Working Class Life in the 1940s and 50s - Christmas is Coming
The Excitement Begins
Back in the 40s and 50s signs of Christmas didn't appear in our homes or the shops at the end of October like they do now.
Things associated with Christmas started appearing much closer to the actual event back then. Most people still worked on Christmas Eve, if you were fortunate you might get off a bit early on Christmas Eve but it was still a work day and work was done.
In many ways this concentrated time period made Christmas seem a far more special and exciting time of year than it does now. Though I admit some of that excitement might be just down to the fact that I was a child back then.
The excitement of Christmas for us as children began when dad got the Christmas tree and the decorations out. The decorations had been stored in the cupboard hidden behind the wardrobe in my parent's bedroom where dad had put them away last year. This cupboard was also where my parents hid most of our Christmas presents.
The hidden presents were safe from our prying eyes and fingers because the wardrobe was a huge piece of furniture and much too heavy for my brother and I to move on our own. We knew because we had tried to do this. Our house was about the first on our street to put up our Christmas decorations.
My brother was born just over a week before Christmas and it was our family tradition to put up our tree up on his birthday. It seems hard to believe these days but we were among the first to trim up only eight days before Christmas.
Out Comes The Tree
Each year my dad would get out the Christmas decorations that he had put away previous year and the first thing we would do is reassemble our artificial Christmas tree ready to decorate it. When dad had put the tree away he would fold all the branches of the tree upwards so that they laid almost flat along the length of the tree.
This way they would fit back into its cardboard box that it came in when it was bought. The tree didn't take up much room in the cupboard when it was stored this way. Dad would take the tree out the box and we would start bending the branches back out to stand horizontal again so that it looked once more like a tree.
We had this same artificial Christmas tree for many years, each year it would get more and more dog-eared and worn looking. But once we had decorated it the tree was magically transformed into something beautiful. When the lights and decorations were on you could no longer see the signs of wear and tear.
By today's standards our tree was not very big it was about 4 feet tall but that was the size of most peoples tree on our street.
Out Come the Baubles
Once the tree was set up we set about decorating it. Our tree decorations were very delicate and we would unpack them very gently hoping that none of them would be damaged.
Unfortunately most years we would find at least one broken. This happened no matter how carefully we had wrapped them up and put them away the year before. Most of the baubles were made of very thin glass and were easily damaged. Each bauble had been put away individually wrapped in tissue paper to protect it.
So each bauble had to be unwrapped and placed on the tree carefully the best ones would be placed on the side of the tree that would be seen from the street.
Once all the baubles had been put on the tree we would start adding the other decorations onto the tree.
I remember that we use to clip little candles on the end of the tree branches. Yes they were real candles and we did light them. The candles were stuck in little holders that clipped onto the tree.
The candles were only lit by my mam when she was there to watch over them. Well, when I say only when my mam was there, there was one time when I took it on myself to light a few of the candles when no one was home but me.
That was the time that I set one of the curtains on fire. I only did it once and fortunately I managed to put it out before I did too much damage to the house. Unfortunately the curtain was not so lucky and yes I was in deep trouble.
Christmas Tree Candles
The Tree Lights
Even though we had electric lights for the tree we would still use the real candles as decorations but they were never lit again after I set fire to the curtain. We had two strings of lights and no matter how carefully dad packed them away we always seemed to have to spend ages unravelling the wire when we unpacked them.
If just one bulb was broken the whole set of lights would not work. So we would have to get a new bulb and exchange each bulb with the new bulb in turn. We would have to do this until the string of lights came on. If you were lucky it would be one of the first ones you tried.
When it came to decorating the tree with the strands of tinsel my brother and I would be trusted to put on. We had strands of tinsel and also garlands of tinsel too. They made the tree look very festive. After all you can't really break tinsel, but the delicate baubles were only handled and put on the tree by my dad.
The last thing to go on the tree would be the Christmas Angel. Once the Angel was put on the top we knew we had finished decorating the tree and it was ready to go on show in the front room window. Most homes on the street where we lived put their Christmas tree in front of their front room window so it could be seen from the pavement by people as they passed by.
The Plant Stand
It seemed very magical as you walked down the street past our neighbour's houses to see the lights on their Christmas trees twinkling away in their front room window. We stood our Christmas tree an old Victorian type plant stand which was just the right height to display the tree in the front room window. We no longer used the Victorian plant stand in the front room and so it was relegated outside to the back yard.
Dad used it to stand flower pots and other stuff on. In the photo below you can see the stand on the right behind my brother. As you can see it really is just the right height to stand the Christmas tree on. Once on the plant stand in the front room window then all who walked past our house could see our tree in all its glory.
