by Ron Davies
The big difference between now and then – the war years and just after – is that Christmas never lasted so long as it seems to these days.
Bonfire night took much longer and had much more going for it: the excitement of collecting and storage, the fear that rivals might steal your best stuff, the incredible tension of lying on top of mounds of combustible rubbish listening for sounds of approaching marauders while the valley winds whistled through the many cracks of wall and roof. And then came the construction of the fire itself and the ritual lighting once darkness fell. We were in charge of our own destiny from that moment until we kicked apart the still smoking embers before going to school the following morning with pockets stuffed with the carcases of dead bangers and Catherine wheels which had had their brief moments of stardom the previous evening to various shouts of ‘be careful’ and ‘you’ll have someone’s eye out’ as fireworks flew back and forth over the flames.
Health and safety legislation surely began with similar cries of women the world over.
Christmas, by contrast was tame. A carol service, a few bits of crepe trimming and last year’s cards brought out yet again to augment the few that genuinely arrived each year and a depressing counting of pennies enough for two Wills Whiffs for my father after his demob and some Snowfire cold cream for my mother. Then Christmas Eve was on us without warning. No tree, no lights, just two nylon stockings hanging down from the high wooden mantelpiece either side of a roaring coal fire banked half-way up the chimney breast and throwing out so much heat that it bounced back off the combed varnish wall and door to the narrow passage some ten feet away.
How presents came I never knew. Money was extremely short but something we had wished for always turned up. My brother wanted a six-shooter and holster: they arrived in a bag, unwrapped. For some cricket mad reason, I had declared a need for a set of stumps and bails without which life would not be worth living. I had already – the previous year – asked for and received from Father Christmas a cricket bat with a Don Bradman autograph I had seen in a local shop. Now I wanted the rest of the gear. I had ambition. I knew there were few places in our valley to lay out a straight six feet wicket which didn’t slope one way or another but I was obsessed. How could I ever play for Glamorgan if I didn’t practice with the right gear?
And there, one year on Christmas morning was a brown paper parcel with not quite enough paper to cover all six full-size stumps. But we knew the score. Empty the stockings first – despite the fact that we could see everything inside them through the nylon mesh: in the toe a coke from a previous domestic fire, then a penny coin, then an orange, then a small brown packet with two ends of cricket bails sticking out, then an apple, then another orange, a small bar of chocolate, a pine cone and another apple. My brother’s was identical but where I had bails he had caps for his gun.
The whole ritual took less than a few minutes – stumps and all.
Then, before walking down to his club for his Christmas drink, my father would pull us closer to the fire for his annual chat to Father Christmas who, for some reason, had decided to stay in our chimney rather than that of someone further down the hill. And then despite the flames, the heat, the smoke and the regular falls of soot my father would pretend he was talking to Father Christmas. It was a conversation we felt was always extremely one-sided. We never heard a response from further up the chimney but we had no doubt he was up there, waiting, with his boots and his red suit about to combust into flames. My father would ask ‘Do you have a present for this boy? And apparently he heard Father Christmas say that he did because my father would then stick his arm up the chimney close to the flames and heat to grab the small gift handed down to him from far above. We each had two goes and the smell of singed human hair decreased as the long hair on my father’s arm quickly disappeared. The presents were always the same, a tiny wooden horse, a china dog, a small Spitfire aeroplane and a model of a field gun.
But it wasn’t the fact that they appeared year after year via the same short, and what must have been a very painful, handover between a man in a red suit and black boots and a tattooed ex-soldier. We accepted that as an annual ritual of wonder. No. It was the fact that in that short, wonderful spell between daylight and Christmas dinner in our tiny house high above the waking valley our home, apparently, was the only place where magic constantly happened between two grown men and two small boys.
The yearly spell, though, was easily broken. Invariably when we sat down to Christmas dinner there were only three of us at the table. My father’s dinner was in the oven keeping warm. He never called it that but apparently there was also a great deal of magic going on in his club.