Yesterday was the day for one of our festive family traditions. By that, I mean my own little family, which is me, my husband and our two sons age 13 and 9, whose childhood experiences of Christmas are different to mine in every way. I took a few pictures, which gave me the idea for this post. (The last one’s a bit blurry because my phone was out of juice and my son had to take it. That’ll teach me to buy him a rubbish mobile!)
I grew up in rural Wiltshire (there is no other kind) in a former pub, a double-fronted Georgian redbrick house with the name of the brewery still faintly visible on the front. If it sounds posh, it wasn’t at all. My parents had paid the incredible sum of £1,200 ($2,000) for the property when they married in 1958. The only bathroom for the five of us was downstairs. Previous owners had gone to great lengths to remove every trace of period character from the interior, and we didn’t have the whole building anyway as we rented out part of the upper floor as a self-contained flat to tourists visiting the area – Salisbury, Stonehenge and the New Forest are all close by. As children, we were utterly bemused as to why anyone would want to spend their holidays there. The front door to the street, which we rarely used, opened into what would once have been the bar of the pub, used by us as a huge hallway with a shiny floor. (My older brother once sent me flying on it, resulting in a charming scar next to one eye that was stitched up by a very nervous medical student. But that’s another story – and yes, I did forgive them both).
On New Year’s Eve, it was a standing (or ‘stumbling’) joke that villagers who’d had a few too many would bang on the front door and my ever hospitable Dad would let them in for a drink. We never paid for a Christmas tree, as much to my Mum’s chagrin, Dad and my brother would go to the woods under cover of night, cut one and drag it home. It’s often said that kids have too many presents today but we really did get loads, in paper sacks almost as big as we were, because my Mum is the eldest of 7 siblings (Irish Catholic family, no surprises there) and we exchanged gifts with our 16 cousins. I had a religious upbringing, which is well known to have two possible long-term effects. Let’s just say the only time I willingly attended mass growing up was the 6pm one on Christmas Eve one that counted for Christmas Day and church doesn’t figure in my own family’s festive season, although I still love carols and enjoy singing them with my choir.
But we do celebrate: being happy, having each other, spending time together, and we’ve come up with a few traditions of our own, as most families do. Yesterday we indulged in one of them – a visit to Columbia Road plant market in the East End to buy a garland for our own front door, lovely stems of red berries and pussywillow to decorate the house, followed by lunch at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Song Que on Kingland Road in Dalston, and then a quick wander through the rooms of ‘Christmas Through The Ages’ at the Geffrye Museum nearby.
I particularly love Columbia Road market at Christmas for its festive atmosphere and vibrant colours, and for the scent of pine trees. It gets very crowded and it can be hard to fight your way through with a holly wreath or Christmas tree in tow. I love seeing people with their beautiful branches and swags of this and that, imagining how something so simple will transform their homes as it does mine. There’s a general sense of expectation that good things are to come. Columbia Road itself is lined with small shops selling artisan goods and run by creative people with a great eye for window-dressing. This year we parked much further away than we intended, and along the way we discovered Broadway Market in Hackney, not a market at all but a very trendy bohemian street with more quirky one-off shops and lots of pubs and cafes that were packed even at 4pm. It always delights me that this keeps happening to us after living in London for 22 years.
We won’t wait until next Christmas to return.
Thank you all for reading! It’s not even 3 months since I started this blog and the response has been incredibly rewarding. I wish all of my readers and followers Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or however you like to think of it. I’d love to hear about any of your festive traditions, and hope you’ll come back between Christmas and New Year for ‘2011 – My Year in Books’.