Sulham Lodge in the snow
Sulham Lodge in the snow

I have many memories of Christmases in Sulham as a small child in the 1930s, leading up to the Second World War. Christmas preparations in the mid-thirties seemed to only begin a week or two before the big day, unlike today when the shops have their window displays on show almost as soon as the last of the summer holidays are over. I have no doubt my mother would have been saving dried fruit and other preserves many months before in preparation for all the cooking that was needed for the big day, but as children we were not aware of it.

The first big event was the making and boiling of the Christmas puddings and I suppose this was some time in mid-November. When I was old enough I remember one of my jobs was to stone the big fat juicy raisins (where have they disappeared to today!). It was a sticky job but I didn’t mind as when my mother wasn’t looking somehow a few found their way into my mouth, just as well she hadn’t weighed them beforehand. I also had to take the skin off the almonds after they were soaked in hot water but I wasn’t so keen on this task.

Today of course all these come in little packets from the supermarket already prepared, but in those times they would have been bought from the local grocer, a few each week when he delivered the week’s shopping. Next, after all had been mixed in the large wash basin from the washstand upstairs, it was time to stir it and make a wish. Then came the boiling of the puddings, which seemed to go on for hours, well to be exact eight hours in all with another two or three on Christmas Day. They had to be in several saucepans (my mother always made about six as there would be one for Easter, Whitsun and my birthday) on the old black kitchen range. These were constantly topped up with more water from the huge kettle permanently on the boil and as well as stoking the range it was a long job and the room was filled with steam.

Next it was the turn of the Christmas cake and so once again it was back to stoning the fruit etc. and that too was baked for several hours. Like the puddings it had to be dosed with brandy or some other alcoholic beverage. The smells though were wonderful when you came in on a cold frosty day.

We always had one of our own hens for Christmas Day (never turkey), and of course all the vegetables came from our garden. My father (being a gardener) always grew celery, which he lovingly nurtured in time for Christmas. He would earth it up and then wrap each plant in corrugated paper so that it was lovely and white when it was harvested. However we were not allowed to have any before Christmas and always had to wait until the first frost had taken place so it was lovely and crisp, but teatime on that day was eagerly looked forward too, even after a huge Christmas lunch.

Another treat was a visit to one of the large department stores in Reading to see Father Christmas in his grotto. I was always a little in awe of the old gentleman with his long white beard but I didn’t mind his fairy helper. Probably, I was more interested in the present I was given. Of course, even though I had told him what I wanted for Christmas I still had to write him a letter and give it to my mother to post. Maybe he didn’t hear me the first time?

Another job I had to do was to make paper chains to decorate the living room. My mother would buy these coloured strips of paper and then make up a paste of flour and water to stick them with, none of the expensive baubles we see in the shops today. We didn’t always have a Christmas tree and when we did it was just the top part of a small fir tree. My mother was always afraid of fire as there were no such things as fairy lights back then, so the only decorations were small candles on a clip, they would be lit on Christmas Day for a few minutes and then blown out.

As I grew older another event prior to Christmas was carol singing around the village. We would set off with a few candles in a jam jar (fine if it wasn’t a windy or wet night) but if we were lucky we might have the aid of a torch. I cannot remember how much we collected on the night but I guess we shared it in the end. I do remember once we were asked if it was for charity but as none of us knew what it meant we came away empty handed.

Christmas Day was spent quietly with just my parents and my grandmother who lived with us, grandfather having passed away a few years previously. Christmas Day and Boxing Day were the only days we had a fire in our front room/ parlour. That room was only otherwise used when we had any visitors or the Rector came to call, but as it was such a rare occasion it took ages to get warm, in fact it was only just about comfortable when it was time to go to bed. I, however, had plenty to occupy me after a visit from Father Christmas. I tried many times to stay awake to see him come down the bedroom chimney but I never managed to keep my eyes open that long. But, oh, the excitement in the morning when I discovered he had been and left a pillowcase filled with parcels of all shapes and sizes. All the family would gather round to see me open my presents.

On Boxing Day we always had a great time as my mother’s younger sister and her husband came for the day. They would walk down from their home in Tilehurst, for the day, arriving just before dinnertime (it was never called lunch in those days) and stayed all day, walking home around midnight. There was never the slightest fear of any danger in those far-off days. It was always a great day as my aunt and uncle were a jolly pair and it was a lovely family day. My mother was a great cook and our table groaned with all the food she had made. Beef, ham and pork together with various salads, trifles and yet another Christmas Pudding, plus the cake, were all there to be consumed and she liked to see empty plates. In the evening we would play games, my favourite being consequences which always caused great hilarity. The men folk would then have a glass of beer and the ladies would partake of a small glass of sherry or port wine (the only time alcohol was consumed), but I remember my aunt, mother and grandmother getting rather merry after just one glass.

The weather then seemed to be much more seasonal and, although we didn’t often have snow over the Christmas time (that seemed to occur generally in January), we did have severe frosts where the trees were covered in hoarfrost. The roads became quite treacherous and it would last for days, but it looked like a scene from a Christmas card.

It was, I’m sure, quite a struggle for my parents when money was short in the 1930s, but they always managed somehow to make Christmas very special and I can look back at that time with fond memories. Happy Days.

Berkshire Family History Society

Berkshire Family History Society