’Tis the season to be ... told about how much better things were in the old days

We can thank the Dutch for Christmas stockings and treats beneath the tree

We can thank the Dutch for Christmas stockings and treats beneath the tree

First published in What's On

My earliest memory of this time of year was a thrilling Christmas Eve spent with my father, somewhere in London. It was a dark, chilly night but the braziers of the chestnut sellers provided warmth as we squeezed by in the close confines of a street market.

We were men with a mission. It wasn’t impossible, but we had until 6 o’clock to find ‘our’ turkey. Not just any turkey, but the one that was to be presented before the rest of the family in less that 24 hours – stuffed, roasted, and with a crisp, golden finish to its skin.

My father attached much importance to this task, and his enthusiasm had definitely rubbed off on me. Sure, we could have gone to the first butcher we came across and boarded the next No. 83 bus home.

But there was more to it than that. Amidst the barked cries of the market traders and the urgent hustle and bustle of the last-minute shoppers, there was a calm assurance from the man holding my hand that ‘our’ bird was waiting just around the corner. It would be just the right weight, just the right price and most certainly would not have been dead for more than a couple of hours. We wanted something fresh.

He always knew what he wanted, my dad, and on this particular night we were not to be disappointed.

That was a few years ago, but every person in every household could share a similar story of Christmas mini-adventures of years gone by and instil in their children and grandchildren the importance of those special seasonal memories.

Grannies, grandads, uncles and aunts will all have stories to tell. Nobody can deny the importance of passing on family traditions and tales of years gone by as seemingly trivial events take on huge importance as each person’s tale offers perspective to the current Christmas experience.

But how did we come to do what we do today? How was our Christmas shaped by the men and women of the early twentieth century and what influence has their behaviour had on ours?

Gifts have been exchanged at Christmas and New Year for many centuries. By the early 1900s the supply of huge ranges of gifts for children and adults grew immensely. The streets of major cities thronged with shoppers in the days up to Christmas, and Christmas Eve was especially busy.

The Advent season was nowhere near as long as it is now. This year, Christmas displays were in the shops as early as the end of September, but in the nineteenth century it would be late December before people started to capture the Christmas spirit.

However, the commercial aspect of Christmas was evident from an early age. Manufacturers and shopkeepers of all sizes sought to capitalise on their earning potential at this time of year. Gamages, a huge department store in London, had close to 500 pages of gifts in their Christmas Bazaar catalogue of 1913.

Presents for children abounded, from simple, wooden farmyard animals to grand rocking horses. Board games, colouring books and soft toys were also popular.

In pre-politically correct days toys were targeted at the sexes, so boys could have tin soldiers and train sets while girls were given dolls and skipping ropes.

Some small gifts were left under the Christmas tree, but a simple Christmas stocking (often one of grandad’s old long socks) would be filled with inexpensive little gifts by Father Christmas on Christmas Eve.

This custom came from Holland, where children left their shoes with straw as a gift for Saint Nicholas’s horse. His part of the deal was to replace the straw taken away with a gift, to show appreciation for their thoughtfulness. The shoe would be empty if the children were considered to have been naughty.

So it’s easy to see how Christmas shopping, surprises, and visits from Santa in the dead of night came to form such a central part to the festive experience through the generations.

The challenge today is to preserve the wonder for our children and to provide them with a personal experience that they can take forward to share with theirs.

My dad probably thought nothing of that trip to the market all those years ago. But it left a big impression on his little lad.

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