David Bouchier: Christmas 1947

Dec 18, 2017

Christmas was the most exciting season of the year when I was a child. I don’t think anything has quite lived up to it since. On Christmas Day itself the house would fill and overflow with aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, my formidable Grandmother, and anyone else who could squeeze in. But until Christmas Eve we were alone, my parents and I, and it was very quiet, the way soldiers describe the calm before a great battle. The anticipation was almost overwhelming.

In retrospect there wasn’t much to anticipate. Compared to a modern Christmas it was a poor affair, materially speaking. We’re talking about London in the 1940s, just after the war. We had strict food and fuel rationing, and new toys scarcely existed. But somehow my parents managed to put on a Christmas with homemade gifts and decorations, and rationed food – especially sugar – that had been hoarded and stretched out. We had to compensate for the lack of material things with sociability. This explains why material things are so popular.

What stays in my mind about Christmas seventy years ago is how dark it was. Everyone used coal fires for heat, so the air outside was full of smoke and the buildings were blackened. Indoors the lighting was dim, as an economy and as a matter of habit left over from the wartime blackout. When the uncles arrived and lit their cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, the smoke indoors became as thick as it was outdoors. It must have been quite Victorian in that way. We didn’t have any white Christmases that I can recall. We had gray Christmases, gray fading to black. Now I’m older I can understand why my family and all the others celebrated Xmas so enthusiastically the way we did. We were doing what we could to push back the winter darkness, as people have done for tens of thousands of years, pushing back the darkness and the cold.

Fire was a theme at Christmas. There were the open fires that sometimes set ablaze the carpet, the chimney, or the cat. There were candles, and some families still had candles on trees, a wonderful incendiary combination. Everybody smoked and tossed matches and cigarette butts about. There were paper chains, and wrapping paper everywhere. Photographs were also risky because flash bulbs were unobtainable. We used a magnesium powder that produced a bright, intense light, hot enough to ignite anything or anybody that came too close. And if all that failed to start a conflagration there was the ritual lighting of the pudding with a generous splash of brandy. The prospect of a fire, for a small boy, was almost as exciting as the prospect of Father Christmas himself. 

Christmas always felt like the edge of something important, which it was, and is – the tipping point of the year when nostalgia is inevitable and even obligatory. It may seem irrational to feel nostalgic for the rather grim Christmas of 1947, but rationality has nothing to do with it.

Have a very happy and safe Christmas.

Copyright: David Bouchier