For many of us, Christmas is the time of year when we think most acutely of family, especially of those we have lost. I know that for a lot of people the childhood memories are not always pleasant, which can make Christmas itself a particular ordeal. But having been blessed with a very happy childhood, I am one of those people who gets sentimental in a good way at this time of year, remembering all those lovely Christmases that my parents provided for us. Although I have no children of my own with whom to recreate the family traditions, I’m glad that Brother 2 has kept up some of them with his girls, and I always celebrate in a big way with friends and get in touch with all my distant cousins. I love it.
And thankfully, I don’t have to rely just on my increasingly shaky memory to provide the evidence for those happy festivities. The object above may be almost obsolete technology now, but it carries recordings that were made on even older equipment: my Dad’s reel to reel tape recorder. The cassette is labelled “Xmas ’64, ’65, ’66” in my brother’s hand, with no further information, but when it turned up in my recent end-of-year sort-out I knew at once what it was.
For several Christmases when we were children, Dad set up his reel to reel machine to record us as we opened our presents. His intention wasn’t just to record our sweet excited voices for posterity; he would also make sure we recorded who had given us what, for the purpose of those very important Thank You letters. Listening to these wobbly recordings now, I am instantly transported back to the downstairs sitting room in our house, with a scented fir tree standing tall by the big French window, a pile of brightly wrapped parcels beneath it. Mum and Dad (and, in 1964 and 65, Grannnie Lane: I can just make out her gentle Hebridean lilt in the background), handing out the parcels one by one – no rushing and tearing back then, it was all very restrained and all the better for it. Having woken up to find, delighted, the bulging stockings that Father Christmas had left on our beds in the night, we wouldn’t open any other presents until after breakfast, and always kept a few back to open after dinner too. This may seem overly strict by today’s standards but we really didn’t mind, it stretched out the joy over the whole day and gave us something to look forward to. I kind of miss that, the joy of anticipation, now that everything is so instantly available on demand.
These recordings bring so much back to me: so many people long gone, some still living, some still in my life, some long since forgotten. Even some of the presents are still clear in my memory. Here are some highlights from the transcription I have made, listening to them on the CD a friend has just made for me (the 3rd format so far! I would upload the audio file to here but it would give away our names).
1964 begins with my Dad’s warm Glasgow burr asking me, then aged 3, “S_____, have you had a merry Christmas?” which is followed by me singing a series of nursery rhymes into the mic. I seem to know several, from Husha Bye Baby and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Wee Willy Winky and Itsy Bitsy Spider, and judging from the rhythmic way I am singing them I am rocking backwards and forwards banging my back against the chair as I always used to do (I called it “banging” and apparently my youngest niece did the same thing at that age). It’s very cute. We then move on to unwrapping presents and my brothers are delighted with their train sets – I know this because Dad asks them: “Are you happy then boys with your model railways?” and they both exclaim “Yes!” I believe they still are today; they still have them.
The next section begins with Dad announcing with great drama: “It is now Christmas 1965. Merry Christmas everyone! Now for the grand opening of parcels.” Each present is announced in turn – who from, who for, what it is. We get gifts from our next door neighbours, the Mitchells, 3 children the same ages as us; from our Glaswegian uncles and aunts; from each other. I get a “cookery set” with which I am apparently delighted – I wonder if Mum was really as delighted with what she got, as she exclaims in her very posh Received Pronunciation English “Come and see what Grannie’s given me – Oh, just what I needed, I was hoping someone would give me a pinnie!”
After some white noise Dad opens proceedings again with “Merry Christmas 1966” and this recording is much longer and more detailed. The boys, aged 8 and 9 by now, are very lively, while I am still only 5 and whingeing a bit in the background. One of my brothers, I can’t tell which, announces proudly that I have milk chocolate kittens that he has given me. Again there are gifts from the kids next door and our relatives, but also from Peggy and her daughter Maggie, and from “Denise” who I vaguely remember, a friend of Mum’s I think. Brother 1 receives “a pair of gloves from the Larbys!” – that would be Mr and Mrs Larby, Auntie’s gardener and housekeeper from Churt, which is very touching (I got a handkerchief). I don’t know what Brother 2 has given to Dad but it is apparently “Lovely, the very thing, just what I needed!” When Mum opens a set of kitchen scales she says “Ooh, I shall get all my quantities right now shan’t I?” which is very noble of her. From her best friend Margaret Press – “Auntie Margaret” – she gets a wall can opener which one brother is thrilled to note is “Prestige! It’s by Prestige!” while I am even more thrilled to open up a parcel from Uncle Robert and Auntie Nan to find a toy horse inside: “Look what I got it’s a little horsy! I’ve got a nice little horsy!” (I actually remember that toy horse, I even named it “Horsy”).
There is much excitement as I open one particular gift, apparently it takes me a while to undo the wrapping then I exclaim “Look what I got from Auntie Margaret!” and one of my brothers says “It’s a bunny looking out of a window” and the moment I hear that description, 51 years later, I know exactly what it is. “To put on your wall, how nice!” says Mum, while Dad reminds me to say thank you so I say clearly into the mic “Thank you Auntie Margaret” for her to listen to later. I loved that thing! It was a little wall plaque made of plaster, exactly as my brother describes, with a rabbit in relief poking its head out of a wooden-style window frame, a country scene in the background. It hung on my bedroom wall for the rest of my childhood but hasn’t survived in the Usmeum, in fact I had forgotten all about it until this moment.
There are chocolates from our lodger Peter Chadwick and a record token for Dad from Peggy; Mum (who probably suggested the gift) says to him “You can buy that Pete Seeger record now.” There is a parcel from Mum’s friend Joan down in Poole and her children Philip and Caroline, containing, amongst other things, a “James Bond Aston Martin”(Matchbox or Dinky, presumably), and a “chocolate smokers’ set” (!) There are “Biscuits! Biscuits!” from Betty Burgess, who I think was Peggy‘s sister. Our Glaswegian Grandad has sent us some money because he “couldn’t be with us this year”. Mum’s cousin Doy has given Mum a recipe book and Dad a bottle of whisky; Mum also has a “nice bottle of Riesling” from someone.
Just before the tape runs out Mum says “You children are lucky! All these friends and relations” and reminds us we will have a lot of Thank You letters to write (which we always dutifully did). One of my brothers thoughtfully concurs “We’re all very lucky aren’t we,” and I have to agree with him. We were exceptionally lucky to have these happy family Christmases full of love, and even more so to have these records of some of them, so that over 50 years later I can listen to the voices of my long dead parents and grandmother (not to mention my childhood self) and get a bit teary-eyed. For all the right reasons.