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On Christmas Day

December 25, 2023
by the gentle author

If you need an excuse to escape, why not join me for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS on New Year’s Day?


Click here to buy GIFT VOUCHERS for The Gentle Author’s Tours – the ideal present for friends and family – and I will send a handwritten greetings card to the recipients


It has become a tradition to publish this memoir of my childhood Christmas each year. There are only a very few printed copies left now, which are available by clicking here.



Over successive Christmases, as I was growing up in Devon, I witnessed the disintegration of my family until today I am the lone survivor of the entire clan, the custodian, charged with carrying the legacy of all their stories. Where once I was the innocent child in the midst of a family drama unknown to me, now I am a sober adult haunted by equivocal memories of a conflict that only met its resolution in death. Yet in spite of this, whenever I examine the piles of old photographs of happy, smiling people which are now the slim evidence of the existence of those generations which precede me, I cannot resist tender feelings towards them all.

I was an only child and, though I wished for playfellows occasionally, I do not regret my childhood solitude because the necessity to invent my own amusement gave me my life as a writer. Since there were just the three of us, I had quite separate relationships with my mother and my father, and I never perceived us as a family unit. My father’s parents and my mother’s father died before I was born, and so it was only when we went to visit my grandmother at Christmas that we were forced to confront our identity as part of a larger tribe.

Even the journey to my grandmother’s house, a mere forty minute drive over the hills, was fraught with hazard. As I lay in bed surrounded by my presents newly-unwrapped on Christmas morning, I could hear my parents in the kitchen below discussing which was the greater risk – of skidding on black ice on the upland roads or getting washed away in floods surging down the valleys. Though, throughout my entire childhood, we never encountered any mishap on this journey, even if the emotional dangers of the visit were immense.

In the week before Christmas, my mother would have her hair ‘done’ in hope of passing her mother’s inspection on Christmas Day and as we climbed into the car, even as she closed the door, she would be checking in the mirror and repeatedly asking, “Do you think my hair looks alright?” Complementing my mother’s worry over her hair was my father’s anxiety over his engine. As the owner of a series of secondhand wrecks bought on the cheap, he was reluctant to undertake any journey that involved an incline, which proved to be something of a problem in Devon. Consequently, journeys of more than a few miles were uncommon in my childhood and our rare summer holidays were taken at seaside resorts less than twenty miles from home.

While my parents sat consumed by silent dread in the front of the car on Christmas morning, I was naively entranced by the passing landscape, with its bare fields sparkling in the frost or puddled by rain, and the old cottages punctuating the hedgerows. Over the years, I grew to know this journey intimately and experienced a child’s delight in the transformation wrought upon the landscape by the changing seasons. Yet the final steep descent into the small town of old stone buildings where my grandmother lived was always accompanied by a corresponding rise in tension. My father’s palpable anxiety about black ice coinciding precisely with the approaching ordeal. Invariably, we arrived as late as he could manage and, parking in the yard in the back of my grandmother’s house, pass through the wooden garden gate and walk slowly down the path in trepidation to arrive at the kitchen door.

Inside the house, my grandmother would be discovered at the scrubbed wooden table, beating something vigorously in a mixing bowl, smoking a cigarette and still dressed in the fur coat and velvet turban she wore to church that morning. One memorable Christmas, she cast down her wooden spoon as we entered. “You look a fright, Valerie! What have you done to your hair?” she exclaimed, advancing and running her fingers through my mother’s hair to dishevel it. My mother ran through the hallway, up the stairs and along the passage to lock herself into the bathroom, as she re-entered the emotional drama of her childhood in the place where she had grown up.

It was the last house in the town, a late-Victorian villa at the end of a line with only fields beyond, and I was entranced by its gothic architecture. The stained glass porch with colourful encaustic tiles was the threshold to a dwelling which contained mysteries from the years before I came into the world. This was an effect compounded by the hallway, with its ancient grandfather clock whose chimes conjured an atmosphere of stately gloom and dark wooden staircase ascending in a spiral to the upper rooms where the ghosts of the past dwelled. Halfway up the stair hung an old oil painting in a gold frame of sailboats emerging from the mist like apparitions coalescing from the miasma of time. Yet even this also contained a mystery of its own, since I was led to understand that there was another painting that might be discerned beneath this nineteenth century nautical scene, which had been overpainted upon a seventeenth century Dutch interior.

