The fairy lights are up, mince pies are going round the office, and Cliff Richard is on the radio…it must be Christmas! Being such a huge fifties fan, all this got me thinking about what Christmas was like in the 1950s. I asked my dad John what it was like for a kid at Christmas in the 50s, and what he came back with is so fascinating! A real treat on the blog today. Over to you Dad!…
Christmas at our house featured a lot of my grandparents. They lived round the corner and came to us for Christmas and Boxing Day. My grandmother could not wait to open her presents on Christmas Day and usually persuaded us all to open ours too at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. This, she claimed, was what the Royal Family did, but I doubt that very much. This was not a fifties tradition, then, but just my crazy grandmother.
My grandparents, who owned a grocer’s shop in Wembley, a suburb of London, would travel up to ‘Town’ (i.e. the West End of London) and buy what they called ‘hors d’oeuvres’ (actually pre-made salads – Russian, potato, coleslaw) from one of the then famous Lyon’s Corner Houses in Marble Arch, the Strand or Coventry Street. These salads were to be to be eaten on Christmas night with left-over turkey. It was a massive ritual in our house, probably more important to us than Christmas lunch. Sometimes, I would be taken along for the salad purchase. For a little boy, the Corner Houses had an intoxicating smell of mixed cigar smoke, fresh flowers and food – the smell of affluence, of course, just surviving after the war but now almost never experienced.
Christmas decorations for the house were a big thing, certainly in all the main rooms, and possibly in the toilet too. My brother and I always made multicolour paper chains, which we bought every year from Woolworths in Wembley High Road. I think I am right in saying the Christmas tree was a spindly artificial one, and folded up after use. We had several Christmas tree decorations from my father’s boyhood family tree, including a fairy for the top of the tree which looked as if the cat had vomited it up.
Christmas dinner (i.e. lunch) was cooked of course by my mother, on a Main gas cooker. Main was a well-known cooker brand from the 20s to 50s, the Neff of its day, and I still have the Main cookbook that came with it. The concept of fathers cooking any meal, let alone the festive ones, did not arrive in the UK for another 40 years. In the early Fifties, we had a chicken for Christmas lunch, which was difficult to get and a real luxury after the war, but later in the decade we seem to have graduated to a turkey. I do not think such an expensive item was ever bought, but ‘acquired’ somehow by my father (maybe a gift from a client at work or from someone ‘down the pub’). Even working class families like ours ate comparatively huge amounts at Christmas. My father would be down the pub on Christmas morning, and return to a lunch plate like a scale model of Mount Everest.
The house, of course, was unbelievably cold. There was no central heating but on special occasions like Christmas a coal fire would be lit in the dining room. We went to bed on Christmas Eve with ice on the inside of the window pane, but snuggled up with our hot-water bottles waiting for Santa. One year, the aforesaid Santa left a hamster in a cage at my bedside. I am sure it must have frozen to death by the morning.
I do not remember the family playing party games at Christmas. There was no opportunity, since all the adults would fall into a coma after the Queen’s speech at 3 pm and not come round until about 6 pm when my mother would make a cup of tea, and the hors d’oeuvres would be begin (see above). I would play on the Cyril Lord (a carpet made out of plastic – don’t ask) with some component of my train set that I had been given. I still have most of these items.
Usually, the only wine I saw my family drink at Christmas was a small glass of Stone’s ginger wine. Bottles of Babycham and bitter lemon were very popular. Later, maybe it was into the Sixties, my mother discovered something alcoholic – a ‘snowball’, which was a mixture advocaat and lemonade, but I doubt if she realised it had any alcohol in it.
Television had arrived in our house with the Coronation in 1953, and we were the first in the street - to get a TV that is, not to be crowned. The TV screen was so small you had to have an enormous magnifying glass which folded down over the front. I laughed like a drain at Christmas shows with Mr Pastry and Arthur Askey. How embarrassing that we enjoyed such simple pleasures, compared to the sophistication of Christmas with Big Brother or All Star Family Fortunes.
1953 TV print – © Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London