by Maria Hubert von Staufer

Throughout the world people are looking for real Christmas. the Christmas they remember from their childhood. The nostalgic sweet secure memories, which seem to be lost in todays stressful society. We have certainly lost some of that spirit since the War (WWII), being overly pre-occupied with the commercial side and overlooking the real elements which make Christmas the nostalgic occasion it is.

I am not saying that one should not spend, prepare & plan. Those are all, after all three elements of Christmas, and have been for centuries in fact – long long before the Victorian ‘revival’. But spend within a budget, and prepare & plan within a domestic scale, not as if you were feeding the forty thousand! Christmas is the last of the great festivals still with us – because of the feelings of nostalgia it brings, not because of the amount of debt we run up, which will kill the goose which laid the golden egg eventually. Already too many people grumble that Christmas is ‘too expensive’, that defeats the whole secure warm feelings which the season will, if we allow it to, impart.

Recent research has shown that the hostess, who today is probably holding down a full-time job as well as running her family, will consider that the most important elements are getting in as much food and drink and as many presents as she can possible squeeze out of her ‘plastic’ credit, and kill herself trying to put on a programme of events and meals to make sure the family is properly entertained. The off-spring who have flown the nest, and not yet attached, fly back for Christmas, say that they are just looking forward to being together, with the familiarity of home, lots of news and conversation to catch up on, some play games, some watch the television, others like still to go to all the church events and services, from the Xmas Bazaar to the Carol Service, and the Crib display to Midnight Mass. Basically they do not need all the expensive and exhausting effort that mum feels it necessary to provide!

She should be happily tired having enjoyed every minute of her preparations, not run off her feet, and short tempered with worry about how the next quarterly bills will be met!

Most children coming home for Christmas, positively object to large parties, having already had their fill at the office, with friends and colleagues, etc; too many presents which they cannot afford to reciprocate, and which they know, by the wild look in mums eye, and the worried one in dads, that will still be being paid for well into the next year. One young man takes a large Ham home for Christmas, another takes the wine. One family sends a food hamper home to the parents who still have younger family home for Christmas, while an enterprising young media student takes home a box of new videos to tape all the programmes ‘on the other side’, so that everyone gets a chance to see what they want, without the usual cause for argument! It has only cost her £10 and keeps the whole family happy.

Have we lost then, the ability to enjoy the nostalgia and homeliness of a traditional Christmas? The following nostalgic accounts from around the world will help to remind us of what it is really all about, and might just give a few hints on how we can achieve the magic we thought had died with our childhood!

by Maria von Staufer and others

All over the world, particularly the New World, people think of English Christmas as the epitome of Seasonal jollification. We seem to have lost some of the feeling which helps to make Christmas what it is in our hearts and memories. Perhaps in the recent stage-sets of Victorian Christmas, we have all forgotten our own Christmasses. The following account is set firmly in the immediate post-war period, which everyone over forty with remember with nostalgia as a real English Christmas!

Real English Christmas
by Maria Hubert and others

I was brought up in Leeds in the County of Yorkshire. A baby-boomer born in 1945, my early years were a memory of ration books and bombed out buildings. The first Christmas I can really remember was when I was six, and I was taken to the Santa Grotto in Lewis’s department Stores in the Headrow. The queue seemed to last forever, but it was worth the wait. The air tingled with a magic. We waited, over-looked by Santa’s Elves, to see we did not wander off, while parents made surreptitious forays into the toy department!

Every year was different.- One year it was a space rocket going to the moon, but back in 1951 it was a magical sleigh ride. I can only think it was some kind of early motion simulator. You sat in the sleigh in rows, and it flew off into the skies. It must be true – you could feel it take off , and then the sky sped past the windows for what seemed like an age until you landed, a very bumpy landing in the snow at the North Pole – look, there was the North Pole outside the window! Then we all had to get out of the top door this was important, as the door we had entered was, we were told, buried in a snowdrift, and was stuck.

The grotto was everything we hoped it would be, a series of ‘caves white with glittering frost, an elf led us all through the dark cave, showing us side caves which were hives of activity – lifesize animated scenes of elves cutting trees to make another toy store for the ever-growing workshops; elves making toys and packing the sleigh – and then, on a gorgeous crimson and gold throne sat the great man himself, assisted by the Christmas Fairy, that every little girl wanted to be, in her pink and tinselled dress. We would tell Santa our most secret wishes, a walky-talky doll, a clockwork train set, a Christmas Annual. Very modest by todays standards. Santa would ask us if we had been good, helped Mummy, said our prayers and added up our sums for teacher, to which of course we had always the same whispered ‘yes’ Then promising to do what he could, he would pass us to the Christmas Fairy who would tap each child with her magic wand and then tap Santa’s bag – that was to make sure that each child got the gift Santa intended for it!