Dominating the hallway at Christmas was my grandmother’s spectacular annual display. Each December, she arranged winter foliage in a gleaming copper jug upon the oak hall table as the climax of her year’s endeavours in competitive flower-arranging. When the carpet crunched beneath my footstep once, I lifted it to find beech twigs pressed between sheets of The Daily Telegraph. My discovery occasioned a complex explanation of the alchemical magic of standing beech branches in jars of glycerine to preserve the leaves which might then be flattened beneath the carpet until November, when they could be sprayed gold to serve as the flourish in my grandmother’s festive arrangement of holly, scots pine, ivy, and Christmas Roses.

Of equal fascination to me were these Christmas ‘roses’ which were like no other roses I had ever seen and grew close to the ground beside an old wall in my grandmother’s garden. With their curious, pale wax-like petals which came into flower when all the other plants died away, I believed they were unique to her and their extraordinary qualities were an expression of her mastery of nature itself.

My grandmother occupied a prominent position within her immediate community. It was a status that was confirmed when she undertook the role of Elizabeth I, enthroned upon a float in the town carnival, outfitted in a starched lace ruff and a dress of embroidered velvet and satin spangled with pearls. The other members of the Women’s Institute dutifully enacted the supporting roles of ladies in waiting, clad in second rate outfits and offering obeisance to their omnipotent monarch.

Naturally, she had conscientious reasons for wrecking her daughter’s hairstyle that Christmas morning. The act was an expression of the burden of responsibility that fell upon her and she could not avoid it. She had been brought up to be particular, educated into the expectations that are the birthright of the privileged, and she wore her fastidiousness as a badge of honour. As the youngest daughter of a declining aristocratic family without any inheritance, my grandmother gamely overcame the obvious disappointment in her marriage to a bank manager and still hoped to reassert the fortunes of her noble line by marrying my mother off to local land-owning gentry. She felt it had been churlish of her daughter not to co-operate.

Yet my mother’s most cherished possession was a copy of Cicely M. Barker’s ‘Book of the Flower Fairies,’ inscribed by my grandfather “To the little girl who loves all the wild flowers” and she dreamed of going to university to study Botany. She had no interest in cultivating the attentions of boorish yeoman farmers. Instead she escaped, climbing over a wall with her suitcase at night and fleeing from the typing and secretarial college where she had been sent when the possibility of higher education had been denied her. Running away to the nearest market town, she took a room in a lodging house, found employment at the local library and married my father, who was the handsome centre-forward in the city football team and worked as an engineer at a foundry.

Consequently, my mother’s marriage was the death of my grandmother’s social aspirations. And since my grandfather gave up his position as a bank manager to go on the stage, pursuing an energetic career as a conjurer in vaudeville that led him to an early grave, she became a lone sentinel of her class. Mercifully, the bank granted her the right to stay in the house that he had rented from them on favourable terms, leaving her domestically secure yet struggling to keep up appearances for the rest of her days.

She displayed no photographs of my mother or my father or me anywhere lest visiting Rotarians might see them, but once a year she invited us over at Christmas as an act of Christian charity, thereby ameliorating her own sense of loss. The truth was that, even in relation to my grandmother’s straightened circumstances, we were the poor relations. My father laid out the bills next to his pay packet each week and often wept in helpless anger when his meagre earnings as a mechanical engineer were insufficient to cover our modest living expenses. One day, I came home from school for lunch only to discover my mother in despair because her housekeeping money had run out and we had nothing to eat. Yet at Christmas, we wore the best clothes we had and, maintaining solidarity, did our best to keep up appearances and resist my grandmother’s insinuations.

Once emotions had subsided and I had persuaded my tearful mother from the bathroom, we all convened in the drawing room for an aperitif. My Uncle Richard would be arriving back from the pub full of cheery good humour after drinks with his friends in the amateur dramatics and the cricket club. Seizing this moment to light another cigarette, “Would you like a glass of sherry?” my grandmother announced, filling with sudden enthusiasm, before adding with a significant glance in my father’s direction, “I think I have bottle of beer for Peter.” Reminding us of her impoverishment since the early death of my grandfather who indulged her aristocratic spending capacities, “We’ve had to cut back this year, I haven’t been able to do as much as I normally do,” my grandmother always informed us, catching my eye to indicate that I should not expect much from her. With saintly self-control, my father would open a newspaper with a sigh and take a seat by the fire, doing his best to maintain dignified silence in the face of this humiliation.

It was my grandmother’s custom to deliver her turkey to the baker on her way to church on Christmas morning and collect it again after the service, almost roasted, so that she could finish it off in the oven at home, thus permitting her to give full attention to the serious business of vegetables and, of course, the pudding. Shedding her fur coat when it came to moment of serving, she nevertheless maintained her hauteur in a well cut tweed skirt, silk blouse, pearls and crocodile court shoes, with only the addition of an apron casually slung around her waist to indicate her culinary responsibilities.

My uncle sat at the far end of the table, facing my grandmother at the head, while my mother and father sat together on one side and I sat opposite them beneath a mezzotint of Jean-François Millet’s ‘The Angelus.’ I sometimes wondered if this sombre image of a pair of down-trodden peasants praying in a field reflected my grandmother’s perception of my parents’ life. When I gazed across the table, I could see my mother sitting under a print of George Frederic Watts’ ‘Hope,’ depicting a blindfolded woman trapped on a rock in a rising tide while plucking upon the single string left on her makeshift harp. In spite of their obvious sentimentality, both of these pictures demonstrated stoic attitudes in the face of adversity which suited my grandmother’s temperament and circumstances.

Placing her cigarette carefully between her pursed lips, she leaned forward with intense short-sighted concentration to slice the turkey on the table in front of her. We each passed up our plates and, when it came my father’s turn, she would cast her eyes down the table to him and my uncle would catch her eye before reaching out to give him a playful shove. “Are you a breast or a leg man, Peter?” he asked with a chuckle and a lewd grin. This annually repeated gesture was a source of enormous amusement for him and my grandmother, but a cause of deep embarrassment for me and my mother and father.

I can only assume this jibe was a reference to my father’s supposed sexual prowess, as the only possible explanation they could entertain for my mother’s attraction to a man beneath her class. They did not wish to appreciate that my mother’s curiosity about life beyond their limited social milieu had opened her eyes to recognise sympathetic qualities in people of all kinds, rather than simply to assess the social status of new acquaintances.

It was only after my father’s death that I discovered he had been born as the illegitimate child of a young housemaid who contracted tuberculosis and had no choice but to give him up for adoption. Then, at the tender age of just eleven years old, denied a proper education, he was put to work in a foundry. As an adult, his disadvantaged origins were such a source of shame that he chose never to reveal the truth even to my mother.

Among his own mother’s surviving letters that I found preserved in a padlocked box I broke open after his death, I read her account of being committed to a sanatorium on Dartmoor where patients were exposed to the elements in a belief this treatment could clear their lungs of infection. “I don’t think I shall be home for Christmas. Must tell you it is a bitter cold place here in winter. We sleep out in the open, and when it rains it comes right in and you are not allowed to shut any doors and the wind nearly blows you out of bed,” she wrote in an unlettered cursive hand.

When I read these letters, I wondered if her words from so long ago haunted my father at these Christmas feasts. “I don’t know what sort of Christmas they spend here,” she confided in a note written from the sanatorium in the months before her death, “Have you made your Christmas pudding yet? I hope you will send me a little bit to taste. It will seem more like a Christmas to me if I can taste a bit of pudding.”

Accompanying the letters was my father’s birth certificate, confirming his father as ‘unknown.’ This single word contained a personal tragedy which grew into a lonely secret. His desire to overcome this deep sense of shame became a motivating factor which led him to marry my mother. Just as she wanted to escape the pretensions of her family, he wanted to better himself by taking a step up in the world. In this sense they fulfilled each other’s desires perfectly, even if they wanted quite different things from the union and their contrary wishes were a source of occasional conflict. This was the nature of their marriage.

“I always wanted to be a close family,” he confided to me once in a moment of weary confession, “but they weren’t having it.”

After my grandmother had carried in the flaming pudding, the crackers had exploded and my mother had done the washing up, we were able to escape the house for an afternoon walk through the cool air in the damp lanes to recover our senses. Returning for tea at dusk, I would take this opportunity to slip away from the fireside, leaving the adults to their conversation and climbing the staircase to explore the dusty attics at the top where my grandfather’s stage properties and conjuring tricks were stored. In these chilly abandoned rooms, I discovered a wind up gramophone and was happy to wear his silk top hat and play alone among the mirrored cabinets until it was time to leave.

As a child, I was spared the pain that my parents endured when confronted with the social disparity of their marriage by my grandmother. “None of these people have ever worked a day in their lives,” my father repeated to us in the car, every year on the way home, venting his vituperation at last and drawing further tears from my mother. In spite of the tensions of the day, she was always reluctant to leave her childhood home that held so many happy memories buried beneath the recent conflict.

