Chilblains and Christmas Carols…A Very Seaham Christmas!
Christmas in December
When I was child growing up in Seaham in the 70s and 80s, Christmas was something which happened in December. And by that, I mean the middle of December. You may have peeled open the first door on your advent calendar on 1st December (holy pictures only, chocolate advent calendars weren’t invented, and when they were, they weren’t considered “appropriate” in a good Catholic household) but Christmas trees did not usually appear until at least after 10th December, and quite often not until the week before Christmas Day itself.
People who put up their trees at the beginning of December were considered to be a bit…wanting, and outdoor lights were considered “over the top” and weren’t really a thing (although let’s face it, the constant power cuts didn’t help).
Christmas was different then. It was more…Christmassy. It was colder for a start; it often snowed in November and December, though never “on the day” itself. Seaham snow didn’t stay white for long however – within a week or so it would be grubby and gritty and speckled with coal dust.
White Christmases were as much a myth then as they are now. The Christmas season was so much shorter too, and better for it; nobody even thought about the C-Word until well after Halloween and Bonfire Night. Festivities didn’t get into full swing until the Christmas copy of the Radio Times was delivered, and Santa arrived at Binns department store in Sunderland, after parading down Fawcett Street in a Christmas Cavalcade, usually accompanied by a celebrity. Quite often this “celebrity” was a DJ such as David Hamilton or Kid Jensen, but one year the assembled crowds (which included me) were treated to a visit by Dr Who himself, Tom Baker.
Every year my mother would take me and my older and much more sophisticated friend Alison to the Toy Fair at Fenwick’s in Newcastle, on the train. Now when you’re used having your nose pressed up against the window of Marratty’s toy shop in Church Street (and the occasional trip to Joseph’s in Sunderland), Fenwick’s was an absolute paradise. A whole floor of this huge department store was given over to toys and games of every description – vast train sets, dolls houses, Scalextrics, cuddly toys, board games – every toy imaginable. The best thing was that you could actually play with them all, although me being me, I invariably came home with a book.
The Joy of Chilblains
As a kid, often the first sign of Christmas in Seaham was when your mother came home from Chaytors or Angus’ butchers’ shops with one of those festive carrier bags with Santa’s face on one side and a sleigh on the other. These were sturdier than the usual blue and white stripey numbers, and once the festivities were over, could be commandeered for sledging.
As every Seaham child knows, you don’t need a sledge to go sledging. Occasionally the posh kids might have some fancy little toboggan which wouldn’t look out of place on a German Christmas card; if you were very lucky and your dad worked at the pit, he might ask the blacksmith’s shop to knock up some runners which he then screwed to a bit of hardboard, with some old washing line attached for a handle.
More often than not, you made use of whatever you could find – car bonnet, road signs, tin bath or even a bread basket “borrowed” from round the back of Murleys the Bakers. The one thing that all these items had in common was their utter lethality. Is there any better feeling than hurtling uncontrollably down an icy bank towards oncoming traffic, the wind on your face, shrieking with laughter, unable to feel your fingers or toes?
Inevitably as soon as you arrived back home, soaked to the skin, you had to remove your wellies and soggy socks while your mother checked your frozen feet for the dreaded chilblains. Do chilblains still exist? Or have they gone out of fashion, like rickets? In the 1970s, every child knew that cold wet feet resulted in chilblains, just as sitting on a cold path would give them piles.
O Holy Night…
Religion was still A Big Thing back then, and church services very much part of the festive period. Here in Seaton, we still have Christmas carols every year around the tree on the Village Green, accompanied by the Salvation Army Band, followed by coffee and mince pies in the village hall, and inevitably a few pints or a glass of hot mulled wine (80% proof) in front of the fire at the Dun Cow.
Just not this year, obviously.
Each school would hold its own carol service and nativity plays. I bloody hated the annual nativity play at St Cuthbert’s; every single year I was chosen to be the sodding angel Gabriel (disadvantages of being pale, blonde, and very well behaved). Beneath that angelic exterior was a seething resentment fostered by the belief that I was never pretty or popular enough to be the Virgin Mary.
“BEHOLD! I BRING YOU GLAD TIDINGS OF GREAT JOY!”.
On the upside at least I was spared the indignity of having to crawl round the altar on all fours in my mother’s sheepskin rug like my younger brother Robert.
