Saturday, 2 January 2016

A dolls' house isn't just for Christmas

Christmas is already past and the New Year is upon us. As yet I have made only one resolution. During this coming year if I get myself organised, I will embark on a long overdue and rather ambitious renovation project. My doll's house, constructed by my father in the early nineteen fifties and presented to me one Christmas Day when I was around five, is badly in need of renovation. Loved and played with constantly when I was young, and then handed on to my sons who used it as a rather grand residence for their Playmobil people, it now desperately needs to be refurbished for the next generation.

However, as I contemplate the future of this precious family artefact, I have also been thinking about the past. This post is therefore about our family Christmases, during the nineteen fifties when I was growing up. In particular it is about the Christmas Day on which I received my much loved dolls' house. These family festivals may not be all that different from your own Christmases, if you are a similar age to me. In contrast, if you are somewhat younger, they may appear like the rituals of a completely alien civilisation. This then is not just the story of my dolls' house but also of those now strangely foreign Christmases of the past.

Although people complain that Christmas starts far too early these days, it started pretty early back then also, though in the kitchen rather than the shopping mall. Culinary preparations began at the beginning of November. You would have been forgiven for thinking that suet was the essential ingredient in our family Christmas, especially if you were the only girl in the family. In those days, suet did not appear in neat little packages produced by Atora but was bought from the butcher in the form of a large hunk of hard white fat attached to a kind of thin membrane. While my mother was washing and blanching the almonds and chopping the orange and lemon peel for the Christmas pudding, it was my job to grate the suet. You held the membrane side of the hunk and pushed it up and down the grater, crumbling it into breadcrumb-sized fragments. It was not an unpleasant task, as far as I can remember, but it did take a long time and you did risk grating your knuckles as well. All our Christmas puddings were served with a generous helping of knuckle.

After the suet there were the currants, raisins and sultanas to wash, pick over for stones and drain, and also a great deal of weighing. For not only were there puddings to steam, but mincemeat to store in jars and, best of all, the Christmas cake to bake, though, mercifully, that did not require suet. Lots of extra suet needed to be grated, however, for use on Christmas Eve when my mother and I would prepare the stuffing for the chicken. Turkeys fell well outside our family's budget and chicken was a once-a-year treat.

Most of the recipes came either from a Radiation Cook Book given to my mother in 1944 by her landlady in Muswell Hill or from a manual produced by the Ministry of Food in the early 1940s to help housewives stretch their family's rations. The resulting products were hardly lavish, therefore, but who were we to know that, a family struggling to live on the inadequate stipend of a poor Baptist minister in a Lancashire mill town? The important thing was that Christmas food was special, far different from the macaroni or rice and dahl we ate routinely during the rest of the year.

Christmases were not an easy time for our parents and in this they were little different from many families living in depressed urban communities in the north of England and beyond.  Nevertheless, Christmas was in some ways, perhaps, a bit easier than nowadays, as expectations were so much lower. I don't think many of our friends had particularly luxurious Christmases either. I am sure there were many children among my father's congregation who received nothing at all. Now, of course, decades later, I realise that European and American Christmases are a unique phenomenon. Most children in cultures which celebrate Christmas, such as in Uganda where I lived for a while, rarely receive presents.

One family Christmas in particular stands out for me. It must have been about 1955 or 1956. My father hadn't been paid for some time, not an unusual situation. His church was in the slums and served rows of terraced back-to-backs. One of these terraced houses, a slightly better one with indoor plumbing and a garden, was the manse and our childhood home. My father's congregation was poor and his stipend entirely dependent on collections at church services. Now it was Christmas and there was no money. Things must have been difficult for some weeks already, as I later realised. It all came to a head, however, on Christmas Eve. My parents were never before time in decorating the house and, anyway, did not believe in putting up the Christmas tree before then. This year, however, we didn't go down to the market to buy it until Christmas Eve itself. My parents were hoping to pick one up cheaply.

My memory of that afternoon is branded indelibly on my psyche. We went from market stall to market stall, trailing after our parents, in an increasingly desperate attempt to buy a Christmas tree. It wasn't that they had sold out. Far from it. Indeed, there were still a good number of trees left. However, none of them fell within our parents' means. Nowadays it wouldn't matter so much. They could have gone to a cash machine and drawn out more money, even if they were already in debt. Not in the 1950s, however. There were no cash machines, debt wasn't entered into lightly and anyway it was far too late in the day.

By late afternoon, my younger brother and I were beginning to become very worried. I begged my parents to get a tree. Sometimes we revisited the same stall several times in the hope that the price had dropped, but no it hadn't. There was to be no tree that year. At the end of the afternoon, when it was already getting dark, my mother quickly bought a couple of branches of greenery to tuck behind the pictures and that was it. We marched off back home feeling depressed and anxious. What would Christmas be like without a tree?

Our worries were soon forgotten, however, as we drank our cocoa around the fire (a centimeter of milk and a great deal of hot water!) and chose our father's best long socks to be placed at the end of our beds for Father Christmas (not Santa!) to fill. As usual, I found it virtually impossible to get to sleep but eventually I did, and in the early hours of the morning, there at the end of the bed was the satisfying weight of my stocking. I have no memory of what was in it that particular year, as all my stockings over the years merge into one. However, it probably held a sugar mouse, a tangerine, a bright red apple, some monkey nuts (pace, Jonathan!), some 'gold' coins, a curled up paper trumpet with a feather at the end, some colouring pencils and one or two small items like hankies, which varied from year to year. Just what a proper stocking should contain! We were, indeed, lucky.

