Christmas – How it used to be

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Christmas how it used to is how we all best like to remember our childhood Christmases. I have been invited to recall mine and duly wearing my rose tinted memory glasses I will set about stirring the nostalgia cake mix and we shall see what turns up. I have rewound back seventy years to 1951 and we are at number one Alameda House (Humphries) as the estate was named after the building contractors. That year had seen the tragedy of the ‘Bedenham’ explosion in April and Christmas couldn’t have come any sooner. Our old ‘block’ still neighbours the fire station and the sound of a happy gathering reaches my seven year old ears. The legendary seasonal ‘Comparsa’ (quite unmusical and random bunch of wandering carol singers) from the fire brigade off-duty watches were already in fine form and well ‘lubricated.’ They were ready to set out on their annual boozy sing song on Christmas Eve around the fires station perimeters.

Their loud ‘Zambombas’, a small barrel with a skin stretched on top and a cane stalk tied to its centre (‘Carriso’ or noise activator!) which when wetted and rubbed up and down the stalk would provoke a grunting noise which helps mark time, acting as a rough bass and bass drum combined. The ‘Panderetas’ (skin topped tambourines) were rattling away and the hearty singing (could it really be called that?) sent the celebratory echoes of ‘Noche Buena’ (Christmas Eve) around Humphries estate. 

Empty corrugated glass bottles of ‘anis del mono’ would also provide a squeaking noise when a wine cork was rubbed along their sides. A lone guitar or a mandolin really stood no chance of being heard above all that cacophony and the traditional Spanish carols (Villancicos) announced the imminent birth of Baby Jesus, who probably wouldn’t have chosen to be born to that din when he had choirs of angels at his disposal.

We lived on the ground floor of Alameda House and word had it that if they were tipped off, the firemen ‘Comparsa’ would sing at your door until invited in to feed and drink from the modest table laid out in readiness for the family supper. Just imagine the panic setting in for mum and dad thinking that our modest family spread would hardly last thirty seconds and all the beers and the sweet rough wine from Malaga (muscatel) would also be drank in half that time! Well I seem to remember that we survived the ‘raid’ from the good folk of the fire brigade, however I don’t remember how we re- formatted the house later and re-stocked the table for supper that night. My thoughts were only on Father Christmas as I uncovered my ears after convincing myself that there had not been an earthquake in my home.

In the good old days you were primed about what to expect for Christmas. My uncle Tony who was also my godfather had hinted that I ‘might’ get a scooter, which prompted happy dreams and adjusted my tendency to bad behaviour lest Santa would turn up and just gift me a few ‘coal nuggets’ instead of the coveted scooter of my dreams. In the run up to Christmas my mum who was very good at crib making, would have put up a display of little figurines representing the nativity scene surrounded by brown and grey mountains made out of heavy paper with flour dusted on top to make their snow caps. Everything in the crib (Nascimiento) would be ready except for the arrival of the infant Jesus who would magically make an appearance on Christmas morning as we unwrapped our presents of modest toys and confectionary. No plastics in those days. Painted cardboard, wood and tin toys or lead soldiers (we never heard of a child with lead poisoning). 

Never in my wildest childhood dreams could I have imagined that my uncle would build me a scooter in the Her Majesty’s dockyard where he worked at the iron works foundry. It was modelled on the old ‘Mobo’ or Triang brand of scooters that not everyone could afford at the time. Mine was built to last and it weighed a ton! Had I run into a wall I would have demolished the wall for sure. Not to digress, that night Father Christmas came to 1 Alameda House in the aftermath of the fire brigade ‘Comparsa’ visit and without a word helped my parents clear up before depositing a very large brown paper bag which looked suspiciously like a scooter. I was beside myself with expectation but my parents said that the bag was full of old pipes to be used for repairs to the plumbing.

Did I believe them? Of course I did – against my better judgement. The next morning I was allowed out to practice on my big brown scooter which had yellow trim lines, no brakes to tame its savage momentum and military – like heavy duty black wheels which might have come from wheelie bins, had they existed in those days.  When I look back and compare with the present day I feel sorry for the times that surprises don’t happen too often at Christmas. Nowadays the young ones mostly get what they have expressly asked for (demanded?) and budget is hardly ever a problem.

 At the same time I feel thankful and blessed that those early days in my life gave me a sense of community which is the greatest gift after family and good health. Our rough band of street carol singers – the ‘Comparsas’ of yesteryear, exuded real Christmas cheer without making polite excuses or renaming Christmas as simply a ‘holiday season’. Easy on the sherry and mince pies now and have a wonderful family Christmas full of blessings, just like the pandemic had never happened and we were still safely in the EU!     

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