Memories of a West Country Christmas. I grew up on a farm in south Gloucestershire in the 60s. It was a way of life that has gone forever.
When I reached home, red cheeked after the mile and a half walk from the bus in the cold sharp wind, I could smell a warm spiciness in the kitchen. My mother was making the Christmas puddings. The mixture was waiting in the large china bowl with the wooden spoon, ready for me to give it a stir and make a wish - and taste a little bit. I helped spoon the mixture into several smaller china basins and my mother tied large pieces of cotton cloth over the tops making a handle from the ends. Tomorrow the kitchen would be a warm haze of steam while they sat for hours in the large galvanised steamer, the water at a steady simmer.
Christmas had begun, but it was still an achingly long time to wait for an eight year old. Gazing into the toy shop on the way home from school where I changed buses I'd already picked out some items for my Christmas list; mostly things to add to my toy farm and miniature garden. I planned what to buy for my three big sisters and new baby brother and wondered how far my savings would stretch.
The next day there was more mixing and tasting: the cake. My mother always left plenty of the rich and fruity mixture in the bowl to be scraped out and eaten raw. At the weekend my eldest sister, Judy, would carefully ice and decorate it with coloured lines of icing spelling 'Happy Christmas' and green marzipan holly leaves and red berries. The smell of the cake baking was complemented by the fresh aroma from the annual crate of oranges. Each brightly coloured fruit was wrapped in tissue proclaiming its provenance from an exotic sunny country. This year there was a crate of apples too. Every evening each member of the family would choose a fruit to be eaten after tea in front of the roaring log fire.
Mince pies, with the mince oozing out, were baked and stored in tins for visitors. Stu, the postman, his pipe clamped firmly in his teeth while he rode his rounds on his Post Office bicycle came laden with cards and the occasional parcel, but he still had time for a cup of coffee. The sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco lingered in the air after he had gone.
Judy retrieved the Christmas decorations from the musty cupboard beneath the stairs and examined them, selecting those she deemed fit for another year. This year she added baubles and tinsel leftover from her Christmas window display at the department store where she worked as a display artist. The crepe streamers might just do once more. Strings were pinned into the sitting room’s old walls to hold the numerous cards that were arriving. Those from our mother’s friends and relations in Australia came in the first batch, their pictures of koalas and kookaburras contrasting with robins in the snow and carol singers outside quaint English churches.
The arrival of the Christmas tree brought a new aroma into the house; its sprucy scent mingling with the rest. The fairy lights, as always, didn’t work the first time but patient testing of each minute bulb to find the culprit was rewarded and the colours shone out once more. This year Judy made a star for the top of the tree, declaring the fairy doll to be too old-fashioned. Our father came in from his farm chores with two fine bundles of mistletoe cut down from apple trees in the orchard. While my sisters hung the smaller one from the light fitting in the centre of the sitting-room he fixed the large one to sway from the ceiling in the hall. Everybody helped cut the holly bearing bright red berries and arranged it around the room, with shrieks when fingers were stabbed by its dark shining prickly leaves.
The whine of the bench saw in the shed started up every evening as our father cut more logs to be piled up in the log baskets for the winter fires. Ash logs burnt the best. Sometimes I would watch, not needing to be told to stand well back out of danger, as the sharp teeth tore into the wood. The logs smelt of woodland walks.