As domestic goddesses go, my mum was up there with the best of them. No task too big, no task too small.
And like a lot of women of her generation, Christmas seemed to bring out her A game as she wrestled with a heavy workload, complicated logistics and four largely unhelpful sons.
Nothing could faze her.
So there are 16 people coming for Christmas dinner now? No problem, I’ll cook some more. Grandma won’t leave her house until after the Queen’s Speech? That’s okay, I can work round that. There’s no present for cousin Alan? Leave it with me, I’ll find something. We’ve run out of mixers for the drinks? Don’t worry, I’ve got a stash in the cupboard. There’s a worldwide shortage of Brussel sprouts? No sweat, I’ll traipse round the shops till I find some.
My stress levels would be sky-high if I’d to cook Christmas dinner for six people, never mind 16.
But there was always a sense of calmness and order in my mum’s kitchen – despite the crazy schedule of the big day and the equipment she was using.
Remember, this was 50 years ago…no fan-assisted ovens or giant fridge-freezers back then.
She was, in part, aided and abetted by my dad – hopeless romantic that he was – and his choice of Christmas presents.
I seem to remember a Kenwood Chef mixer, a Sodastream set, a hostess trolley and a microwave oven being handed over on Christmas mornings.
In fairness, there was a fair amount of collusion with my mum about the gifts she wanted – and these gadgets were game-changers in our house.
As revealed in the Host of Christmas Past (Part One), my mum used to knock up a Christmas cake, home-made mince pies and a giant Christmas pudding in the build-up to the big day.
I always volunteered to help out with stirring the mixture because I had the ulterior motive of getting to scoop up any leftovers in the large ceramic bowl. The stirring was done with a wooden spoon and some proper elbow grease – until the Kenwood Chef mixer arrived.
What a difference. I may have lost the chance of a budding career as a power lifter as my biceps didn’t develop much after that, but at least I still got to lick the bowl.
A selection of fizzy drinks at your fingertips. What’s not to like when you’re a kid?
Before the machine arrived in our kitchen, we had to rely on the Alpine lorry coming round on a Friday with our bottles of skoosh. But when they were gone, they were gone – usually within a day or two.
The Sodastream offered up a constant supply of cola, orange, lemonade, limeade and whatever other syrup concentrates we got in. It was a serious upgrade on the soda syphon which basically dispensed soda water and nothing else.
However, no matter how desperate my brothers and I were, we never went near the cherry flavour. That was an acquired taste best left to the adults.
This was a must-have in the Seventies for any family sitting down to a Christmas dinner for 16 people.
After scrambling about for more chairs and an extra table to stick on the end of ours, the attention swung round to how to cater for so many guests without the food going cold.
The answer, of course, was a hostess trolley. My mum was able to cook half the veg and keep it warm in the trolley’s Pyrex compartments and then do the other half just before dinner was served.
A cunning plan, no doubt, but it didn’t help me much. I was sat at the end of the bottom table and the roast parsnips ran out before they got to me because my aunt forgot to take the other batch out the trolley. Why couldn’t she have forgotten the sprouts instead?
This arrived in our house in time for the 1979 festive season and was one of the early models.
I do remember when it came out the box on Christmas Day that the last word I’d use to describe it was micro…this was a metal beast.
My mum had decided to christen the microwave by cooking the Christmas pudding in it and wandered off to read up on the instructions after we’d finished the main course.
After a while, she joined the rest of us at the table for the traditional quiz when…kaboom!
There had been some sort of explosion in the kitchen so we all rushed through to see a thick pall of smoke, the door of the microwave hanging open and the charred remains of the Christmas pudding smouldering inside.
Turns out my mum, being new to this microwave cooking lark, thought it must have been a mistake when the printed instructions for the pudding said: “Cook on high for 4 minutes.”
This, after all, was an era when you steamed a Christmas pud for anything up to eight hours so she decided it must be a misprint and put it on for 40 minutes.
Oops. But being a domestic goddess she recovered the situation in true Blue Peter style by producing another pudding she’d made earlier – just in case!
Mind you, there were still bits of burnt currants and candied peel finding their way down from the artex ceiling months later…
(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Looking at old photos recently, I was reminded of one memorable Christmas more than forty years ago. As a young twenty-something, I had recently become engaged to ‘our’ Richard and was thus invited to spend Christmas day with his large family in Yorkshire, where they could inspect his latest ‘”live-in job”; as his mother referred to me. I was nervous about the trip because, being American – and therefore considered to be ‘foreign’ – I had already received a thorough Northern grilling from my future mother-in-law, Irene, who viewed me with great suspicion.