On one of the last Christmases before my grandmother died, when I returned for the holiday from college, she insisted that I play her at Scrabble. It was already late in the day. We had had our tea and cut the Christmas cake, and we were preparing to leave. My father, who hated driving in the dark, was getting worried about the possibility of lethal black ice on the upland roads. Yet I knew my mother realised that this was a challenge I must not walk away from, even though my grandmother was county Scrabble champion of several years standing. She had memorised all the obscure yet permitted words, using unlikely letters and winning high scores. At eighty years old, she needed to prove her mind was still as sharp as a razor and she wanted to find out what I was made of too. It was a rite of passage.

Once my grandmother and I were set up on opposite sides of the dining table with the Scrabble board between us, my parents retreated to the drawing room in silence, unable to bear their suspense at the outcome. Although my grandmother generously offered to share her list of permitted words with me, I declined. I did not want her help. By now, I knew the weight of history. In fact, I would not even compete with her. Instead I chose to apply my creativity to contrive the most ingenious words I could make with my letters, without pursuing a high-scoring vocabulary or keeping an eye on the score card total. Although I knew it was a test, I persisted in the thought that it was a Christmas game.

I won. My mother and father entered and stood in the doorway with blazing eyes of unspoken elation. Withholding her emotion and describing it as ‘beginners’ luck,’ my grandmother commenced another game immediately. I maintained my non-competitive strategy while she played to win. This time, my grandmother won. Yet when we added up our scores in both games, which ran into hundreds, we discovered we had both won exactly the same number of points.

It was a strange moment of intimacy and mutual vindication. A certain truth had been revealed by Scrabble, even if it was an epiphany capable of entirely contradictory interpretations. My grandmother believed it confirmed that, in spite of my mother marrying my father, the family spirit persisted in me, while my parents believed she had been taught a lesson and could not look down upon us any more.

My uncle never left his childhood home or, to my knowledge, ever formed any significant emotional relationships beyond his immediate domestic world. Brought up with aristocratic expectations, he was a dilettante who stood apart from life, never working but passing his time in amateur dramatics, county cricket scoring and collecting jazz records. He suffered from meningitis as a child and my grandmother doted on him, favouring him over her daughter. She waited upon him until she died, knocked over by a swinging coal house door one dark winter’s night shortly before Christmas when she was eighty-four.

At the funeral in January, my uncle asked my mother, “Would you like to take anything, Valerie?” Eschewing the valuables in the house, she found a trowel and unearthed the cherished Christmas Rose, transplanting it to her own garden where she nurtured it as a living memento of her mother.

After the death of my grandmother, my uncle was left to fend for himself. He did not know how to make a bed or boil a kettle and he let the house go to pieces. He ate only microwaved frozen food and grew so fat that he could not bend over to reach the floor, living ankle deep in rubbish. The last time I visited, I discovered he had worn a path in the carpet through to the floorboards in the drawing room between his armchair and the television. Meanwhile upstairs, in his room on the first floor, he had worn the mattress through to the springs and, entering the next room, I found he had done the same in there too and in the next.

I remember telephoning him to break the news that my father had died. “Well, I never did like Peter,” was his immediate response. Eventually, an organised gang of thieves broke in and stripped the house – when he could no longer get out of bed – and he lay there helpless as they carried the silver, the grandfather clock, the old Dutch painting and the rest of the family heirlooms out to the truck.

There was only one childhood Christmas when we did not visit my grandmother. It was the year that a particularly virulent form of gastroentiritis struck. My mother, my father and me, we were all afflicted with flu and lay in our beds on Christmas Day, engulfed by fever and drowsy light-headedness engendered by lack of food. I recall lying awake with my cat in the half-light of drawn curtains, clutching a hot water bottle, and feeling overwhelmed by the weary languor of my body. Yet at three in the afternoon, we convened in the kitchen in our dressing gowns and we drank a cup of hot water together. I think it was the sweetest drink I ever tasted and I cherish the memory of that day, isolated together in our intimate cell of sickness, as my happiest childhood Christmas.

As years pass, each Christmas conjures the memories of those that came before it, until eventually the experience of recalling these memories of the past overtakes the present. Then Christmas becomes a time which contains all the former Christmases gone by. Apart from my flu Christmas, I can barely distinguish any particular years and, looking back, all those visits to my grandmother blend into the one eternal childhood Christmas which I have described here.