The Plant Stand
The Front Room
The front room in our house was not usually used except for special occasions. But on Sundays in the winter a fire would be lit in the front room just to keep it aired.
When the fire was lit I loved to go in the front room on a Sunday evening. I would listen to Sing Something Simple on the radiogram in the dark. It was lovely lying down on the settee with the light from the fire flickering. The flickering firelight made the room look all cosy and warm.
Ciggys and Booze
But at Christmas time it was the front room that had most of the Christmas things in. There would be a tray on the sideboard that had all the Christmas drinks on it.
Advocar, Whisky, Gin, Drambuie, Port and Sherry the beer would be kept in the pantry where it would be kept cold. These kind of drinks were special and usually only drunk at Christmas time.
My dad was in the Salvation Army, and was not supposed to drink alcohol. If my grandparents who were also in the Sally Ann were coming up to visit mam would hide the booze in the sideboard.
Dad would have been trouble from his dad if alcohol had been found in the house. In those days adults were still very much under influence of their parents.
Dad gave up smoking (something else he shouldn't have done} after his best friend died very young. When his friend died of lung cancer dad gave up his Woodbines. But when Christmas came although he didn’t smoke any more Dad would still have his cigars.
He would have a cigar box of big cigars and sometimes a packet of smaller type cigars. Even now, over sixty years later I only have to smell a cigar and I am whisked back to those childhood Christmases.
My mam smoked Park Drive cigarettes but at Christmas she would have Players they were a bigger and more expensive cigarette. So there would be a box of her cigarettes on the side board which would contain 50 or 100 cigarettes.
Mam's Christmas Ciggys
Fruit and Nuts
Also on the sideboard would be two bowls of fresh fruit and nuts. Back in the 40s and 50s we didn’t usually have fruit in the house except what dad grew on his allotment.
But at Christmas time mam would buy oranges, tangerines, bananas and grapes. At this time all this sort of fruit was exotic and strange to us. It wasn't the kind of fruit we would have in the house normally. Mam would put this assortment of fruit in the fruit bowls. They formed part of the Christmas decorations and we were not to eat any of it until on or after Christmas day.
We also had a huge bowl of mixed nuts which would be still in their shells. We had Brazil nuts, Walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and almonds. We would crack open the nuts with a pair of nutcrackers or if they were in use, we would hit the nut with the poker and that worked too.
The bowl of nuts would stand between the two bowls of fruit. This display of fruit and nuts on the sideboard made the front room look very festive. But we were under strict instructions that we couldn't eat any of it until Christmas day.
I can remember sitting at our living room table making paper chains with my mam and younger brother. You use to be able to buy packs of small multicoloured paper strips to make the paper chains with.
I remember us sitting with a pot of gloy, and scissors surrounded by crepe paper and glitter. Mam would always sit with my brother and I trying to make all sorts of decorations for the living room. Our doing our bit to make our decorations was an important part of the excitement of our Christmas
We enjoyed making the paper chains and the other decorations that we made from crepe paper. The making of our own decorations is a part of the excitement and enjoyment that I still remember. In fact that part of Christmas has turned out to be more memorable than the Christmas presents we got.
We also used to make some decorations at school which would be used to decorate our classrooms.
Shop Bought Bell and Ball
The decorations that were shop bought would go up in the front room, that is what people could see from the street. In the living room we put up a mixture of shop bought decorations and those we had made ourselves.
The shop bought ones we had were made out of a sort of concertina or honeycomb of brightly coloured tissue paper. We had two big balls and two big bells one for each corner of the front room.
They were flat half the shape of the object and when you opened it and clipped it back to back you had the 3D shape of the bell or ball
Shop Bought Bell and Ball
The garlands were made out of the same tissue paper and they were strung out along the wall stretching from the ball in one corner to the bell in the other.
We also had garlands made of crepe which we hung from the corner to the light in the middle of the room.
Another part of our Christmas decorations were the Christmas cards. My mam loved sending and getting cards. The more we received the more she liked it.
I think getting a lot of cards especially if you got more than other people made us feel good. I am sure that there was more than a little competitiveness involved.
We hung the cards in rows along the wall in the living room and the front room. They were on lengths of thin string strung along the wall between two tin tacks.
String of Christmas Cards
Holly and Mistletoe
Of course back then no Christmas would be complete without Holly and Mistletoe making an appearance.
We would hang a sprig of mistletoe in the front room and the tradition was that if you were caught standing under the mistletoe you would receive a kiss.
Our final piece of decoration would be for the outside of our house. It was the Christmas wreath that we hang on the front door. You could buy a Christmas wreath but we always used to make our own.
My dad would bring the stuff home from his allotment to make the wreath out of. We made our wreath mainly out of holly. But because the holly was so prickly dad did most of the making.