"Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat / Please to put a penny in the old man's hat / If you haven't got a penny, a ha' penny will do / If you haven't got a ha'penny then God bless you."
This rhyme, relegated to the bottom of my Christmas stocking of memories, is suddenly current this year, and it will be a Christmas again like the ones in my childhood. It was the stricken 1970s, the recipe book of the day was The Pauper's Cook Book, and in my family, where money was always short, our festivities were big on ritual and home-made decoration. I still have some interesting glitter flowers made of tights stretched over wire from that time, and they will take their place on the tree this year.
Our Christmas stockings, filled with brazil nuts, tangerines, bags of gold-covered chocolate money and topped always with a balloon, were the highlight of the day. At that time there was no such thing as the "must-have" handbag/Play-Station/iPod, or if there was, we didn't know about it. At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python sketch, our lack of cash enriched us. We may have been nerdy, and I remember wearing stripy jerseys from C&A over my favourite torn Biba velvet dress, but we were happy.
All my early memories of Christmas are fused with rhymes, bad jokes and flurries of snow, and are peopled with carol singers and fathers coming back from somewhere tough in big coats to be hugged by armfuls of happy children. These admittedly are not my own memories, but are images from the black-and-white movies my brothers and I watched on Christmas morning. This was in a hour snatched between our pre-dawn raid on the stockings and the sprawling lunch my mother, largely without assistance, created for us all in the kitchen of our ivy-clad farmhouse in Norfolk. In the days leading up to Christmas, we were all sent out to gather holly and ivy, and to quarrel over who would climb the apple tree for mistletoe. Barrowloads of greenery came into our house and we put it up to the accompaniment of the King's College choir on full volume on my father's gramophone.
I feel about 1,000 years old as I write this but I have to confess I was obsessed with the idea of snow shoes, without really knowing what they were. My aunt Finella lived a gratifying "good league hence", so every year I prayed that we could walk there on Christmas Day with snow shoes on to deliver her family's presents.
Christmas has a wonderful way of meeting our deepest dreams, if only we know where to look, and lo! in the year I was 11, magic struck. It snowed heavily, our car was stuck and we walked through the fields to my aunt's house with the basket of presents. I was breathless with anticipation as we got ready, imagining that snow shoes would appear along with sledges and ice skates and maybe even the Snow Queen, all these being vital ingredients of Christmas Past. My father who had been listening to my mutterings about the snow shoes for years, suddenly appeared at my side with two tennis racquets and a quizzical look on his face. "This I'm afraid, is the essence of the snow shoe," he said apologetically. It was a bigger let down than realising who Father Christmas really was. Obviously I rejected them, even though the alternative was my leaking wellies complete with a dead field mouse in the left one.
Walking to my aunt's house in the sunlit snowscape, my siblings and I were all bundled in bright bobble hats and scarves, our laughter echoing among the silent trees. I remember the warm glow of happiness inside me and the sense of joy that walk gave me, and it is that which is among my most enduring Christmas memories.
Once I left home, I had a couple of independent Christmasses which were very unsuccessful. The Christmas I spent on a Canary Island having eggnog and schnitzel with my boyfriend and a selection of the resident German hippies was my least favourite ever. Luckily my thoughtful mind has blocked most of the experience out, leaving me with little but a residual loathing of even the words "eggnog".
Back to the bosom of the family I scuttled as soon as my own children were born, and more rituals and family traditions seeped in to make our own version of my childhood Christmas. Divorce knocked Christmas sideways for us all for a while, and we went for the alternative hot version in Kerala, with fireworks like cartoon-bombs as presents and the smell of cardamon replacing our home scent of pine tree. Now though, we are back on course, and the things I always loved become ever more significant with the passing of the racing years.
In the end, for me, nothing beats the look of wonder on a child's face as the magic essence of Christmas breaks at dawn with a squeal of excitement and the rustle of a stocking laden with memories in the making.
'Poppyland' by Raffaella Barker is published by Headline ReviewReuse content