Christmas Days Past

It’s funny, but I can’t remember many of the presents that I got as a kid.

But I can remember the sights and smells of Christmas Day. Particularly the smell of a brace of chickens draped in bacon roasting in the oven. Back then, chicken was something of a treat, and tasted more gamey.

When they arrived at the table all crispy golden, the smell of the steaming stuffing as my father carved them would have me drooling – well almost. There would be squabbles and sulks over who got a leg, but I preferred nice slices of breast meat, and eagerly searched for some of the succulent skin with that crispy crunchy bacon attached. A dollop of herby stuffing set things off very nicely indeed.

There would usually be ham freshly sliced off the bone, especially if there was a big group sitting down to lunch. The ham would have been baked in the oven in the days leading up to Christmas, filling the house with wonderful smoky smells. It was a work of art, draped in pineapple rings held in place by toothpicked cherries, the skin scored and studded with cloves.

Simple salads complemented the meats. The standard of the time was iceberg lettuce finely sliced and dressed with sliced tomato and boiled egg. There was always a tomato and cucumber salad steeped in malt vinegar – another staple of the time. And, of course, boiled new potatoes.

A creamy “highlander” mayonnaise made from condensed milk, egg yolks, mustard powder, vinegar and salad oil whisked together added a savoury flavour to the salad. It was also excellent spread on bread, instead of butter, to make chicken and stuffing sandwiches with the leftovers.

For Christmas lunch, the large dining table in the rumpus room would be set, and the clan would gather. My grandmother, who sometimes had a glass of sauterne might mark the special occasion by having a Pimm’s. Remember the label? “Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.”

The banquet would begin, and so would the talk. Stories, memories, humorous events, talk of family and friends. And on it would go. All afternoon. Sometimes we’d finish lunch with a homemade Christmas pudding and we’d eagerly search through our plates to find the thruppences that had been put in. The winner was the person who got the single sixpence.

People would disappear to assigned duties as the dishes were washed and dried, while others popped out to visit neighbours and friends. The group would re-form as evening drew on and the leftovers were brought out. Sandwiches would be made with thinly sliced Findlay’s bread, taken straight from its bright yellow waxed paper wrapping. The evening meal was a relaxed, informal event, enabling everyone to make the most of the opportunity for a chinwag while people were gathered.

The only interruption to the torrent of chatter was a pause to listen (and later watch) the Queen’s Christmas Message to all her loyal subjects.

As we packed up for bed, two of us would be thinking of the wishbones, we’d gotten from the chickens. The impatient ones tried them immediately, others tucked them away in a high place where they could dry out ready for an emergency when we had a special wish that needed them.

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