I say ‘invited’ to Yorkshire for Christmas; more like summoned. Irene and her sister Auntie May took it in turns each Christmas to host the big family Christmas dinner. This year it was held at Auntie May and Uncle Bernie’s big stone house on a steep hill overlooking the town.
Richard and I were greeted on the kerb-side as we parked the car by Irene – hands on hips – pointing to her watch in dramatic fashion,
“What time do you call this? I said be here at one o’clock sharp – it’s ten past! Your Auntie won’t be best pleased.”
We were ushered straight into the back dining room where the family were tightly packed on buffets and chairs around two tables which had been shoved together to make room for fourteen: Auntie and Uncle, Richard’s mum and dad, cousins, old Auntie Annie up the corner on a piano stool and her friend Doris behind the door.
“Come on in! Hello love, give your Auntie a kiss. Squeeze in lass! Ooh, you do have child-bearing hips!”
(This last comment made me blush.)
The feast finally got underway with a great clattering of knives on plate; three types of meat (well, Richard’s dad was a Master Butcher): turkey, pork with crackling and beef; crispy roast potatoes; a great heap of buttery mash; Yorkshire puddings the size of dinner plates to soak up all that delicious, thick onion gravy; sprouts which had been in the pressure cooker since dawn; an abundance of peas and carrots; golden parsnips in honey; pickles, relishes, bread sauce, apple sauce for the pork.
I had never witnessed such glorious feasting in my life; where I came from in Virginia we had turkey with rice and black eyed peas on Christmas Day.
But that wasn’t all! Auntie May and Irene cleared the decks and later wheeled in a huge oval Pyrex dish of rice pudding; crispy round the edge with a great dollop of Golden Syrup in the middle which had melted into the rice, making it all sticky and moist. My stomach was now at full stretch! I vowed to never eat again!
After the feast, the men all retired to the Best Room at the front of the house for a cigar and whisky (purely medicinal, you know), while ‘us’ women set to clearing away.
The tables had been moved beneath the large sash window and the assorted straight-backed chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room to give the ladies a place to perch with their tea and settle down to the important business of gossip. Old Auntie Annie resumed her position in the corner by the door next to Doris. Irene was balanced elegantly on the piano stool, with her back up against the piano from where she could keep an eye on the comings and goings in the room, lest she should miss out on anything vital.
Auntie May sat next to her sister on an unfeasibly tight chair, which seemed to matter little to her as she forever bobbed up and down, in and out of the kitchen ensuring everyone had a cup of tea.
Across the room sat a widowed neighbour of Auntie May’s: one Mrs Stockett, who had just popped in on the off-chance of a cuppa and gossip under the pretext of extending a Christmas greeting. A stout woman past her prime, her crumpled, dough-like face with more than the hint of a whisker was held taught as she pursed her mouth and raised her bushy eyebrows in expectation of any gleam of tittle-tattle.
I balanced one cheek on a rock-hard chair seat, wedged between the marble fire surround and large over-mantle mirror.
Once all the ladies had taken their positions they loosened their stays. Perhaps I should explain that ladies of a certain age in Yorkshire in those days still wore corsets and girdles in a vain effort to rein it all in. They sat back as far as gravity would allow; resting their Denby tea cups and saucers on their ample bosoms, which acted as a useful shelf in the absence of incidental tables. Well, Auntie May had tried to squeeze in a nest-of-tables from the Best Room but couldn’t get them past Auntie Annie and Doris without asking them to move – and poor old Auntie Annie had only just got comfortable; “what, with me water works” she mouthed to her companion.
Mrs Stockett parted her knees to get a purchase on her buffet; threw decorum to one side and cut to the chase in a deep rasp, rough-hewn from a lifetime of smoking untipped cigarettes. One of Auntie Annie’s thick stockings collapsed around her ankle as she braced herself.
“Ooh Irene, you ‘ave lost weight lass! ‘Ow ‘ave you done it luv?”
Irene had always been a large woman (“heavy bones in our family”) but had slimmed down to a very trim nine stone, which accentuated her beautiful cheek bones. Taking this as a compliment Irene sat up straight while sucking in her mouth to consider her reply; rolling her tongue around the inside of her mouth and crossing her arms.
“Well, of a mornin’ we ‘ave toast… but no butter.”
There was a moment of disbelief that hung over the hostess trolley.
“What…no butter?” chorused the ladies.
Auntie Annie’s other stocking rolled to her knee as she edged forward to hear better.
“No! No butter!”
“Ooh! ‘Ow d’ya manage? Fancy – no butter!”
