- Contributed by
- Frank Mee Researcher 241911
- People in story:
- Frank Mee
- Location of story:
- Norton, Stockton on Tees
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 December 2003
Place: Our Bungalow.
Date: First Saturday in December, 2003.
The cast: Dogs, our kids plus additions, their kids (our grandchildren) and one great-grandchild - in order of the noise they are making.
Mother is cooking up a storm of home-made cakes with trifles all ready, and enough salad and sandwiches to feed an army, as we sit talking about the arrangements for Christmas day. Turkey, duck and ham have to be ordered and collected - and all the other things that go towards the Christmas dinner.
Dad gets to choose the pudding and is in charge of the proper steaming of it, plus the brandy butter, white sauce or creams, none of this microwave rubbish. My daughters are working out menus, arranging for food to be cooked in various kitchens and carried in hot boxes to my daughter Margaret's house, the biggest with the longest room, so that 15 of us can sit down at 13:30 hours and enjoy the meal and the company. The present giving will be after the meal and then we wend our well-filled selves back home to flake out watching the old faithfuls on TV.
Questions: Granddad, what was it like at Christmas in the war? Well! Our Christmas always started with my father and I killing the geese, ducks and cockerels, then my mother with her hand up inside them pulling out unmentionable bits and pieces. 'Oh granddad, please, we are going to have our tea!' I looked at their faces and knew they had no idea even how we lived, never mind what it was like living during the war, and my mind went back.
What they called the Phoney War was in full swing. It was not a phoney war to the sailors of Courageous or Royal Oak, sunk by U-boats. It would not have been much fun for the Fins who had been attacked by Russia and the Fins had won a battle in December of that year.
We had all been made aware that if you struck a match at night you were giving the enemy aid by showing light, the wardens cracked down with a mighty hand. They, with my dad, were sickened to be called dart-playing warriors by a government minister who thought wardens, firewatchers and other lookouts would be better employed elsewhere, even though they all did daytime jobs as well.
As was normal at that time of year, I released the birds one at a time, sending them down to dad who had to kill them with tears streaming down his face. All his birds and animals were his friends until their time came. He did not like it but it had to be done. They were hung on the wash house wall until mother could pluck them - this included removing their insides, an operation I watched with interest, two months off being 11 and wanting to know, it was nothing to me after watching the pigs and other animals slaughtered on a routine basis.
The pudding had been made as a community effort at my grandmother's house in North Ormesby. The whole family gathered for the occasion and us kids all had a stir and watched the silver three penny bits go in. The puddings went into bowls and we each took our pudding home to be cooked for eight hours, then stored until the day. Mother made several Christmas cakes as dried fruit was in abundance for some reason. Like today we then counted down, everything being home made and stored in the deep pantry which was colder than modern fridges. All the vegetables came out of our garden or the storage pies where dad kept the root vegetables and potatoes.
My sister and I woke up on Christmas day to find our stockings on the end of the bed. They were stuffed with fruit and toys, with even some wrapped toffees. As all our sweets at that time were served to us loose in brown bags, wrapped toffees were super luxury and yes, there were still some sweets that early in the war but not for long.
I got a Dinky toy model of the Battleship Hood, a couple of destroyers and two submarines. I did not realise what part the Hood would play in our family later. (See the story Mum, I have been Posted to a Battleship). There were other things to discover and we played on the bedroom floor until Mum called us to wash and breakfast. We then helped Mum - or got under her feet, whichever view you took - and when the meal was ready, the table laid and the candles lit, we sat and ate. A normal family Christmas to all intents and purposes, apart from the fact that there was a war on somewhere.
After the meal and pudding which, surprise, always managed to produce a three penny bit for my sister and I, we cleared the table and got the washing up out of the way. Dad went out and brought in our big presents. I can remember standing there totally frozen as a beautiful new bicycle came through the door. It was a Hercules with straight handle bars and gleaming wheels, exactly what I had wanted but thought I would not get. £4/19/6, it had cost a small fortune at that time.
The blocks were already fitted on the pedals as the frame was slightly large for me to grow into. We wheeled it out on the road and I took off round the Green with quite a few other lads trying out their bikes. We did not realise it but our parents must have thought this will be the last good Christmas for a while, they had heard all this, 'The war will be over by Christmas' rubbish before.
I saw some of my relatives walking up the Green with more presents so went home flushed and happy to another meal and the company of relatives bearing gifts for my sister and I.
After tea, Uncle Peter played the piano for a sing-song while the adults had a drink. The women drank Green Goddess cocktails, a horrible concoction that gave you a headache (I had tried it once when Mum was out). Dad had a whisky, the only drink he had all year and they all sang 'Run Rabbit', 'Its a lovely day tomorrow', 'Roll out the barrel' and others, while Peter hammered the piano flat with his huge ham-like hands. I had to play my party piece, 'One day when we were young' and 'Alice blue gown', which was Dad's favourite, and we all sang it, Peter saying all the while, 'Thump it Sonny! You have to be heard when playing in a pub'. Dad whispered, 'Yes, and the piano tuner must live there' - funny my dad.
They would all leave wearing something white to be seen in the blackout as hundreds had been killed in accidents whereas at that time only a couple had been killed on the front line. A different world indeed, but I remember that and other Christmas days that were not so much different from 1939 for us. I know now we had privileges others did not. My present of the bike was the memorable thing as I now had freedom to go further afield, something we could do safely in those days. We had a week of visits and then another big meal for New Year, after which we were sent to bed while the adults partied.
You see girls, I said, finishing the story, we had such a different lifestyle you cannot picture it, but we did all the same things. The war was there all around us but you had to have some normality and we carried on with life as we knew it. One of them looked at me and said, 'But granddad how could you eat the goose after seeing it killed and what great grandma did to it?' My reply, 'Easy, we were used to that kind of life' - it was how we lived and thought that was the only normal way.
In 1939 it was all done by our parents, everything made in the house. In 2003 it comes from a supermarket, something we knew nothing of - the Co-op store was our big shop at that time. It all still needs the same organising and planning to bring us to the same happy family day, so maybe not too much has changed really.
It was happy in 1939 and I know, surrounded by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchild, we will enjoy this year just as much - but will I get another bike, I wonder.
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