26. Christmas Past and who will be the ‘First Foot’?

There has been a flurry of recent TV shows taking us back to the recent past. Christmas always plays an important part in such programmes as it sticks in all our memories. With the danger of sounding like Del Boy’s uncle Albert – ‘after the war’, although it is an exaggeration to say people had nothing, they certainly had very little. The stockings we hung from the mantelpiece, of our ubiquitous coal fires, were our own, not giant ones bought for the purpose. Into them were put, by our parents, nuts, oranges, apples, perhaps a coin or two and maybe a toy car or such. There would be other presents, wrapped in the thinnest of Xmas paper, from aunts, uncles and grandparents, but many of these would be scarves, gloves and other items of clothing. There would, of course, if affordable, be the main item that you had hinted for and even written a letter to Santa about. My first such, was a single ball-point BIRO pen and boy was I ‘chuffed to bits’. It was the precursor of today’s ever-present BIC, but I remember its wonderful blue, hexagonal shape. It leaked like mad, but it was mine. Today it would be a smartphone, a tablet, a bike or a hoverboard, but that pen was the only thing for me.

A visit to church was the next order of the day. My father being a bell-ringer and a chorister, we kids went with him, and eventually joined him in both enterprises. Mum stayed home to prepare the big meal . I cannot imagine buses running that day so we may well have walked the mile or so there and back.

We could not afford a turkey, if such a thing was even available. We did, however, have a chicken, but never at any other time of year. Like a scene from Dickens, fathers always carved, and I clearly remember one year when the chicken skidded off the plate and was pinned to the wall to prevent it falling further. It was highly amusing to us, but it took months of lotions and potions to remove the grease stains from the prized wallpaper. I vaguely remember Fuller’s Earth being the solution, but I digress. There would be home-made Christmas pudding and brandy butter, which, as I recall , was butter and sugar (which grated like sand between your teeth) with a smidgen of brandy, or even just brandy essence.

The rest of the day was given over to playing with any toys or games we received until the arrival of the elders. We always looked forward to the visit of my maternal grandparents and mother’s brother and sister, for although they had sneaked in during the night, with the presents we could never find, their arrival preceded another round of exchanging presents. Their visit was also for the ‘Christmas Tea’. This was even more of an occasion than dinner as it involved crackers and paper hats, scones (some of which) had a three-penny piece inside wrapped in grease-proof paper, and of course homemade (and iced) Christmas cake.

The evening was passed with the adults playing cards for pennies (Newmarket was the favourite game), eating mince pies and perhaps drinking cheap sherry until either we were put to bed or the elders went home.

New Year was something altogether different. Folk in the North and those in Scotland celebrated the changing of the year in a much less restrained manner than Christmas. Indeed I am told that Christmas in Scotland was quite a low key affair compared to Hogmanay which could go on for some days, not including the hangovers.

Preparations began earlier in the year in our family. Drink was purchased by contributing to a ‘Christmas Club’. Money was paid to an off-license throughout the year and beverages selected for the celebration. It was a matter of pride not to be found wanting at New Year so our house which normally did not have drink about the place, suddenly had a sideboard, bulging at the seams. Such exotic drinks as Advocaat (for making ‘snowballs’), Cherry Brandy, Emva Cream (or another British or Cypress sherry), joined the usual half-bottles of whisky, rum and gin. Beer was usually bought as required and for a time came in large cans for which you could buy a carbon-dioxide ‘tap’ impress your visitors, although it was claimed to keep the beer fresh if it lasted long enough or the gas didn’t leak. Having stocked-up, the parties began sometime in the evening of the 31st. These were as big or as small as you chose and could be at home or at a dance-hall or pub.

At about 11.55 pm everything stopped!

For those who were at home, a member of the family: male, preferably dark, was sent from the house and the door locked behind him. He had with him: a piece of (Christmas) cake, a piece of coal and a silver coin; I have heard tales of salt and bread, but not in our family! These were tokens of food, heat and wealth to be brought into the house by the FIRST FOOT who until this point had been freezing on the doorstep.

At precisely midnight usually sounded by the church bells ringing out the old year and bringing in the new year, or just the church clock, a watch or the radio (no TV, mobile phones or fireworks), the FIRST FOOT banged on the door to be let in which he duly was. By this time every body had a drink to toast the new year in.

THEN THE FUN BEGAN!

