Christmas at Lees

by Anne Munns

As my mum always explained Christmas at Lees was the very busiest time of year. So much so that when, in September 1972, my then-fiancé and I told her that we were getting married she told us it was fine as long as it was after Christmas. We were married on December 30th – well it was after Christmas!

The preparations for Christmas began long before December arrived.

Almost all the customers paid into a ‘Christmas Club’. Small amounts of money were handed over each week when they paid off their weekly bills. No more than a couple of shillings, but often just a few pennies, were religiously recorded in a small red notebook. There was a new book each year and when December arrived customers collected the money saved, with the small amount of interest that had been added.

There was a high level of trust in this, but for all the years that I can remember the Christmas Club continued and the money handed over on a given date in December. There was no requirement that the money be spent in our shop, but usually it was because great care was taken to ensure that there was a wide range of stock that they might want to buy.

Stock purchasing began in the summer months when travelling salesmen would arrive, usually with a suitcase, and lay out their wares on our dining room table. There would be travellers selling gift items such as heavily scented talcum powder and soap in a small presentation pack, chocolates in boxes of various sizes with pictures of cottages in the snow or enchanting puppies, kittens and horses with their foals’ as well as biscuits in tins decorated with Christmas images. There would be travellers who brought toys – dolls, cars, yoyos, board games and the like which my sister and I hoped might end up in our Christmas Stockings – they never seemed to. Christmas Crackers, decorations, chocolate money, wrapping paper, Christmas Puddings, boxes of dates, jars of mincemeat and Stones Ginger Wine were also essential items to stock.

Besides the ‘luxury’ items there were other important items that needed to be well stocked. Bisto gravy, Paxo stuffing, dripping for the roast potatoes, marmalade, tinned meats and Heinz Salad Cream ; and then as December arrived there would be deliveries of tinned fruits, tinned cream and evaporated milk, bags of nuts and tangerines and of course Brussel’s sprouts.

The shop was completely reorganised in order to show off the Christmas wares to their best. The essential day to day items such as washing powder, cleaning products and toilet rolls were moved out to make room for the stock. This often meant that the dining room of the house was full of these items meaning that eating a meal without being disturbed was impossible.

The display was made in order to coincide with the pay out of the Christmas Club. Sometimes as stock was being unpacked a customer would set eyes on something that was limited in number. They would ‘reserve ‘the item so that they wouldn’t be disappointed when the Club money was paid. This resulted in a number of items being kept in our house, hidden from the prying eyes of family members for whom the items had been purchased.

A Christmas Raffle was always started in December. On the counter would be a basket filled with luxury items – a Christmas Pudding, chocolates, tinned ham, dates, nuts, Christmas Crackers and other similar items placed in a basket and raffle tickets sold a shilling a strip – and drawn on Christmas Eve.

The proceeds of the raffle helped towards paying for the parties that my gran held in the Moose Hall for local families.

For my sister and I the lead up to Christmas was always routine. There would be the visit to Style and Gerrish to have our photos taken against a snowy scene as well as a visit to Father Christmas.

The top floor of the store was turned into a Winter Wonderland and we seemed to travel for a long time through snowy scenes till we found Father Christmas. The excitement of receiving the gift was huge – but we were not allowed to open it until we returned home.

When we were slightly older, my sister and I would join other children to go Carol singing around the neighbourhood. We knew the words of the carols by heart and could sing several to those who opened their doors to us, often rewarded with a few pennies which we shared between us at the end of an evening.

My dad was a pig farmer who rented land from Lord Pembroke’s estate. As Christmas approached a pig would be selected and slaughtered and joints of pork delivered to various homes in the area. One joint would go to Wilton House, another was always delivered to Arthur Street – a local author who wrote about farming matters. In return he gave my father his latest book. Our G.P. John Norris was also a recipient as were members of our family who all lived close by.

For our family though, it always seemed that Christmas might never come to our house. There was no room for a Christmas tree, no decorations or Christmas food to be seen when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. The shop was open until nine o’clock so although we were excited it always seemed that Christmas might just pass us by. When the shop closed the magic would begin ….

