We kids learnt the important life lesson that is delayed gratification very early on, when we had to wait to open our presents until after we had been to church early on Christmas morning. We were allowed to have one present, beforehand, but the rest would just have to languish under the bejewelled pine tree until later. Away in a Manger and Silent Night seemed to go on forever – like some forlorn Tibetan chant – not to mention the sonorous sermon, which I’m sure the church minister had agonised over to make it interesting for the poor, suffering children. And then, mum and dad would – of course – have to talk to everyone before heading home. It was character-building stuff!
Our parents often spent precious hours building or sewing presents for us, like cowboy outfits, ironing boards just like mum’s, and little dressers complete with plastic tea sets and hooks to hang cups on (see picture below). There were beach balls and towels. One gift I fondly remember was my Bambi towel, which some low-life stole later off the guy rope of our annexe. There were puzzles and games and nothing required batteries. Any wrapping paper used was carefully folded up to be used again, along with ribbons and bows that did sterling service year after year.
When mum and dad moved into our home, the back fence was lined with large pine trees. Each year, one succumbed to the axe and was transformed with baubles and sparkly stuff. Dad worked for Paul’s Milk as a youngster and managed to snaffle some rolls of foil that the milk bottle lids had been pressed out of. Our tree was festooned with this red, shiny, holey (with an ‘e’) stuff, enormous balloons and inordinate amount of paper lanterns and cut-out paper doilies that I made, covering the floor with confetti as I went. It was always beautiful and filled the room with the scent of pine that still reminds me of those times – a happy Proustian moment.
Our Christmas decorations didn’t change a lot from year to year. There were the red candles stuck in the green fat-bottomed bottles that drooped one particularly hot year. My brother made a snowman at Kindy that lasted way longer than anyone thought possible. There were reindeer with bells, and baubles made of glass so fine we weren’t game to look at them sideways. One very simple but special item was the plastic nativity scene, set in a triangular-shaped stable with the star sailing across the top. It had sparkles that rubbed off on your hands when you touched it, and a tiny baby Jesus sound asleep in his manger.
Christmas Day was usually a cold salad lunch with elderly staid grandparents and, as if to help compensate, we got soft drink – heaven! That was a super-special treat for us. After dropping them home, we loaded the station wagon and set off for my other grandma’s home, where all 26 cousins (well, it seemed that many) were waiting. They were all older than me, bar one, and taught me how to shuffle cards and paint my nails. We raced and played and climbed and ate and kissed my darling English granny on her prickly chin. Presents were exchanged and I don’t remember any of them – just the fun! The trip home in the back of the station wagon was a happy blur of lights that gradually faded as the last of the sugar dissipated and sleep took over.
A fortnight ago, I decorated my 95-year-old mum’s room as she chatted and watched on. She smiled as I ever-so-gently placed the wee nativity scene of yesteryear on her dressing table.