the first christmas

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)

Long before Millennials were a ‘thing’, there were the Baby Boomers of the post-war era. They inherited the earth and also began to plunder it with their gas guzzling cars, kitchen appliances, coal-fired furnaces and food glut.

American families had never had it so good during the 1950s but by the late 1960s the times they-were-a-changing with Vietnam and Flower Power. This was the cue for my parents to take the plunge and flip our all-American life on its head.

Leaving Virginia behind in August 1970, Mom and Dad plucked our family– that’s me, aged ten and my two older teenaged brothers David and Dale – from our comfortable, carefree life on a  college campus in America’s Deep South and set us down in a cul-de-sac just west of Dudley, West Midlands. In the midst of their mid-life crisis they searched for Culture and old fashioned sensibilities which they felt were fast disappearing back home.

It’s a long story but suffice to say that this, our first Christmas in our 1930s semi, was a forlorn affair for we were homesick for our Virginia home, our family and friends and  we were in the grip of severe culture shock.

(Andrea outside her home in Virginia, Christmas 1969)

*****

Part 1: Carol Singers

My Appalachian American childhood Christmas and New Year celebrations are so deeply embedded in my psyche that I continue to observe them with all the excitement of a child.  Every ritual remains intact: choosing a real tree, hanging stockings, my mother’s eggnog recipe, setting out the nativity scene, playing carols on the piano and cracking walnuts.

(Young Andrea and Dale visiting Santa with their Mum, in Virginia.)

The smell of cinnamon, cloves and pine instantly transports me back to our 1960s Virginia home; to the excitement and anticipation of the season in all its wonder. My parents’ annual New Year’s Eve party promised untold glamour and a late bedtime for me as the men ‘looked sharp’ and the ladies wore their cocktail dresses.

(OK – no cocktail dresses & the bloke hardly looks ‘sharp’ but this ain’t an ‘Andrea’ party! )

Dad cranked up the stereogram and got the party started while my mother glided elegantly through the evening with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Swathed in red taffeta, tulle petticoats and gold shoes trailing a waft of Chanel Number 5 in her wake; Mom knew how to work the room and turn every head.

Our introduction to the British Season of Goodwill happened a few days after we moved into the cul-de-sac in Birmingham one fateful Christmas back in 1970. Mom and Dad were out with my eldest brother David, getting their cultural fix at a concert of Handel’s Messiah at the town hall, leaving me home alone with Dale. We both had the flu and I was nursing a weeping boil on my leg.  I must have looked very forlorn in my dressing gown, ankle socks and my long hair full of static from the nylon carpet. There was a knock at the front door but Dale refused to leave the warmth of the gas fire.

“Go on Andrea – go and see who it is.”

“You go see who it is.”

“I can’t – I’ve got the flu.”

“So do I have flu – and a boil!”

“I’ll tell Mom that you wouldn’t co-operate.”

“You’re older than me – you go see.”

“I’m sick!” 
Reluctantly, I sauntered down the hall and answered the front door.

As I stood in the vestibule (note: not a porch with a rocking chair but a cold, tiled lobby), I peered over the privet into the dark driveway where I heard a small chorus mutter:

“We wish yow a Merry Christmas” through thin, strained, embarrassed vocal chords.

I gawped at three or four lads in bomber jackets and ill-fitting trousers with outstretched hands. There was an impasse of maybe a minute or so – it seemed longer – until one of the boys spoke up:

“Um… we’re carol singers.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“But – we’re carol singers.” 

The boys just stood there, so I closed the door and went into the back room to get my brother.

“Daaaale – there’re carol singers at the door and they won’t go away!” I wailed.

“Well – just shut the door on ‘em.”

“I have but they won’t go away!” 

I was homesick and tearful. After much pleading, Dale opened the vestibule door on the boys.

“Well, what d’ya want?”

“We’re carol singers.”

“Yea – what about ‘em?”

 “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have any of that.”   

Dale firmly shut the front door. Mom had always reminded us that it was too vulgar to discuss money. And besides, we really didn’t have any.

*****

 Late that Christmas Eve afternoon, Dale and I watched ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’ on the old black and white TV. Perched side-by-side in a rare moment of unity, I leaned against his shoulder. As Judy Garland sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ I caught Dale wiping away silent tears. I did the same. Neither of us spoke – just content to be there for each other in our shared grief.

Have ourselves a merry little Christmas? Let our hearts be light? We wanted our troubles to be out of sight.

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