As for most people Christmas was best when I was young and still believed in Santa Claus. In those days we used to alternate between a Christmas at home one year and then at the grandparents the year after. I can remember two of these quite clearly.
My mum’s parents lived in London and they lived in a flat in Catford and when we stayed there I got to sleep in a small box room at the front of the house overlooking the street outside.
One year, I was four years old, I had gone to bed on Christmas Eve and sometime during the night I woke up and because of the streetlights outside there was enough illumination for me to see at the foot of the bed that there was a sack overflowing with presents.
Sticking out of the top of the sack was a rifle (not a real one of course) so I knew that I had got the cowboy outfit that was top of my Christmas present list! It was still some time until morning but I am sure that I was able to sleep better after that secure in the confidence that Santa had been.
I used to like Christmas in London, the flat was a curious arrangement that was simply the top floor of a family house with only one front door but it was warm and homely and welcoming.
For most of the year everything took place in the small back room but at Christmas we were allowed to go into the best front room for a couple of days. In the morning we would open the main presents and then at tea time there were gifts on the tree to be taken down and given out. Grandad was in charge of this operation until one year when instead of cutting a piece of string holding the present on the tree he cut the tree lights instead and nearly electrocuted himself in the process. After that he lost the job and my Nan took over the responsibility from thereon.
There was always a stocking hanging on the fireplace that had the same things in it every year. This was a real stocking mind, not one of the modern pre-packed things that we get today. Granddad was a bus conductor before they went one man operated and every year he used to collect shiny new penny coins and each of us would get a cash bag full of the gleaming treasure. There was an apple and an orange and a few sweets, a dot-to-dot book and perhaps a matchbox car or two.
The other one that I remember was when I got my first train set. This was at my other grandparent’s house in Leicester; actually I think we might have lived there at the time. Christmas morning in the front room there was a square metre of sapele board and a simple circle of track, an engine a tender and two coaches in British Rail burgundy livery. There was a level crossing, a station and a bridge made out of an old shoe box that dad had cut out and made himself.
He was good at making things for Christmas presents and at about the same time I had a fort with some US cavalry soldiers that was made out of an old office filing box that he had constructed into a pretty good scale copy of Fort Laramie or wherever, later I had a replacement fort, this time from the toy shop but it was never as good as the cardboard box.
For many years after that there were new additions to the train set until I had quite an extensive network of track and a good collection of engines and rolling stock. But something bad happened to the train set in about 1972 when all of the engines mysteriously stopped functioning.
The reason for this was quickly discovered. Brother Richard who has always been more gifted than me with a screwdriver had dismantled them all as part of his engineering education. Unfortunately at this time his skills were not sufficiently developed to be able to put them back together again with quite the same level of expertise and consequently that was the end of model railways in our house.
Christmas was never quite the same of course after you found out the truth about Santa when you were about eight or nine years old. Some spoilsport at school with an older brother or sister would spill the beans on the myth of Christmas and this would be confirmed in the December when you found presents, that were supposed to be still at Santa’s factory at the North Pole, on top of or at the back of your parents wardrobe.
I remember when this happened and I discovered the gifts wrapped in mid-December and I sneaked them into the bathroom, locked the door and carefully unwrapped the paper to see if this was true. It was quite a shock to find some new additions to the model railway and quite difficult to wrap them back up again to cover up my snooping. Even more difficult of course to pretend to be surprised when I opened them again a fortnight later on Christmas morning! Richard of course is nearly eight years younger than me so we had to continue to pretend about Santa in our house until I was about fifteen, although I am sure I told my sister straight away!
Snow at Christmas is deep-seated in British culture, and most of us (except bookmakers) look forward expectantly to Christmas Day with scenes depicted on traditional Christmas cards and in works like Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, but the truth is of course that Christmas is rarely ever white any more. The myth of snowy Christmases has its origins in the colder climate of the period 1550 to1850 when Britain was in the grip of a ‘Little Ice Age’ and therefore could be confident of snow at Christmas. Winters were particularly persistent and severe but it is now nearly two hundred years since a frost fair was last held on a frozen River Thames in 1813.
The trouble is that for most parts of the UK, Christmas comes at the beginning of the season for snow and wintry weather is more likely early in the deepening cold of January. White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752, which effectively brought Christmas day back by twelve days. There have only been six white Christmases since I was born in 1954. I can remember it snowing on Christmas Eve 1970 because I was walking to Midnight Mass at Hillmorton Church and according the Met Office the last white Christmas was in 2004, when snow was widespread across Northern Ireland, Scotland, parts of Wales, the Midlands, north-east and far south-west England. I can’t remember that!