The numerous carol services were of course just a build up to The Big One – Midnight Mass. I never attended Midnight Mass when it took place at midnight, due to the risk of “drunks” being in attendance. For some reason, Catholic adults seemed to have an entirely irrational and disproportionate fear of drunks at Midnight Mass, and this was inevitably discussed at length every Advent in hushed tones, accompanied by lots of “tutting” and references to people being “tight”, which in those days meant worse for wear.
I could never quite fathom why the frequenters of Seaham’s many drinking establishments might come over all religious on a Christmas Eve, but then again, chucking out time was 10.30 ; it was just a brief stagger up the bank from the Mill Inn, or a stumble down the bank from the Phoenix or The Kestrel to St Cuthbert’s Church, should anyone wish to sober up a bit while simultaneously paying his respects to the Baby Jesus. Anyhow, eventually Midnight Mass moved to 8 o’clock, then 6 , and last time I went it was around 5pm. “Teatime Mass” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
My family were not drinkers and going to the pub on Christmas Eve just wasn’t the done thing in our house. We often used to attend Christmas morning Mass instead of Midnight Mass, which was always packed with families; children were encouraged to bring along their favourite gift for the “Blessing of the Toys”, and our Parish Priest would say Mass surrounded by Action Man, Sindy, Stretch Armstrong, Evil Knievel, Tiny Tears, Lego and Meccano sets, and even the odd Raleigh Chopper. It’s difficult to imagine kids tearing themselves away from their x-boxes, their parents from their phone screens, to take part in such a lovely family event today.
Santa and I had a complex relationship. I liked the fact that he brought me presents, but other than that I was utterly terrified of him and would scream the place down when taken to visit him in Binns or Joplings, particularly when bidden to sit on his knee. When you’re 4 years old and have an irrational fear of beards, Santa’s knee is the last place you want to sit, trust me.
By the time I was 6, my hatred of Santa and beards had dissipated, mainly because I no longer believed ( in Santa that is; admittedly I continue to remain sceptical about excessive facial hair to this day). I was one of those annoying kids who thought deeply about things, and the more I pondered Santa and the logistics of worldwide overnight present delivery, the less it all made sense.
By Christmas 1976, the year I received a beautiful orange writing desk (with lid) and a globe pencil sharpener, amongst other things, my brief and torrid relationship with Mr Claus was already over. However, as I could see my parents were still well into the Santa thing, and for their benefit and that of my baby brother, I kept up the pretense for another 2 or 3 years, just so nobody felt disappointed.
Warm fuzzy feels
Every family has their own Christmas rituals and routines. Christmas Eve always concluded with my brother and I climbing the stairs to bed singing Jingle Bells, with our Paddington Bear pillowcases slung over our shoulders (ready to be filled with presents), and one of dad’s pit socks each for a Christmas stocking. As soon as I awoke on Christmas morning, I would wriggle down the bed and kick the blankets to see if they felt “heavy” with presents; sometimes I would get up during the night, open just one, and then go back to sleep.
Every Christmas morning followed the same pattern; present opening, Mass, then visits to Grandparents followed by Christmas lunch. The Queen’s Speech was banned in our house, due to my Grandad Jim being more anti-royalist than Oliver Cromwell. Old habits die hard – I still don’t watch it often.
Like every other family, we would eat exactly the same food and play exactly the same games that we’d been eating and playing for decades. But that’s kind of the whole point – the family traditions, the annual discussions, the Christmas tablecloth, the same cracker jokes and rubbishy cracker gifts (who doesn’t need a plastic moustache or a fortune-telling fish?) – it’s what made Christmas, Christmas. The festivities lasted right until New Year’s Day, which was spent at the home of my aunt and uncle, Elsie and George. It always seemed to be snowing at “home time”.
It’s easy, with the passage of the years (and the generations), to look back through the lens of hindsight and bathe everything in a rosy glow of nostalgic yuletide contentment. Was Christmas better back then?
You know something? I really think it was.
You can read more about growing up in Seaham in the 1970s and 1980s in other articles in this blog, which is also available as an ebook , She Was Only a Coal Miner’s Daughter – Stories of a Seaham Childhood, for Amazon Kindle here .
Books by Jane Gulliford Lowes: