I remember my surprise when I realized that not everyone organized their Christmas Day as we did at home. Organized was the operative word. I suspect I was not a very questioning sort of child. I just accepted doing it our way. It was quite a production, really, and it began before the day itself.
Looped, twisted, and linked chains of colored paper had to be stretched across the downstairs rooms, holly tucked behind pictures, mistletoe hung from light fixtures. The table centerpiece must be set out.
The tree must be decorated. Doing this on Christmas morning was unthinkable. As I grew up, it became my job. The tree decorations were kept in a special drawer. They must have been used for years before I came along. Taking them, one by one, out of that treasure-trove drawer was like rediscovering old friends.
I suppose my parents could have bought new decorations, even though it was the war period. But I would not have welcomed them. I thought the ones we already had and annually recycled were not just satisfactory, they were wonderful – even if one or two of themwere starting to look a bit shabby.
The hanging colored balls, netted with sparkly filigree, were as delicate as eggshells. The tiny papier-mâché birds clipped onto the pine needles never quite managed to balance properly.
One small decoration I loved above all. It was made of glass – a minute songbird in a cage.
The string of lights – large bulbs compared with today's twinkly stars – had old colors that no modern light bulbs seem able to duplicate, particularly the blues (so rich and dark that very little light shone through) and the orange-yellows (like stewed plums).
Then there were the "icicles." These were bunches of very thin silvery ribbons, to be draped strategically. They were not shiny and bright, but a bit dull and remarkably weighty. Could they be shredded lead?
Finally, the drawer contained tiny clip-on candleholders. They were waxy – proof that they had actually been used. Not in my time, I think. But one wonders how many fire brigades had been urgently summoned to houses on past Christmas Days to quench flaming Christmas trees.
On Christmas Eve, we children were no longer allowed to go into the drawing room. All the presents, it was understood, were now laid out, ready on the sofa and armchairs – one for Mum, one for Dad, and one each for two frustratedly impatient boys.
We were very spoiled. But we were also, I think, looking back now, extraordinarily well behaved. We would never have thought of raiding that room.
And we would never, at least before dawn, have plundered the pillowcases suspended at the end of our beds – sackfuls of excitement: tangerines, nuts, sweets, Chinese wire puzzles, Dinky cars, and loads of odd little toys.
Clever adults always managed to hang them there unseen, yet I never doubted they would arrive. I think I am right in saying that we actually waited for permission to open them.
Then we had to wait some more: We had to eat breakfast. Next we had to hang about while everything was readied in the kitchen for Christmas lunch. The turkey had to be basted; the gravy enriched; the bread sauce prepared; the roast potatoes turned; and the sprouts washed, put in the pan, and salted.
I could never understand why all this took so long. It seemed like hours and hours.
At last we were in the drawing room.
And then ... we had to wait even longer. Mum opened her presents first. We watched as every gift was unwrapped – one at a time – the label read, the paper and string carefully saved and placed in a box for reusing next Christmas, and the giver and gift noted in a book.
Thank-you letters would be written later, and it would not do for Auntie Gracie to be thanked for the lovely soap and Uncle Dick for the charming stockings, when they had actually sent a head scarf and a handkerchief.
Mum always had many more presents than anyone else. We all agreed that she deserved this.
Dad did OK, but more modestly. He received an amazing number of socks.
By the time all the presents were opened – the youngest boy coming last, his anticipation by then almost unbearable – we all knew exactly what each person had been given, and by whom.
Years later I observed other families on Christmas Day where the presents were descended upon as if by a pack of wolves, paper thrown wildly in all directions, no one aware of what anyone else had received.
I felt they missed something essential. It wasn't "discipline." It wasn't even just the teasing pleasure of anticipation. It was the enjoyment of watching other people opening their presents.