Doris twiddled the row of paste pearls at her throat as she stared into middle space; grappling with the concept of life without butter. She patted Auntie Annie’s arm for comfort.
“What else d’y’ave luv?” asked Mrs Stockett; adjusting a stray bone in her stay that was digging into a rib, nearly causing her teacup to slide off her shelf.
“Don’t ya ‘ave nothin’ else?”
“No butter on yer toast?”
“And for us dinner”… (the suspense was palpable)… “we just ‘ave an apple and an orange,” continued Irene who was enjoying being centre stage.
“What? No butter?” cried Auntie Annie suddenly from the corner.
“No – she don’t ‘ave butter!” shouted Doris, despite sitting next to her friend.
“Ooh Irene! ’Ow d’ya go on luv?” asked a confused Auntie Annie.
“Well…for us tea… (now standing up and working the crowd) …we ‘ave a grilled chop with a grilled tomato.”
Irene left the grilled tomato hanging in the air as she drew in her bottom lip.
“What – you ‘ave a grilled orange?”
“NO! She ‘as a grilled CHOP!”
“No butter on your chop?”
“She don’t ‘ave butter on her chop!”
“Why don’t she ‘ave butter on ‘er toast?”
“Do ya really ‘ave grilled apples?”
“What – no butter?”
As all of this information was being processed, Auntie May bustled in with a large tray teaming with doilies; stacked high with slices of fruit cake, cream horns, custard slices, Belgium buns, rock buns and colourful French Fancies.
“All this dieting alright; it’s all them cakes in-between what do me!” laughed Auntie May as she handed out fresh plates and invited the assembled ladies to help themselves.
Raucous laughter reverberated around the Back Room.
“Ooh May, you are a caution,” laughed Mrs Stockett. She leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper,as she threw a challenge into the room:
“Eh – tha’ knows that blonde lass what lives at end o’road…”
The remark began to compute with the ladies as they searched their collective memory of all the people who had ever lived on the street.
“Well – they say she’s got a fancy man.”
“Her mother were just t’same,” chipped in Doris, whose pearls were well and truly mangled.
Lowering her voice even further, Mrs. Stockett continued:
“Aye – and ‘er sister’s in family-way with that curly haired lad from yon end o’street.” She drew deeply on her fag, blowing smoke rings above the pyramid of cakes.
“Runs in t’family,” agreed Irene, as she nibbled on the edge of a Viennese Whirl.
The swapping of information and cross-referencing of each name and misdemeanour of every neighbour through several generations kept the ladies happily engaged for a good hour until Uncle Bernie dared to stick his bald head around the door,
“Any chance of a bite to eat?”
“Come on lad – get stuck in!”
Auntie May passed round a tray of mushroom vol-au-vents hot from the oven. I hesitated only momentarily; well, there was no point trying to deny my child-bearing hips, now was there?
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.
I couldn’t say for certain when I first became aware of the magic of Christmas, but when I did, it all seemed a bit too good to be true.
Toys, pantomimes, comic annuals and a treat called selection boxes – a seasonal novelty which offered more confection in a day than you were normally allowed to consume in a month….
Roy Wood & Wizzard weren’t wrong!
On reflection, the whole Santa concept was akin to some form of ‘cult-indoctrination’ – ‘If you believe in him you will be rewarded’.
So of course, we believed!
The big fella only popped down our lum once every twelve months but his presence was felt throughout the year, like the Sword of Damocles
“Santa won’t be receiving your letter, if you don’t go to bed”
“Your report card better be good if you’re expecting Santa to visit this year“
It was all a bit Machiavellian but we were conditioned to go along with the narrative – to believe… even in the face of logic.
At some point we learned about the Nativity and were informed that Santa was a moniker for Saint Nicholas a fourth-century do-gooder, at this point I realised that Santa and God had a lot in common – they were both omnipresent, they had lots of helpers and they had the power to punish or reward, based on your behaviour or belief system.
This holy connection further endorsed the sentiment that there was absolutely no upside in being Santa-agnostic. Ours was not to reason why, it was simply to keep schtum, play along, and reap the rewards.
Phase Two: What A Fool Believes
But then it happened.
I can’t remember how it happened or exactly what age I was when it happened (probably older than I think, perhaps 9 or 10?), but sure enough the genie escaped from the bottle and all our suspicions were confirmed – The big fella was a hoax!
We kind of saw it coming, but it was still a blow and was exacerbated by the realisation that all the adults we’d trusted in our life had been playing us like fiddles.
