All through my childhood Nana and Grandpa, my Londoner grandparents, provided memorable feasts in their little semi-detached. They had started married life in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was designed for working-class families such as themselves. Here, Nana (born in 1899) wrote plays and masques for the local children to perform at May Day festivals. She carried on the tradition with her grandchildren. Music-making also ran in the family: her brother had played the piano to accompany silent films; accordingly, our Christmases included plenty of singing; not only carols but also music-hall songs.
Preparations meant following French- Catholic traditions, too. Mum set up the crib, in a miniature rustic stable made by her French father, on a table near the Christmas tree. A green tree came inside the house and we worshipped it by decorating it. I didn't know the word pagan but I felt it. The crib's little painted plaster figures came from France. An angel, waving a welcoming banner, dangled from the stable roof on a loop of elastic. The three kings, complete with camels, perched on a cabinet on the other side of the front room. Each day, we moved them a little closer to the crib. On Christmas morning Baby Jesus appeared in the crib and, at Epiphany, the kings reached him. Throughout Advent, we opened our calendars, a window a day, and were encouraged by the nuns to prepare for the birth of Jesus with extra prayers, good deeds and a spot of fasting. I don't think we bothered.
If we managed to stay awake on Christmas Eve, after midnight Mass, we heard our parents creeping up the stairs, playing at Santa Claus, my mother shushing my laughing father. Waking in the early morning, shivering pleasurably under our eiderdowns in our unheated bedroom, we opened our stockings, which had magically arrived at the foot of our beds. Such delight: receiving secretly delivered presents in the half-dark; cuddling and stroking them. No one looking on. Not having to be polite. We four children bounced about. The stockings always contained a tangerine in the toe, and some walnuts, plus miniature marzipan vegetables and joints of meat, arranged on silver-covered cardboard plates to look like proper dinners, sent from our French grandparents. Perhaps some cubes of bath salts. (One tiny toy I still have to this day: a rubber doll, two inches high. I tore his clothes off. Still nude, turned into a little household god, he stands on a bookshelf near my computer.) Later in the morning we received our presents from under the tree. In Mum's childhood, this ceremony was called "les trennes". She said it was very formal. In our house it wasn't. I know I liked the stockings best. I liked the dark morning: the whole day still stretching ahead.
The traditional Christmas lunch finished with a dessert of fruit and nuts. Mum taught us French devices. She showed us how to make clementine or tangerine lamps. You cut horizontally round the fruit's middle, just a shallow cut through the skin, then eased the skin off in two halves, leaving one half with a central stem of pith. You cut a small hole in the domed top of the other. You dried the pieces, then moistened the bottom half with oil, lit the oil-soaked wick, put on the cap, and watched the orange glow. Mum also taught us a game with almonds, called Philippine. If, when you cracked one, it contained two kernels, you gave one to your sister. You both ate your nuts. Next morning, the one who first shouted "Philippine" had to be given a present by the other. Dessert also featured mince pies. Their oval shape represented the crib, and the three slashes in the lid the three kings. With luck, a half-crown nestled inside.
Christmas meant a warm darkness I loved. The darkness of midwinter, of our bedroom as we rested after lunch, lying on top of the sheets under our silky eiderdowns, of the front room lit just by the glittering tree, of Nana's sitting-room where we gathered later in the day to play games, with our uncles, aunts and cousins, in front of the red coal fire. After a high tea of shrimps and bread and butter, sticks of celery and Christmas cake, we put on the costumes Nana had sewed for us, crepe-paper-frilled skirts tied with ribbons, and did the dances she taught us. One year the grown-ups had to act a play she had written. Dad, as the moustache-twirling villain, had to snarl at the shrinking heroine, Mum, "What, girl, you dare to thwart me thus?" This became a family catchphrase.
Some of the games disconcerted us. One, "The Pope's Blessing" (definitely invented by the Protestant side of the family), featured the children being brought into the room one by one. While the adults watched, you had to kneel down in front of the effigy of the Pope: my father, wearing a bowler hat, standing on a table draped in a blanket. When you begged for the blessing of the Pope, Dad bent his head and the water in the brim of his bowler gushed down and wetted you and all the adults roared with laughter. Another game involved being blindfolded, picked up, swung about, your head tapped on the ceiling. Rough and tumble carnival, both scary and exciting.
More presents got given out after tea. One year, Dad entered the room dressed up as Santa Claus, driving a sledge (the disguised tea-trolley), drawn by my twin sister and myself in reindeer costumes, which bore a huge snowball (plywood covered with cotton wool) which broke open to reveal gaily wrapped parcels. Then we cousins would roam off upstairs and play games such as Murder in the Dark or Sardines. Bliss.
Michle Roberts's memoir, 'Paper Houses',is published by ViragoReuse content