When I grew up and left home, I always returned for Christmas. Now that I live in the city and no longer have any relatives left alive, I have no family obligations at Christmas and I have no reason go back to Devon. Yet I miss them all, I even feel nostalgic about their fights and their angry words and I cannot resist the feeling they are all still there – my parents in their house, and my grandmother and my uncle in their house – and I wonder if they are having Christmas without me this year.


Wood Engravings by Reynolds Stone

20 Responses leave one →
  1. Amanda Bush permalink
    December 25, 2023

    A merry Christmas to you and your readers.

  2. Jean Clements permalink
    December 25, 2023

    What a wonderful read. I’m on my own on Christmas Day. Having been surrounded by the utmost commercialism since September this was so good to read. I’m looking back down the years at family festive occasions, all eighty six of them.

  3. Jane Johnson permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Your writing about your gradmother struck a chord. My mother, who could be imperious on occasion, also played the part of Elizabeth I, this time for Worthing’s TWG..
    Her entrance stage left was marred by the sight of her swirling skirt caught in the plug and flex of a 2-bar electric fire.

  4. Colin Lennon permalink
    December 25, 2023

    A very moving story GA and you are a truly worthy guardian of it. I hope you have a peaceful Christmas and I look forward to another year of Spitalfields Life. All the very best wishes, Colin.

  5. Susan Jessen permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Susan Richards permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Wishing you A happy and peaceful Christmas and thank you for your emails throughout the year. From a mizzly Cornwall.

  7. Christine Saunders permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Merry Christmas Gentle Author

  8. Lesley permalink
    December 25, 2023

    I do love reading these accounts of your Christmas past. In so many ways I recognise the landscape… Wishing you a very happy Christmas.

  9. Sue Hadley permalink
    December 25, 2023

    What a beautifully written piece, conjuring up a bitter-sweet past. Merry Christmas to you and a happy and prosperous New Year!

  10. Linda Granfield permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Still dark at 6 a.m. here in Toronto, Canada. (I haven’t even checked to see if Santa came!)

    This afternoon, we will finish our lunch and settle in for the annual ‘listen’ to Dylan Thomas reading his Christmas tale (CD) and then my husband (better reading voice than I have) will read your “On Christmas Day”–GA, a gift I longed to see in print. Our tradition grows. Many thanks!

    Merry Christmas and all best wishes for the new year!

  11. anarchowalker permalink
    December 25, 2023

    A bitter-sweet story. Thank you for writing it.
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    Where in Devon are you from? My wife is from Barnstaple, so I know N.Devon very well.

  12. December 25, 2023

    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace

  13. December 25, 2023

    I read your wonderful Christmas story yesterday. I can visualise the house, your grandmother and uncle, even though I have never seen it. Your imagery is perfect.
    I also wrote my own Christmas memory on my blog this week. I think yours straddles several Christmases although mine focuses on a smaller number when I was a small child. Funnily enough my parents don’t feature in my story because they weren’t there.
    I also possess an ancient copy of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Books that I usually read in December but haven’t yet this year. I still believe in the magic of Christmas even now. And so I wish you a very magical Christmas and thank you for the stories and inspiration.

  14. December 25, 2023

    Merry Christmas Gentle Author, read it with tears in my eyes, reminded me of my childhood with melancholy and tenderness. Thank you for this ✨

  15. December 25, 2023

    Just a note on the picture “Hope”… I didn’t know anything about the picture but I found it in a frame I wanted in an antique shop. I subsequently found that it was a favorite of Barack Obama and hung in the prison cell of Nelson Mandela.

  16. Cherub permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Joyous and peaceful Christmas wishes to all from Switzerland. Fröhe Weihnachten.

  17. December 25, 2023

    Sunny and cold here in the Hudson River Valley. We will enjoy cooking together today, and having a happy meal, story-telling, and a quiet day of gratitude. (and presents for the cats!)

    Happy Holidays to you, GA — and all your readers.

  18. Hetty Startup permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Your Christmas story has now found its way into the reading rituals of Christmastime. Good luck with the sale of the printed version with its lovely engravings and your completely unique and touching insights. Merry everything and peace on earth. Hetty

  19. gkbowood permalink
    December 25, 2023

    Best of Holiday Wishes to you and may the New Year be a good one! Thank you for all your tireless efforts and successes (!) on historic site conservation. London needs more people like you sharing their knowledge with others on tours of the town; raising awareness and appreciation for history.
    Stay safe.

  20. Mark. permalink
    December 26, 2023

    A story worth returning to every couple of years or so.
    Much resonates.
    Hope you and your readers enjoy Winterval.

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