AN ’80s Christmas: This, I remember… My Christmas dress. Hanging in the wardrobe for weeks; covered by a thin layer of translucent plastic so as to reveal a taunting glimpse of the layers beneath but robust enough to keep prying fingers from staining the fabric. It was a deep emerald green, comprised of a stiff layer of silk taffeta with an edged collar in white at the neck and a glorious sash of deep navy which fastened at the back in an ample bow. Delicate white hosiery and black patent shoes were the finishing touches. I felt worldly, sophisticated and took no heed the shoes in question rubbed the back of my heels and suffered on regardless in my vanity. I was six years old.
That year, I charged Mr C with the demanding task of delivering to my home on Christmas Eve, what was undoubtedly the toy which topped every poll in popularity that year, ‘The Live N Learn Play Boot House’ from Matchbox. It had everything an aspiring custodian of young minds could ever wish for. A schoolteacher with an enviable, angular hairstyle, willing and inquisitive pupils (four in total; two boys and two girls), a playground and an adequate studio apartment for said teacher located directly above the classroom; all contained in the unexpected and slightly eccentric structure of a boot. The silk taffeta confection had clearly gone to my head and I was at peak ‘notions’, for despite various requests from my parents to include an alternative in my correspondence to the North Pole, I stood firm and obstinate in my one and only request.
Christmas week arrived and ushered in a sensory overload; in particular, an olfactory one. Bunches of holly and eucalyptus mingling together creating a mossy yet crisp scent, appeared in the nooks and crannies of the house. The ham pot, still to this day passed between my mother and her sister, burnished on the outside and of formidable girth to house the ample weight intended for its confines, eliciting traces of salt to an enquiring nostril. The lid popped from the cake tin to anoint it in one final dousing of amber liquid, threw forth a waft of plump fruit and sugared goodness. The tin of chocolates housed amongst the shedding pine needles beneath the tree was enticing enough for me to peel back the Sellotape wrapper to release the top just so to smell the caramel, raspberry and orange little jewels, all clothed in vibrant cellophane wrappers of varying hues.
But mostly, I remember, the smell of the cold. You feel cold before you smell it. Chattering teeth and knees, ends of noses tinged with red and brimming eyes smarting from that first blast of icy wind as you march forwards. And then, that pure, clean, crisp scent that infiltrates your being just before it is replaced by the perfume of whispering tendrils of smoke and burnt wicks from faltering candles as you are nudged through the front door of the chapel for Christmas Eve Mass.
The same scent greeted you, as you pushed through the line of ruddy cheeked men propping up the back wall, as the one from that amber hued liquid your mother had used to feed the cake. It was pungent but not unpleasant. Ushered into a seat halfway up the aisle, close enough for people to see you were there, yet not too close as to be caught up in the throng when leaving, I was advised in a hushed tone: “If you are good, you can open one present when we get home.” I had already picked my way through the pile under the tree before leaving, bypassed the wrapped tin of ‘Rover’ biscuits and the selection boxes to the rather lumpy offering at the very back enveloped in a thin wrapping printed with holly. Thin enough to allow a tiny finger to make a sliver of a tear in the brittle festive cocoon to reveal a much sought-after prize. So, I sat quietly, secure in the knowledge that I would soon have a new charge to wheel around in my pram.
The end of Mass was always heralded by the choir’s rendition of ‘O Holy Night’. My grandads deep tone, easily distinguishable in the chorus without overshadowing others as the voices hushed and soared throughout the church. A woman in the same pew as us, silently, weeping. Finally, a round of applause offered in thanks to the choir and we pushed our way out into the cold once more.
Once home, no time was wasted in laying out sustenance for the man of the hour, just below the stockings on the fireplace. In bed, with stinging eyes, this time not from the cold but from tiredness, I heard a light tinkling sound. I hurried to the window and wiped the moisture from the glass with the sleeve of my pyjamas and sure enough, there in the sky was the outline of a scalloped edged mode of transportation rising quickly through the night. And I knew, with utter certainty, that a teacher with an enviable, angular hairstyle and willing pupils all housed in a shoe would indeed be waiting on the hearth in the morning.