Early Christmas Recollections

a writing by Denis Barter

At Christmas our thoughts are often filled with memories of yesterdays past. None are more poignant than those of loved ones now gone. With this in mind, I am reminded of days when, as a young lad, Christmas was a time of great joy. My parents were young, though in our eyes, they were positively ancient! For several weeks before Christmas Day, anticipation built up to bursting point! We thought it would never arrive. Christmas Eve was the longest day of the year and when it came time for bed, our parents must have despaired of being allowed to go to sleep. Finally our complete exhaustion ensured they had a few short hours in which to erect the tree; decorate it and to put presents at its foot. Retrieved these from hiding places we could never find, they then filled stockings that were then hung on our bed-posts. All this without waking one of us! Hardly would they have had time to retire and snatch a few hours sleep themselves, before we were awake and eager to open our gifts! Gifts that Santa had somehow miraculously spirited into our bedrooms in one short night! Never once at that tender age, did we ever question or wonder about Santa? Or how he had brought and placed the many gifts around the tree? How he could achieve so much and what’s more, how did he manage to place the names of our favourite Aunts and Uncles on name tags, as the donors of those gifts now held in our hands? He chose well for their contents were always well received by us.

On opening, Mother kept a list of the presents we received and the names of those that had given, so that after the Christmas Holidays were over, we could write the appropriate Thank You notes. She kept an accurate record, for in the excitement of opening these wonderful parcels, it was so easy to lose the name-tag attached. Mother always regarded this as her duty and after a respectable period of time had elapsed, and the novelty of the gifts received was still fresh in our mind, we either wrote those notes, or the presents were removed until such time as we would exonerate ourselves! There were no exceptions allowed to this duty, which even today I regard as no more than being good mannered and polite.

In the week before Christmas, Mother was always most circumspect when the Postman called around 7.00 a.m. Father too had more than a small hand in making sure that Christmas Cards only were delivered to the door. Waylaying the Postman as he arrived in his delivery van - for we lived well into the countryside and all mails were delivered by postal van - Father would accept parcels and interesting packages to spirit them away to a safe keeping place far from our prying eyes, until such time as he deemed it safe to bring them home unobserved! Mother would then hide them in closets and cupboards where we would not be expected to look. This ritual of Christmas never became known to us until our ‘age of enlightenment’ was reached.

When we first realized there was no Santa Claus? We were at first devastated when confronted with this fact! It mattered not our age! It was only the first of many such disillusionments as we grew older and more worldly wise. Along with the realization that there was no “tooth fairy” or “bogey man” it was hard to accept but the time had come for us to say goodbye to our childhood.

One of the more special treats before Christmas arrived, was the Saturday - always a non-school day - when my Sister and I were allowed to go to the neighbourhood town for Christmas shopping with Mother. We rose early: washed, dressed in our Sunday best: waited for the local carrier long before he was due to arrive in our small hamlet. We dare not miss that bus or it would mean no trip to the small town of Dorchester. There was an afternoon bus, but this allowed little time for shopping and Mother would have missed the doubtful pleasure of our company for the day! I wonder she didn’t find it expedient to dawdle until the bus had left, for we must have been a burden to her on such a day? However, it would have meant we had no opportunity to purchase the presents we had so carefully chosen for each other. Needless to say, we always had great ideas of what we were going to buy, but as so often happened, we inevitably had to lower our sights when we found out the cost of such items! How could such simple things cost so much?

Waiting for the bus with perhaps other neighbours, we would nonchalantly stand as though it was our practice to do this every day! By the time it arrived - invariably late - it would be packed to the doors with other Christmas shoppers from the villages along the route. Everyone was determined to do their shopping in the ‘big’ town stores – a relative term when compared with today’s huge ‘box’ stores - on this last Saturday before the Holidays. We would wonder how there could be room for us this day? On occasion there would be a second bus following close behind to pick up the overflow and latecomers. This would depend solely upon whether the owner/operator was able to persuade one of his more trusted village cohorts with a valid licence (though this too was suspect at times!) to give up their much cherished Saturday day off, and drive the older back-up bus for him?

Once we were loaded aboard, there was nothing more to do except watch the hedgerows crawl by. It was eight long miles before we could alight and it was a speedy trip if it took less than half an hour. By today’s standards the trip was very slow, but it was considered a speedy trip in the 1930's!. Being young we thought the journey would never end and we would never arrive! Tediously crawling up the long hills, for Dorset is a land of steep chalk downs which roll endlessly, one after another until they reach the southern shores and the English Channel. Such steep hills brought into play every gear the ancient bus possessed! At times the engine and gearbox were unable to achieve their goal which was the crest of the hill, and some passengers - mostly men and children - would be asked to get out and walk to the summit where they would await the crawling bus before regaining their places on board. Even though the bus epitomized the latest in modern technology and was regarded as the most efficient money could buy, it made very slow progress! Once everyone was safely onboard again, the bus would accelerate rapidly as we swooped down the long winding lanes until we reached the main Dorchester to Salisbury road intersection. Here we would screech to a halt at the Stop sign. Often more by the grace of God than good brakes I’m sure! Continuing a further five miles to Dorchester, the bus would be filled with much good natured banter and comments from passengers - the Christmas Spirit already having an effect upon all. This would continue until we finally arrived at the bus station to disembark and the bus could park at the White Hart public house. This later changed to the Municipal parking lot on Trinity Street.

