Peace, Goodwill and Daleks – A Child's Christmas in 1960s London
by Steve Bremner
(Philadelphia, Pa., USA)
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It’s this expat Londoner’s twenty-third Christmas in Philadelphia, Pa., USA and, like everyone everywhere in 2020, what else can I do but sit at home and reminisce? So:
My earliest Christmas memories are of “putting up the decorations.” I loved licking those glue-backed colored strips of paper and sticking them to themselves in interlocked rings to make “paper chains,” although I notoriously lacked the patience to cycle through the colors in order, and was told, “You can’t have three green ones together, Dear, it looks all wrong when you hang it up!”
We had an ancient plastic Christmas tree, which I would help decorate with glass balls, glitzy tinsel, and a fairy to sit on the top. Quite how a fairy fits into the nativity message, I’m not sure. Then again, quite how a conifer fits into the almost entirely deciduous landscape of S.E. England is a mystery. Let’s just do like Topol playing Tevye, and call it “Tradition!”
My favorite thing was the string of colorful lights in the shapes of various animals and fruits. It fascinated Mum that I could name them all at an early age: Parrot! Lemon! Monkey! Banana! She thought her kid was SO clever. But then, don’t all mothers?
I have a mental picture of Mrs. Einstein at a quantum mechanics symposium or a Nobel ceremony, having no idea that she’s talking to the King of Sweden: “Our little Albert used to be SO clever! At four years old he could name ALL his toy farm animals!” But I digress.
Thinking of lights, we made an annual pilgrimage to see “the lights.” Regent and Oxford Streets, those intersecting thoroughfares of Mammon, had lights stretched across the street to lure people into the numerous stores. And little Brother and I just HAD to have our visit to Selfridge’s department store, where we got to meet Father Christmas, (note the correct British name for the red coated, white bearded gentleman), and Uncle Holly.
I never could figure out who or what Uncle Holly was supposed to be. In a green suit, a top hat and white sideburns, he looked like a cross between a jolly Dickensian gentleman and a leprechaun who had lately been embarrassed by a growth spurt. Whatever he was, he shook your hand, poured notional Christmas spirit all over you, and bestowed upon you a badge (pin) with a cartoonish representation of himself surrounded, like the inscription on the US Presidential Seal, by the legend MEMBER OF THE UNCLE HOLLY CIRCLE. This gave you the right to … well … to wear your Uncle Holly Badge in Oxford Circus, I suppose.
Then there was the trip to see “The Tree.” Every year a big Christmas tree would appear in Trafalgar Square. They would deck it with strings of white lights converging under a big illuminated white star. Then they’d have a lighting up ceremony when some celebrity made a speech and pressed a button to turn it on, to which the crowd went “Ooh!” It mostly worked first time, but with the odd glitch that had to be swiftly fixed by a man with a hard hat and a screwdriver.
Approaching “The Tree” on foot as a kid, I was initially underwhelmed. Relative to Nelson’s column, and to the dome of the National Gallery looming over the Square, it didn’t look THAT big. But then you got right up close and realized that, wow, it was hee-yuge! So big that there was a platform at the bottom where each night different choral groups from all over London would stand under it and sing carols.
But one year, in the midst of a materialistic phase, I insisted that Christmas trees should have presents under them. I’d decided that I wanted – no, NEEDED – a Dalek, the evil arch-nemesis of BBC TV’s Dr. Who. Or at least a specific model of battery powered toy Dalek.
Later I would learn that the tree itself was, in fact, a present. During the Second World War, when Norway was overrun by the Nazis, King Haakon fled to the UK. As a token of gratitude for British hospitality, every year since 1947 the people of Oslo have sent a huge fir tree to the UK. It’s arguably Britain’s de facto “national tree.” And they’re still sending them. The 2020 lighting up ceremony had to be done virtually, but once again there’s a magnificent, if socially distanced, tree in Trafalgar Square. Tusen takk, Norway.
But if you’d told me all this back in nineteen sixty-something, I might well have responded, “Talking of Daleks…”
When Christmas Eve came, if we’d had a mouse it would probably have been the only creature NOT stirring, as Mum tried to get us kids to settle down, while we totally failed to do so, and Dad was getting a tad nervous about performing his duty of “letting Father Christmas in” through front door as, of course, Dads must do in a residence with no chimney.
