Christmas Past

Christmas, was always a large occasion with family, friends and anyone else who was at a loose end.  The exact mix of who was coming depended on who was speaking to whom.  Warfare was open on my mother’s side, she was one of 15 and family occasions had been known to be attended by the riot squad (never at our house).     Nobody was turned away; Christmas was a time for sharing.  Mum was the glue that held the family together and she loved Christmas.  She was a peacemaker and was always attempting to be the bridge when division within her family occurred.  Christmas was one of those occasions that she specialised in,  and lord help you if you got an invite to Christmas dinner from Mum and didn’t turn up.  She was a force to be reckoned with.

Our household was an average working-class home with always enough, but only just.  My parents were expert at living affordably, from the large vegetable garden, through to the whole sheep that were brought home from the butcher and cut up into manageable pieces.   Dad worked shifts in the Dairy industry and often long hours so from about 11  I took on many jobs on that he would have done.  My Mum was often unwell and my older sister took her burden. With six children ours was a busy household, always on the financial margins so we always were trying to live a good life as economically as possible.  Many things in our house were made and not bought.

The countdown to Christmas was marked by the making of the cake.   Mum would prepare the cake about eight weeks out.   I always wondered about how we could eat the cake without becoming intoxicated because there seemed to be a lot of alcohol that went into it, according to the empty bottle.  As I grew older I realised why Mum seemed to be so happy by the time the cake came out of the oven!  Cake baking day was often a little raucous in our house…

There was chicken and mutton usually for Christmas and occasionally a mutton ham.  Chicken was a luxury and one of the rituals associated with Christmas was the ‘gathering of the chicken’.  We teenagers were often reluctant participants in this event and it was usually sprung as a surprise so as to maximise the help.  We would be in the car, ostensibly for a visit to one of our aunts, but on the way home a detour would occur.  The ruse was necessary as the next part of the process was not considered pleasant.  Mum would get to the farm and get some large bags from the boot.   The farmer would take the sack and walk into a shed, and after a cacophony of cackling hens; he would emerge with two or three bags full of freshly killed end-of-lay chickens.  Back into the car we went and then the work would begin.

As soon as I was considered old enough to use a knife the evisceration of these chickens became my job.  The smell of chicken guts instantly pervades my senses even as I write this now.  Apart from the smell, it was not an entirely unpleasant job.   There was a sense of achievement and a record kept of how many eggs you could find in a chicken.  If you dreamed a bit as you were disembowelling the chickens the smell kind of disappeared.  I always associate the smell of wet newspapers with the chicken gathering as newspaper was used to contain the mess and the combination of chicken guts and newsprint is unique.  Nothing was wasted, the giblets were retained for the stuffing and the eggs in their various states, ranging from soft jelly-like covering to fully mature eggs, being retained for use with the other Christmas goodies like the Pavlova.  The guts and feathers wrapped in their soggy newsprint sandwiches went into the compost trench.

It was always two hind legs of Mutton for Christmas.  They were easiest to carve, another job which I often got. The Mutton went into the oven around 8.00 and the smell of it roasting is still one of my favourite kitchen smells.  The electric oven couldn’t fit two legs so the coal range was fired up for the occasion as well.  A big oven dish a couple of cups of water and as I got older I would add some bay leaves or rosemary and other herbs as a rub to the meat! Long and slow was the order of the day, perfection for roast Mutton in our house was the ability to nearly shake it off the bone, tender and oh so delicious. The aroma of Mutton in the oven sets me salivating even as I write this.

The rest of the preparations for Christmas were more mundane, with the mince pies and the shortbread being the last things cooked before Christmas Eve.  That day was a hive of activity with the chicken being cooked, the Pavlova created and the trifle made and. it too had a generous amount of sherry poured into it.  It remains as a lasting olfactory reminder of Christmas.

Around 9.00 the onslaught would begin. The various relatives would arrive.  It was my job to make hot scones to keep them fed and my sister would make cups of tea. The tables would be set.  Two for the adults and one for the children. These were covered with crisp white table cloths.  Christmas crackers were laid out.

Vegetables were gathered from the garden.  These were then cooked in order.  The potatoes boiled with mint added at the end.  Pumpkin and kumara roasted along with a large pan of potatoes, heart-attack-alley style – with a good inch of fat in the pan.   The last vegetable cooked was the fresh peas coming straight from our garden. The combination of these smells always says Christmas to me.

It wasn’t uncommon to have 25 people plus for Christmas lunch.  Alcohol was never big in our house so there would be with a few beers on the table and soft drink all around.  If we were flush it would be Leeds Lemonade (such a luxury!) although my all time favourite was the home made ginger beer, ice cold; I can taste it now, spicy and refreshing.  There were always lollies and potato crisps for the children and bowls of nuts for the adults.

The table would be groaning with heaped dishes of roast vegetables and salads, plates of steaming new potatoes, mountains of meat and glorious rich gravy. Once thanks were given, the eating started.  Our table was a place of conversation, so the noise levels were always high.  The contest to be heard over the din was always keenly fought.

After the main course was finished the remains were consolidated and the dessert was brought forth – pavlova, fruit salad, Christmas pudding, whipped and fresh cream, ice cream and brandy snaps.  Cream always featured on our dessert menu as my dad worked in the dairy factory.  I would be sent with a chit to go and get it. This was not the regulated cream that you get out of a bottle. I had to go to the butter factory and follow ‘the man’ past the hissing steam pipes and the huge butter churns to get this thick glorious yellow liquid in the big Agee preserving jars, usually two at a time.

After the dessert was finished it was time for the piper to be paid. The adults had to pay by being entertained by us children. We usually sang a few songs, always Edelweiss and a few carols. Perhaps a small play would follow and then there was the cake.  Mum could cook quite well but her Christmas cake was always dry, no matter how much sherry got poured on. Nevertheless, there was no retreat possible; everyone had a piece of fruit cake iced with almond icing and decorated with ivy leaves – sometimes fresh and sometimes the plastic ones.  There was nothing overtly said about the Christmas cake but there was certainly a degree of surveillance from Mum to make sure the cake was eaten!

The denouement of this celebration was the pot of tea.  No meal was complete at our home without the cup of tea.   Bushells loose leaf tea was the brand, never any different. Christmas day was a celebration of life, family and friends.

Christmas today is very different.  My mum is gone now, the headaches and illness we thought of as stress related illness were real.  A slowly leaking aneurism took her at 53, too young with her the glue that held our family together, divorce and dysfunction have taken their toll and Christmas as I described is a distant memory, but still alive in my mind.  I sometimes crave for those days to return but life moves on and people change and grow, but whatever the kind of day that December 25 brings I dream of Roast Mutton and Leeds Lemonade and then just for a little time I have my Mum there!  Christmas is special.


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