One of my favourite Christmas activities was going to the different fairs, fetes and sales which every local organisation seemed to have during November and December. As many of my grandmother’s generation took pride in their ability to sew or crochet or knit there were often hand-made lavender bags or pomanders to buy. I would spend Saturday afternoons happily wandering through a series of dusty village halls buying all sorts of odds and ends to wrap as completely unsuitable gifts for different family members. One Christmas, my best buy was the pair of sparkling ‘diamond’ drop earrings I found for my mother on a white elephant stall. Christmas Sales were also a haven for home-baked cakes and sweets. Coconut ice was a pleasant discovery, but making the acquaintance of buttery, crumbly homemade fudge was heaven, and it was so much cheaper than the chewy stuff the newsagent sold!
There was absolutely no way around Christmas shopping, it just had to be done in person and as long before Christmas as possible. There was never any question of bargains whilst gift shopping in the lead up to Christmas. Everyone knew that this was the season when shoppers paid top price for everything.
Whenever my parents went shopping, even for expensive Christmas items, they paid with cash – everyone amongst our family and friends did. Cheques were for people with bank accounts and even if customers had a cheque book, very few places were prepared to accept this form of payment unless the buyer was a known quantity. Cash had to be acquired before setting out to shop either from money stored at home, a savings account, the Post Office or the bank. (Banks closed early, around 2 pm so the money could all be accounted for and the day’s paperwork completed) Time-wise, a trip to get cash would have to be taken into account when deciding which bus or train to catch if shopping in town. There were always warnings before Christmas and at other peak shopping times to keep purses and wallets very safe. If money were stolen the victim could do nothing other than report the theft and mourn the loss.
Father Christmas did make his appearance in the big shops in Manchester. I can only recall going to see him once and it was a very uncomfortable experience. My dad and I stood in a roped-off queue that snaked waiting families across Paulden’s toy department like rats in a genetics experiment. I didn’t want to sit on Santa’s knee and I couldn’t think of what to tell him when he asked what I wanted for Christmas. I don’t even remember what gift he gave me from the big box labelled ‘Girl’. My dad whisked us both away before we could be press-ganged into the expensive photo with Santa option.
The sight of Christmas tree lights in people's windows meant the day itself was very close. On a bus ride back from my grandmother's house in the early evening, I remember asking if we could sit upstairs so we could look down and get a better view as it went dark and people started to switch on their tree lights. Families didn't usually put up their trees until really close to Christmas. Trees that didn't drop their needles weren’t available. Putting up the tree too soon meant that by December 25 only a bald stick and a carpet thick with brown pine needles would remain.
Everyone in our flats had some kind of Christmas tree. Heaving a real tree up to a second floor flat was a mission but the smell of pine that filled our living room was perfect. Getting the thing to stay upright was a struggle and made a hideous mess until the tree was finally wedged in place in a metal bucket anchored by huge pieces of coal. Some families had very fancy tree lights which flashed on and off. Christmas tree lights were capricious beasts. If one of the fragile glass bulbs broke then the whole string wouldn't switch on and it took forever to work out which was the faulty bulb that had to be replaced. They caused fires too. Sometimes they just overheated on a really dry tree. At other times people tried to plug too many things into one power adapter in a single socket. (Rooms had very few power sockets – usually, there was nothing extra to plug in apart from maybe a standard lamp.) There were no circuit breakers, so an overload of power was a real danger.
Tree decorations were made of very thin glass and were beautiful but horribly fragile. If dropped onto a hard surface they atomised. We had a single flimsy cardboard box of about a dozen ornaments. The rest of the tree was filled up with tinsel or lametta. Some people put chocolate decorations on their trees but we lived with a four-legged chocoholic hooligan who would've electrocuted herself for a mouthful of Cadburys.
The run-up to Christmas meant the arrival of cards and parcels all full of possibilities. It amazes me now that these were brought right to our front door even when we lived on the top floor. The post came several times a day and I happily opened anything I could get my hands on. One year, before anybody was around to stop me, I opened a package containing a magnificent china coffee set. Because the cups were so stupidly tiny I convinced myself that this was a wonderful dolls tea set obviously intended for me. The package had no accompanying note and no identifying postal marks and so there was no more to be done about it. Needless to say it was put away in the safety of a very tall cupboard.
My mother bought Christmas cards in department stores like Pauldens in Manchester, usually in assorted boxes of fifty or so. One important job was to make sure before she started writing, that she matched up the right card with the right sized envelope. She made that mistake one year with disastrous consequences. Then It was important to be certain that she sent the ones with religious pictures on the front to the people who actually went to church and the ones with funny pictures or snow-covered views with robins to everyone else.
Even the envelopes which arrived through our letterbox were colourful. The Post Office didn't offer Christmas stamps but the (then) Spastics Society produced the bright Christmas stickers that appeared on lots of envelopes. Stamps of any kind had to be dampened (usually licked) before they would stick to the envelopes. Posting in large numbers left a truly disgusting taste in the mouth. If you want to experience that particularly unpleasant flavour for yourself I suggest chewing catarrh pastilles, as stocked by your local pharmacy.
All the women in families sent Christmas cards and these became one of the main room decorations – the more colourful and glittery they were the better. Cards would just be balanced on the mantelpiece, window ledge and sideboard and would often blow over when anybody opened and shut a door. My mother had very little patience for the whole room decorating business, I couldn’t reach very high and wasn’t allowed to climb on furniture and my father had no idea where to start, so our Christmas finery was fairly minimal. I always thought our tree was so magnificent that the rest didn’t really matter.
Some of the families in the flats did make paper chains but they were incredibly fiddly to put together. The links came as a pack of flat coloured strips of paper with glue at one end that you had to lick, slip through the previous link and stick together. Like most children, I began work on a chain, but soon became bored by the repetition and repelled by the taste of glue in my mouth. Unless you used drawing pins to stick paper chains firmly onto the picture rail they slipped down a lot. Same with the twisted strips of coloured crepe paper. Same with the balloons. Hanging tinsel or lametta over the picture frames and mirrors worked quite well. Plenty of sparkle was called for wherever possible.
Other interesting things arrived before Christmas too. Nowadays these would be called corporate gifts - only nowadays organisations don't give them and even if they did nobody could accept them. Corporate gifting was a roaring business back then. This was at the time when my dad worked in Manchester so he had contact with quite a number of companies. He was regularly given a big turkey from one company, a huge box of fruit from another and one bumper year there were wristwatches for both my parents. The gifts of booze took the form of Christmas drinks at lunchtime or at the end of the working day and arrived home inside my father. Luckily, he caught the bus so nobody came to any harm.