It’s mid-December. A seven year old boy in crew cut and tiny shorts sits cross-legged on the cold wooden floor of the school assembly hall, singing, or rather miming, along to:
Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir
We will lend a coat of fur
We will rock you, rock you, rock you
We will rock you, rock you, rock you
See the fur to keep you warm
Snugly round your tiny form
Fast forward to 2am on Christmas morning. A short, portly figure creeps into the child’s room, cursing through Watney Red Barrel breath that he really should have delivered on his year old promise to oil the door hinges.
He places the bulging paper sack at the end of the bed, applauding himself for fooling his son once for what might just be the last time, that he is a certain someone else.
Seven hours later, his excitement at receiving the microscope and Beano Annual spent, the child bounds into four inches of new-fallen snow in the back yard. Turning swiftly at the fake Santa’s voice, he is hit full square between the eyes with a gently rolled but deadly fastball. Tears follow as readily as the squeals of delight that had greeted the contents of the sack.
But there is neither time for crying nor testing the capacity of the new chemistry set to blow up the house. The traditional whistle stop tour around the houses of friends and neighbours beckons. The breathalyser, legal drink drive limit and compulsory seat belt legislation have all yet to be introduced, and few drivers think of the potentially dire consequences of having a “drink for Christmas” at every one. It is fortunate, therefore, that Mrs Santa takes the wheel.
And then the main event. Three tables of varying design, height, width and degree of wobbliness are wedged together, and an equally motley assortment of chairs are looted from every available room to complete the scene. Fifteen places are set for a party that spans three generations.
The grandfather, prior to the ceremonial carving of the turkey, leads the toast to his wife and their four daughters-in-law for the preparation of the feast. Secretly, he prays that there will be enough of the bird leftover to lie with his beloved piccalilli in the sandwiches he will take to work at the Royal Navy dockyard.
Even the normally taciturn budgerigar averts its permanent gaze through net curtains onto the street outside to join in the festivities by trilling along to Ella, Dean and Bing on the radio in the opposite corner.
As the remnants of the Christmas and mincemeat puddings are laid away, the cooks, their work done, turn their attention to Billy Smart’s Circus on the small black and white television.
The men are consigned to the kitchen to discharge their traditional washing up duties and the children squabble over who gets the next ride on the new sledge in the snowy back yard. Postprandial slumbers are the order of the next two hours before, prompted by the junior members of the party, it is time for “tree presents”.
Television plays only a peripheral role in Christmases of this era, losing out by mid evening to a family singalong. The favourite uncle, worse for wear from a cocktail of cheap fizz, Party Seven beer and Bols advocaat, leads the traditional rendition of the Music Man who “comes from down your way”. The children wrestle their weariness as they “pi-a-pi-a-pi-a-no” and “umpa-umpa-umpapa” to their heart’s content, their giggling intensified by the bandleader flicking his loose front tooth up and down with his tongue as they sing.
Boxing Day is barely two hours old when the ladies ascend the stairs to sleep, but only after they have, after customary mock protests, prepared Irish coffees for their increasingly inebriated husbands. Their departure lends licence to the grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, male cousins and grandsons to fight for every available inch of floor space in the lounge. A ritual as old as the monarch’s Christmas message or brussel sprouts is about to be played out – the annual “world farting contest”, the title of champion having been proudly borne for nearly a decade by the child’s youngest and supremely flatulent uncle.
But as the boy drifts into a long overdue sleep, his only thoughts are of the seasonal event that is second only to opening of that sack nearly twenty four hours earlier – the Boxing Day football match.