• Deborah Ismay

Christmas time (1950)

Was Christmas so very different back in 1950? I hope you enjoy reading these memories of a Christmas many years ago, written by my mother, Patricia Ismay nee Rushmer.

Patricia was born in 1945 and grew up in a tight knit mining community in Tanfield Lea, County Durham. She lived in a terraced, colliery house with her extended family (mother, Gran, Grandfather, Aunts and Uncles).

At this time Britain was still in grip of post war austerity with rationing of food, but all the men in the family were miners and in employment and Grandad Scott had an allotment for growing vegetables. So it was a comfortable childhood albeit without the ‘luxuries’ we take for granted today like indoor toilets, central heating, running hot water, electric appliances, TVs computers, phones or cars!

Christmas time - by Patricia (Rushmer) Ismay

I suppose that it is always in the nature of children to ask – “what was it like, Mam, when you were young?” always supposing that things must have been different so many years ago, but it wasn’t, not really. Then, as now, each season had it’s own reason for being special – easter eggs, long hot summer days, and counting the days until Christmas.

CHRISTMAS – that was the one, really, that brought a shiver just thinking about it. Not just getting presents, but the sheer magic of it all. Hot fires and trimming the tree and wonderful smells of mince pies and ginger wine. The secret thrill of wrapping presents and hiding them away, scouring the hedgerows for holly and mistletoe, coming home freezing to a warm house and still more Christmas cards in the post. And most of all, the wonderful feeling of fullness in the house, as yet more friends and relatives came, and stayed, and shared the happiness that seemed to swell out of every corner of the house. So let me tell it as it was then, and make your own comparisons with what it is now, a little different, yes, but still, I hope, special!

All through the month of December the excitement seemed to grow, each day when I arrived home from school there was some special activity taking place in the house. First of all the cleaning and shopping and planning, brown paper parcels sweeping through the door and straight up the stairs where they just as suddenly disappeared again. Odd shapes on the top shelf of the pantry where I wasn’t tall enough to see them, whispered conversations that changed to discussions about the weather whenever I came into the room. Early in the month my Gran would mix the Christmas puddings, dropping in silver sixpences and threepenny bits, and everyone having a stir and making a wish. The adults would pretend it was all a bit silly, but enjoyed it at heart. Then came the Christmas cake, the ingredients regally weighed and mixed and put into the tins, and the waiting with bated breath in case it ‘sank’ (I can’t remember that it ever did). And then making holes, each week, in the top of the cake with a skewer and dropping whiskey into the rich Goo’i’ness of it.

Picking holly to decorate the house with at Christmas.

Christmas cards seemed to pour into the house in a torrent, and each one was checked carefully in case, horror of horrors, a reciprocal card had not been sent. Christmas decorations were unpacked from dusty cardboard boxes and tree ornaments carefully unwrapped from little newspaper parcels, and always there were paper chains to be made, and holly to be picked (and bleeding fingers to be plastered where the holly had pricked them).

Carol singers came each evening to be given pennies and hot mince pies, and there was that dreaded ritual, the school Christmas party to be got through. Sick to my stomach in case no-one wanted me for their partner – thick wool stockings and national health glasses not being the best weapons for attracting little boys.

And then, finally, Christmas eve, and how on earth could any day last so long? Frantic last minute shopping and baking and wondering if we’d missed anyone’s card or present. Butchers and Grocers and Bakers called with last minute orders and left with half-a-crown in their pockets and a drop of whiskey in their stomachs, making mental promises of even better service in the coming year.

Midnight Service at the church on the hill: St Andrew's Church, Stanley, Co Durham. Image: andrew_bielawski 2019

Then, it was evening, and time to tidy everything away, and wash and change for mid-night service at the Church on the hill, which rang out it’s bells with carols lest anyone forgot. We took the bus for the ride up the hill, and met neighbours and friends on the way, and always warned “mind, behave yourself, or else”, and the ‘or else’ was too terrible to contemplate when it was almost Christmas morning, and I behaved! The service was always like no other in the year. No one was there out of a sense of duty, and instead of the singing being scratchy, because the hymns were strange, it was loud and lusty, the carols all being as familiar as old friends. We sang out for all we were worth. There were no buses back down into the valley at that time of night and it was strange to walk down the hill through crunchy snow, passing all the houses with the little Christmas trees in their windows, like a scene from a Christmas card. Then straight to bed and I thought I’d never get to sleep, but I always did.

What magic clock, I wonder, always wakes a child at six on Christmas morning when every other morning it is a struggle to wake at seven for school? Oh, the shivering anticipation of walking down the stairs in the dark, feeling for the light switch, wondering whether he has or he hasn’t, and how marvellous that he always had been. And there they are, the very things that you’ve yearned for the whole year through, and the stocking, funny bumps and shapes, wriggling your fingers down to the tangerine and the new shilling at the bottom and how on earth can adults sleep at a time like this? But finally, five minutes later, after a little prodding, the lazy things do get up and the fire is lit, the presents opened (did Gran really want a kettle-holder?) and the breakfast begun. And the day begins.

Patricia (Rushmer) Ismay

We wish all our Blog readers a very merry Christmas - hopefully every bit as special as this one!

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