The wonderful ghosts of Christmas past

Seances, trikes and the miracle of tinfoil

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

The past shifts about like clouds, now dense, now parting for a memory to shine out, perhaps randomly, but bright as the sun.

Here is the Sheffield Christmas when I was four and slept in Great-Aunt Florence’s room, on an eiderdown beside her bed, in the terraced house that smelled of coal smoke — the Christmas of worrying about how dirty Santa must get, going up and down the sooty chimneys.

Home was Scarborough: the bracing sea air and howling gales where I missed the coal dust smell, though it brought back the cough I had had since nearly dying of whooping cough, aged two — the cough that has never really left me, so that many a Christmas since has smelled of Vicks, camphor, Friars’ Balsam.

The Sheffield Christmas was the spooky one, too, half-frightening, half-fascinating, when I hid under the table, with its long cloth, as my grandmother and great-aunts held a seance above my head. Women did that then, after losing so many of their men in two wars. Tea leaves, cards and palms were read as well; money and journeys over the water predicted.

There must have been Sheffield decorations, but I don’t remember any of those clearly, not until the Tinfoil Christmas, when my father came home on leave from the RAF and brought out of his kitbag a shining, mysterious, thing, a rolled-up thing. We say ‘I’ll never forget’ too glibly, but I never have forgotten, in 74 years, how this caught the light and shone. I had never imagined such a thing, but it was there, sitting in the middle of our table.

‘You might make something out of it,’ Dad said, and as she made something out of anything, my mother did, and showed me how easy it was. You plaited and folded the miraculous foil, unreeling it very carefully as you went because of the razor-sharp edges, until you had a long silver garland which you could pull out and back like an accordion. It was strung in loops from the light fitting where it shimmered and twirled slowly in the draught. There was always a draught.

I didn’t ask how my father came by this stuff of wonder, though later I thought how odd it was that, years before tinfoil became the everyday stuff of kitchens, he had acquired it. It was only recently that I chanced to read about baffle tape: reels of the first silver foil used to sabotage radar signals, so confusing and bringing down enemy fighter planes during the war into which I had been born.

The Red Tricycle Christmas came next. We lived in a quiet crescent — Scarborough had little traffic and the child of rich people living on the hill rode past sometimes, showing off her bike, as she showed off her coat with the fur collar and matching muff, her new roller skates, her doll’s pram. If she wanted to make me envious, she succeeded well, but perhaps she didn’t have such a base motive at all — and anyway, I didn’t care about the coat, the muff or the skates, and about the pram only a little. About the bicycle I did care, desperately, but apart from the cost factor, in 1947 there just were not many children’s bicycles for sale. I knew that I would not get one and in any case, was told I was too small and didn’t even know how to ride a bike. And that seemed to be that.

I have forgotten what my stocking yielded. I only remember that I was led out to a neighbour’s garage and saw something roughly concealed in newspaper. My heart stopped. The tricycle was not new; it had belonged to distant cousins in Newcastle and been sent down by train, but not before they had refurbished it and painted it a wondrous cherry red, and given it a new bell. There never was such a tricycle in all the world, and I could ride it at once, and did so, round and round the crescent, hoping the rich girl would come by. Even if she had been given her own car, it could not have outdone my red tricycle.

The skies gather, childhood is over, and the truth about Santa is out. I get new gloves and slippers in my stockings. Things looked up in my twenties, when I was welcomed into a large, canonical family, and a cathedral congregation, the Christmas liturgy and music wove in and out of the days, there were ten or more round the table, and a turkey the size of the house. Fun, laughter, good food and wine, Monopoly, Cluedo, and an American television programme called Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which really did make us laugh until we hurt.

One extraordinary Christmas, friends asked if, en route to my own celebration, I would pop into their kitchen and top up the simmering pudding with boiling water while they were at the hospital visiting patients (he was a consultant surgeon). After I attended to that, I looked into their dining room, at a long table laid with gold chargers and candles in silver sticks waiting to be lit, at crackers and small presents by each place, at three bottles of red wine, already uncorked. There was a huge and magnificent holly and ivy centrepiece and even a second tree sparkling in the corner. As I stood gazing in silence, I was transported forwards a few hours, and I saw, heard, smelled, felt the room, full now and vibrant with Christmas, with old and young voices, the snap of crackers, laughter, the chink of glasses and glugging of wine, brilliant eyes, flushed faces…

It faded quite slowly and then the room was empty and silent again. I left behind the Christmas to come that was somehow all Christmases, held, lit from within. And waiting. Waiting.

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