For some kids it triggered an existential crisis – “Is God real”? “How about the Tooth Fairy? Am I still going to get recompensed by her for all the teeth I’m about to lose due to these damn selection boxes”?
Some folks reading this will think ‘how could you be so old and not know the truth about Santa’? but we’re talking about a much simpler, more sheltered time here – social media and satellite tv hadn’t even featured on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ yet!
On the plus side, once you got over the subterfuge you soon realised that all the upsides of Christmas were still in place and were shortly going to be supplemented with exciting new additions like… the Kelvin Hall Carnival & Circus and Xmas discos.
Also, now that you were in the loop, so to speak, you couldn’t help but feel a bit more grown up, which at the time felt like progress, but perhaps ignorance IS bliss…..
Phase 3: It’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Plaza
With Santa out of the picture we faced a different kind of Christmas.
Gone were the cute letters to Santa, and the trips to his grotto… on the plus side we were introduced to the best social lubricant known to teenagers (until tequila came along!) – a miraculous white berried twig with mystical powers that gave us the confidence to snog the girl or boy we’d fancied from afar for the past 6 months but had never spoken to.
As we left school and moved into the workplace the festive season evolved into a malaise of parties, nights out, and social occasions, which for the most part was fun, although you can get too much of a good thing.
The down-side to phase-3, (hangovers apart), was that Xmas day itself changed from being the best day of the year to probably the dullest… as you found yourself stuck indoors with nowhere to go – this was lockdown 70s style, everywhere was closed on Xmas day!
By this point the essence of Xmas as you remembered it, had vanished. There were no surprises anymore – unless someone bought you something other than the customary soap-on-a-rope or Aramis, and the highlight of Xmas day was whatever blockbuster was being premiered on TV that year.
The ultimate phase-3 movie (and some say the ultimate Xmas movie) Die Hard!
Phase 4: Step (Back) Into Christmas
And then just as you’re getting used to the idea that Xmas is nothing more than a capitalist racket, you have kids, nephews, nieces, god-children of your own, experience Christmas through their eyes, and before you can say Peter Pan, it becomes a magical time of the year again.
From my daughters Nurse Nancy outfit to my boys first pair of football boots or Stone Cold Steve Austin, WWF action figures, the joy in their little faces on Xmas morning was priceless and of course we wanted to make Christmas a special time for them…. everything it was for us, plus more.
Like most families, we have Xmas traditions which we still try to maintain to this day – Watching It’s A Wonderful Life on Xmas eve (which IS the best Xmas movie!); Playing Phil Spector’s Xmas album on Christmas morning; and being a bit too competitive in the annual Xmas-day post-lunch quiz.
Up until last years covid-hit-Christmas the five of us had managed to spend every Xmas day together…. hopefully we’ll be able to get back on track this Christmas, Omicron permitting.
I’m guessing the 4 phases of Christmas are still relevant in some form today, although I’m pretty sure that the digital age and the new licensing laws have progressed the landscape quite a bit from our experiences in the 60s/70s.
What’s always been around however, is Christmas Songs. My favourite comes from Xmas 73, it’s not the coolest or the most meaningful lyrically, but it’s a great little Xmas pop song from someone who was at the peak of their powers.
Every time l hear it, it encapsulates the season of goodwill and takes me back to a happy place….
“So merry Christmas one and all There’s no place I’d rather be Than asking you if you’d oblige Stepping into Christmas with me“
(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Imagine our delight at receiving a festive invitation from our new next door neighbours: a working class, colourful family headed up by Bert –ex-army; his earthy wife Noreen and their two children; eleven year old Denise and six year old Albert. We were in for a surprise…
PART 2: Noreen’s Christmas ‘Do’
Noreen’s Christmas Do’s – or ‘shindigs’ as Dad called them – were special. Invited that first Christmas Day to come over in the evening for a ‘bit of a knees-up and do’, Mom donned her mink stole (one of my grandmother’s cast-off’s) over her long crushed-velvet frock and her precious gold evening shoes. “This is just what we need.” Mom enthused. “At last! – an evening of social enhancement – perhaps leading to other invitations of the season.” She was stuck in a Southern Belle time warp.
Dad didn’t think that deeply about it; he was just glad to finally have a good time after months of hardship. He spruced up his sideburns, dusted down his big lapels and splashed on the Old Spice.
Mom insisted that my brothers wear their school blazers (“Don’t you boys look smart!”) and a hastily home-made Viyella dress for me with a ruffle that made my neck itch. As we stepped out of the vestibule into the cold smog, Mom’s hopes ran high.
