This morning one of my daughters tagged me in a photo on Facebook, asking, “Remember this?”
Wow, that was a blast from the past. I not only remember the Christmas stockings in the photographs, I’d made them with two of my children, and even though it was a long time ago, I still remember that Christmas extremely well. How things have changed since then.
The year was 1975 or 1976, and my husband and I had moved to a new house with our two young children. My husband had just recently started working; it was a poorly paid job and we didn’t have a lot of money. I was doing my bit by doing a few hours in a pub, behind the bar, and we struggled to keep our heads above water.
We were managing day-to-day, but the extra bills were very worrying. The old coin meter in our previous home had been robbed when some kids had broken into our flat. We were responsible for the meter so we had to pay the missing money back to the gas board, on top of our regular bill and so the debt came with us. Despite constantly asking for a gas meter reading and subsequently, the bill we were still waiting nearly a year later and each quarter that passed hiked the worry up another notch. I had tried putting some money away for when the gas bill finally materialised, but growing children have needs, shoes, coats, food, just the basics of life. And the children came first.
Finally, a couple of weeks before Christmas the bill turned up on our mat, demanding payment for the year’s supply of gas and the amount owing from our flat. It was a lot of money, money we just didn’t have.
I contacted the company and frankly, they didn’t want to know. We owed this money, they wanted it, and it had to be paid before 23rd of December. End of discussion.
My husband was on two weeks holiday over the Christmas period, and had received his pay for the entire month. So it was with a very heavy heart we went on the bus to the city centre Gas Board shop and paid over every penny we had. There hadn’t been quite enough so I had put the family allowance I’d been trying to save, towards paying the bill.
It was two weeks before Christmas and we were penniless. We had two children to feed and luckily I had bought a little extra food for the holidays. It just meant come Christmas we would have very little if anything left. And more importantly, we couldn’t buy any presents for our children. Nothing, and we no way to provide them with anything.
Clothing for them were fairly easy. I had an old treadle sewing machine sitting in the back bedroom. I could make them something new for Christmas but it would have to be from whatever I had round the house.
I found a piece of crimplene fabric in my basket, rough and scratchy but blue, suitable for trousers for my son. So, using his outgrown pair of pants as a pattern, I tapered the flared legs a little so it fitted on the material and still left a little to make him a little waistcoat and bow tie. I hadn’t been able to make him a shirt so I cut the sleeves off a one which he’d out-grown and made them short so he could still wear it. The bow tie was a sort of a success, but it hung badly as the only elastic I could find for it was old and worn; it had as much stretch left in it as a piece of old grey string.
The waistcoat would have benefitted from a bit of lining but I has nothing suitable that I could use. But fastened with the two old brass buttons out of my treasure box it looked quite snazzy. My treasure box was my button tin, filled to brimming with beautiful vintage fastenings and buttons of every conceivable size and shape. Inherited from my Nanna and added to from jumble sale items it was a great source of fun for the children. Sorting, counting, making different noises. The huge old coat buttons from the forties and fifties are great for making whizzers*. ( I’ll add instructions at the end so you can try it too.)
For my daughter I made a dress from a small piece of floral cotton fabric that I had that was just sufficient for her size. I added some lace that I had taken off my slip, sewn around the neck and the sleeves and a prettier dress you couldn’t have found anywhere. She tried it on and told me she was like a princess as she spun round and round to make the skirt lift up into the air. There was enough lace to sew around the top of her ankle socks, and a tiny ribbon bow also taken off my slip was added to finish them off.
I didn’t have time to knit her a new cardigan, I’m a very slow and often reluctant knitter. It’s was not my favourite hobby. So my daughter had to make do with one of her old ones.
That was the clothes sorted, but what to do about the rest of Christmas? At the bottom of my wardrobe I found an orange corduroy skirt that I’d made for myself the previous year. I had only worn it a couple of times because it was rather bright and gaudy, but it was ideal for two Christmas stockings. The children helped me to decorate the sewn up socks, using scraps from my fabric box. A piece of blue from the pants I’d made, a scrap of the floral material I’d used for my daughters dress, a little remnant from a suit I’d made myself. And finally the inside of the hem of my dressing gown, which was a lovely shiny fabric that my daughter admired. It was easy to cut the piece without damaging the dressing gown too much.
The brown cotton trimming that went round the top came from an old cushion that was going to be thrown out, but it fit the purpose well. The kids helped with pinning and sewing the stockings and were pleased as punch to be making things together.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough orange corduroy for the stocking for our dog Tipsy, but I found a small piece of felt that I embroidered her name onto. I later called into our butchers and asked for a bone for her, so that was another present sorted. We didn’t want Tipsy to feel left out, that would have upset the kids.
