During what we came to call the ‘War years’, my Mum and Dad, my brother Ken, my sister Coralie and I all lived in a modest house in Woodville, a pleasant Adelaide suburb, in the dry and sunny State of South Australia, half way between the city and the sea. I was fortunate to have both a brother and a sister – it was the best of both worlds.
Christmas was a relatively simple time for us. There wasn’t much money around and in any case, Dad wasn’t one to go in for things like fancy decorations. And as for a Christmas tree – few people had one in those days. We certainly didn’t. And I’m not sure where we would have put it, anyway, as there was little space for such luxuries in our home.
Life took place very much in the kitchen. It was dining room, living room and bake-house all in one. A wood- or coke-burning stove dominated the room. It provided glowing warmth in winter time and served as a useful bench in summer, when if I remember rightly, it was covered with thin blue patterned linoleum. During the warm weather, Mum used an ancient gas stove located, of all places, in our laundry. It was only years later that Dad had a new, more streamlined and efficient stove installed in the kitchen, all gleaming with green and cream enamel, except for the black iron racks, stark and unfeeling, that covered the gas jets.
There was a formal dining room at the front of the house with a polished wood dining suite and matching dresser. There was also a dark-coloured bookshelf. Here, like a row of palace guards, uniformed in deep blue and gold, stood a ten-volume set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and another eight tall volumes of Cassell’s Book of Knowledge. In pride of place was, not a television set as would be the case today, but a black cast-iron fire grate, polished and clean and never used, at least, not in my childhood and certainly not at Christmas time when Adelaide’s natural heat was more than enough. It was a special room, rarely occupied. I can’t recall us ever having a meal there. We children were usually forbidden to enter it without permission.
Just inside the door, on the left, was the upright piano that Mum used to play from time to time, while I stood alongside, my eyes level with the keyboard, watching and listening. I was reprimanded once for stridently thumping the lower keys with my hands spread wide before tinkling the upper notes more delicately with my child’s fingers. I protested that I was just making the sounds of bombs dropping on a house while someone inside was playing the piano.
The War was never far from our thoughts, even in remote South Australia. We had to install blackout covers of heavy waxed paper over the windows every evening, including Christmas Eve. Dad was an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden, and used to go out at night with a steel helmet, a gas mask and a whistle, to watch for enemy aircraft. He had a small white oval badge with a gold crown at the top that said, ‘Civil S.A. Defence’ and an ARP armband. After the War he received a Certificate of Recognition that we hung on the dining room wall.
We also had a bomb shelter in the back yard – a deep pit that Dad dug with room enough to accommodate us all. Over the top were sheets of corrugated iron and a huge mound of dirt. He fashioned earth steps down into it and benches along each side with a couple of small alcoves for candles. The earth had a fair percentage of clay in it, and it was impossible to enter the dugout without becoming soiled. Even so, after the War, the kid next door and I loved to play in it until Dad filled it in again.
Dad and Mum never attended church, but they did send us to the local Baptist Sunday School where I think Mother sometimes played the piano and may have taught some classes. Here the Nativity story was faithfully presented every year. So although there was never any overt mention of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day in our home, we children must have known something of the holy wonder of Christmas. I do know that before I went to sleep at night, Mum always sat with me while I prayed to Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild to ‘look upon a little child’ and asked Him to bless Mummy and Daddy and Ken and Coralie and a few other relatives and friends.
I don’t know if the church had a Christmas Day service or not, but a few years later, when I was about fourteen, the church young people did go carol-singing on Christmas Eve. We all clambered on to the back of a truck that someone unearthed for the occasion. At the time, it seemed like a crowd although there can’t have been more than a dozen of us. We drove around the area, stopping outside the homes of various church families and singing – with more happiness than harmony – ‘Silent Night’ or ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ or ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. I took my piano accordion with me and tried to play the songs. I shudder to think what it all must have sounded like, but we were enthused and excited to do it. But I am jumping ahead.
Several things stand out in my childhood memory. I remember sitting on the floor one Christmas looking at a small pile of Christmas cards with winter snow scenes and pictures of a jolly Father Christmas. For me, as a child, these were objects of wonder and delight.
On the first Saturday morning in November, we used to join the tens of thousands who thronged the city streets to watch the Christmas Pageant. This was an annual parade commenced in 1933 by John Martin’s, or ‘Johnnies’, as it was popularly known, Adelaide’s home-grown and well-loved department store – a parade that was to grace the city for decades. There were several bands, hundreds of dancers and clowns and dozens of marvelous moving floats depicting nursery rhyme and story book scenes. Every participant was an employee of the store. There was mounting expectancy as we waited for the floats that would signal the climax of the parade, where two pretty little girls specially chosen from staff families each year for the task, would appear high above us, waving their magic wands, as they sat astride the rocking ponies Nipper and Nimble – ponies that every child could later ride in the store’s Magic Cave if they were prepared to queue up long enough. Then came the person we were all waiting for – Father Christmas himself. There he was, atop his reindeer-driven sleigh, standing in the November sun in his hot red suit, waving and smiling as he drove past.
