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The Host of Christmas Past (Part One)

George Cheyne: Glasgow, December 2021

I’ve had this recurring dream since early December where a ghostly female figure from the 1970s hovers above my bed.

There’s no icy chill in the room, no clanking chains and no spooky noises. This is a friendly ghost.

Looking uncannily like my mum did back in the day, she is wearing a pair of black slacks, a light blue Fair Isle jumper with rolled-up sleeves and a red pinny on top.

The apparition appears most nights and carries out all sorts of tasks connected to the festive season.

It started with baking a cake and then moved on to writing loads of cards, hanging paper chain decorations, making home-made mince pies, sticking up our own advent calendars, marking a tick in the Littlewoods catalogue beside presents we might ask Santa for, mixing all the ingredients for a Christmas pudding and circling the TV programmes we’d like to watch in the festive editions of the Radio Times and TV Times.

As well as all that, the friendly ghost has been putting up a real tree, prepping loads of fresh vegetables, rubbing a mound of butter and herbs into a giant turkey, digging out a well-worn box of Monopoly, putting on Perry Como’s Christmas LP, arranging bottles of Babycham, Cinzano Rosso, Advocaat, Campari and Port on top of an improvised “drinks cabinet” and sending invites out to family and friends to pop round to our house…the Host of Christmas Past, if you will.

I feel it’s my mum’s way of steering me back down the road of having a traditional Crimbo after sensing my resolve has been wavering.

Now, if all this bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, then you’ll be thinking I’m the Ebenezer Scrooge character – but I’m not having that.

It’s my dream, so I see myself more as the Host of Christmas Present and it would make my kids the Host of Christmas Future.

So why the gentle nudge from above to remind me of all those rituals of yesteryear? Well, it’s probably because I’ve let a few traditions slide over the years.

Let’s go through that list above to compare what went on in my parents’ era with the present day.

Baking a Christmas cake: This signalled the start of the festive season in our house and I loved it because, after helping with stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon, I got to lick the bowl. Nowadays I just buy a cake in the supermarket.

Writing Christmas cards: My mum would laboriously write out more than a hundred cards with personal messages inside to send out all over the world whereas I restrict myself to writing as few as possible.

Hanging up decorations: Back then my brothers and I would all get involved in making paper chains out of multi-coloured strips of paper and then hang them up in the hall and living room. These days I just dig out the decorations from the loft.

Making mince pies and Christmas pudding: A lot of hard work went into this and the glorious aroma coming from the kitchen was something to behold but – just like the Christmas cake – it’s a lot easier buying them from the shop. 

Sticking up advent calendars: These could be ones we made at school or a bought one with cute Nativity scenes behind each number. Now, of course, there’s no way an advent calendar finds its way into our house unless there is chocolate involved.

Marking the catalogue: This was a family tradition where we would all flick through the pages of the Littlewoods catalogue and choose a few goodies we’d hope to get for Christmas. Nowadays we’re more likely to buy our own presents for others to wrap up.

Choosing TV favourites: Again, we’d all get involved in this and scour the Radio Times and TV Times armed with a pen to circle the programmes we wanted to watch. The bankers were The Morecambe and Wise Show and Top of the Pops. Never going to happen these days.

Still, I reckon I’m off the naughty list for the other things the friendly ghost brought to my attention.

We have always done the real tree, turkey with all the trimmings, board games, Christmas tunes and festive drinks.

The games, music and drinks may have evolved over the years – let’s face it, who drinks Campari or Advocaat these days – but the sentiment remains the same.

In my dream, the apparition of my mum always has a contented smile on her face when it comes to the bit about hosting family and friends at this time of year.

Now that’s the true spirit of Christmas!

Done To A Turn

Pauline Allan: Bridgetown, Western Australia, April 2021

Nana O’Rourke was a formidable wee woman.

Tiny, tenacious and terrifying.
Mother of Joe, Jean, Charlie, Sheila, my dad Vincent and Francis.

A seamstress by trade, the house was adorned with evidence of her skills on the old treadle Singer sewing machine.

The 3 piece suite in the lounge with it’s floral printed covers and covers over the covers to protect the covers, particularly the arm rests and the backs of the furniture where there were antimacassars to guard against the mens Brylcreem. 

The area around the “big” light switch on the papered wall also had it’s protection, some sort of industrial heavy duty plastic to ward off sticky fingers. 

There were display cabinets for the good china and glasses and ornaments adorned the open fireplace, ivory elephant bookends among them.

The convex porthole mirror with brass trim made the whole room look twice as big as it was. 

I was only 6 and a half when Nana died but my grandfather Michael and family gathered for Christmas dinner every year, a tradition that was carried on into the early 1970’s by my equally formidable Aunt Jean.