All too soon we were returned, filing out through the now ‘unstuck’ rear door to be deposited back with our parents – who were trying to hide huge bags clutching our present from Santa. It did not matter to us that it was a packet of chalks and a slate, or a magic paintbook, which only required water to make the pictures coloured (my favourite). What mattered was that it had been a trip of a lifetime, and we were brought up to appreciate the simple things in those postwar years.

As I grew older, I began to appreciate the wonderful Christmas Windows in the big stores. Always animated, often with carols and Christmas songs coming over a tannoy system. In those days the shops in all the towns saw the value in such an expense as an elaborate window, the like of which you will only find in a very few shops in London today. Shoppers who stopped to look at the windows were tempted inside by side windows, or the appealing offer of ‘Christmas Teas for weary shoppers’. Looking back, I can remember even the small corner shops made up a ‘Christmas Window’ with all their best merchandise on display amongst cottonwool snow, and paper icicles, confident that they would make their best sales that season despite the lure of the big town shops – hadn’t they a pile of ‘Christmas Club’Cashbooks in their safe with the accumulated savings of their customers, which would have to be spent in their shops?

They would order Annuals, Hams, Pork Pies and whole Cheeses. You could buy Christmas decorations, stocking toys, and boxed Compendium of games. Specially packed stockings, and hankies and tobacco goods were sitting in the windows side by side with Chocolates, sweets and the Jars of coloured bathsalts.

Even the florists had a healthy time at Christmas. For in my part of England it was popular to have a wreath of Christmas roses, and evergreens and hollyberries made to put on the grave of any relative who had passed on, a sign of remembrance for loved ones at this special time of year when everyone was thought about.

At the age of 12 I was allowed to catch the tramcar after school to town, to do my own Christmas shopping. Most schoolchildren made straight for Woolworth’s where they could, for sixpence buy a packet of violet scented notepaper & envelopes for granny, and many other gifts cheap enough to be bought from accumulated Carol-singing money. The Christmas card counter sold out of the best designs daily, and often the only evidence of the glitter cards was a little sprinkling of glitter dust left on the counter. But go a little earlier and you would find cards from 1 old penny up to a whole shilling, loose in glass divided bays on a long counter just inside the main doors.

By four thirty, the sky was darkening, and all the Christmas lights were lit, the Salvation army were always there playing Carols by the Live Crib in the City Square; the baked potato stand and the Hot Chestnut man always were to be found on the most populous streets, and the hot-pie-and peas man did a roaring trade! Leeds Market was an exceptional shopping venue, this big Victorian building resounded with the cries of the different traders, and the brass band playing from the centre could be heard all around. THIS was Christmas entertainment. It was provided free by the shops and city council, it gave the public a feeling of well-being, and they spent freely within their own individual limits. The spirit would spill over to the traders who would slip in an extra few oranges, or a few extra minced pies, with a cheery, ‘There you are , mother, Happy Christmas’ They knew that ‘Mother’ would be a regular customer all next year as a result, so it was a worthwhile gesture.

The buses and trams were filled with happy shoppers, crowded against each other with their bags. Happy because they had had a Christmas experience, and because they were not worrying already how they were going to pay for it. They had saved from their budgets for weeks for this holiday, put money away into Christmas Clubs which were run by a wide variety of shops. The money was there, already allocated, to spend, and spend it they had, with all the joy of spending a windfall!

By the time the Christmas Tea was on the table, and the children were all playing with their presents, the older ones sitting reminiscing or listening to the radio, everyone was calmly happy. It had been yet another good Christmas and one looked forward to the next. No-one worried about the debts incurred, and the shops still had their decorations up, for those who ventured into town to see them right up to New Years Day – when the January Sales began. But that is another tale!

English Christmas

English Pork Pies are steeped in history. They are part of the heritage of the Viking past, and the last vestige of the Great Christmas Pies. Now the most famous are the Melton Mowbray Pies, but in fact at Christmas time, Pork Butchers all over England will make a pile of these delectable savoury pies for the Christmas Buffet, to be served with pickles and chutneys. The following recipe is from Yorkshire where the Christmas Pies originated many hundreds of years ago. Originally made from hot water pastry which is both cholesterol laden and indigestible, the following recipe uses short pastry and should be baked in a spring sided cake tin.

Ingredients to fill 1 10″ spring sided cake tin.

  • 1½lb lean diced pork
  • 1lb unsmoked bacon bits
  • 1 medium sharp baking apple, grated
  • 1 large onion peeled and grated
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated root ginger (if liked)
  • < ½ teaspoon any other spice you like (Garlic, Nutmeg, Paprika)
  • about six leaves fresh rubbed sage. (or dried if fresh not avail)
  • Pepper to taste. NO salt, the bacon provides enough

Short Pastry made from

  • 1lb plain flour
  • ½lb sunflower fat such as Trex
  • pinch salt & water to mix.