Coralie was the creative one. At home, under her direction, we used to take large rolls of coloured crepe paper and cut them into long strips. These we stretched across the window frame or to the four corners of the room from the single, plain kitchen light, suspended on hanging flex that was twisted and tightly cocooned in brown woven cloth. Sometimes we made paper chains by looping short pieces of crepe together and gluing them in place. Of course, we had no self-sticking tape in those days. We used to mix flour and water to make a serviceable glue. It was a messy and tedious process, applying it, smoothing out the lumps and wrinkles, wiping away the spilt blobs and waiting for it to dry. But we did have a sense of pride and satisfaction when the job was done. We did something similar at school, too, but there the teacher allowed us to use silver paint and gold tinsel as well. Even today, gold and silver evoke nostalgic memories of the magic of childhood.
But the thing that stood out above all was the muscle-tensing, breathless anticipation of receiving Christmas presents. We always went to bed at the usual time, but the combination of the hope of brand-new gifts and the effect of another of those bright Adelaide summer mornings when the large sleep-out windows shone like arc lights under the flaring rising sun, made it impossible to sleep in.
Gifts were usually left on the floor at the foot of the bed. We could hardly wait to open them. Perhaps I should say that I could hardly wait. By the time I can remember, my brother and sister were hitting their teenage years and if they had known the expression they would have thought themselves too ‘cool’ to show much excitement. But Ken admits there had been a couple of occasions when he had forced himself to stay awake till Dad came in with the presents. It seems that by threats and cajoling, Dad convinced him that he really was Father Christmas and that if he didn’t believe it there would be no gifts in the morning!
I remember one sultry, overcast Christmas Day when I received a small Hornby clockwork red British mail van. Along with my modest collection of Dinky Toys, I played with it for hours on the cool, cement floor of our front verandah.
Prior to her marriage, Mum used to work for a publishing company, as her sister still did, and so we usually received comics or books of some kind. And then there were the Ezybilt sets – wonderful metal building toys that Ken and I played with for hour upon hour. Ezybilt was a local version of the more expensive English Meccano set. With its centimetre-wide thin green and red painted steel strips punched with small holes, its steel plates, similarly perforated, and its various wheels and numerous child-size nuts and bolts, it was possible to construct models of all shapes and sizes of anything from a house to a train. I can still recall the unique metallic smell of those fascinating pieces.
Once, Mum invited Ken to select a set of his choice which she later laid by for Christmas. Impatient curiosity got the better of him and one day, he sneaked into her bedroom and searched high up in the dark double-doored wardrobe to peek at the parcel. To his dismay, it was not the set he had chosen, but a cheaper one. It was still probably more than Mum and Dad could afford, but Ken says he never got over the disappointment. Now, in his seventies, he is building Meccano models himself and his childhood dream is finally being realized!
There were also lead soldiers with whom many a battle was won or lost on the bedroom floor or on the carpet runner in the long passage that split the centre of the house. Ken was always more mechanically minded than I. He used to melt lead and cast his own toy soldiers in a bed of sand set in a flat biscuit tin. He tells me that on one occasion, I asked him if the container of melted lead was hot. Under the spell of big-brother wickedness, he told me to touch it and find out. I don’t recall the incident, but he does – no doubt because of the thrashing he got afterwards with Dad’s wide, leather razor strap.
Christmas dinner was special in our home. Mum used to sweat over the gas stove, sometimes in near-century heat (around 40 degrees Celsius), to prepare a traditional roast dinner. She always made a Christmas pudding in which she hid silver coins – mainly threepences and a few sixpences. Shillings were too valuable even for such a time-honoured Christmas tradition. Eating the pudding was an exercise in suspense to see who would find the most. We would examine each mouthful before consuming it, looking for a faint gleam of silver or a distinctive shape. We had to chew carefully, lest we chip a tooth or even worse, swallow some money! And we would watch each other’s side plates eagerly to see who had the largest pile of brown-stained coins, some with pieces of pudding still stuck to them. They would be washed later when the meal was over.
Then on Christmas night, we would all go to Grandma Penno’s place for a family gathering. This required a twenty-minute trip by tram, but as the tram lines ran right past her house, it was easy enough. And anyway, as we had no car, we were used to it: we did it all the time.
