Christmas week

My parents were very sociable. Every year, in the week before Christmas, Robinsons Brewery would deliver a barrel of their special mild beer to our flat. This had to be kept cold but not icy which was easily dealt with by standing the barrel near the front door. All the men in our block of six flats worked for the same organisation, and on the evening the beer arrived they were called upon to sample the beer - for quality control purposes. We didn't have many drinks glasses so visitors brought their own. Anyone else who called from that point until the barrel ran out was offered beer. Other Christmas drinks periodically on offer included sherry, CherryB and Babycham. After we moved to a house around the corner when I was eleven, Christmas morning was the time when my parent’s friends would come for drinks and the house brimmed with happy chocolate-filled children and increasingly cheery parents. They all gradually dwindled back home but some years people would stay for lunch - and a nap.

Christmas Eve was just the longest, most exciting day of the year. My parents were home, everything was ready, anything was possible in the next few magical days. Sleep was impossible but somehow it happened and there, at the end of my bed, was one of my long socks, lumpy and bursting with the promise of good things. And a tangerine and a threepenny piece right at the tip of the toe. Having disembowelled the stocking it was time for more fun. Open the door to the living room just enough, “He’s been!” Thunder down the hall and share the good news Is it time to get up? Is it time to get up now? Is it six o’clock yet? Has it been ten minutes now? Hooray!!

For the particular Christmas, I have in mind, my present was a sledge. Like most universities and research organisations in the 1950s, my dad’s company employed skilled glassblowers, carpenters and metal workers to produce the specialist items needed in their labs. In the months leading up to Christmas, these craftsmen did no real work – they just made foreigners (non-work-related products created for the benefit of the employee)

The fashion at the time was for blown glass animals – deer, dogs, fish etc. The ones in the shops were labelled Venetian glass and cost a fortune. The ones created by the labs glassblowers were beautiful and much more reasonably priced. Apparently, the entire workrooms were littered with herds of tiny brightly coloured creatures waiting patiently for collection. Other workshops created the bigger wood and metal items, like my sledge with its bright red runners. It was magnificent! It was a different age.

On Christmas Day I stayed in my pyjamas and dressing gown all day long. I put on socks in the morning because the lino tiles were cold and the fire wasn’t lit, but that was as far as it went. I'm not sure I even brushed my teeth. Food was haphazard apart from Christmas lunch which was a very relaxed affair for the three of us. I think I ate mine sitting on my sledge that year. For the rest of the day, there were far too many other interesting things to do than eat. Television (single channel BBC in black and white) was available for hours longer than usual but I'm not sure that I made it long into the evening. All I wanted now was some snow.

My parents did love a good party, especially if they were hosts. I was glad to have the flat filled with happy noise and made the most of the time before bed by sampling any food on offer. New year’s eve was one of the best parties because it was the last chance to eat and drink the final Christmas goodies before we went back to reality and the best season of all disappeared for another year.

I loved New Year’s morning after a party. The living room was still warm from the late-night celebrations and had that Christmassy boozy smell of sherry and beer and cigarettes – a little like a pub. Even the kitchen wasn’t as cold as usual and there were delicious remnants of party food to be sampled quickly before an adult appeared and talked about the need for ‘a proper breakfast’. If January 1st fell on a Saturday or a Sunday I knew I was safe from sensible advice; nobody would be stirring for some time. But in those days New Year's Day was not a bank holiday. If January 1st happened to be a weekday, it didn't matter how awful anyone felt or how little sleep they had managed, the new working year had begun. Under those circumstances, it was best to retire to bed until my unhappily hungover parents had disappeared to work. Warming my chilly toes in bed and reading until my grandmother woke up was the best plan.

Nana and I would pass the day quietly. She would clear out the grate in the living room, making horrible scraping noises with the little metal shovel that lived on the hearth with the other shiny fire tools. Last night’s ash would be emptied into a bucket and thrown down the rubbish chute and into the bin. Then she would lay and light a new fire, so the room would be warm for the evening. During the day I would browse randomly on party leftovers and Christmas sweets. In the early evening, my parents would stagger back from work and more or less go straight to bed. The Christmas holidays were well and truly over.

But there were hardier souls, keen shoppers for whom the beginning of the year meant a real challenge. The Sales happened once a year and began on January 1st in large shops in Manchester. There were no mid-season sales, end of season sales, blue cross days and certainly no Black Friday. This was also the time before consumer regulations were passed preventing goods from being described as drastic reductions when in fact they were simply cheap rubbish. There were certainly real bargains to be had, and in the days between Christmas and New Year, there were always interviews on the radio or television with mad people who camped out so that they could be first inside when the shop’s doors opened on New Year’s Day. Aunty Irene was a killer sales shopper. I remember her coming to a party in our flat wearing a vivid blue-pink lace cocktail dress with a diamante buckle on the ribbon belt. It had cost her £1 and suited her perfectly. I think it was the first time I realized that the colours a person wore made a real difference to the way they looked.

The dull days of early January took on a sudden sparkle with the news that there was to be a Christmas party for children whose parents worked at the labs. We arrived in our finery and waited in the canteen. The room seemed enormous and there was a net of balloons hanging over the tables where we ate our meat paste sandwiches, iced gem biscuits and jelly, ready for release at the end of the party.

There were some games to start with and then we had a viewing of ‘The Dragon of Pendragon Castle’ – the Labs had their own projector. Just before home time Father Christmas arrived (nobody questions an unseasonal arrival when the visitor come equipped with gifts) and gave me a John Bull Printing Outfit. On the front of the box was a picture of a man in a top hat standing next to a bulldog and inside a series of wooden blocks to hold tiny rubber letters arranged into words. The idea was to press the mounted letters into ink pads and stamp the words they formed onto paper. It was incredibly fiddly and seldom produced much more than frustration and printing ink all over my fingers and anywhere other than on the paper. The ink never washed out of my clothes and the gift was as unpopular with my mother as the Post Office set I had been given at Christmas.

Its flimsy coins, notes and other stationery repeatedly scattered themselves throughout the flat. The sweet shop I had been given got a much better reception. It had everything including a little metal scoop to weigh the stock into triangular bags on tiny scales. The sweets inside the shop were organised into rows of miniature glass jars and contained lots of the Squirrel company’s favourites like Cherry Lips, Midget Gems and Floral Gums. Needless to say, the contents did not last long and, as I was my best but non-paying customer and I was probably the fastest retail bankruptcy in history.