Saturday 24th December
“ ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. “
I used to love that poem as a child, and apparently could recite it complete at only five years old, even remembering the names of all the reindeer, Donner and Blitzen and all. Grandma had taught me to read, and to speak French, of course. I had the poem as a picture book with nineteen-fifties, big bold splashy colours and images of clouds and rooftops and Santa’s boots dangling into a fireplace as he descended a chimney. I lost it when I got to my teens, and by then it was tattered and torn and drawn over, and anyway, I no longer believed in Father Christmas, and along with a few battered and bald limb-less dollies and all my old Bunty and Blue Peter Annuals it was thrown out ceremoniously as Grandma decided to have a spring clean. But I wish I still had the book, I have seen more recently published copies over the years, pretty and glossy no doubt, but I have never seen that old early fifties version.
And the night before Christmas was magical for a child in the fifties, before the universality of television made us all aware of the commercialisation that was to follow. You had no idea really that everywhere around the world children just like you were hanging up their stockings or looking forward with such anticipation to the day ahead. There were presents for a start, and maybe it is hard for children of today to appreciate just what presents meant to us. We had very few toys to start with, and it was unthinkable to just buy children something at any time other than their birthday or for Christmas. And there were very few toy shops around; it wasn’t as if we spent our daytime hours gazeing at things we might expect to receive on the big day. There was, most importantly, no television, so no adverts, so no desire for the latest toy or game or book. In fact, unless we saw these at a school-friend’s we had no idea they existed. I can still remember the surprise when I was eleven and received a Monopoly game; I had never heard of it, and was fascinated by the pieces, the wooden houses and the silver top-hat, and spent almost all of Christmas and Boxing Day reading the rules and then playing out the game with two dollies and a teddy as my game companions. I am not even sure if the idea of winning or losing had yet been engrained in me, it was the playing out of the thing that was the game for me, and the names of the streets – Mayfair, Northumberland Avenue and Old Kent Road that was fascinating, and the idea of renting out houses and hotels and people landing on them paying rent which I found fascinating; who eventually won was unimportant.
And on the night before Christmas we dressed the tree with shiny baubles and paper lanterns and we had a set of little pink and lilac and purple reindeer which hung like coat-hangers in a sort of chain which I particularly liked to place on the tree. And then we had the ritual of the first mince pies, and Grandma and Mummy would have a glass of Sherry, and I a milky Horlicks, and then making sure we left a mince pie on a plate for good old Santa, off I would trot to bed, with the words of the poem ringing in my ears as visions of sugar plums danced in my head.