A Proper Black Country Christmas

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Every year he did it, Grandad, he stood up from the armchair in a cloud of Condor Ready-Rubbed tobacco smoke and saluted as our queen gave us her wise words for the year.

The Gorbachev red stain on his head, where the cheap red paper hat had soaked up his head sweat, just added to the occasion.

‘Sit down you daft bugger,’ my dad would shout, cracking nuts onto his BHS jumper, and supping on his Bank’s mild.

But it was as much a tradition, as turkey and pickled cabbage sandwiches and the Radio Times.

The front room was always an explosion of sound, with the telly blaring out – even when no one was watching it. To be honest, it was hard to watch Christmas TV at all, with six adults and three children squashed onto a three piece suite, two deck chairs and mum’s padded ottoman from the bedroom.

My friends used to say, your family are like the ‘Waltons’ all sitting round for meals and chatting away to each other. I never saw it like that though. I used to find the whole thing stressful. Frightened to get up from the table in case someone ‘nicked your seat or worst still your roast potatoes – and my nan always saw it as an opportunity to ask awkward questions about boys and try to embarrass me.

Christmas day, like every other day was like open house. Throughout the year everyone who walked through our front door left with a belly full of toasted cheese or a bacon sandwich and Christmas was no different. Dad’s friends would pop in for a drink when they’d had enough of their own families and nine times out of ten an impromptu jamming session would take place, usually accompanied by Grandad on the spoons, after a little too much Advocaat.

I’d be wedged into a corner with my sister, trying to stop the dog eating the counters from the Connect Four, whilst mum dished out endless plates of sausage rolls and Cadbury’s Christmas collection biscuits.

After a few too many sherries my nan would start her Marion Harris set and start belting out songs from the 30’s, tying the curtain ties around her head and using the draft excluder as a boa, whilst my brother videoed it all on a huge recorder designed for the shoulders of Jeff Cape, not those of a pubescent teenager with a hand as steady as a loose rivet.

I used to dream of the family Christmases, you saw on the Marks and Spencer adverts. Twinkly lights and a dining table with matching chairs, tasteful decorations and the gentle hum of Nat King Cole singing about his chestnuts in the background. That and the after dinner get together when families had eaten just enough to allow them to play party games – instead of my open zipped slouched family who’d overindulged to the point of ‘Gaviscon’ and would only consider games which involved sitting down.

At eight o’clock we would all congregate to watch Morecambe and Wise or the Two Ronnie’s Christmas specials and mum would bring round more food and we would all laugh so much. I’m not sure I got all the jokes and sketches, but I just joined in with the raucous laughing because I gained great warmth from being part of it.

In my early twenties, I had a few Marks and Spencer Christmases and took photos of the beautifully decorated Christmas table for two and the tasteful and lavish staircase in the hall way with its handmade garland weaving through the wrought iron balustrades.

I’m glad I photographed these Christmases, because my memory of them is poor. I can’t remember the food which is so beautifully laid out on the plate, or the smell of the Christmas cake sitting on the ornate and expensive Wedgewood cake stand, nor can I recall the sound of laughter as we watched the afternoon Christmas TV.

Those Christmases, which were filled with expense and tastefulness, turned out to be the very kind I disliked most of all.

So this year, I will be wiping down the garden chairs from the shed, buying new batteries for the Karaoke mike and purchasing a large box of Cadbury Christmas biscuits from Asda. I will be wearing a dress with an elasticated waistline and if I’ve had enough sherry, may embarrass my own children by playing a version of ‘Santa baby’ on the saxophone, with my husband accompanying me on tin whistle. But one thing is for sure, I will be making the kind of Christmas, I want my children to remember.

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