The memories of my earlier Christmases saw not only changes in the house we lived in, but in the changes in society and the development of technology. When my brothers and I were little, as with all children, we were happy that Santa brought us anything. On a number of years we visited Father Christmas in the big stores in Leeds, probably Lewis’. We were lined up and waited as patiently as young children can near his grotto for our turn to sit on his knee and tell him our deepest wishes. There was the timeless question of whether we had been ‘naughty or nice’, and then we were given a gift. For a number of years it was the same blow football game, which was basically two straws, a small football and a couple of goals. It wasn’t much, but it was still a thrill.
The home parties became more elaborate as we got older and I do remember that for my birthday, which is early in December, I got some money and I bought a puppet theatre kit from Varleys’ at Harehills’ shops. I spent quite a bit of time building the theatre and even added lights using a battery, wires, bulbs and holders. The actors were card figures on a long wire that could be pushed in and out. The stage wasn’t very big, maybe 14 inches, but in a small room, with the lights out and with the stage lit, it produced a decent effect. Mum, my brothers and I took the parts and read from a script. I can’t for the life of me remember whether the script was written by me or my mum. Anyway, the captive audience was appreciative and clearly must have been fantastic! Well, at least nobody complained. My brothers and my cousin Angela were also roped in to perform at the parties. Anyone with the hint of a talent was brought out, and over the years, recorders, violins, clarinets and guitars made an appearance, usually never to return. Many a carol was sung and now I realise the pleasure that the young are to adults, especially at Christmas.
My father worked at Cattons steel foundry on Black Bull Street in Hunslet and he became the Chief Inspector of steel castings during the 1960s. I would occasionally visit the foundry with my father if he had to go in and check on some work and I remember the smell well. There was a very distinct odour as molten steel was poured into the sand moulds. Sparks would fly everywhere and it was exciting and like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Of course, children wouldn’t be allowed in a foundry nowadays with modern health and safety regulations, but I loved it. Every year the foundry held a Christmas party for the children of the employees. I believe it was on a Saturday afternoon and my older brother and I would be driven to the works. The party was in a large upstairs room with industrial windows down each side. I don’t know what it was used for normally, but on these days it was full of scores of children and was decorated with streamers and balloons. There was also a large Christmas tree near the front. Thinking back it was probably the works canteen. I am not sure of all things that we did, but I recall we had quite a feast and then they showed films. The projector in those days was very unreliable and I can still hear the cries of anguish from the children as the film snapped at the most dramatic point, or the funniest, if it was a cartoon. The end of the evening each of the children was given a present from Santa and a tired and excited horde made their way home in either cars or on local buses.
As I got older, Christmas began to evolve. Many of the simple early experiences began to change. The introduction of television was major, but so was the ready supply of compact and portable record players. I do remember that one Christmas my brother received a red Dansette record player. I don’t think it was new, but came from a neighbour. However, for a pre-teen boy it was wonderful. Pop music was in its halcyon days: Elvis, Cliff, The Shadows, Billy J Cramer, Adam Faith and many others were coming in and going out of style fairly rapidly. Of course Cliff Richards is still about, and Elvis never really went out, even after his death, but the biggest rising stars were the Beatles and ‘Please Please Me’ was released in 1963. On November 22nd of the same year, the second album, ‘With the Beatles’ was released and that was the year my brother got the Dansette and the album. I know that my mother was keen on the Beatles and so she probably was the reason that this album was chosen. It came with some old records and one was by Joseph Locke. It was a very old rousing song called ‘Blaze Away’ which my father loved and would sing at the top of his voice. We all hated it! Another record was a Frank Sinatra long player and one of the songs was ‘High Hopes (the rubber tree plant song). The album ‘All the Way’ and was released in 1961. Anyway, the record player was useful for Christmas parties as it allowed better control for pass the parcel and other games, though I’m not sure that dropping the very heavy arm onto a new album would have added a great deal to the sound.
I do know that one of the first records my brother bought was ‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals. The two of us went to Varley’s shop at Harehills and bought a copy of the single in June the following year. The Dansette also featured in one of his most disappointing presents a few years later in 1968. He was just beyond a teenager and was into Pink Floyd. The previous year he had bought a copy of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which I still have the same copy of. He saw himself as quite hip and trendy and you can imagine his reaction when our lovely grandma from Chapel Allerton gave him a present. He opened it in front of everyone and to his surprise and horror it was a single by The Seekers, ‘Morningtown Ride’. He nearly died of embarrassment, but he put on a brave face. Even worse, we all had to suffer it, as it was played constantly for pass the parcel and any other reason that mum could think of. Grandma never realised and she had tried her best to get him something he would like. She loved the song, it was number two in the charts that Christmas, and therefore she was sure he would love it. I don’t think she ever knew anything different.
I suppose that it is part of the growing experience, but as we got older, bit by bit, the older generation of family and guests began to disappear. First, my grandad passed away and, a few years later, grandma. Nevertheless those present still seemed to enjoy the occasion, albeit with a tinge of sadness. The innocence of being a child gradually ebbed away and we became more reticent to perform, and eventually as teenagers took any opportunity to separate ourselves, or excuse ourselves as soon as possible. It seems obligatory that teenagers are embarrassed by their parents and nothing they did ever changed that, but it was only a few years later that we appreciated what they did for us. I don’t know if it is the same for girls, but boys spend the rest of their lives trying to undo some of the things they said and did to their parents. Maybe it was to fill the void, but elderly neighbours or people my mother knew from church, St. Wilfred’s, at Harehills, were invited and everyone seemed to have a great time without us being there for more than a short while before we escaped to see our friends. A few years later I married and we had our first son. Christmas then became very important again for us and we took over the tradition and hosted the parties. Everyone came to our house and we enjoyed the same games, the same food, the same jokes and the same laughter. Over time we moved from being the youngsters, with wide-eyed wonder, and became the older ones and now the oldest ones. If you are lucky, you will share Christmas with those you love and keep your own traditions alive.