Everyone has an Aunt Jean.
My Aunt Jean was a spinster who looked after Papa, bachelor Uncle Charlie and Uncle Francis, a priest, when he came to visit.

“No one ever dances in this house” she would say…..Hardly surprising.

She would pounce on my dad, leading in a waltz whenever we dropped in.

But she was an incredible cook, baker and more than ably took on the challenge of catering for the Christmas collective.

Nana’s décor in the living room had hardly changed.

The open fire may have been replaced by an even less efficient two bar electric one, complete with false coal.

There was the mirror and a sunburst clock but everything else remained the same, with that familiar aroma of freshly baked bread, jam, cakes and “infusing” tea.

With no formal dining room in the house, the living room was the venue for the sumptuous Christmas banquet.

Trestle tables, card tables and picnic tables were quickly disguised with Nana’s embroidered cloths and napkins and somehow miraculously places were set for 20.

From the small kitchen with it’s original Formica cabinet and clothes pulley came platters of turkey with stuffing, glazed ham dotted with cloves, Ruskoline crumbed potato croquettes, roast potatoes and gravy with brussel sprouts, none of which could be served without Sharwoods Green Mango Chutney. 

Home made trifle and cakes to finish.
The flies’ graveyard (a currant slice) and buttercream sponge were my favourites.
Warninks Advocaat and Harveys Bristol Cream sherry for the adults and non alcoholic ginger wine for us teenagers.
This was made weeks in advance by members of the family who had dutifully bought the essence from the local Co-Op turning it into a sweet concoction with sugar and water.
Potcheen without the punch! 

Advocaat, Eggnog, Snowball – a Xmas favourite

After our meal we retired to uncle Uncle Charlie’s bedroom waiting to do our turn.
Sounds pretty ominous I admit but it was a completely innocent get-together where everyone had to perform.
That also sounds rather risqué!

What followed was a well kent tradition, where various musical renditions were performed by family members.

Uncle Charlie’s room was chosen because that was where the piano was.
Uncle Francis ( Father Frank or uncle Father Frank when I was young then uncle Father Frank-in-law from John’s speech at our wedding reception) played Fur Elise and accompanied anyone who wanted to play Chopsticks, he was also the reel to reel tape recorder operator.

Uncle Charlie sang The Ink Spots Whispering Grass (later made famous by the dynamic Don Estelle & Windsor Davies) and uncle John, aunt Shelia’s husband recited his version of De Profundis.
“Out of the Depths – of my bronchial tubes” … and so it went on.

Mum had a beautiful singing voice which could have lent itself to any of the classics but she was never comfortable in front of the critcal family audience. Instead she chose to sing “Halfway Up A Wall”.

As I was Minstrelling one night, 

Upon a castle drear

Halfway up a wall, a plaque I saw

“Duke Frederick was born here”

I’ve travelled far, I’ve travelled wide

But never can recall

That I have heard about a Duke

Born halfway up a wall 

Tra la la la la la

Tra la la fiddle dee

Halfway up a wall.

And of course everyone joined in with the last Halfway up a wall.

As the Advocatt flowed, so did the confidence of others.

Cousin Barbara took centre carpet and before we had time to rush into the kitchen to help Aunt Jean with the washing up, were surrounded by a cacophony of cringeworthy crescendos.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker make me a match. Find me a fi……Too late, she was off.

We managed to gather up precious crystal glasses from the floor as Cousin Barbara spun like a tipsy Whirling Dervish, changing key with every line.
Would she sing Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof as well?
I hope not. 

To our great relief Aunt Jean announced coffee was being served back in the living room and we all made a swift exit. 

Christmas is a far simpler affair these days. Most of the assembled are sadly no longer with us, cousins are spread to all corners of the globe and a “turn” is more likely to be a Netflix, YouTube or Spotify selection.

But perhaps locked down in a small flat in the outskirts of Glasgow, two cats and a budgie are being entertained with a selection of show tunes by a 70+ spinster.

Wan singer, wan song.

Don’t worry Babs, the sun will come out tomorrow.  


Paul Fitzpatrick: London, March 2021

There was an awkward period when you were about 14 when you were too young and broke to go many places on a Saturday night but too restless and worldly-curious to stay at home and watch the Two Ronnie’s with your family anymore.
Sure, there was the odd youth club disco, but they were few and far between at that age.

Therefore, the magic words as you approached the weekend were “so and so’s got an EMPTY on Saturday night”.
It was always music to the ears….

An ‘empty’ by definition was a household without parents, and just as importantly, without parents knowing anyone was going to be there.

An ‘empty’ was not to be confused with an organised party where the parents or older siblings chaperoned the attendees or went out for a designated period of time and laid on crisps and pop and cake, oh no we were far too rock ‘n’ roll for that malarkey.