Bert greeted us at the door in his trademark high waisted trousers with braces and white collarless shirt with his sleeves pushed back in a pair of copper garters. Taking my mother in his arms, he Fox-Trotted her the length of the hall into the through-lounge with ram-rod back and tight grip on her waist: “Oh my Bert; you’re so light on your feet! I declare!” She was surprised at Bert’s svelte moves as he deftly dodged the phone table.
David and Dale found a corner where they sat all evening with long faces; wedged between the flashing, coloured lights of the mirrored, padded ‘bar’, several drooping low-slung paper chains and the bay window; which had been sprayed with fake snow to look “proper old”.
An artificial tree blazed forth from the opposite corner; its multi-function lights performing dazzling, fit-inducing strobing. Nobody bothered about possible epilepsy in the ’70s. The boys never took their blazers off; remaining static for most of the evening as David drummed his fingers impatiently on the window sill.
Dad loved a party and threw himself into this one. With more than his usual dash of Southern Charm, he regaled our hosts with stories of the Old South, drank pints from the Watney’s Party Seven barrel and smoked his pipe.
Noreen smoked her “posh” Sobrani cigarettes with their gold tips, knocked back snowballs crammed with cocktail cherries and laughed loudly as she cranked the music up. She was the life and soul! Mrs. Mills banged out ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and ‘Little Brown Jug‘ on the stereo as Noreen twirled Dad around the room; hoicking up her skirt and clacking the plate in her mouth with glee as she sang along.
David’s mouth dropped open as he looked on: his old man was cavorting with that old broad? At the other end of the lounge sat Denise’s Nan, swigging port and lemon like pop.
“Come on Bab – just fetch us another one,” she rasped as she stretched out her bony, arthritic hand from under her pink crocheted cardigan.
Meanwhile Mom – flushed from her Fox-Trot – was now seated at the bar with a giddy schoolgirl blush as Bert poured her a Babycham. It wasn’t exactly what she had expected but needs must when the devil drives.
Amongst the swirl of excitement and gaudiness, no-one noticed that Noreen had slipped away for a few minutes. She had waited until everyone was tanked-up before her presenting her Party Piece. The door to the through-lounge was suddenly thrown back on cue by Denise, as her mother appeared at the top of the stairs; one leg cocked over the bannister.
We all gaped wide-eyed to see Noreen in a red feather boa barely draped around her upper back fat; her hefty bosom held aloft by a white corset with stretch panels. She grinned broadly to reveal her gums in all their toothless glory. Noreen’s piece-de-resistance: the mighty Union Jack drawers which she wore over her sturdy corset.
Mrs Mills gave way to The Stripper as Noreen began to gyrate; shimmying in her feathers while trying to keep her leg hooked over the rail as the music belted out the raunchy, jazz-influenced, suggestive trombone slides: Da da daa, da da d a daa. Her leg slipped and she slid down the bannister, shaking what she’d got (and she’d got a lot). Da da da daa…
With an almighty heave she swung her leg over the rail, shouting “Merry Christmas Bab!” as she landed bottom-up on the shag pile door mat.
“Dadgummit!” exclaimed Dad. “What a hell-of-a-shindig!”
Picture, if you can, the scene in the through-lounge at this point: Mom, slightly tipsy on her second Babycham, tried to conceal Dale’s eyes from the stripper in the hallway by holding her mink stole outstretched. Dad, eyes on stalks and tight as a drum, had sweat dripping from his sideburns as the heat from the two bars on the gas fire and his high blood pressure took a hold.
He swayed forth to try and help Noreen to her feet (ever the Southern Gent) but missed and grabbed the edge of the running buffet table, pulling the doilies and pyramid of sausage rolls to the ground.
Nan still had her hand out for a Port and Lemon; while Bert, to his credit, glided over to his ribald wife and took her hand to help her up from the floor, where she lay snorting and laughing.
David couldn’t conceal his disdain and embarrassment at the whole sordid affair and tapped his foot violently on his chair rung like Thumper. His contempt for our hostess, the tacky decorations and lusty shenanigans was thinly disguised. He sat, arms crossed tightly over his chest, open-mouthed, rolling his eyes skyward: some people. Dale just wanted to try a Port and Lemon. Young Albert threw up from too many sausage rolls and chocolates from the tree.
“Don’t yow show me up,” nudged his mum, “and mind them bits of of sick on me carpet or I’ll give yow somethink to cry about!”
As for me, I had never witnessed such glorious, glamorous Artistry in all my life and decided at that moment to go on the stage.
Albert retreated to his bedroom where he spent the rest of the evening minding his bits.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(Post by Colin ‘Jackie’ Jackson, of Glasgow – May 2021)
A look now at this week’s Smells of the Seventies Top Twelve.