Another day and another job. We spent a couple of hours, cutting newspaper into strips to make into paper chains. How dirty were our hands? We couldn’t resist rubbing the printing ink on each other till we ended up looking like little black elves. We rolled about on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, tears running down our filthy faces leaving long thin streaks where the pink of our shiny cheeks shone through.
After a break for tea and toast, we hung the chains around the room, brightened up with three or four balloons left over from a birthday party. Then we set to again, making spirals to hang on our old tinselly tree. I’d been given it by my mother for our first Christmas together. It was definitely past it’s prime, shedding bits of dusty tinsel all over the floor.
We needed an angel, ours was broken. The elastic bands holding her arms on had perished and I couldn’t find another to replace it. I tried mending her using thread but her poor arms hung limply by her side, making her look so disheveled. So we made another celestial being, using wool I had scavenged from an old knitted baby cardigan, a piece of the cornflake box and some silver foil. And not just a new angel but several little people made from scraps of left over wool were soon adorning our tree. Santa, snowman, soldier, a boy, a girl. We soon had enough beautiful decorations to decorate out tree. With its string of lights twinkling in the darkness it looked magnificent, worthy of any home.
We scavenged in the cupboards, looking for things to wrap up to hang on the tree with our homemade crackers. The Oxo box, soap powder box, a tennis ball, a bar of soap, they all made ideal ‘presents’. Before long we had a decent pile ready, along with homemade gift tags. We had fun writing out the tags to the dog, my son’s pet spider, the vicar. The list of recipients was longer than the number of ‘presents’ we had but it didn’t matter. The kids were having such fun, they took to wrapping up socks, a scarf, till everybody had something.
The children went to bed that night very tired but happy. So I got to work making them a present. The double doll I made for my daughter was the easiest. Two old socks from her dad’s drawer soon transformed into Cinderella, wearing rags at one end and her dress for a party at the other. Her yellow wool hair was sewn up into a curly bun for the ball. A tiny crown fashioned out of silver foil sat upon her head, a truly beautiful princess.
The garage for my son was the hardest to make. I had some pieces of ply wood and long pieces of wood in the garden. I was not the most proficient with a saw but after drawing up a plan, and working out the measurements, I finally managed to cut up what I needed without losing any of my fingers or toes. I had helped my dad with woodwork in the past, and had the scars to prove it. He’d shown me how to make a plan, but hadn’t shown me how to make joints. But I got round my lack of knowledge by looking at how my wall units were made and adapt it to my garage using a similar technique.
It took me a couple of evenings to put the garage together before I painted it using some white gloss I had left after decorating. I wasn’t sure if it would work but I wrote my son’s name across the front, and marked out spaces for his cars to park with an old red felt pen I found in the toy box. I’d tried the little blocks of paints we had for colouring in but they just rubbed off. Anyway, the pen worked and I was quite pleased with the result.
Things were looking a lot more positive, Christmas wasn’t going to be too bad at all.
The only thing left now was some food for Christmas Day. I had bought a huge sack of potatoes, so we could have them. There was very little left in the fridge, a piece of dried up cheese and a carrot, but I was sure I could rustle up some sort of meal for us. I had a tin of corned beef which I mashed with the boiled potatoes, sprinkled it with cheese and made a pie. Luckily, I always had flour in the cupboard as I baked most weekend, so I managed a few scones, and some fairy buns, without the icing sugar. But the scraping of jam spread on top of the buns looked just as good.
But then we had a wonderful surprise. I’d mentioned to one of my neighbours about the bill we had to pay. She’d had a word with a couple of other people, then turned up on our doorstep on Christmas Eve with a cooked chicken, enough vegetables for a couple of meals and a strawberry jelly and a tin of fruit.
We’d just returned from the Christingle service at our church clutching the golden oranges I was planning on making into a pudding for our Christmas dinner when our neighbour turned up on the doorstep with the basket filled with goodies. She’d even put in biscuits for our dog and a selection box for the two kids. She wouldn’t come in when I invited her, just wished us all a very happy Christmas and left.
And I cried.
Cried because I was ashamed: ashamed that I could not provide for my children.
Cried because of the kindness of people I barely knew; because of the goodness of people, some of them strangers.
Cried because despite everything it was going to be a good Christmas after all.
I cried even more the next morning when my son and daughter woke up and found the bits and pieces in their stockings, when they ooh’d and ahhh’d over the meagre presents I’d made. Cried when they went to bed that night, with happy memories of a day filled with laughter, silly games, and family time spent together.
Those stockings lasted a long time, year after year they were hung for Santa.
How could I ever forget? The kindness of others can be overwhelming sometimes. The spirit of Christmas, the love, peace and sharing we witnessed that year will always stay with me. I always try to repay that huge act of kindness that made Christmas so special for us. So each year I quietly give thanks for everything we have and try to do some small act of kindness for others.
I wish everyone a peaceful Christmas time and ask that you give a little thought to someone less fortunate than yourselves.