And in those days long past, those never-to-be-forgotten days of my childhood in the mid 1950s, it seemed that Christmas Day took forever to arrive, was over even before it had begun and took what seemed to be an eternity to come around again.
Given pride of place that Christmas in 1956, in the middle of the ceiling above the kitchen table, the biggest most ginormous balloon ever seen. Brought home by my second cousin who worked up along and also abroad in foreign places, it was bright lemon yellow and the size of a dinner plate even before it been inflated. "Need some puff for this one," said dad, as he took another deep breath, his face red. Eventually, and with the aid of my Raleigh bicycle pump, it was the size of Tiny Tim's Christmas dinner goose.
It was much admired, except by my aged maiden aunt who tut-tut-tutted, "Whoever heard of anyone wasting a whole florin (10p) on an old balloon. Must have money to burn up in London! More money than sense!"
On the night before Christmas, time stood still and nothing stirred in my farmhouse tree, not even a mouse on the apple-filled slate shelves in the dairy. All was quiet around midnight as I lay in my iron and brass double bed waiting for the sound of a sleigh landing on the roof. The wait, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, bathed in the candlelight glow of anticipation of what I would discover in the stocking hanging at the foot of mum and dad's bed. Excitement mingling with the fear that I might catch a glimpse of the red robed figure whom I had forbidden my parents to allow entry into my bed room.
While trying to stay awake, so that I could call out at the first hint of the bearded stranger's visit, I recalled the events of Christmas Eve. Throughout the morning putting the finishing touches to front room. Checking the holly Christmas tree, cut down by Dad on the shortest day, ensuring the tiny candles were upright in their metal holders. Putting out the box of Tom Smith crackers on the mirrored sideboard alongside the paper bags of almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts and filberts. Finding the nutcrackers.
In the afternoon, sitting with my aunt at the kitchen table as she showed me her mother's scrapbook crammed with Christmas cards and colourful scraps. Cleaning the passed-down family silver cutlery for the Christmas Day roast chicken one o'clock dinner. Her beaming smile at a job well done. On the wireless Mary's Boy Child. "A new carol," she said. "A good one too. Us must copy down the words and get the piano music for that one for next Christmas."
At the end of the afternoon mum handing me a brown paper carrier bag, filled on market day when I'd been left with gran while mum did her 'secret' shop. Edible treats to be set out on the sideboard – a brightly coloured cardboard box containing a dozen tissue and foil wrapped tangerines. A circular wooden box filled with a drift of icing sugar dusted cubes of Turkish Delight. Boxes of Dairy Milk and Newberry fruits, the centres juice-filled. A tin of Bluebird toffees, my favourites the liquorice ones in silver, blue and black wrappers? A bag of sugared almonds, boxes of dates and Chinese figs. A packet of daw figs. "I dearly love 'em," said my aunt, "but the dratted pips get up under my false teeth plate." In the centre of the display the green bottle of Stones ginger wine – 14 per cent proof, for the traditional family toast and visiting relatives.
My final task. Marching proudly through the village to my Sunday school teacher great aunts, who were really first cousins once removed, bearing my hand-painted Christmas card and their Christmas dinner – a plucked, drawn and stuffed farm reared Rhode Island Red chicken. Swapping it for a homemade, crammed-full-of-fruit-Christmas-pudding from an old handed-down family recipe. "Be careful when you eat your slice that you don't bite into something silver and hard," smiled one of my two great aunts who weren't. "And here's something for your money box," beamed the other. Walking home, a spring in my step, two half crowns (25p) jingling in my short trouser pocket, and the pudding in its china bowl swathed in a knotted piece from an old white flannel sheet, dangling from my hand.
When dad had hand milked our seven cows a visit to his widowed sister-in-law and her bachelor brother three miles away. Snakes and ladders, sausage-rolls, ludo, mince pies, tiddly winks, triangular shaped sandwiches, beggar my neighbour, and happy families. And what a happy family it was as we gathered around the old harmonium for carols, with me scrabbling around on the floor pumping the foot bellows with my hands. Later, stepping out briskly, our footsteps echoing in a stillness quieter than I'd ever known. Mum and dad arm in arm and me and my aged maiden aunt hand in hand, my free hand carrying a brown paper carrier. "It's heavier than the one we took. Better presents." Mum laughed, Dad laughed, my aunt laughed and gave my hand an extra squeeze.
No noise on the roof. Trying to stay awa...The next thing I knew it was Christmas morning. Stumbling out of bed, stubbing my toe on my china po. Dashing over the cold linoleum covered landing floorboards into my parents' bedroom. Shrieking with delight as the stocking contents cascaded over the eiderdown in the torchlight. Nuts, a penknife, a Dinky Toys steam-roller, a Jaffa orange, two pink and white sugar mice, spangles, a Mars bar, Fry's peppermint cream, Plasticine, a yo-yo and an I-Spy book. Always the annual Rupert annual.
After breakfast the final visit from the rosy-cheeked sherry drinking "Don't mind if I do. After all it's CHRISTMAS!" postman. From his sack the final cards, a couple with an extra ha'penny stamp and the flaps stuck down indicating, with luck, a postal order or a ten shilling (50p) or pound note. Sadly one contained a letter and the other a white handkerchief with 'D' embroidered in a corner. A parcel with sealing wax on the knot. "Cut though it and we can save the string to use again," instructed my aunt.
Pulling the wishbone. Making a wish, finding the sixpence in the pudding. Knowing smiles passed between mum and my aunt. The Queen's speech on the wireless. Not daring to move a muscle in case my aunt saw me and shook her head. Sitting bolt upright full of pride in my new jumper with bucking bronco cowboys on the chest, knitted by Mum.
Dad returning from hand milking the seven cows, cracking walnuts in his clenched fist; a grenade-crash of exploding shells. Lighting the candles on the tree. Mum and my aunt's super-duper iced cake, proudly wheeled in by mum on her festive tea trolley. Blowing out the candles on the tree so that they could be relit on Boxing Day. Games of Whot! Tell Me and one of my new Christmas games – Crow shoot. One cork narrowly missing my aunt. A withering look melting into a smile. A gentle tut-tut-tut. More games of Summit, Lexicon and Snap.Wearily wending my way up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire.
New Year's Eve and that was when it happened.The seismic event which shook my farmhouse tree to its very roots. An explosion which reverberated through every branch. Rushing into kitchen, my aunt out of her chimney corner chair, clutching the kitchen table, her knuckles white, her fingers trembling. "I thought the house was coming down around my ears. Nearly pitched me into the fire."
Stifling a grin, my aunt too shaken to notice and tut-tut-tut. Dad guiding her back to her fireside chair and receiving a withering look when he said, "The old year is going out with a bang!" A small tot of brandy. "Strictly medicinal. Shock," said my aunt. "Dratted thing. Worse than they indoor fireworks you had last Christmas."
At the end of the old year as I welcome in the new year, the lemon-yellow balloon explodes in my brain and I see again the tattered hanging fragments above the kitchen table, each one representing a memory of those happy carefree days of childhood Christmases spent in my farmhouse tree.