Christmas - the build up

Time travel is powered by the sense of smell. The scent of cloves instantly carries me back to Nana who is lifting the lid of a pale blue box. I catch a hint of its perfume before she hands me the spiny treasure inside. It is a pomander, a Christmas gift, and she explains exactly how the orange has been tied criss-cross with a bright red ribbon and then skewered with a pattern of cloves. It will hang in her wardrobe to keep her clothes smelling sweet. The memory of this delicious combination of spice and citrus stays with me. It’s joined by other scent memories, each one marking a milestone on the journey to Christmas, the highlight of my year.

The first of these was the distinctive wood smoke and gunpowder smell of November 6th. I would be out with friends hunting for unexploded fireworks; checking to see if there might be any warmth left in the remains of last night's bonfire. The weather might be hands-in-pockets cold and damp but now that the excitement of Bonfire night had come and gone we could ruin our shoes kicking over bonfire ash and talk about the excitement to come.

November days were short and raw. When the weather was calm there was mist or even thick fog. But Christmas was coming! When I wandered past the shops on my way home from school, I would catch glimpses of that hidden promise here and there.

The Post Office brought the first flutter of anticipation when it displayed the list of last days for sending cards and parcels overseas to arrive in time. Decorating the poster was a big Christmas tree surrounded by presents! Next, the newsagent put a handwritten note in their window ‘Don’t forget your Christmas Annuals!’ – like many other Christmas items, these had to be ordered well in advance to be sure of their arrival in time for Christmas.

Large, brightly coloured tins of biscuits decorated with cheery Victorian families enjoying carriage rides in the snow began to appear in the Co-op window. These were not our usual treats. The tins contained chocolate-covered delights and remained firmly sealed until the holidays.

As November turned into December the red, green and gold of Christmas blossomed everywhere. The shop windows glowed brightly with colour and delicious with promise. The newsagents put out their selection boxes, diaries and tins of toffees fronted by photos of lipsticked children in bobble hats holding kittens. Even the hair dye in the Chemist’s window bobbed lopsidedly on a shallow sea of cotton wool interspersed with buoys of random tree ornaments. The ironmonger’s unusually bright and colourful display required closer consideration.

Twinkling lights framed a selection of potential gifts including the coveted penknives and torches that could change the colour of their beams.

Different foods appeared in the shops too. First, there were the dried fruits in the Co-op. Currants, sultanas, Candied peel and raisins waited to be weighed on balance scales into individual thick blue paper bags. None of these Christmas ingredients came ready-packaged. My favourites were the shiny, sticky glace cherries. My mother bought these over and over again because my dad and I kept eating them. Once we found a tin of nestles thick cream at the back of the cupboard, cut slices of bread and made a sort of cake covered with cream and dotted with cherries.

Special foods like mincemeat, Christmas cake and puddings had to be prepared well in advance of December 25th. The thought that some seasonal foods were unlikely to be re-ordered once they sold out led to a sudden rush in demand for the essential dried fruits and spices. This put additional strain on the ladies who worked in the co-op, where it was normal for much of the food to be stored loose and weighed to the customer’s requirements. I look back now and realise how astonishingly accomplished those women were. Not only did they know their customers by name (always title and surname) but as they carefully weighed everything out and wrapped it in greaseproof paper or put it in a bag, they knew every item’s price, even the seasonal goods, per pound and could do the mental maths to calculate the per-ounce cost. Then they would rapidly total a customer’s entire purchases in pounds, shillings and pence on a piece of scrap paper, or enter it into their order book. Whatever the final amount, their customers received the correct change from the cash they handed over. Everyone paid cash when they shopped. Those women must've been so happy at the end of Christmas Eve when the shop was closed - very often for almost a week.

Closer to Christmas the greengrocers was completely rearranged to accommodate the mountains of carrots, sprouts, potatoes, onions and parsnips, families would need to last them between Christmas Eve and the new year whilst their shop was closed. Chestnuts and all kinds of hard-shelled nuts hung in gaudy mesh bags never seen in the other eleven months of the year. The shop smelled wonderfully exotic because a whole new selection of fruits appeared alongside the apples and bananas. There were melons, dates, pomegranates, grapes and tangerines (always one of those in the toe of your stocking!) None of the customers had a fridge but it was no problem at all to keep things chilled. Everyone had an outhouse or shed. We had our balcony.

Before Christmas cake and pudding recipe ingredients could be assembled their dried fruits required hours of preparation. The currants, sultanas and raisins all had to be rinsed several times through a colander to remove any stones, dust or grit and then slowly dried in a barely warm oven before they could be put to work. The smell from this process was delicious and so was the raw cake mix. It was partly the sweetness of the candied peel and the glace cherries juice but particularly the Christmas spices - nutmeg and cinnamon. Somehow the finished cake never tasted quite as good as the promising smell during its time in the oven. The same was true for mince pies. We didn't make our own mincemeat or Christmas pudding. Years later I made both and realised why. Anyway, none of us really liked Christmas pudding so my mum bought a very tiny ‘Mrs. Peeks’ pudding ‘in case’ and my dad and I happily filled up with chocolate instead. His favourite sweet treat at Christmas was an extra-large bar of Cadbury's Brazil nut milk chocolate.

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