Coming straight in at number 12, we have:
MILK MONITOR HANDS:
The primary school position of ‘milk monitor’ was one of honour. Only the trusted and well behaved were granted the privilege of carting the perpetually cold, heavy, milk bottle laden, metal crates around the numerous classrooms.
Being conferred this position of prestige effectively gave permission to skip class for a while each day. Result!
There was a downside though – there always is. When you returned to your classroom, milk round duties completed, and rested your weary head in your hands …..
Boak! Blech! Eeeuuuww!
The smell of sour milk is one that lingers. It would seep into the fabric of your clothing and you’d notice the kid in the next seat inching towards the edge of their desk. And retching.
Playtime couldn’t come fast enough and you’d rush to the toilets and wash your hands clean. But a state of freshness is only a state of utopia.
The combined scent of sour milk and carbolic soap is not the most attractive.
Jumping three places from last week’s number 14, is:
FRESHLY CUT GRASS:
Not only back in the day, but even now, this is the smell of freedom.
On hot summer days at primary school, we’d often be taken outside for lessons. No matter the subject, the grassy aroma would relax the mind and even a half hour discussion on Oliver Cromwell became bearable.
At secondary school, balmy summer breezes would waft the fragrant scent into the science labs through the opened fanlight windows. Accompanied by the muffled sound of a tractor pulling the grass cutter, it hinted towards the end of term.
It was a time of change: the football pitch was being shorn, soon to be lined as a six lane athletics track; national grade exams beckoned; summer holidays were around the corner.
The smell of freshly cut grass meant exciting times ahead.
Falling from a peak position of 8, this week’s number 10 is:
I still have no idea why these sweets were so popular. Perhaps because they were cheap?
From Swizzel, the makers of Fizzers (which were decent sweets) Parma violets were / are hard sweets based on some aniseed based confectionery in India which are used to freshen the mouth after a spicy meal.
The smell of violets may be a half decent base for perfume, or toilet cleaner, but surely not for human breath?
I mean, I love the smell of garlic, but I’m not so sure it should be used as a mouth-wash.
Making a bit splash this week we have a joint number 9:
CHARLIE / BRUT 33:
In 1973, Faberge launched their ‘33’ everyday cologne. In the same year, Revlon launched their ‘sharp flowery’ fragrance, ‘Charlie.’
I know both are now regarded with a little bit disdain; as ’cheap.’ And certainly the Brut 33 splash-on gave that impression, coming as it did in a plastic bottle no less.
However, for naïve young schoolkids, living on paper round and baby-sitting incomes, these fragrances met our budgets while making us feel sophisticated; classy.
I very much doubt there were any dates between school pupils that didn’t involve a dab or two of either these scents.
Henry Cooper / Barry Sheene and Shelley Hack can feel well pleased with their influence on the match-making process.
Coming from nowhere, at 8 with a bullet, we have:
No – not the little peaked efforts we sometimes wore to primary school – these caps.
Principally for using in toy guns, we would stamp on them to ignite the tiny dots of what we always believed to be gunpowder. However, I think I’m right in saying old fashioned gunpowder is not shock sensitive and has to be ignited. So it may be a mercury based compound that actually forms the black dot on the roll of paper. (Who says I didn’t pay attention in Chemistry class?) Anyway – who gives a tu’upenny one for the science? We’d place lines of these on the inner ledge of our school desk and brusquely bring down the lid to create an almighty (as we heard it) bang.
The residual smell of spent gunpowder or whatever, and burnt paper was just tops! It was also exciting as we felt we were doing something just that wee bit naughty.
Making its annual assault on the charts and debuting this week at number 7, it’s, erm, comic annuals.
ANNUALS AT CHRISTMAS:
Every Christmas night, I’d head to bed with several new ‘annuals’ as reading material. Excited as I was to read the exploits of Alf Tupper (Tough of the Track) or Desperate Dan, my abiding memory of childhood Christmases, is the smell of these books.
I have to confess, that even at the age of sixty-two, I attract some weird looks from shoppers in Asda through the month of December, as with the books close to my face, I fan through the pages of the Beano / Dandy annuals.
With a ‘tree-mendous’ jump of fourteen places to number 6 this week, we have:
Back in the day before plastic was invented (well, almost) we always had real Christmas trees.
There is nothing in this world, I’m quite certain, can evoke such sense of sheer excitement in a young kid than the smell that permeates home when a real Christmas tree is placed in the corner of the living room.