All that carefully bought drink came into play. It was then fair game to go ‘FIRST FOOTING’. Basically this meant you could visit all your friends and neighbours to wish them a Happy New Year and they could come to you. I remember a large group of us trudging from house to house from my home in North Shields to Tynemouth, back to Shields, and then to Tynemouth again, without any clear plan, or the help of cars (as we didn’t own one) or taxis as that would never occur to us. Whether it was freezing as it often/usually was, or snowing, it made little difference, except for falling down a lot more than normal. The best nights ended by getting to someone’s who didn’t mind making bacon sandwiches at dawn. Memories of people leaving their homes open with tables covered in booze with no thought of it being stolen are common. Gradually the numbers in the group would dwindle until it was over

New Year’s Day was another family day with perhaps a beef roast lunch and 4 o’clock tea to finish up the mince pies and Christmas Cake (with cheese, of course). Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day were strict bank holidays with NO shops open. Indeed some of the factories would close from Christmas Eve lunchtime until 2nd January. I suspect that it was unlikely to get any sensible work done over this period, but it was claimed that some machines took so long to start-up that it was cheaper to only do it once.

 

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20. Summer holidays

As you will have gathered by now, I grew up on Tyneside. Back then it was heavily industrial: coal-mining and shipbuilding/repairing being the main sources of employment, but lots of factories too

At one time the only holidays granted to workers were Sundays and religious festivals, like Christmas and Easter Day, often without pay. However things had moved forward and certainly by my parents’ time, paid holidays were the norm.

In industry it is expensive to start heavy machinery ‘from cold’ so it paid to have 24 hour shift work,­­ although they managed somehow to close on Saturday and certainly on Sunday. However this also led, in the summer,  to factories, yards and mines closing for long periods rather than having staggered holidays as now. The first holiday, or last if you like, started on Christmas Eve and went on until one or two days after the New Year and since New Year was celebrated in the Scottish manner, not much would have been achieved in any case. Easter would not have been much more than a long weekend, but the big holiday was taken for two weeks at the beginning of August. In this area it was known as Wakes Week, even though by this time it lasted a fortnight! Every section of industry closed at the same time. Of course it goes without saying that the employers used the time to carry out a maintenance programme that was not possible while the machines were running.

The result of the long break was the growth of the seaside resort and groups like ‘youth hostlers’ and ‘ramblers’. On our part of the coast, the main resorts were Whitley Bay and Tynemouth, although South of the river were South Shields, Roker and Seaburn with others as far south as Whitby and Scarborough. (See ‘Working on the sands’ below for details of ‘Scotch Week’)

Since we already lived within a bus-ride of the coast, our holidays tended to be ‘in the country’. My father, for many summers of my childhood, rented a cottage in the Pennines, from a friend. It was half a day’s bus-ride from Newcastle and I was inevitably travel-sick, but oh the adventure of it!

The cottage had: no electricity, so lighting was by oil lamps; no water, meaning a trudge with buckets to a ‘fountain’ in the village, but for the life of me I cannot remember how my mother cooked meals. The ‘toilet’ was a hut in the garden with a hole in a wooden seat, and the terrifying sound of running water deep below. We did have radio powered by accumulators charged by the only shop/post office in the village. Milk came fresh from the cows in the local farm and was cooled, I remember, by being poured through a kind of giant metal ‘washboard’ and carried home in a mini-churn with a wire handle. It always seemed to be harvest so we joined the local children in putting corn into ‘stooks’ and riding on a cart piled high with hay or straw. No square bales or combined harvesters then.

Later, for several summers, we shared a ‘bungalow’ with a friend and his family. Near Ovington was/is a field with wooden bungalows around the edges that have been there since ‘Lord knows when’ and they are still there now. They were equally primitive with no electricity except one which had its own wind generator, even back then, but it wasn’t ours. Four adults and four children squeezed in a ‘hut’ designed for half that number, and great fun despite/because of it.

I also recall a camping trip to Scotland, with the same family, in a Bedford van. It must have been a sight for the others on the camp-sites when we pulled up and 8 bodies tumbled out of the van which also contained all the camping gear and provisions for a week.

‘Camping’ reminds me of a cub-scout week in Northumberland of which I remember almost nothing beyond being terribly homesick. However, what I do remember is that we travelled there on a lorry in the back with all the tents and paraphernalia. Health and Safety eat your heart out!

Soon enough adolescence came along and the family holidays petered out, although I do remember a holiday camp near Filey where I went to 13 ballroom dances in a week and a trip to Blackpool Illuminations with my parents when, I must have been 18, as I sat in the hotel lounge drinking coffee and brandy and thinking I was the ‘dog’s whatsits’.

After that the holidays were with friends or just endless hours on the beach, when we were not working for cash to buy the clothes to impress.

Now, of course the local industry has gone and with it the Wakes Week, to be replaced by package holidays, that you buy on credit and spend the next year paying for, where you get tanned before you go so that you don’t stand-out when you arrive and head for the nearest English bar/chip-shop.