My dad was always first up – he wanted the animals fed so that he could enjoy the day with the family.

He would leave the house at about 4:30am in order to visit the three places that animals were kept. By the time that we were allowed downstairs at about 6am we found that Christmas had arrived!

We woke to find socks on our bed stuffed with small toys, chocolate coins, a tangerine, a sixpence and always a pair of new socks. We were not allowed downstairs until he returned so we listened with bated breath for the sound of the back door opening – and downstairs we would tumble to find decorations, a Christmas tree festooned with lights, presents under the tree and bowls of nuts and tangerines. The smell of the tree and the tangerines was wonderful.

It was only as a parent myself that I understood how hard my parents must have worked to create this Christmas scene. After a long, busy day the desire to create Christmas for us must have been dulled. Perhaps a modicum of alcohol might have helped!

But that was not the end of it. There was food to prepare and cook for the immediate family; Mum, Dad, Nan, Jim, Keith and Stephen, me and my sister Geraldine plus Nan’s sister Trixie, mum’s sister Joy her husband George and our cousin Andrew and any others who might be alone for Christmas. Trestle tables were set up in order to seat us all some in the kitchen, some in the dining room – all squashed together in loud and riotous company.

Crackers would be pulled, and mountains of food consumed. Never turkey, my gran and my mum didn’t like turkey – so we ate pork, chicken and beef. A tradition still maintained in our family to this day.

After dinner we would all help with clearing the tables. The Christmas Pudding would be delivered to the table, adorned with holly and flaming, brandy having been set alight in the kitchen. We would all eat our pudding carefully, keen to discover if we had the lucky silver threepenny piece hidden somewhere in the pudding. Later this became a silver sixpence. I still have one that I found in my pudding in 1960.

Later more relations and friends would arrive for the afternoon’s ‘entertainment’. We were all expected to do a ‘turn’. Whether it was singing a song, reciting a poem or playing something. This could be excruciating, but there was no escaping it.

I remember Mum playing the piano, Jim his trumpet, Dad reciting a poem and a dreadful performance of ‘Seven little girls sitting in the back seat kissing and a hugging with Fred’ as one of my sister’s and my performances.

Fred and Gladys Boyt who lived in Ashley Road would lead us in singing songs before the Christmas Cake was wheeled out along with Stones Ginger Wine.

A family tradition was that one extra present was kept back for the afternoon. One year I remember receiving a set of encyclopaedias – a gift to share with my sister. She was not very enamoured with this gift being more interested in horses even then, but the books gave me hours of pleasure over many years.

My dad would have to return to his animals in the evening to bed them down and feed them. Jim, Keith and Stephen would often help him with this task undertaken in the dark.

Boxing Day was a return to reality. Any bread that had been left in the shop was hastily damped down and baked again for a few minutes. It came out of the oven like new bread and we always sold out. The shop was always busy from the moment it opened at 10:30 till it closed at about 4. Gradually the stock that had been moved out would go back into its normal place in the shop and an air of peace would descend.

On Boxing Day we dined on cold meats, pickles, salads and mashed potatoes. Nothing went to waste. If there were food items that needed using up in the shop we would have them. Black bananas, soft tomatoes, bacon that was past its best would end up in our kitchen. Later soups and pies would be made of the leftovers.

Boxing Day Evening usually was spent watching television. The day after, shop hours would return to normal and all that would be left was the anticipation of our annual visit to the pantomime.

Mum and Dad were avid theatre-goers, but the panto was the highlight of our Christmas. Many famous actors appeared at Salisbury Playhouse and I recall seeing some in Panto. One highlight for my sister and I was when the chorus girls lodged at our aunts boarding house. The six women seemed very glamorous. Tall, blonde, varnished nails and beautifully dressed; we were excited to receive a special wave from them when they were on stage.

Our decorations stayed up until Twelfth Night when all would return to normal. Christmas was done. Until preparations began all over again mid-year.

 

This article originally featured in the Fisherton Informer visit their facebook page here – https://www.facebook.com/groups/834343469966904

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