I was four when I first set foot on English soil. We disembarked at Tilbury docks one December afternoon. I remember being struck by the smell of England – damp wool, engine fumes, tar rope, concrete metallic street-wet. Two people greet us dressed in scratch rough tweed. One, my grandmother, holds me tightly close, her cool soft cheek against mine – Lizzie Arden, Blue Grass, powdery pinkness. The other, my grandfather, lifts me up, laughing, joyous – pipe smoke, pears soap, boiler coke. We drive miles in the dark night. I listen to the talk, the chatter, the excitement and drift to sleep watching sodium street light play on the wrinkles and skin of my grandfather’s neck.
Christmas Eve. The excitement is unbearable. An enormous fir has been brought into the hall. Armfuls of holly and ivy are heaped on a dust sheet ready to be made into wreaths, table decorations and garlands. A fire blazes in the drawing room. Rustlings of paper, secret conversations and a tray of tea and hot crumpets help us through the preparations. The tree becomes a mass of tiny rainbow lights, glinting and twinkling on delicate glass balls. Sticks of candy, golden coins, gingerbread men, hanks of tinsel, ropes of beads, all shimmer and sparkle. We crowd around the fire in candlelight and my mother begins to read: “T’was the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…”.
My father opens a crack in the curtain and peers through the window. “I think it’s snowing.” Snow, snow, snow…we rush out into the drive and watch as large white flakes drift softly down to the ground.
A glass of sherry, mince pie and a carrot are set out by the dying fire for Father Christmas and his reindeer. Stockings are hung up. All is ready. Tucked up in bed, I’m unable to sleep. The grownups have gone to midnight mass, the church bells sound out across the still night and I’m waiting, waiting.
Suddenly there’s a muffled jangling…sleigh bells. Heavy footsteps stop outside my room, a cold draught blows across the top of my head as a rustling weight is gently placed at the bottom of my bed. I’m as still as a mouse, paralysed, unable to move fearful of being found awake. He leaves.
In the morning the world’s transformed. Snow is softly deep, and silent; trees, covered in haw frost spangle and sparkle in the winter sun. Looking out across the virgin snow I can see, I know with certainty, the tracks of a sleigh and the hoof prints of reindeer.
I expect I am romanticising distant memories, and winters were certainly colder then. But not that much. Those times, half a century ago, were a far cry from the relentless commercialism of modern Christmases.
Today, Christmas Eve, the family will gather greenery and put the finishing touches to the tree. This evening we’ll sit around the fire in candlelight with glasses of hot spiced wine, and I will read The Night before Christmas as my grandmother and mother did before me.
I will also raise my glass to you to wish you the merriest of Christmases and to thank you for your support in reading and taking part in my blog; for the highs, lows, laughter, rants and tears shared.