Memories of Christmas Time
by Evelyn Close in 1992
November is here and already we have dark days and long nights, reminding us that Christmastide is fast approaching. The special magic of this lovely season that brings joy to the heart. As I look back into the distant past, it really was a time of united families gathering around a blazing fire, tasting the gorgeous food that was only on the table during Christmas and not, as now, an everyday occurrence.
During my years of involvement with the village bakery, I cannot recall there was ever a turkey or a chicken in the oven. The Christmas dinner was of the roast beef variety!
The baker lit the oven at about 6am so that dinners were ready for collection by 1pm on Christmas day. Not getting his own dinner until all the customers were served.
During November each household started to prepare mincemeat and the plum puddings, it was usually a family effort. Even the children playing their part in the annual ritual. All would gather around the kitchen table upon which a clean white cloth would be spread. With little saucers of water in which to dip sticky fingers, chopping boards and knives. Also a big glazed earthenware crock (called a panchion) to receive the lovely gooey mixture of fruits etc. Raisins were large and juicy and contained a few pips, which had to be removed. This was the children’s job and woe betide if any pips were left in. They loved this chore as they could lick their sticky fingers and at the same time pop a raisin in their mouths (though mother warned they had been counted!)
The candied peel was bought as whole oranges and lemons candied in thick sugar which had to be removed before the peel was chopped. This was another eagerly enjoyed bonus for the children. Suet was bought in a large portion from the butcher and had to be finely chopped. Mother rubbed the bread into crumbs and the mixture was assembled with eggs, spices and spirits in the panchion.
Everyone took a turn at stirring and making a wish (which had to be a great secret). Father then took a turn at stirring and, of course, tasting to ensure that it was good! Then the mix went into the waiting basins, a square of linen tied round the rims and knotted on the top for easy removal from the boiling water. Usually the puddings were cooked in the family copper for several hours.
In those days we made our own Christmas gifts, fathers would make wooden trucks or barrows for their small sons and mothers would be secretly sewing a ragdoll and its outfit of clothes. Children would receive one toy from Santa plus the usual nuts, apple and orange. The rest of the stocking bulged with homemade things to wear; socks, gloves, scarves and underclothes. No one dreamed of asking for a toy, Santa knew best and the fairy tale was kept alive as long as possible.
During the winter evenings we made gifts for our friends by the light of oil lamps. One could purchase linen quite cheaply from Stamford market to make fine thread work tablecloths, embroidered with loving care. When received, such gifts were treasured because of the care that had gone into them.
The Post Office did a roaring trade before Christmas as letters and parcels were sent off to those too far away to be with the family circle. There was even a delivery of mail on Christmas morning!
Church played a bit part in our village life with three services on Christmas morning, all very well attended. A wonderful experience to walk the dark path and into the warm cosy Church aglow with oil lamps and so welcoming. There was a feeling of goodwill, peace and serenity with our friends and neighbours.
Christmas fun really began after tea. This was usually a meal for the children, consisting of jellies, mince pies and cake. We sang carols, maybe not very tunefully, but we loved singing. In our house we always had music and each could take part. Then came games in which old and young joined in. Children were put to bed and the adults continued with a huge supper and more fun and games until midnight.
Collyweston Band serenaded us on Christmas Eve but there was no other village entertainment so we were all content to make our own. Real Christmas trees were adorned with sugar animals and lit by candles on the tree. Garlands of holly festooned the living room and large bunches of mistletoe were strategically placed to catch the unwary. There were not elaborate decorations and artificial trees as there are today.
I can only remember two white Christmases. Snow mostly came after Christmas and usually lasted for 3 months. When the thaw came the river at Ketton usually flooded making the journey to the railway station impossible. We had some hard winters when the snow froze, turning the village street into a skating rink. Toboggans came out in force – or any contraption would do! But it was not all fun, when the worse snow fell it could gather in drifts cutting off the village for days.