Christmas was a time when the air itself was infused with exotic smells, chocolate and cinammon and the citrusy smell of tangerines. I remember assisting my Dad on Christmas Eve, charged with the important task of taking our turkey to the local bakehouse, then excitedly returning after dark to collect it once it was cooked and being allowed to pick and eat a steaming morsel of meat from its wing. Everything seemed to add to the excitement and magic of Christmas. Television consisted for us of just the one BBC channel, and I recall how they used to show each year a stop-frame animation about how Rudolph the Reindeer saved Christmas - a sort of animated bio-pic for mesmerised children.
There were of course our family traditions, like unpacking and re-hanging the brightly coloured paper decorations which concertinaed across our living room, which had undoubtedly been bought at Woolworths along with our small artificial tree. The tree was gaudily decked out with tinsel and coloured lights, which invariably proved to be a trial for my Dad; I think the bulbs themselves must have belonged to a powerful trade-union because if one blew they all went out and it was merry hell to find the culprit! A few years back I took that threadbare old tree to the tip when my mother, unable to look after herself any longer, went into sheltered accommodation and the task of dismantling our family home fell to me - it was a time of many emotional highs and lows, causing me to relive a host of sad and happy memories, the merry-go-round of this bitter/sweet experience we call life.
There were always amazing presents, I remember, and best of all one early Christmas was a doctor’s kit furnished with precision medical instuments made out of chunky plastic, probably bought from stalls in Aberdare market or the aforementioned Woolworths: there was a thing for peering into ears with, a lamp for the forehead to inspect a patient’s tonsils, a hammer to test reflexes, a stethoscope, some plasters and bandages, and a card that identified me, Martin Johnson, as a trained medical practitioner. Mam, driven to be imaginative and practical because of a shortage of money, had arranged the kit in a white metal lunch box with a red cross attached to the lid to delineate purpose made with sticking plaster and red ink! But I almost forgot, there was also a blue plastic clock for checking a patient’s pulse - after I’d outgrown my doctor’s kit this clock became a Christmas decoration and still hangs on our tree to this day.
But the very best thing of all that I remember about Christmas, and I don’t know if this is a Welsh Valleys thing, or something initiated by my Dad, I’ve certainly not come across it anywhere else - about half of the content of our Christmas stockings as children were booby prizes (Father Christmas had a very funny sense of humour we were told!) - people tend to look at me like I’m daft when I mention it! In our stockings eagerly left at the bottom of our beds and filled by Father Christmas as we slept were to be found all manner of things which we opened with glee. The bounty had been stuffed down into an old rugby sock, all carefully wrapped in newspaper with little cryptic messages attached, there were chocolate coins, toy soldiers, tangerines wrapped in silver paper, nuts, toy cars, plastic magnifying glasses, gob-stoppers and usually a practical joke like a blood stained bandage that you could slip over your finger that had a large nail protruding from either side. Dad’s booby prizes were generally introduced with a label like “You’ll definitely love this!” or “Very useful item” - these could be anything from a candlestick off our mantlepiece to a carrot or potato. Father Christmas undoubtedly adored all the children in the world but he definitely enjoyed teasing them too! When I reflect on all those past Christmasses it is this memory of our Christmas stockings that fills me with warmth and brings a little moisture to the eye. It was the attention to detail of my folks, and that unfakeable sense of being held and embraced within the family fold.
In a few days time, I shall relive many of these feelings again by observing the joy Christmas brings to my wonderful little granddaughters. Yet, despite it being a family occasion, we are reminded that Christmas is a time for wishing peace and goodwill to all mankind, so as we settle down to a feast amongst our families, please spare a thought for those who are less fortunate. We share a planet with thousands of other species and we so often tend to take it all for granted, but it isn’t money or power that makes Christmas special, it is simply love made manifest. Be kind to each other and have a lovely Christmas.