Christmas is such a precious time, even for those of us who aren’t religious. It is a time for reflection, yet we often invest such unrealistic expectations of the festival that we risk feeling disappointed. Happily I have almost universally happy memories of Christmas past.
This year is a poignant one for our family, as my father Bob Skinner is in hospital, marking his unhappiest Christmas since 1942, days after his father died. We had planned for Dad to spend Christmas with us. I have been blessed with countless happy Christmas years, so I should not feel downhearted. Instead, I have been looking back on Christmas memories – especially during my childhood years.
Christmas 1967 is the first Christmas I can remember. Unusually we were staying with my maternal grandmother, perhaps out of sympathy after she was widowed when my grandfather died suddenly just before Christmas the previous year. 15 Grove Place was a cold house, without central heating. It had fireplaces in every bedroom, although I can only remember a fire in the living room. Dad was ill with flu and spent the whole time in bed, which was the warmest place to be.
I have warm memories of my grandfather, Grampy, even though I had only just turned three when he died. I recall him shelling peas in the living room, perhaps on the day captured in the rare photo of my early childhood seen above. A decade ago my late mother told how my grandfather felt his way home along the wall that lined the back lane in an air raid. My grandmother was under the hairdryer in the hair salon in Penarth when the air raid siren wailed out over the town. The hairdressers raced to the bomb shelter and only later remembered that grandma was under the dryer, oblivious to the drama. I bet she never forgave them!
That house was a time capsule. The front room followed the Edwardian tradition of being kept for special occasions – happy or sad. My grandmother had good taste, and the furniture, presumably dating from the 1920s, was elegant and well preserved. In the middle room was a selection of books, including David Lloyd George’s two volume war memoirs, still in their delivery package. After Grandma died in 1981 I found the 1969 calendar I had made her in my first term at school.
This Christmas, we stayed with my other grandmother, Nanny, who lived with my aunt Dorothy and uncle George. It was a much more hospitable venue – I loved my Nan so much, who was the perfect grandmother. (Dorothy and George were wonderful hosts.) It was a special family Christmas, with my cousins Valerie and Wendy also still living at home. Yet my most vivid memory, lying in bed on Christmas Eve, was seeing Father Christmas late that evening, placing a stocking with presents. Spoiler alert: I presume this was Dad or Uncle George, but I will never know for sure.
This is the first Christmas I remember at home. We had moved to England when I was two, and typically went home to Wales for Christmas and other holidays. For some reason this year we stayed at home in Whitton, Middlesex, and enjoyed the first white Christmas I can remember. I remember Dad making a sledge from a baker’s tray – yet in pancake-flat Whitton the expectation was more exciting than the reality. We went to friends on Boxing Day, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel Christmas. The following year we moved back to Wales.
I shouldn’t have such happy memories of my pre-O levels Christmas. I’d sat my mock exams just before Christmas, and was already planning my expectation management after what I knew was a disastrous performance in Chemistry. (I didn’t manage expectations very well – my 22% still came as a shock to Mum and Dad…)
Dad found my maternal grandmother (mentioned in the 1967 Christmas note above) unconscious under her bed on Christmas morning. He called his cousin, the lovely Dr Donald Dymond, whose on-call colleague paid a house visit. She declared that my grandmother was not in any danger, and would revive with no ill effects, which indeed happened on Boxing Day. This provided great excitement to me as a 16 year old, especially as it spared me the usual ritual of going round to my sister’s in-laws for the ordeal of sitting at their Christmas dinner table for five hours. I much preferred our resulting unplanned festive dinner of cheese and biscuits.
My sister was 26 in 1979, 10 years older than me, and we were at our closest as I was better placed as a teenager to appreciate her adult sensibilities. On 27 December we all went into Cardiff and enjoyed a snack in the cafe in Howell’s department store, before I spent some Christmas money in my favourite shop: Lear’s booksellers. Later, we went for a family walk along disused railways near Creigiau, where the Barry Railway crossed the Taff Vale Railway. (I would love to retrace that long-ago family walk, 43 years on.) The following day, we came home from another shopping trip in Cardiff to find my grandmother sitting in our living room in the dark. We’d not realised we’d be home after dark…
Cardiff suffered severe flooding just after Christmas 1979, as the river Taff broke its banks, and we were very glad that we lived well above the city’s rivers and lakes.
1981 was not, strictly speaking, a white Christmas. The real winter began in the new year. But it was the snowiest winter of my lifetime, as I blogged here.
This was my first adult Christmas, graced by my one year old niece Siân. I was so fortunate to become an uncle at an early age as it gave me the chance to see Siân and later Ria (born 1982) develop when I was myself still growing up during my teenage and young adult years. I was also conscious that this was the last Christmas before A levels and university. A rite of passage.
My first Christmas as a father. Happily, Owen spent time with all four grandparents. My mother especially was boosted by the arrival of her bonus grandson 19 years after the birth of her previous grandchild, my sister’s son Ben. was lucky that I had changed jobs just after Owen was born. Our offices closed between Christmas and New Year and everyone had time off, which avoided any arguments about who should work between Christmas and New Year.
This has been just a small selection of my Christmas memories. Christmas remains a special time for me, offering a chance to reflect, relax and enjoy the company of family. I’m looking forward to many more festive memories in the years to come.