A sugar pig and a new penny found in '30s stockings
M Y FATHER used to celebrate Christmas Day by lighting the one coal fire of the year in our front parlour.
It was a ritual observed by our neighbours, some of whom called in for a festive glass.
In the 1930s, you had to be a confirmed recluse to spend Christmas without a visitor.
The kind lady next door gave me a silver sixpenny bit and always asked the same question: "Are you ready for Christmas?"
It was years later before I realised that this was a rhetorical question peculiar to Potteries people. Nobody expected an answer.
On the evening of Christmas Day, my parents and I walked to the house of my maternal grandmother, who was half-Irish – and it showed.
The beer flowed and the singing was non-stop.
We survived pretty well without television in those days.
Like most kids, I believed in Father Christmas until I was eight or nine years old, even though one year I knew my father had made the wooden pedal car which stood beside my bed.
Most boys of my generation wanted a Hornby train set.
The girls liked dolls with china faces.
In poor households, all the kids got in their Christmas stockings were an apple, an orange, a sugar pig and a new penny.
Still, most of us went to see Father Christmas arrive on a train at Stoke Station before he rode up to Lewis's store in Hanley in an open carriage, even in bad weather.
After he'd been installed in his grotto, the queues to see him stretched through the store and out into the street.
I once got a parcel from him which contained a tiny teaset.
In the final week or so before Christmas, the store was like Bedlam. You had to fight your way through the crowd, but everyone was good-tempered and it was actually enjoyable.
I hope you don't think I'm looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.
As I remember it, people went round the crowded shops smiling, with no sign of being harassed.
And don't forget, nearly everybody went shopping on the bus, or simply walked home with two armfuls of bags.
On Christmas Eve, I usually made a point of going up to Hanley to listen to Lewis's ladies' choir singing carols in the street outside the store.
All is calm, all is bright, they sang. It really was, without any lavish illuminations.
Later on, we did get a taste of the Oxford Street experience. In 1962, Lewis's went to town with a spectacular display featuring moving figures of Noddy and Humpty Dumpty.
Hanley had seen nothing like it before.
Going back to my early childhood, we rarely had turkey for Christmas dinner but we always managed some kind of roast and were well off compared with families like one I knew who had to rely on the Christmas Hot Pot.
Perhaps you've never heard of the Hanley Hot Pot Fund.
It ensured that on Christmas Day hundreds of poor families were provided with a free hot meal delivered straight to their door.
It ran for 45 years, right up to the start of the Second World War in 1939, and was claimed to be one of the longest-running charities of its kind in the country.
This admirable project was organised by a group of Hanley business people, notably the Taylor family of auctioneers.
On Christmas morning, a team of volunteers cooked and delivered a dinner of baked beef, potatoes and onions.
They were happy to work on Christmas Day.
So were other people in the 1930s. They included postmen delivering cards which had been posted on Christmas Eve. What a service!
Other public servants like the police also had to be on duty.
As a young reporter, I worked on Christmas Day myself several times in the 1950s.
My job was to join the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress on their tour of every hospital in the area.
It might sound like a depressing task, having to visit patients in hospital over Christmas. But if the approach of the civic dignitaries was right, it could be enjoyable and rewarding.
Remember there was no television or even hospital radio to help relieve the boredom for patients so our visits to the wards, however brief, were welcome.
I say "our visits" because I was usually roped in to chat with the patients.
This was particularly the case when I accompanied Len and Doris Barber on the civic tour in 1952.
This pair, I should tell you, had left their own young family in someone else's hands for Christmas Day in order to carry out their public duty.
I knew Len slightly through his association with Port Vale and I must say he and Doris both played a blinder that day.
From the moment we started off at 9.30am at the old Orthopaedic Hospital at Hartshill, Len and Doris were ready to talk to anybody.
At the City General Hospital we met an indomitable lady who said it was her eighth Christmas in hospital.
She was knitting socks for soldiers fighting in the Korean War.
In another ward, an elderly patient who was blind fondled Len's chain of office to confirm that she really was speaking to the Lord Mayor.
Another year I enjoyed myself equally well in the company of Harold Naylor and his wife.
In an inspired stroke, Harold took a toy duck which quacked when he pressed a tube.
He won all hearts.
If you asked me where I had the warmest welcome at Christmas, it would have to be at the old Polish refugee camp at Blackshaw Moor, near Leek, which I visited in a snowstorm in 1960.
It was the bleakest place you could imagine, nothing more than a collection of huts in a barren landscape.
But under the leaking roofs stoical people were putting up decorations.
Many of the older ones had spent previous Christmas Days in far worse circumstances under the eye of German or Russian guards.
To them, Blackshaw Moor was a little paradise.
They told me I'd missed their Santa Claus. He'd been on December 6, St Nicholas's Day.
But we drank each other's health with strong drinks, including one called Bison Herb vodka, the taste of which I can remember to this day.
However, perhaps I'm getting a little sombre for this time of year, so I'll leave you with a little tale I heard about the day Lewis's Father Christmas lost his temper.
I can't say what caused this outburst from the white-bearded gentleman, normally the embodiment of the season of goodwill.
But instead of a familiar ho-ho-ho, he actually swore at a group of children who'd gone to see him.
The kids had a dog with them and one must have said something like "Seize him, Rover".
Happily, the dog merely sniffed at Santa, wagged his tail and then walked off.