Long live the spirit of our family Christmas

Reports of festive ill will and tedium are exaggerated. Like our Victorian forebears, most of us will be making our own fun at home together

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The Independent Online

Tomorrow evening, as on every Christmas Eve, I shall take from its paper wrapper a cardboard cut-out model of a country church, covered in ageing glitter, and place it on top of our Welsh dresser. Bought, according to my grandfather's handwriting on the reverse, from a Clapham department store in 1921, it will once again look down on the Randall family Christmas, as it has done for the past 91 years. This church is a symbol, albeit one with a somewhat bruised spire and fingerprint-weary colours, of what I suspect is a more common phenomenon than most people realise: family Christmases, which, although the generations change, have survived as tribal celebrations for many, many decades. In my case – via my father's memories and my own – I can trace its ebbs and flows for more than a century, from my great-grandfather playing his squeeze-box (he was born in 1844, the year after A Christmas Carol was published) to my two-year-old grandson, born 166 years later.

The family Christmas my father was born into in 1910 was still a Victorian affair, and would continue to be so for several decades. At the centre of it were neither children, presents, food, or drink, but the gathering in my grandparents' terraced house in Wandsworth of as many aunts, uncles, cousins, and surviving elders as could be crammed in. Travel was not an issue: almost all lived within a few streets of each other, and the one far-flung wing – who lived as far away as Peckham Rye – could get there on the No 37 bus, which ran until midnight.

The day began with my father and his sister waking to find, on a chair at the foot of their beds, a few presents, none of which was gift-wrapped, plus a stocking containing an orange, nuts, and a few other edibles. Around 11am, the first of the relatives began arriving and, by the time of the last knock on the door, there were 22 people wedged into a house designed for six. All were attired in their Sunday best, suits and dresses. The final preparations for the dinner were an exclusively female preserve. While the women toiled in their pinafores, the men whiled away the time with a glass of something. Blackcurrant cordial was the strongest drink my grandfather ever took, but he laid in modest supplies of pale ale (and port wine for the ladies) for what he called the imbibers.

Christmas dinner – featuring chicken, then a comparative luxury to families of the lower clerical classes such as my grandparents – was served sharp at 1pm in the back parlour. Nearly two dozen diners sat on long forms at a number of tables, few of which were the same height or width. Elbow room was at a premium. That done, the women would clear (to begin preparing tea), and the men would slope off to the front room. Each would light a small candle, place it on the mantelpiece, and put sixpence beside it, take a seat, and doze. Thus began the annual Christmas Candle Derby, the winner (and claimer of the sixpences) being the one whose taper stayed alight the longest. Tea – with bloater paste sandwiches featuring as a seasonal novelty – followed. Then came the highlight of the day: the annual family Christmas show.

Every family in those days had an aunt who sang, a cousin who recited or a parent who played the piano. Few families, however, put on a show like the one at Berber Road. My grandfather and his brother-in-law Uncle Douglas began organising it weeks before and, by Christmas night, scenery had been painted, performers rehearsed (after a fashion) and numbered programmes produced on a gelatin stencil. I still have the ones for 1927 and 1928, detailing all the acts from the "Opening Overture" (my father on homemade drums and his cousin Hetty on the piano), skits and sketches based on the year's family mishaps, through to Aunt Alice's inescapable rendition of "Love's Old Sweet Song". The programme for 1927 said: "Patrons are reminded performers will not vacate the stage until an encore has been requested" – and nor did they. The show, and the day, climaxed with community singing, then homeward went the weary revellers.

The show was an annual highlight until a Luftwaffe explosive gave my grandfather a fatal heart-attack in 1940. Festivities were muted for the duration. By the time the men had returned from war, and my twin brother and I were born in 1951, the old cohesion of everyone living nearby had gone. The Christmas light had passed to my father's generation: better off, but no longer quite so close. He, his sister and a cousin hosted the family gathering in rotation, a 40-minute car journey now needed to gather us all together.

Other things had changed, too. The gathering began after, rather than before, Christmas dinner. Drink featured more (though never to much excess). Presents were now exchanged between all, rather than merely being given by parents to children. And the show was no more; there would, instead, be party games and the odd turn (extremely odd, in some cases, especially if my father and uncle produced their ukuleles, or I was prevailed upon, as I was for several years, to dress as a fairy and distribute the presents from the tree). The day ended with post-supper games of cards.

As the Seventies approached, first one branch of the family dropped out, then another. The family part of Christmas shrank to the nuclear unit: my parents, brother and I. Any socialising was at neighbours' homes. Drink flowed, laughs were aplenty, but the shared assumptions and traditions of a family gathering were missing.

These returned with the birth of children to my brother and I. Once again, a large family – 12 of us – sat round the Christmas dinner table, enjoying our own variations on the themes of old. Gone was the show, but, in its place, my father – homemade fez on his head – would do conjuring tricks which rarely fooled even the youngest child.

In the Eighties, when our third son was born, we took over hosting the event. Attendees got a souvenir programme on arrival, new traditions were begun, and old ones clung to. Television, for instance, was – and remains – resolutely banned. There were still games (it is amazing how swiftly Pin the Tail On the Donkey can descend into mild indecency), but it was a more commercial affair. The giving and opening of presents assumed a significance that would have horrified my grandfather. Steps have now been taken to limit the gift-giving. With all adults working up to, and sometimes beyond Christmas Eve, the dinner has more to do with off-the-peg, pre-prepared purchases from a supermarket chain than home cooking.

These celebrations have survived our sons' teenage years, and continue now three of them are married. The first grandchild has arrived, and he is being initiated in the ways of our family Christmas. All this may seem untypical, the widespread propaganda being that family Christmases are full of festering ill-will or almost unendurable tedium. But I suspect that many families are like mine: they stick together, they go on and, although their celebrations may be markedly different from those of 100 years ago, they are, in spirit, just the same.