We did roast chestnuts on an open fire, but I preferred crumpets. Crumpets are tasteless, but when the outsides are golden brown and you slather them with butter until the tiny holes can barely hold it, then top them with strawberry jam . . . mm mm mm. And they seemed to taste even better when toasted over the fire on the end of long forks on Christmas Eve.
Draped with silver tinsel, hung with colored glass balls and transparent glass icicles, tiny tin candleholders holding tiny candles clipped to the branches, the tree glittered in the corner of the room. Christmas did not begin in October, or November. It began a few days before Christmas Day when Dad went into the woods and came home with our tree which he dug up roots and all, so it could be planted in the garden after Christmas.
Holly with glossy red berries draped the mantle and tops of picture frames. Our homemade decorations sat on the sideboard, bookshelves, desk and tables: hand-size logs we covered with glue before sprinkling on silver or gold glitter, then attaching miniature Christmas trees, sprigs of holly, miniature Father Christmas, tiny colored glass balls, anything colorful we could find. Our homemade garlands stretched across the ceiling from one side of the room to the other, strips of shining colored paper we glued into circles and put together like daisy chains.
A few family presents sat beneath the tree, but Father Christmas left presents for us in pillow cases at the ends of our beds. No matter how late we stayed awake, we never caught him. Our stockings – Dad’s socks – hung from the mantle. Perhaps we would find a half-crown piece in the toe, and a small toy, along with the apple, orange and nuts, on Christmas morning.
And the food! Boxes of chocolates, bowls of nuts, fresh fruit, Newberry Fruits, Turkish Delight, crystallized ginger and chocolate biscuits fought for position on every flat surface in the living room. Sherry and Guinness for Mum and Dad, Raisin and Orange wine for the children. Dinner on Christmas Day was roast turkey with three stuffings: sage and onion, parsley and thyme and chestnut; mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, roast parsnip, tiny sausages wrapped in bacon, bread sauce, lashings of gravy, followed by Christmas Pudding with brandy sauce or heavy cream. Tea was thick slabs of boiled ham and thick slices of Cheddar in sandwiches with Branston Pickle or Piccalilli. Egg and bacon pie, pork pie, sausage rolls. Mincemeat tarts, English trifle, and Christmas Cake dark and moist with brandy or rum, and the Yule Log dusted with icing sugar. And after tea, we pulled the Christmas Crackers, collected the small prizes and wore the paper crowns, even Mum and Dad.
We bought pretty foil ceiling decorations in later years, and the candles on the tree were declared a fire hazard. We bought a small artificial tree that could be packed away with the decorations and used again the following year. The sweet, non-alcoholic Raisin wine was nowhere to be found. I grew up, left home, married and left my country. But England will always be home, and I remember the Christmas of my childhood every year at this time.
When our sons were small, Santa Claus left their presents in pillowcases on the ends of their beds, and although they are too fragile to use now, I still have a box of homemade paper garlands.
Merry Christmas, my friends and loved ones. May the joy and spirit of the season enhance your lives and bring us closer together.