’m now totally opposed to even mentioning the word before December 1st.
One summer, in a massive entrepreneurial move, Dad bought a heap of fire damaged stocking fillers from a wholesaler. It was the packaging rather than the small toys that had borne the brunt of the damage, so Dad’s Master Plan involved repackaging them as Christmas crackers for sale in the shop. This task fell to me and my sisters, and as autumn approached we would be found in the living room, trying to make crackers out of cardboard and crepe paper while mum provided sandwiches and biscuits. We were persuaded that allowed to eat sandwiches in the living room was an adequate trade off for giving up our playtime. And it nearly was! I can’t remember exactly how many years that consignment of stocking fillers lasted (we also brought them out with different colour crepe paper as Easter gifts) but they’re an indelible memory for me.
My grandmother was in charge of the Christmas puddings for the entire family and sometimes she would use our kitchen for her base of operations. This meant it would become as hot and humid as a laundry room as she suspended rows of puddings in muslin and sheets over the gas cooker. That smell of wet fabric mingled with the aroma of fruit and nuts is utterly unique and comes to me still, even as I heat up a shop bought offering in the microwave.
As our gifts from Santa were bought when Dad did his wholesale shopping, we were steered in the direction of whatever bargain he’d managed to nab that year So although we might have wanted whatever the in-toy was, we’d somehow manage to convince ourselves that we’d actually prefer a surprise instead. In fact the surprise was usually great and I was always delighted by the microscope, telescope, walkie-talkie or desk and chair that appeared courtesy of Santa. The one year my parents succumbed to pester-power and got me the walking-talking doll I’d seen on TV, I had her disassembled before dinner ‘just to see how she works’ and never bothered with her again. The truth is, though, once I got a book I was happy. Christmas wasn’t Christmas without books from everyone. My favourite present is still a book. It always will be.
Sweets weren’t a common feature of our daily home life, but at Christmas an enormous festive box of Lemons Assorted would be produced from beneath the tree and we were allowed to indulge freely. I still remember how tightly my teeth stuck together whenever I took one of the black liquorice which would keep me going through at least three chapters of Just William or The School at the Chalet or Ballet Shoes or The Hardy Boys.
The great joy of Christmas is the childhood memories you store up for ever. I’m lucky to have good ones that I call on every year and then put away again like the glass baubles on the Christmas Tree. My Christmas wish for all my readers is that this year’s memories and precious and wonderful, and that you’ll have them for many, many years to come.