Falling two places to number 5 after an amazing thirty-three weeks in the charts, is:
‘WET’ SCHOOL LUNCHES:
Every day, by playtime, (or was it ‘break’ when we were at secondary school?) you could tell what would be on the menu for lunch.
My heart would sink when I could detect the putrid odour of a ‘wet’ lunch. Invariably, these would be ‘wet’ days weather wise as well; days when the dining room windows would run rivers of condensation.
A ‘wet’ lunch could be expected when the stench of stewed cabbage would mingle with the cheap, Bisto substitute gravy used to smother the rather odious looking beef olives.
There would be no silver lining either, as in general, the Head of Kitchen would dictate it be better to get all the crap out in one go, and subject us to pink custard (Devil’s Spew) and prunes for desert.
Where there’s a Ying, there’s a Yang, and making a comeback at this week’s number 4, is:
‘DRY’ SCHOOL LUNCHES:
Ah! Now you’re talking. There was something so comforting when from the sanctuary of the bike shed opposite the kitchen, you could smell the roast of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish fingers, and chips deep fried in blocks of melted lard.
You could also bet your treasured Lynyrd Skynyrd album on there being rhubarb crumble and custard on offer for second course.
Matching Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album for continuous weeks on the chart and remaining this week at number 3, comes:
DOG POO ON YOUR SHOE:
Maybe, as a society, we are better educated these days. Or maybe dogs are genetically just constipated now. But there’s thankfully not as much dog dirt lying in the streets these days.
There was nothing worse than the smell that followed you home when you’d stepped in a pile of poo hidden in a tuft of grass. I’m sure we’ve all been there.
Or worse, if you’d perfected a slide tackle while playing football, only to ….. well, you know. Yeuch!
Having it ingrained in the tread of you bike tyre was no fun either. More so if it were the front one. Think.
Going around and around in the chart is this week’s number 2, climbing again after a steady fall in recent times:
GOLDFISH BOWL / TADPOLE JAR:
How many of us pestered our parents for a goldfish when we were young? Or ‘won’ a sad little specimen in a poly bag when the carnival came to town?
Our parents, realising how lucky they were we’d not asked for a pony, or even a dog, jumped right on their good fortune and readily agreed … on the condition you looked after it.
“It’ll teach junior about life and death and responsibility” they stupidly thought.
Yeah – that went well … for all of about a week, until the magnitude off the task took its toll. What? Clean out its bowl as well as feed it? Every four days? Why is that water cloudy/ Where is Goldie? What are these wee stringy bits of stuff suspended mid bowl? What’s that Goddamned smell for crying out loud?!
The same, though worse, would happen with the tadpole jar.
You’d plead to be allowed to keep the frog spawn you’d shovelled into an outsize and cleaned out malt jar.
“It’ll teach junior about life and evolution and transformation and responsibility” your parents stupidly thought.
Wow! Did that jar severely honk! Worse still – when the spawn had released tadpoles, and the tadpoles grew wee legs, they had to be transferred into a basin of sorts. With rocks, and weeds and stuff.
After that, you couldn’t really change the water. So while the little frogs developed, the water became stagnant. And stank to high heaven.
And nobody would come play with you unless their name combined the words David and Attenborough.
We have new Number One this week … and it’s getting personal, not ‘arf! PERNOD & LEMONADE:
Summer 1976. I’d just left school and had a job lined up in Banking. It was time to celebrate – time to get away and let my hair down. (I did have some, back then.)
It had been decided I wasn’t clever enough at Maths and Physics to go to University, so this would be my ‘gap week.’ Off I headed for a caravan in St Andrews with several pals.
You know, I casually say, ‘several pals,’ because in truth, the week is a total haze and I can recall only my mates Derek, Graham and Kenny being there. Jack may also have been. But I honestly can’t remember much at all, which is quite scary.
(I do recall coming back from the pub one night and throwing bits of bread onto the roof of a neighbouring caravan so the occupants would be awakened the following morning by hungry seagulls pecking the crusts above them.)
The only other recollection I have is of a night on Pernod and lemonade. Or rather, I recollect the next morning! And afternoon! And evening! And the next morning again!
I don’t think I’ve ever been so ill.
To this day, I cannot stand the smell of Pernod. If somebody close by drinks it, I have to move away.
*** It’s Smells of the Seventies … It’s Number One … It’s Pernod & Lemonade.
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!
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.
(Post by Colin ‘Jackie’ Jackson, of Glasgow – February 2021)
‘Physical Education,’ it was called, back in the day. Football; hockey; netball; cross-country running, gym work; and to a lesser extent in my time, rugby. It was an eagerly awaited break from the mind-crushing monotony of Mr Methven’s Physics class. (I’m still bitter he chucked myself and Tony Everett out of his Higher class – can you tell? Presumably that was to ensure his teaching reflected a better pass rate.)