On arrival we would quickly alight and join the ever growing throng of eager shoppers who appeared to rush in all directions without seeming to have any aforethought idea as to where they were headed? With admonishments from Mother to stay close to me; don’t touch things that are not yours and don’t dawdle, we would join the mainstream throng of shoppers and hurriedly set off on our exciting Christmas shopping adventure! But first we had to endure the humdrum! Impatient to see everything that we thought was there for our pleasure, we could not understand why first the weekly staples had to be purchased? Could groceries and other such basic needs not be bought at another day? We were all primed and pumped up for the purchase of gifts and Mother insisted she had items to buy which were not readily available in our local village store! Heaven forbid that she decided it was an opportune moment to buy us some new clothes? At the village store her choice was very limited, even though to this day I cannot believe that such small village stores could and would stock such a wide variety of goods as they did! They could be likened to a miniature department store, for the village shopkeeper was well aware of his need to keep the local population happy and satisfied, if he was to succeed and thrive.

The days when villagers would only visit the town stores once or twice a year, was fast disappearing. Once the owning of private cars became common and buses ran more frequently - we later had two such local carriers which were beginning to transport larger numbers of people on a regular and relatively more frequent schedule - the demise of the village store soon came about and for the most part, they are now a part of village history!. Saturday bus schedules were soon augmented by Market Day buses, while a greater variety of locations – Blandford, Salisbury, Poole, Weymouth, Yeovil, Sherborne etc., - could be found. Not always a convenience enjoyed by all, but it served to open up our horizons to a degree as never before known.

Finally, with the essential shopping out of the way, Mother would tell us it was now time to visit the toy stores; the book stores, and lastly but not least - the candy stores! Quickly the time would speed by as we dashed from store to store looking for that special gift which we thought would be perfect for our loved ones! There would be a constant crush of people, most had small children such as ourselves, in tow. Tired and crying many would be forced to give up their plans, to return to the comfort and shelter of the buses. They always waited where they had been parked on first arriving, and often proved to be the only place where one could take a respite from the crowds that bustled and jostled one another without a break. Besides our own bus there would be numerous buses from other outlying areas parked and waiting for their own departure time. Whether we had finished our shopping or not, Mother would eventually exclaim that the bus will be leaving shortly and unless we returned forthwith, we would miss it! A disaster we thankfully never experienced.

Hopefully when we returned to take our place, there would be a seat for Mother. If not, the chances are a courteous male passenger would offer up his own. This was a true sacrifice if they had been walking around the streets for some hours. It was a sacrifice for which Mother would duly thank her benefactor and sink gratefully down to rest her tired and aching feet. No man, unless crippled or with some other serious physical handicap, would ever think to sit while a woman remained standing! Likewise, no child ever sat while an adult stood. If we were overly tired or hard pressed to stand there were times we might be offered a kindly knee on which to sit. Everyone knew everyone and we trusted all without needing to fear otherwise. Today it is hard to see or find such chivalry and courtesy as it was practised then! Few of today’s youth appear to possess sufficient good manners nor would they show any regard or compassion for older bones.

When everyone had climbed on board: often heavily laden with their many purchases, the bus would depart for home. There would be a certain festive air as good natured ribbing and repartee flowed back and forth. Some of it would be from the more timid and shy who like such folks, lose some of their inhibitions after they had imbibed a few draughts of ale at the local tavern. Situated conveniently close to the bus park! Our own trip was the shortest of all, for we were the first hamlet at which the bus stopped. As we alighted, Mother would check that all our precious parcels and packages were off loaded, before we set off willingly to trudge the path home. Not a long walk but when heavily laden and tired, it could be the longest quarter mile we’d walk! On entering home, and before all other duties, the kettle, if not already simmering on the stove, was put on to boil! No matter what else was urgent, Mother’s first chore – an essential ritual - was to brew a pot of tea! Often Father would have started to make it as he waited to hear details as we gave an excited account of how we had spent our day. What we had seen and of the many childish pleasures we had enjoyed. Who we had met and the greetings they had sent, would be passed along. Once our enthusiasm and excitement had died somewhat, we were sent off to change back into our daily knockabout clothes and only then would we be allowed to go out to play with our friends. Oh yes, first we had to do our day’s chores. Chores which were our responsibility and always awaited our return, no matter how late or how tired we might be!

We would talk about our trip to Dorchester for days afterwards. Every friend or school chum we met would be regaled with the details of our day out, for it was a trip we seldom took and was truly a high point in our young lives. Often it would be almost as important to us as our Christmas Holidays and would scarce be forgotten when came the time for another occasion to take a trip into Dorchester! The trip would be brought vividly to mind when Christmas Day arrived and the presents we had so diligently sought out and lovingly bought were opened. Suitable exclamations were always made and thanks rendered for our thoughtful selection. I sometimes wonder how many of those awful bottles of cheap perfume or scented soaps we bought, were accepted by our parents with a smiling face, while their smiles hid less generous thoughts? Mother often did use her influence when it came to buying such gifts as these. She would ‘suggest’ perhaps that something else was more suitable? If we found we were bound to buy gifts such as these because our savings would not run to more exotic or expensive gifts? She might on occasion choose to add another shilling or two, but always with the proviso that we had to pay her back later. Of course, we seldom did, but it made us think it was our own money that had been spent! I have often been of a thought that many of those gifts with their devilish aromas, were disposed of afterwards in diplomatic and surreptitious ways unbeknownst to ourselves. But before that happened, after Christmas, when ‘company’ visited, the gifts would be paraded out for their perusal and approval. Always given with the most appropriate ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’. This would be the crowning accolade to our achievements. A most fitting end to our Saturday shopping spree on the Saturday prior to Christmas Day.

Rhymer. December 21st, 2018.
A memory of long, long ag! Circa 1939.

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