And just as you thought you’d never, ever, ever sleep again … it was morning, there was a sack of stuff beside the bed, and you realized that once again you’d missed the old ho-ho-ho bloke and his reindeer. But … a sack of stuff! Yeehah! And as for “save the wrapping paper”? Bah, humbug!
Yes, I got my Dalek, a true technological wonder. Well, a wonder in those days, and at my age, when “technological” meant a thing with colored flashlight bulbs that schlepped around the floor making wheezing noises until the batteries died and I copped a lecture on the cost of replacements.
Then came … “Get out of those PJs and put some proper clothes on!” Whoops. And THEN came preparation of the Christmas Dinner. (“Dinner” in the working class Londoner’s sense of lunch. The evening meal, however substantially spuds-and-gravy laden, was called “tea”).
I would swing between resenting how long it was taking, and making things take even longer by insisting on “helping” by ineptly shucking peas, or squishing pastry around without much idea of what I was supposed to be doing.
Little brother demanded his turn at the big-boy meddling, Mum worried about the chicken in the oven – until the first year we could afford to worry even more about a turkey – and Dad kept his head down, apart from the occasional cameo appearance as heavy lifter or emergency hammer-and-chisel can-opener.
At last the main course was served, with veg, roast potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. We kids knew “the bird” would taste better when you picked the cold carcass, (and better still if you did it on the sly).
Nice main course, Mum, but we were waiting for “the pud,” British Christmas pudding, a dense, dark brown glob of fruits, candied peel, citrus, treacle (molasses), dates, anything else the cook’s mother told her to throw in, or perhaps told her not to – and an undisclosed amount of brandy. All topped with the runny yellow “foolproof instant” custard that Mum always had to thrash for ten minutes to get rid of the lumps. Before the custard, Dad would pour brandy on top of the pudding, set fire to it, and bring it into the candlelit room. We kids would go “Ooh!” at the ethereal blue flames, and for all I know Dad would silently go “Aah!” at the ethereal odor of the brandy – by that stage, no doubt, being in need of a good shot. For all I know he might have sneakily had a good shot already… But again I digress.
Woe to the eater who rushed down their pud with no regard for the threepenny bits! Tradition had it that everyone should “miraculously” find a small silver coin in their portion of pudding, about the size of a current US dime. There was some debate as to whether it’s correctly pronounced “threppenny” or “thruppeny,” so let’s use the old notation for three pre-1971 pennies, and call it a 3d.
As a kid I was amazed that we each got exactly one 3d. How did the pudding know how to do that? The answer, of course, is that pud is squidgy stuff, so while divvying it up, you discreetly shove one 3d in each person’s slice, then cover your traces. This worked fine … mostly.
One year, little brother proudly proved his adulthood – I think he was six – by finishing his pud first. Tada – clean plate. Clean to the extent of not exhibiting the 3d on the side, required so Mum and Dad could satisfy themselves that you hadn’t swallowed it. The rest of us had already put our 3d on view.
Consternation! Dad was bracing himself for an expedition to the Children’s Hospital emergency room. I was being “practical” by suggesting that Dad and I should hold Bro upside down by the ankles and shake him to see if the 3d dropped out. And Mum was saying, “One day, Dear, we’ll look back on this and laugh,” which we all knew actually meant, “Holy crap, I can’t handle this!”
Dad decided that whatever was about to happen, he would first finish his pud, and … ker-runch … OWW! He’d chomped down and damaged his full set of dentures on … a second 3d bit. Dad had been “blessed” with two 3d’s, while Brother got none. Mum and Dad audited the pool of 3d’s, declaring them to be all present and correct. Distracted by something – kids, perhaps? – Mum had put two 3d’s in Dad’s, and none in Brother’s.
Happy ending. Except that Dad grossed out Mum by putting his dentures on the table to inspect them for damage. Wow, I thought, Dad’s really lucky. If we bust our teeth, we have to go to (shudder) the dentist. Dad can simply take ‘em out, have a look, and stick ‘em back together using that epoxy stuff. So convenient and practical. Yay, falsies!
Isn’t it odd how you have to be older already in order to appreciate the classic advice to youngsters: “You’ll understand all this when you’re older”?
And perhaps the last laugh goes to our friend the tacky plastic toy Dalek. In those days it was precious to me. Today, Google tells me, if it’s still out there somewhere, it’ll be precious to all sorts of people as a “vintage collector’s item,” especially in its original box. (“Don’t throw out the wrappings!”) As the British don’t say at Christmas: Go figure.