Mum always hated Christmas. Even when dad was still alive. It was never really a « season to be jolly and « decking the halls » was just one of a long list of duties and obligations, that included cooking, present buying and card writing. Mum looked at Christmas as a form of festive slavery. As the season of goodwill loomed large, mum lost much of hers.
During her years as a primary school teacher, mum started slaving away at Christmas just after the autumn half term, with rehearsals for the Christmas carol concert and the school nativity play.
Transforming a bunch of nose-picking, bum scratching, inaudible kids, into stars in their parents’ eyes. Casting was always a nightmare. Every parent wanted their kid to be « Jesus Mary and Joseph », and mum would often let fly a few expletives in the same vein, as she tried to dish out appropriate parts to all the kids. So, sometimes you got a Nativity play with four shepherds, six Kings and two Virgin Marys, but that didn’t seem to matter much. You could twist the truth as much as you wanted, as long as no child ended up as the hind legs of a donkey.
As for carol concerts, mum would end up dividing every carol into as many lines as their were children in the class. Every child got a solo and all parents were duly appreciative, their appreciation reflected in the quality of end of term presents given to my mum. End of term presents were very important, because they were recycled as Christmas gifts for friends and neighbours.
Mum’s worst school nightmare was decorating the classroom. In early 70’s Britain, where kids still had stories about Golliwogs and
« evaluations » consisted of reciting your two times table by heart, the making of Christmas decorations took precedence over maths and reading.
The creative process began somewhere in September. No matter what the kids had made, it all had to be shoved up just after Bonfire night, so during the last week of the summer holidays, mum would be trawling through art and craft books to find easy but original decoration ideas.
Oh how I wish we had had the Internet back in the early seventies. Nowadays, you just click and download a « resource pack for teachers ». Back in the dim dark days, when Slade were lauding the charms of the festive season, against a backdrop of recession, oil crisis, power cuts and Miners’ strikes, teachers had to go to public libraries and find the few rare books available, and if you couldn’t get a reference work, you were condemned to paper chains. Too simple by far. There was a fierce festive decoration rivalry amongst members of staff. The Christmas commandment – « By your decor shall ye be judged. » Classrooms had to look like department store Santa’s grottos.
In our house, every September and October weekend was dedicated to the art of Christmas. Come Sunday afternoon, mum would be at her wits ‘ end preparing her art classes.
« Snip Snip Snip » – the clicking of scissors as mum kneeled on the lounge floor in a sea of crepe paper, cotton wool, wallpaper samples and silver foil. Here and there and everywhere, cast across the room, the failed efforts of mum’s ingenuity as she tried to adapt the decorative book theory to the reality of a class of cack-handed six year-olds.
« Look ! It’s a snowflake » enthused mum as she unfolded a sheet of paper and held it aloft to reveal a set of holes. As quick as snow in the Sahara, the ersatz paper snowflake collapsed in on itself and « melted » due to lack of any supporting molecular structure. Another flake for the bin. Undaunted, mum snipped snapped and hacked away again to produce a line of blobs – a chain of Santas. We all looked fairly unimpressed, but mum wasn’t put off. She coloured the blobs in with red felt pen, scattered some glitter on them and hey presto – Christmas balls
Come the end of the school term, mum had been living Christmas for nearly two months and he was sick of the whole thing. After school though it was time to get the family Christmas organised.
Dad died from a massive stroke on December 8th 1970. He was 53.. Suddenly, Mum found herself cast in the role of Father Christmas. Mum in her grief made Christmas 1970 a stupendous affair. Keeping alive the magic of the season for her two young sons
Mountains of presents and two pantomimes – one at the Richmond theatre and the other – « Babes in the Wood » on Boxing Day, at the London Palladium – where mum had booked us a box.. This is still my « reference » as to what a real British family Christmas should be, even if we weren’t a full family anymore.