Early Family Christmas Recalled.

a writing by Denis Barter

All my life I have been very fortunate in having excellent cooks to pander to my gourmet desires! Firstly I was blessed by having a Grandmother that set standards, few could match! None that I ever remember, could outperform, for her culinary skills were incredible. When one considers she had to feed her substantial family of nine children, from a kitchen that boasted nothing but an open hearth and a roasting spit with a large side oven, the results were mouth watering marvellous!

Although her family married and spread their wings to far distant locations, with few exceptions, all would return to the comfort of her generous hearth, for the Christmas get together. This was long a family tradition until her death decided there could be no more. Her substantial cooking was the epitome of Festive Fare even though help was generally given by the closer living (female) relatives, which included my own Mother. Weeks of preparation went into that day’s feasting but I doubt anyone ever thought it an extravagance nor an ostentatious display. Some of the fare on offer, had been quietly put aside for months before December 25th.

Turkey? Not a single one that I can recall for this never was an English choice. I can remember only a few farmers who raised turkeys whilst all raised geese. So our preferred Christmas dinner was always a home grown, fat goose, that gave off an aroma, one could smell from the other side of the village. Pork roast and/or a side of beef! Everything excepting the beef, was raised on their five acres of land which contained a small orchard from which home made cider was made, and about two acres of vegetable garden. Roast potatoes, salt preserved French Runner Beans, Swedes (Rutabagas to North Americans), baked Parsnips, Carrots and Marrow.

The side of Beef, was always cooked on a vertical turning spit, with the juices allowed to drip into a large pan placed under. This later made ‘dripping’ which gave rise to the name for such fat, and this, after cooling, was kept in the larder for later use as a ‘spread’. Often put on fresh home made bread once Christmas was over and while it lasted, was offered as a midday snack. If one of the younger and not so young if I remember rightly, turned up at the West Farm homestead, and just happened to suggest they might be a ifle ‘peckish’? Granny would say that she thought there might be some beef dripping left in the larder and would we be inclined to take a bite or two? Few of us ever could resist the temptation to partake of same, and especially when a large slice of bread and dripping was put in front of us!

With all the fat that was consumed, how come there seemed to be few cases of hardening of the arteries? Nor do I remember many of older generation being prone to our common modern illnesses? Another day - another discussion - for I have my own ideas as to why this was so? Not only was there the delicious taste of home made bread, but dripping and the never to be forgotten taste of the jelly that was always found under the thick layer of fat and was to be the ‘icing’ we all wanted! I seem to remember that sometimes Granny as she was affectionately known, would make a beef tea drink from this jelly if there was enough left.

Once the main course had ended and the emptied plates removed for washing in the huge stone sink in the scullery, the Christmas Pudding and Mince ies were ushered in. Generally Brandy had been poured over the pudding and set alight. Shutters were closed for this yearly ritual. Many moans would be heard about the waste of good Brandy. Going up in flames was not the preferred method to enjoy its flavour for many of those seated at the table, and was a ritual that received little support from most gathered adults! There was also a Rum sauce to eat with the pudding as I recall. A spoonful was all we children were allowed. I can still remember its flavour today some seventy years later! They don’t make sauce like that anymore! Mince Pies too were always made with Rum as one of the mixed ingredients and here even the children were allowed to have one. Thinking was that one pie could not contain enough to cause problems. Only the main batch had this extra ‘zip’. Any others afterwards, were lacking the spirit of Christmas but nonetheless, were still a delicacy I for one, enjoyed greatly.

But Christmas Dinner at Grandma’s was a meal never to be missed. Uncles, Aunts and all their offspring, came from far and wide. London, Gloucester, Bristol, Bournemouth, Southampton folks came a day or two before Christmas Day and stayed with whomsoever had a spare bed, room or even a couch/sofa, on which they might sleep until it was time to return homewards. Lord only knows how many would sit down to a meal on Christmas Day in her farmhouse sitting room - one of the few days of the year, this room was ever used as a dining room. The overspill of hungry ‘kids’ with a couple of aunts generally, as chaperones to see no nonsense took place, was in the dining room where normally all meals were eaten. We had the same food as the adults and I can never remember anyone ever being chastised for improper behaviour. We knew that after the event, should we be found misbehaving, the punishment - in the privacy of our own home - was not to be contemplated. But it was a rare occasion when kids stepped out of line, even though our numbers were often in the dozens.

After the main midday meal, kids were told to vamoose into the attic rooms or the barn as adults settled in for a snooze. Women folks invariably got the dishes washed and everything put away whilst Granny and Grampfer (Dorset for Grand Dad) - oh yes he was there too - sat either side of the roaring, open fire, and snoozed. Most of the men folks sat around and chatted, drank beer, cider and whatever had been brought for the occasion and smoked their cigars. Ladies would join them once dishes were done as everyone caught up on the year’s local and family news. Of course this was adult talk and we children were never allowed to listen to the latest gossip was exchanged! Should a younger member of the family enter the room, almost all conversation would cease until they had left.

Most of the time we had home made lemonade but occasionally kids were given a few sips of cider much to the dismay of mothers! Little did they know that we would often help ourselves from the huge cask of cider that always sat in the wood shed. Never too much but enough to whet our whistles, as we termed it. Also made for some sleepy heads later so I have a feeling some of the adults knew of our broaching the barrel, but thought it might be better to let us imbibe a little, that they might later, enjoy less problems!

Christmas tea time was another meal that saw trifles, jellies, cold meat sandwiches, mince pies, Christmas Cake and a whole range of other delights gobbled up as though we’d not eaten only four hours earlier! Of course, for us kids, the highlight was the Christmas Crackers that were pulled immediately after Grace had been said and before any eating began. That was our finest hour! But the tea break was not the last meal either for supper was begun around 10.00 pm, when we would see a truckle of cheese brought out, (roughly 10lbs in weight), more home made bread, cheese crackers, pickled onions, chutneys of all descriptions and perhaps more cold Christmas Pudding. Beer and wine would flow freely and once this was over, then card playing began in earnest. Children either fell asleep or became very crotchety until parents either put them to lie down on a bed someplace until it came time to walk home. We had just over a mile to get home, but I always seem to remember the clarity of the night and the utter calm and silence that enveloped us as we briskly made our way our homeward. Had we been lucky enough to get a snowfall? Then that was the ‘capper’ and made for the perfect Christmas Day celebration. Often we’d arrive home in the wee hours of Boxing Day morning, knowing Mum and Dad would sleep but a few hours. Dad always had to see to his horses around 6.00 am no matter the day or the weather. Don’t ever think he neglected his charges for any reason. In fact we had a small ritual that we enacted every Christmas Day morning. This would see my sister and I accompany him to the stables, and we would then give each horse a carrot and an apple. It was their Christmas dinner and they seemed to know it was a Special Day. Father always added an extra measure of oats into their manger with an admonition, for the horses not to tell his boss, or there would be trouble! Lol! Furthermore I would always take apples to the cart horses for the farm employed some half dozen. On such occasions the Carter too always spent extra time with his charges and gave them special treats. As a young lad in my summer holidays I worked with these same horses. Tractors were not the same.

Today I regret the passing of such Christmas celebrations. The annual ritual which we followed for my early years slowly ended. When my Grandfather died on Christmas Eve of 1942 I was devastated and Christmas never held the same mystique as it had before. By then he and Granny were living in a small thatched cottage and many of the family were at war. But I can look back with great pleasure on those times and know we were lucky to have had such Christmas celebrations as we did.

A Merry Christmas to One and All. Rhymer.

A poem by Kenneth Clark reminded me of this Memoir I had written some years ago. Thought someone might be interested!

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