Downstairs we crept and there, miracle of miracles, was a little Christmas tree decorated with baubles and clip-on metal candleholders with real candles (no health and safety in those days!). How had my parents managed it?  My father had sawed off a length from a broom handle and my mother had tied on bits of greenery, some from the garden and some bought in the market the evening before. An unconventional tree, but one that did the job perfectly satisfactorily and, for us children, was just like a real one.

The rest of the day proceeded as normal. We all went to church, where my father took the Christmas morning service. We came back, tucked into our chicken and stuffing and struggled to eat our mince pies and Christmas pudding with white sauce, eager to see which of us would receive one of the silver sixpences buried inside.

Then it was time for the 'big' presents. In those days children received one present from their parents, not the multiplicity they tend to get today. However, remember that my parents were pretty much penniless. There really had been no money for presents. We never doubted that we would receive one, however, and never thought to consider how our parents were going to manage it. Nevertheless, there around the foot of the little Christmas tree were three satisfyingly large parcels. What could they be?

My younger brother, then around three or four, received a beautiful bright red railway engine and tender, with a cord to pull it around with. My father had made it from an old national dried milk tin and scraps of wood, with a cotton reel for funnel. He had few, if any, carpentry skills and the design employed a fair number of nails rather than dovetailed joints, but it was a splendid construction. The only thing which puzzles me are the wheels. How my father managed to shape these without a lathe, I have no idea, but he did, quite probably re-using some other household object. However, it was a wonderfully solid creation. It lasted right through my brother's childhood and that of my own boys until it was passed on, eventually, to my nephews down in Cornwall. No doubt this indestructible engine is still in existence and will be passed on to their own children in due course.

My elder brother received a garage for his Dinky cars, complete with showroom and workshop. Again, my father had made it from offcuts of wood, with transparent plastic sheeting for windows and discarded cotton reels. It was finished with petrol pumps and replica 'advertisements' for motor products. Much cherished it is now safely in his attic having been played with over decades by the many children who visited my parents' house.

And I, I received my all-time treasure, my dolls' house. It was made from an old 'orange box', with knobs attached to doors which opened out. My father had added stairs, each tread of which he had cut and nailed on separately. He had also wired it so that each room had an electric light made out of a torch bulb, with a shade made out of a paper case for sweets. The master switch was in the attic. I hesitate to think about the fire risk!

My mother had furnished my house with brightly-coloured curtains strung on elastic cords each with eyelets hung on tiny hooks. It had beds with bedding, rugs, and a sofa and armchairs made of offcuts and upholstered in red velvet. My father had even made a sideboard with doors which opened on 'hinges' made of nails.

My parents had bought bathroom fittings and a tiny washing machine with a handle that swished the 'washing' around and another that turned the mangle. I could go on and on describing these marvels.

My dolls' house was a magical present.

My father, a man whose life had been a disappointment in so many ways, who struggled to keep his family going on what the church provided and who was not really cut out for parish life, had put aside his many difficulties and spent days in our freezing cold wash house lovingly creating these wonderful presents. To do so, he had developed and applied carpentry skills which he had never been taught but had had to learn from scratch. He had been rewarded by the look on his children's faces. It was a wonderful Christmas, after all, for all of us.

In due course, my father applied his newly acquired carpentry skills to other projects. He made a sledge out of the top of an old piano stool and got the blacksmith to forge runners for it. Many years later, and out of love alone rather than financial necessity, my father made my younger son a Noah's Ark, now in the possession of my granddaughter and no doubt, to be handed on to her own children. However, that was many years later.

That Christmas Day in Lancashire sixty years ago continued and ended as all such occasions did. We played Musical Bumps and Oranges and Lemons. We took turns to perform music on our instruments: piano, violin and cello. We gathered round the piano and sang Christmas carols, some traditional English but also some German ones such as O Tannenbaum and In Dulci Jubilo, with its mixture of German and Latin. My mother was a modern linguist and German music and culture meant a great deal to her. She had a beautiful soprano voice and accompanied herself on the piano. Indeed, some years earlier she had achieved some local fame singing German lieder on Pakistani radio!

My father, on the other hand, could only grunt along. His own father had forbidden him from singing around the house when he was a child, so my mother once told me, and he had absolutely no mastery of tune or tone. However, he loved to listen to my mother, as we all did. Some songs such as Joseph liebe, Joseph mein were beyond us so she sang them on her own. Only the other day, I was caught unawares by a rendition on the radio of Schlaf, schlaf, schlaf, Mein liebes Kindlein schlaf.... and my eyes filled with water.

It all seems so long ago, but I still have that wonderful Christmas present, if now somewhat battered - for doll's houses can perform many functions beyond the conventional. They make wonderful horses, for instance, if you sit astride, holding on to the chimney.

My dolls' house has had a long rest now and is ready to enter a new phase in its life. Perhaps, by next Christmas if I get myself organised, it will have joined another household and begun to bring pleasure to another generation of our family.

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