Rough line a cake tin with a large single piece of Baking parchment, big enough to cover bottom and sides. This is important or you will not be able to unmold the baked pie.

Roll out a circle of pastry large enough to cover bottom and sides in one piece. Lift it into the tin on a rolling pin. If you have a break or a gap, don’t worry. It can be filled with extra bits of pastry.

Mix all your meats and spices together with the grated apple & onion, and press into the pastrycase right to the top, slightly rounded off.

Preheat your oven to 180øcircotherm/220ø conventional elec./425farenheit/ Gas 7. Cover with another round of pastry. moisten the sides and press the lid to the sides to seal. Make a hole in the centre, brush with milk and bake for 10 minutes on high, then turn oven down to 160ø/180ø/350f./4-5. and bake for about 2 hours. Cover the top of the pie with foil if it begins to get too dark, or turn your oven down a bit more.

While it is baking, boil two pigs trotters (from the butcher) in a pan of water seasoned with salt pepper nutmeg and bay. This will produce a delicious jellied stock. When the pie is completely cold, and before you unmould it, pour some of the warmed stock through the hole. This will set into a jelly around the meat. Leave pie, well covered in a fridge for two days before unmoulding. It can be frozen for up to three months. Wrap loosely in foil, and freeze in the tin. Unmould when well frozen.

Serve in slices with pickled onion, chutneys etc.

(It is greener than you think!)

It is politically correct to denounce Christmas as a flagrant waste of resources. All those twinkling lights gobbling megawatts poured out by polluting power stations, the acres of forests pulped to make wrapping paper, the endless stream of petrochemicals used for plastic toys, and the sheer disposal problem of all that waste from discarded packages, empty bottles, dumped Christmas trees, and the exhaust fumes from all those families gathering for the season of goodwill; make depressing reading for anyone with green credentials.

Take Christmas out of the picture, and one will be left with the destruction of the last major festival that links an urban living population to the cycle of the seasons, and a stake in the health of the countryside. Not so very long ago Christmas was the cusp of a year that revolved around the inevitable schedule of planting, nurturing, harvesting and restoration that marked the passing of the pastoral year. Add to that the necessary activities of hunting and fishing, the blessing of ploughs, the thanksgiving for yield, closed seasons for game and fish and it is easy to see that marking each season was vital. Failure to observe the wisdom conferred by five millennia of agricultural husbandry inevitably led to ultimate ruin.

Today many sections of the urban community are unaffected in any way by the passage of the year. The sole marker of season left is Christmas. Unless one’s travel plans are affected by snow, or the air conditioning fails in Summer, many urban inhabitants can take their pick of season by flying to wherever the choice of scenery or weather suits their recreational desires. Urgent entreaties to conserve energy may result in an attempt to use the bus or cycle to work, and the plight of endangered species will occasion the purchase of charity calendars or contributions to collecting boxes. The typical urbanite is now not so much a bird of freedom, but a drifting balloon obeying the currents of economic zephyr, buoyed up by the hot air of inflation, or drifting down in the downdrafts of deflation neither he nor she has any stake in the countryside and the plight of the environment is not noticeable at a personal level.

If there had been a steady panoply of seasonal saints days and festivals that marked particular stages in the year then any change in climatic trend would have been noticed at first hand. Christmas is desperately needed to encourage the gathering of families and to give time to reflect on the passage of the year. Taking all twelve days off and not spending them by flying to the Bahamas throws everyone on to their own resources making them re-discover those interpersonal skills that typify the human being. Any religious observance throws them into the endless time stream of the Church year and helps mark their own passage through life. The notion of goodwill and feasting shares and experience that was the focus for survival through the winter months. Just for a brief while the individual has the opportunity to become familiar with their species roots.

Christmas must be a marker. It is the vestigial survivor of an earlier calendar. If it can be the backstop against which we may rest then start to mark once more the other major festivals such as Easter, then we may stand some chance of ensuring that every citizen has a natural feel for the passage of season, and be instinctively aware if that pattern is being pressured into change by the effects of economic activity.

We can sound environmental alarms as often as we like. We will get fifteen minutes of undivided attention if we are lucky, but until each person feels the change of the year in their bones and has an instinctive feel for the season, he or she will not comprehend in the depths of their being, the need for conservation of the countryside and the environment. Every Western society has recognised the need for “stakeholders” in their population. Those stakeholders aren’t just economic pawns, they are people who have the ability to interact with others, appreciate that gifts aren’t always wrapped goodwill does not mean a drunken office party, and become part of the patchwork of life.

Count von Staufer Autumn 1998.

From the Christmas archives:




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