A Christmas memory from 1950

by Margaret Stephenson (nee Pollitt)

The Best Christmas Ever

Margaret Stephenson

I was born in Burnley, in 1941, a war baby. My mam was a weaver and my dad a Military Policeman in the army. His Army Police cap would be hung on the back of the door whenever he was home. After the war he returned and we settled down to ‘peacetime’. He took up work as a French polisher and we lived in a small two up, two down house that had an outside tippler toilet and coal shed.

I was nine years old in 1950, a year which I remember vividly and one of an enchanting Christmas, my favourite to date in fact. It was the year my Aunty Emily and Uncle Billy bought a Wolseley car. In those days cars were a rarity for ordinary working class people. My aunty always thought she was a bit above everyone. It was the talk of the neighborhood and didn’t she know it. This car was polished inside and outside every week till it shone like glass. It was only ever taken out on a Sunday afternoon. The rest of us still got about on horses and carts. The milkman, the coalman and the rag and bone man all used to come around on them.

“there was no such thing as central heating and the ice inside the windows was every bit as thick as the ice outside”

It is at Coal Clough Infant School that I have my first memories of Christmas. This particular year my mam had dressed me in a white organza dress. It was a lovely delicate lacy dress. We would stand in the hall practicing Good King Wenceslas and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. We always sang that one with plenty of gusto! We were getting ready for the festive school play, my dad spent weeks beforehand making me a toy sword and French polishing it. My teacher, Miss Foster, and all the others admired the sword saying how beautiful it was, a real work of art. Nobody was happy though, especially my dad, when somehow I managed to snap the sword during the play. I can still remember the panic I felt then!

Christmas of 1950 was not the over commercialised Christmas we have these days, where everyone knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing and people try to book a meal in some restaurant from September, so they don’t have to be cooking at home. It was always a good old fashioned homely Christmas.

The preparations began a month before when my mam would start to make the Christmas cake. The overnight bake made sure we would sleep to delicious smells that night and get us excited about Christmas. Speaking of smells, there was nothing quite like the little home bakery near my grandma’s house. She lived just off Barracks Road where the motorway is now. This part of Burnley, as so many more have long since gone. Her house was the first over the green railway bridge, which is still there. She lived on Albany Terrace. This particular Christmas we were allowed to go and sit outside it while muffins were made in the big black lead oven. The smell was delicious, as was the taste, once we took them home and smothered them in best butter. It was always called ‘best ‘ butter then. Soft spreads like margarine were just used for cooking.

During the build up to the big day my mam would take me and my sister Mary a walk round the ‘posh’ shops on Padiham Road. There was a newspaper shop across from The Union Public house and it was magical at Christmas. It was always decorated with fairy lights and in the window was lots of toys and annuals. We could choose a toy and two annuals. I always chose Beano and maybe Girl or School Friend then the shopkeeper would put them away in the shop until just before Christmas. My festive excitement was at its highest at this time.

On Christmas Eve dad brought coals up from the fire downstairs and the bedroom lit up with the shadow of the flames flickering on the walls. In those days there was no such thing as central heating and the ice inside the windows was every bit as thick as the ice outside. Usually, we would draw patterns in the ice but not on Christmas Eve, no way! On this night we hung our stockings on the side of the bed in anticipation. Try as we might though we could not keep our eyes open to see Father Christmas.

We were awakened early morning by two things. We would first hear the sounds of The Salvation Army Band singing and playing their instruments on the street corner. They did this every Sunday and people would usually say, “It’s the bloody Salvation Army again!” They were not keen being wakened so early after a hard weeks work but on Christmas Day it was welcomed. There was a renewed spark of seasonal religion and goodwill towards them. I never thought that custom would ever fade out, maybe times were simpler then.

Margaret Stephenson

The Salvation Hall was near to our house and my grandma used to take me and my friends to potato pie suppers there. They were good people.

The next thing we would hear on a Christmas morning would be the Bells of Holy Trinity Church ringing out a festive tune. I loved the sound of the bells and even when I hear them now it takes me straight back to all those years ago.

As soon as I was fully wakened I remember seeing the best surprise of my life. When I was a little girl, we were all dolly mad, we had them all; Celluloid dolls, pot dolls and rag dolls. My sister had a Celluloid doll which she had received for Christmas off my parents the previous year. I was so jealous. I envied her so much and wanted that doll more than anything. My heart was full when at the end of my bed Mary the doll was sat there in a brand-new knitted pram suit plus my dad had made a doll’s wardrobe and dressing table, French polished them both. I was over the moon with happiness. My sister got given a doll’s Silver Cross coach built pram. It was beautiful. We felt like queens pushing our dolls around. Nowadays, I cannot even remember the last time I saw a little girl pushing a doll’s pram. Maybe it’s all this gender-neutral thing these days.

On Boxing day, we always went to The Victoria Theatre, which was near the Empire Theatre on St James Street. This is now ‘DW Sports’. We sat in the gods which was an almost vertical area at the top of the theatre. I never did dare to look down as I was so frightened of falling over. It did not take the pleasure of the performance away though, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Back then its interior was decorated in cream, gold and deep red, a true traditional theatre. My memory fails me as to which particular pantomime this was but what I do remember is that I was happy and content.

Most of the people I spent this Christmas with have all since departed this earth many years ago, times have changed immensely and we live in a much more complex world. It is nice to remember the simplicities of this time, the feelings, the smells, the emotions and innocence. It is nice to look back at the past but we must not stare. To this day this is still the very best Christmas of my life.