I can’t remember ever seeing Grandma anywhere other than in her own home. I suppose she must have gone out sometimes, but I can only ever picture her sitting in her kitchen. She had a dumpy figure, a perpetual smile, white hair, round glasses and a kindly manner. Knowing nothing of family politics or any of the affairs that are so important to grown-ups, I just liked her and the way she was always nice to me. Her daughter Gwen, Mum’s younger sister, and her husband Jimmy, lived with her and looked after the place.
At Grandma’s, my mother’s three sisters and her brother and their families would also assemble. It was fun to catch up with our cousins and to play in the huge back yard with its sprawling open concrete and lawn areas and huge shed, originally built to accommodate Grandpa Penno’s trucks and hay wagons. The boys had fun clambering over and delving into Grandpa’s treasures – saddlery, an old cart, tools, timber. But Grandpa and Grandma had long been separated and his name was rarely mentioned in her house.
After tea we would all crowd into her living room where we crammed on to the couch and lounge chairs and extra seats were brought in. Normally this was a dark room, rarely used, with mystical amber glass panels in the hallway that glowed like deep, dying suns, when the light was right. Auntie Ol would sit at the pianola while Uncle Doug, her husband, entertained us with old Scottish songs. Ol was a talented pianist and she played with energy and verve. She was wiry, with shining eyes, and although Uncle Doug was a big man with a red face and a bulbous nose, in her presence he was as meek as a kitten. He sang the same pieces every year but we never tired of hearing them. One of his songs complained kindly about female perversity and another said how nice it was ‘to have your breakfast in your bed on Sunday morning’ – a sentiment I have never been able to echo as nearly all my Sundays ever since have involved rising early to go to church. As it happens, I don’t like eating in bed anyway.
Then with our Boomerang Song Books in hand, we would all join in with other well-known pieces but not, if I recall correctly, Christmas carols, although I may be wrong about that.
In between times there were snacks and Woodroofe’s lemonade. I can still recall the pleasure of the tanging taste of that delightful drink – a beverage we could rarely afford at other times – and the mischief of the tiny bursting bubbles that danced so tantalizingly up your nose.
Earlier in the day, we kids would also sit at the pianola and make music. We had no musical skill, but who needed it when all you had to do was insert a music roll and pedal away with your feet while the piano keys did the rest?
But Christmas 1948, sixty years ago this year, was different. We still did some of the same things – hung the streamers, opened our presents, went to Grandma’s. But for the first time, Mother was not there to enjoy the season with us. For on 1 November 1948, at the young age of 40, after only fifteen years of marriage, having endured many months of struggle and torturous pain, she died from cancer.
Some time just before Christmas, my Aunty Pops took me to town for the day. At the time, I couldn’t see any special reason for this. When you are a child, adults do things and you just go along with them. Looking back now, I realize she was trying to give me a treat because of Mum’s death.
I suppose the aunties did something for the others as well, although I don’t remember what. Certainly, my sister Coralie found that first Christmas without Mother the most difficult.
Anyway, I dressed in my best Sunday short-trousered suit and Aunty Pops took me to see Father Christmas at the Magic Cave. I didn’t want to. I was ten years old now and had learned that Santa Claus was a fake. I thought seeing him was childish. But reluctantly I went and reluctantly I stood at his side and reluctantly I answered his questions. In all the years since that time, I haven’t changed. I still don’t like being manipulated into situations not of my own choosing.
Aunty Pops must have filled me with sweets and cakes that day because I remember being delivered home feeling decidedly queasy. She also bought me a couple of toys, including a light-blue metal water pistol which leaked profusely and had to be re-filled after every shot, usually from the front garden tap. This was guarded by a rose bush whose sharp thorns were dangerous, but not fearsome enough to save the surrounding shrubs from my marauding boy’s feet.
There was no Christmas pudding that year and no coins to be discovered. And although we would continue to celebrate Christmas, there never would be again.
As for Vanessa, in War-torn Britain, she was consigned to a boarding school at the age of three and has virtually no childhood memories of Christmas at all. Of the twelve yuletide seasons she lived through as a child, only one stands out. It was a visit to Brighton where her mother had some important function to attend. There are memories of a large ball-room, of chandeliers and glittering costumes, of music and dancing and of her as a little girl, gazing at it all with wonder, a small, silent spectator in a fairyland world that she would always remember but never join.
It was an emotional experience for her when in 1991, on a visit to England for a conference, we discovered that same ball room in a large sea-side hotel. But the other eleven Christmases lie absorbed into the grey years of her school days when all occasions now seem to blend into one shapeless, anonymous fog.
She has tried to make up for it ever since by ensuring that her children – and her grand-children – have such joyful Christmases that they will never even come close to experiencing such bleak, empty memories as hers.