I loved Christmas as a kid. The whole day was one big present. The weeks of excitement and anticipation were fantastic and the memories are powerful and sunk deep into my psyche. When my own kids were born we tried to make it the same for them and only they can answer whether it was or not and this post is about my reflections of my childhood Christmases. The good times that lurk in the shadows and seem probably much better looking backwards than they did then, although they were pretty special.
Decembers were the time when the days warmed up and the north winds sometimes blew so hard they could suck the moisture from you as soon as you stepped outside the door. This was the herald of Christmas in our part of the world.
The tree would go up in the early days of the month and it was a family affair – those very same decorations that lived on that tree year after year for more than half a century were lovingly wrapped in tissue paper each year by Mum and packed away, and in 2010 when we were cleaning out her place after her passing we again unwrapped them and shared them amongst the three of us. On my tree this year is a bird, one of three, that were the favourites of my two sisters and I, that we used to argue about who would put them where.
And with the winds and heat would come the Christmas cards. Each of us kids received them from aunties and uncles and cousins, and how exciting it was to rush to the letter box after hearing the postmans whistle to see what he would bring. They would then be hung across the windows on bits of wool and it seemed like there were always 100 or more each year which we would also reply to. That appears to be one of the lost arts of Christmas, I guess social media, texting and emails have bumped that tradition aside.
Each year we would visit Father Christmas at Myer. In those days the only store was in the city because it was well before any of the shopping malls were built in the suburbs. Mum would dress us in our Sunday best and we’d trek into the city in her old Vauxhall, line up to see the magic in the Myer Christmas windows and then make our way to the toy department to see Father Christmas. I was sometimes confused that he looked a little bit different each time I saw him but I knew that he would be visiting me on Christmas Eve.
We would then go and do most of our Christmas shopping in Coles and walk up and down the aisles picking out stuff we thought our cousins would like, because we would buy something for every one of them. Guns for the boys, dolls for the girls, Enid Blyton and Biggles books, California poppy hair oil or brylcreem for those who were a bit older and for the oldest ones the old chestnuts socks or hankies. Coles was unique in those days, long trestle tables packed with goodies with an aisle up the middle patrolled by the sales assistants.
And when the night came we’d leave out biscuits and cheese and Dad would insist on leaving him a bottle of beer, not sure whether it was for Father Christmas or the reindeer, but each Christmas morning it was standing on the hearth of the fireplace bone dry. I remember the year we had the briquette heater put into the fireplace cavity I was really worried that he wouldn’t be able to get down the chimney so I insisted that Mum leave the front door open.
The sacks would be placed side by side on the hearth and we also found them at Mum’s place recently, faded and somewhat tattered but lovingly folded and kept as the echoes of our childhood continued to resonate with us.
Oh the excitement of Christmas Eve was unbearable. I’d toss and turn for hours thinking I would never get to sleep and then suddenly it would be time to wake up. I’d creep into Karen’s room and later Debra’s wake them both and rush up to the loungeroom. Before we touched anything though we’d rush back down to Mum and Dad’s room yelling at the tops of our voices “He’s been! He’s been!”
So what did we get? Well it’s a little too long ago to remember these things in chronological order but some of the things I remember are a Triang train set, a fort with cowboys and indians, a Scalextrix car racing set. Each year their would be a book and I still have two Tarzan and two Eagle Annuals that turned up in my sack on various occasions. Always there would be some clothes, usually some sort of short sleeved shirt and shorts that I wore on Christmas Day and most years new bathers because on Boxing Day we’d be off on a camping holiday.
When the sacks were emptied we’d exchange our own gifts and then rush outside to see if the rest of the neighbourhood was awake. There would always be kids out and about on brand new bikes or scooters. Then we’d do the rounds of the neighbourhood with gifts for the other kids and collecting more presents ourselves.
Some time late morning after a few drinks with neighbours we’d be in the car and off to Merlynston for Christmas with the Joyce’s and then onto the Smith’s for dinner in Brunswick. By the time we’d get back home on Christmas night we’d be lugging home a boot full of presents and be exhausted. Usually Mum would be driving because Dad would inevitably be under the weather.
As Grandparents aged, and the days became too hard for them to host, we would have the lunch and dinner at our place in Box Hill South, but as the cousins got older and partnered up. the numbers coming gradually dwindled until the cycle began again with our own children. And now we are graced with a Grandson and have the wonder of Christmas is rekindled although different to what it once was. Now we need to find new traditions as my own kids have other responsibilities to other families and we need to ensure that the future times are as precious as the past. Times that I hope Parker and the other grandkids to come will remember with the same fondness and sense of wonder that captured me as a child.
Funny how little snapshots are appearing in my brain as I write this – the year I told Mum that I knew who Father Christmas really was and how I cried when I told her and she held me and said that it was OK there would always be a sack on the hearth for me as long as I wanted one, and there was until my little sister Deb finally fessed up to knowing the truth when I was around 17 years old. I remember dropping my dacks and showing off my leopard skin jockettes, the first adult undies I had after years of white Y fronts and arguing that it didn’t matter who I showed because they were just like bathers anyway. I remember the year Nana and Grandad Smith gave us Mark 10 guns, complete with spring loaded rocket launchers and grenades and how we ran around the back laneways of Brunswick. One really hot day when a bottle of loys softdrink sitting in the sun outside exploded and a shard of glass cut my chin. I remember waking to the news of Cyclone Tracy wiping out Darwin in 1974.
Mostly I remember how lucky I was to have been in a time and place when we lacked for nothing, when even the hardest times still saw plenty of food on the table and gifts under the tree. I lived a privileged life.
I wish all of you who read this a very Merry Christmas and hope that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we also celebrate the birth of a special person who changed the world for the better more than 2000 years ago, and irrespective of what beliefs you hold you should remember that.