There were three categories of ‘empty’ that I recall.

  1. The official empty’: semi-organised, invitations made on a need-to-know basis and kept within a small group.
  2. The unofficial empty’: not organised, no control over proceedings and a risk that every nutter within distance could turn up
  3. The hearsay empty: speculative, someone told someone, but they weren’t sure, therefore you’d need to turn up to check, taking the risk that it could be a complete waste of time

The ‘official empty’ normally went off without too much bother because everyone generally knew each other.
There would be a few cans of warm beer or cider, Harvey’s Bristol Cream for the ladies and cocktail hour consisted of snowballs made up from the parents drinks cabinet.

What a role model….

There would be music of course, a bit of smooching in the dark if you were lucky, and the only general drama was somebody overdoing the booze and trying to sober them up before they went home.

I do remember a different drama though. It was based on a craze at the time which was to try and make yourself faint by basically starving oxygen to the brain. This was done by blowing on your thumb and holding your nostrils until you kind of passed out.

I’d seen people try it before and fail, but on this particular evening a couple of girls decided to go for it, sending one of the quietest girls in the school, completely loopy, to the point she started running around the house, taking her clothes off and throwing them out the window.
Fortunately her pals managed to subdue her before things got too out of hand, but it was some scary shit.

I remember seeing Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction some years later and the mortified look she wore after the adrenaline injection incident reminded me of the look on that poor girls face after she realised what had happened.

The unofficial empty on the other hand was an accident waiting to happen and there were numerous horror stories of empties that got completely out of control, typically with a common link.

The common link being that most of the unfortunates hosting these accidents waiting to happen, were generally naïve and totally unprepared for the mayhem that was about to come their way.

You could see it unfolding before your eyes, it was all so predictable, first there was the jungle drums…. “so and so’s got an empty” – it was news that spread like wildfire, then on the evening in question you’d see a congregation of people milling around outside, the numbers swelling by the minute.

A bit like the Alamo there would be resistance at first but after the first few gate-crashers gained entry the floodgates would open and resistance was futile.

The poor person hosting the event would see that things were going downhill fast and before long they would have a look of defeat and resignation all over their poor wee faces.

At that point it was all about damage control, as saucers really were flying (out the window), liquids were being decanted (on the soft furnishings), cigarettes were being stubbed out everywhere and anywhere and anything of value had to be nailed down.

It was mindless and gratuitous and typically you were powerless to do anything about it. It was usually a mix of older lads and people you’d never seen in your life before, acting like Vikings on crystal meth, before a neighbour or the police turned up to restore order.

I witnessed several of those nightmare evenings and it was the reason I never volunteered an empty, even if I had one, which to be fair I didn’t very often as my younger brother was junior by 9 years so there was always a babysitter involved.

You would normally hear later that the poor host, traumatised by events, had been grounded for weeks and it always begged the same question – ‘why would you put yourself in that position – are you mental?’

As a parent I tried to pass that wisdom onto my 3 kids, and whilst there were one or two close calls (that we know about!) I think we got off pretty lightly.

The hearsay empty’ on the other hand usually turned out to be a damp squid, you’d traipse all over the shop to far flung places like Courthill and Kessington to find an address you’d never been to before to be greeted by a DeNiro lookalike faither or a 6ft 4in rugby playing big brother, eyeing you up and down suspiciously and starting to put 2 and 2 together after realising that this is the 3rd or 4th batch of wee runts that had turned up to the door that night.  

To make matters worse you’d end up getting chased by the natives who took umbrage that you were on their territory.
South Central LA it wasn’t, but it all added to the thrill of the evening.

Of course, these type of things are all arranged on Facebook and Instagram now, which increases the risk and the potential numbers, and the papers are full of stories about ‘gatherings’ that have gone spectacularly wrong, like the headline in The Sun below…

Mum’s horror as 15-year-old daughter’s Facebook party sees 100 youths turn up to wreck home, smash TV and fling bottles at cops

The allure of the ‘empty’ is still there though and even now I have a good Scottish mate who lives near me who’ll message a few of us if his wife’s away for the weekend, to say he’s got an ‘empty’.

We’ll go to the local for a few beers before traipsing back to his house whereupon more beers and wine will be drunk (unfortunately no one has advocaat in their drinks cabinets anymore!), the Sonos system will be turned up, usually blasting out a selection of 70s Yacht Rock classics, and we’ll get all philosophical and soppy about life and kinship before going home a few hours later than planned and spending the next two days in recovery.

Pre-lockdown, this used to happen every 3 or 4 months and they were amongst my favourite nights of the year – which just goes to show, that whether your 14 or 62, you can never beat a good ‘official empty’ with your mates!