I had to venture into the loft a couple of weeks back. The quest was two fold. We had heard noises in the upper regions of the house and I wanted to be sure we didn’t have a Squirrel invasion. I also needed to locate some overnight bags for a weekend trip to Milton Keynes, Julie and I had planned. The outcome was that the noises we had heard were down to a nesting Blackbird family and the overnight bags were never up there in the first place. Anyway whilst stepping gingerly from one joist to another in an attempt to prevent me careening through the ceiling of Richard's bedroom, I knocked over a cardboard box. The contents that spilled out were old Christmas decorations and tree ornaments. Amongst the stuff that fell out was an old chocolate Father Christmas. It was one that my Mom had bought at least 46 years ago as a Christmas tree decoration. As I sat there next to the cold water tank looking at Santa, my mind went back to the Christmases past at 28 Connell Road.
Prior to Christmas 1961 I was going to Charlemont Junior School. My teacher at that time was Mr. Mole. He was a large man, about 25 years old, quite slim and if my ailing memory serves me right he would have been in the region of 6’ 3” tall. I was eight back then and Mr. Mole was everything to me, the best teacher I ever had. The only man who I respected more than Mr. Mole was my Dad. Anyway I started to recall late November, early December and the lead up to Christmas of that year. I had been promised that I was to get a travelling clock and a steam engine as my two main presents off Santa. Yes, I was eight and yes, I did still believe. After all, Mom and Dad had said they had shared a glass of sherry with him on numerous previous Christmas Eve’s so who was I to argue. At school we made all manner of decorations for the classroom and on the last day before we ‘broke up’ for the holidays we had the Christmas party. Some of the kids bought sandwiches, some cakes and I think we all bought jelly. That year we had jelly coming out of our ears and every flavour I think you can imagine. Mr. Mole came into class that day with three crates of ‘Corona’ pop and that just set the party off. We all had a brilliant afternoon and then went home for the holidays oozing jelly from almost every pore.
Now Christmas Eve at Connell Road was nothing short of magical. Mom would have bought a real tree and it was always the size of Giant Sequoia. We would spend all evening, Mom and me decorating it, just the two of us. Dad would have gone out to the local social club or be waiting in line in the local casualty department for medical assistance for some injury or other. That year my brother Stephen was just a baby and as such took no real part in the festivities. As a child I never had to suffer the early to bed ritual many kids did, but Christmas Eve was the exception. On the eve of Christmas all my grandparents would arrive at around 6.00pm and then I knew Christmas had begun. My Grandad Jim (of black and white TV fame) would have two glasses of Babycham, his alcohol quota for the entire year, and the folks would talk about elves and sleighs and Reindeer till it was time for me to go to bed. And so it was about 8 o’clock that I was despatched up the 'Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire', a saying of my forbears, not me. I would be told that I had to go sleep as a matter of some urgency and that the consequences for failure to do so would be somewhat dire. I have to say that the warning my parents gave me every Christmas Eve when I went bed was hardly conducive to a good night sleep. But sleep I always did and I never did meet the big guy in the red suit, well not until many years later when I had children of my own and then Julie and I would share the Croft Original with the legendary old man.
So Christmas morning arrived that year, and as I entered the living room it was obvious that we had had an overnight visitor. On the hearth of the fireplace there was an empty glass of sherry and a half eaten mince pie. Even at the very tender age of eight I could well understand why the once-a-year celebrity was a tad over weight. If every household entertained the old fella in the same lavish way, well I think I need to say no more. On the sofa there in the living room was a massive array of presents. I think the guy with the beard had to make at least two trips, and the North Pole ain’t just around the corner you know from West Bromwich. Well I got all I had asked for. A steam engine, a travel clock and all sorts of other stuff I couldn’t remember sitting next to the cold water tank.
The rest of that Christmas day went just like all the others I can remember as a kid. The turkey was great, although Mom kept enquiring as to whether it was too dry or not. Mom was a great cook, but I have to say she was never confident about the poultry aspect of Christmas lunch. This was something I never understood as a boy, as it always seemed fine to me, and as we were still eating it up until just prior to Easter, I always assumed everyone else was of the same opinion. Then Christmas night came…
We always spent Christmas night at my Aunt Floss ( my Nan’s sister) and Uncle Harry’s. My Aunt and Uncle used to manage the West Bromwich office of the local newspaper, 'The Despatch.' This was situated on West Brom High Street and it was there that the late editions were updated with the late ‘Stop Press’ items. Over the shop however was a huge room and on this one day in the year family from miles apart would get together. Whilst Frank Sinatra and “Mary’s Boy Child” by Johnny Mathis was issuing from the then basic sound system - uncles, aunts and cousins would pick up the conversations they had exactly twelve months before. The grown-ups would talk and dance till 3 o’clock into Boxing Day morning and the beer kept coming (not my way I have to say, well I was only eight) from a keg in the back yard and courtesy of my Uncle Fred. He just roamed the room with a white half gallon enamel jug topping up glasses.
My Mom hasn’t been around now for twenty one years, and the vast majority of folks that used to fill that huge room over ‘The Despatch’ office have gone as well. I wouldn’t dream of eating the Christmas Santa, its over 45 years old after all. But I will treasure it all the same. My Mom bought it 45 years ago, for the Christmas tree, when I was just a little boy.