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LETTER: Memories of Christmas from long ago

At the end of the Second World War, I was a youngster. My family lived in the country on the outskirts of Sussex in England.

Along with plenty of other families, we knew well what it meant to hear our tummy’s rumble with hunger. Each person had a ration book with stamps for food; those stamps represented your allowance for the week. The amount of food was meager, and had to be handled with care to make it stretch a week.

Our parents did their best; my father rented an allotment where he grew vegetables to try and fill our plates at suppertime. My mother made jam and steam puddings, anything that would fill our hollow legs. When the local farmers killed their sheep off, she would buy the scraggy ends, mostly bone, but with lots of veggies she managed to turn it into a tasty Irish-Hotpot, we really felt like nobility on the few occasions we feasted on a meal like that.

Mrs. Hill was the elderly lady who ran the small country store, if there was a Mr. Hill around, we never saw him. Mrs. Hill was a friendly person, who lived behind her shop and kept chickens in her garden. She often slipped the children a tiny piece of licorice along with a wee smile. Sometimes she would give my mother two extra eggs, this was not permitted; the government had inspectors touring the shops to check on shopkeepers. However, Mrs. Hill knew the hard times families faced and tried to help if she could, despite the fines she might be subjected too.

Christmas was a time, even when the bombs were falling, when parents tried to make the best of it for the sake of the children; as young as we were, we learned to live with fear but not to let it paralyze and totally shut out happy occasions.

About three weeks before Christmas, my dad would dress me up warmly, and with his old saw strapped to his bike, plonk me on the cross bar and off we would go up the road. A Christmas tree was our target, I don’t know who owned the woodland, some duke or earl maybe, but no one seemed to mind in those perilous days, the neighbourhood was poor, and we helped one another as best we could.

That night my mother would gather us around the little tree and decorate it with the few bobbles she saved from year to year: three red bells, four gold trumpets and two silver deer, white cotton wool in thin shreds covered the tree which was supposed to represent snow, with a wee silver angel sitting on the top branch. No twinkling lights on our tree – we did not have electricity then, only gas, but the bubbles shone nevertheless from the reflections of the flames in our fireplace. Not much was available at the latter part of the war – special goodies like chocolates and fruit, we dreamed of, but no one had money to buy them, even if they were accessible.

Our Christmas stockings always had a few nuts in the toe; followed by a Mandarin orange and maybe a small toy for my brother, a tiny dolly or puzzle for my sister and me. I can’t ever remember having a turkey dinner, but one year, Mrs. Hill dropped off one of her old chickens that had just died and my mother cooked it anyway. It was the best Christmas dinner ever, and dear old Mrs. Hill tucked in along with us, a memory to treasure for a lifetime.

Happy Christmas to all.

Margaret J. Jestico

Saanichton