We all have early childhood memories and mine was when my younger brother arrived home from the maternity ward wrapped in a shawl concealing a toy train for me. My brother, three years my junior, and my younger sister, will have their own special moments, but for all three of us, the most magical of times was Christmas Eve.
For us, the festive season began after my birthday on 10 December. I was fortunate to be born just far enough away from Christmas Day to warrant separate presents. My father, always acutely aware of the importance of not letting any of us ‘miss out’, would always buy ‘a little toy’ for the two children not celebrating a birthday. One notable ‘little toy’ was a battery-powered Dalek from the days when Doctor Who had long white hair and was played by William Hartnell and then Patrick Troughton.
Most of the festive build-up in our house revolved around mum putting up the decorations and icing the Christmas cake. We were not allowed paper chains, like those decorating our classrooms, because Mum thought them to be ‘common’. Real Christmas trees were far too messy. Instead it was small tinsel trees, scented candles and collections of baubles (or ‘bobbles’ as we called them) surrounded by holly on a plate. The rich smell of fruit cake from the kitchen invaded our nostrils at this time of year and there was always a warm red glow courtesy of two radiant gas fires, many a red light bulb and the reflective nature of the horse brasses dotted around our ‘through-lounge’ recently knocked through by Mr Pratt, the local builder.
We were an average family. Dad was a civil servant working in Whitehall, mum a housewife at home. We lived in a semi-detached house in Carshalton that backed on to the railway line. Mum and Dad still live there today. It was the late sixties/early seventies. The Morecambe & Wise Show graced our Rediffusion television, Benny Hill was deemed politically correct and either Ted Heath or Harold Wilson was Prime Minister.
We still believed in Santa Claus and on Christmas Eve, wary that he was on his way – and a little scared of his imminent arrival – we would all sleep in one room with empty stockings neatly arranged at the end of the bed, having spent the evening watching Disney Time or Tom Thumb on television.
Mum and Dad kissed us goodnight and then the sound of bells outside the window. If we made to get out of bed, Dad would advise us to stay put. “He won’t stop if he sees you,” he would say. The ringing continued for five or six minutes and we were enthralled by the magic, safe in the knowledge that Santa really did exist.
In the morning, our stockings full, we crept downstairs to see what Santa had left us. New toys glinted in the dark, the full spectacle of which would be revealed when a light was switched on.
Dad displayed our toys in separate corners. Train sets would be laid out and ready to use simply by turning a red dial on a grey transformer. Books (a hard-backed Rupert or Beano annual) would be standing up on end with, perhaps, a small teddy bear reclining against the cover. Unfortunately, it was 4am and soon Dad would herd us back to bed until 7am when Mum would put the turkey in the oven and Christmas proper would begin.
The bells would ring outside our bedroom window for years to come and I recall dismissing the idea that ‘Father Christmas is yer Dad’ when the subject raised its ugly head in the playground. “It has to be true, I’ve heard the bells outside my window and my Dad was in the room at the time,” I would counter any disbelievers.
One year, sometime in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve when I was 10 or 11, I peered out of the bedroom window for no other reason than to look out into the garden and there it was: one of Mum’s brass bells fitted outside the house and almost touchable through the louvre windows. It was a sad moment as I had discovered the awful truth: Dad and Santa Claus were one and the same.
As we all lay in bed that night, Dad warned us to remain there if we heard the bells. This time I noticed him tugging at something behind his back as the bells rang out. He later told me how he had tied the bell to a ball of string and had thrown the ball through the bathroom window from the garden, some feat as the house was peppered with the aforementioned louvre windows, which was a seventies thing along with ‘Spanish gold’ walls and mum’s Ercol furniture which is still there today.
Fortunately, so is Christmas at Mum and Dad’s. We all have kids of our own now and through the years since their birth, they have been entertained by Dad’s treasure hunts and his homemade puppet theatre. We still enjoy Mum’s legendary cake at what has become known as the Boxing Day bash.