‘Physical Education,’ in the month of December, however, was none of the above. Not because the ground was dangerously frozen – old Mr Graham, a.k.a. ‘Boot,” would have us out playing in the winter snow, while I might add, he slurped his coffee in the store room. No. Some sadist considered it would be more character building, and stand us all in good future stead, to teach us the dark art of country dancing.
In the weeks leading up to ‘The Dance,’ boys and girls of each class in their Year, would be told to line up opposite each other in one of the gyms, backs to the wall-bars, and await the dreaded instruction: “Gentlemen – take your partners for the Saint Bernard’s Waltz.”
This is 1971 for goodness sake. The year of T.Rex, Rod Stewart and Atomic Rooster. And we have to dance to a … what’s it called?
Usually, two classes were amalgamated and twenty, sweaty-palmed lads would look up and down the line, watching to see who’d make the first move. Of course, there was always that one kid who was officially ‘going out’ with one of the girls stood across the games hall. His move towards the other side would instantly be mirrored by his ‘burd,’ (it’s ok – you could say these things back in the day) and the two would meet in the centre circle of the basketball court.
The pressure is now on.
Decision time. Move quickly before somebody else asks the girl you fancy. Or – actually, do you even ask her at all? What if she says “no thanks.” Or words to that effect. But she might be happy to ‘St Bernard’s Waltz’ with you. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? That would surely mean she likes you, wouldn’t it? Look – she’s whispering and giggling with her friends. Go on. Don’t be such a chicken.
But the fear of rejection is debilitating.
Aaaaargh! Too damn slow! She accepted that offer far too quickly. And she’s smiling. She must fancy ….
Very quickly, your options dwindle and everyone else starts pairing up – reluctantly or otherwise. So you make your move. The approach does not impress, however, as your path deviates when a pal overtakes you for the hand of your intended. Sheepishly, you are forced to ask your now third choice. Fully expecting a sharp rebuke, you ask the question.
Boot and Mrs McLeod (Horsey) who obviously frequented the world of Jane Austen, had dictated the correct manner of asking a young lady to dance is to politely say: “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” But, partly because you’re a rebel and nobody tells you what to do, though mainly because your nervous brain has gone to mush, you grudgingly mumble the words: “You wanna dance?”
Realising by now that it’s a straight choice between the short-arse stood in front of her; the weird introvert, or the kid with a plague of plooks and halitosis – the short arse wins. You – ok, I – have a partner.
Boot would then crank up the dansette and drop the needle on track one, side one of Jimmy Shand and His Band, Greatest Hits (Volume 1) and quickly retreat to the arms of Horsey. A short demonstration was followed by carnage and mayhem, the like of which had never been seen on the hockey or football pitches.
Of course, the rumours would fly for the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas Dance as to who fancied who – all based upon the rather random selection process of the practice sessions.
Then came the big night. The night when all the skills learned from Boot and Horsey would be displayed. Or not.
See, back then, there was no plush limousine; no pre-dance celebration meal; no hired photographers. Nope. Instead, groups of lads would rush out their homes an hour or so before the scheduled start time, meet up at the pre-determined ‘secret’ rendezvous point (for us, it was ‘The Woods,’ for others, ‘Hungry Hill’) and unearth the illicit booze that had somehow been procured earlier.
The tipple of choice for my group was El Dorado and Lanliq fortified wine and a couple cans of Carlsberg Special Brew or Newcastle Brown Ale.
Timing now became critical, and being so young and inexperienced, it was pretty much down to trial and error … error frequently winning out.
The challenge was to get to the festively adorned Assembly Hall and, standing up straight whilst holding your breath, hand over your ticket to the poor teacher who would much rather have been spending the evening with a good book. Those pupils who still had to perfect the art of timing and sported puke stains down the front of their paisley-patterned kipper ties, were instantly rejected, being sent to the ‘sick room’ to await collection by their affronted parents.
Once in, you could relax. But not too much. It was best to keep moving. Dancing. Any period of inactivity would invariably induce a deep sleep on the spartan chairs that lined the Hall. Game over. Sick room and a phone call to your parents coupled by an instant grounding over Christmas would be the resultant consequence.
So, dance you did. And it wasn’t too bad, as it happened. And even if it was Dutch courage, you did ask the girl you fancied to dance. And maybe she was happy that you did.
Everyone was happy. Even the kid with the plague of plooks and halitosis.