Christmas has never been the same for me since I moved from England to Australia at the beginning of the 70s. I was 13 when my family paid the token ten pounds to travel half way around the world to start a new life.
Until then Christmas had been a big family occasion spreading over the 25th and 26th December and shifting between two homes.
Christmas day was always spent at our house with members of my mum’s family coming over for dinner, and then on Boxing Day we would walk to my Dad’s parents and spend the whole day there.
It is the second of these days that stands out in my memory with so much ritual and family tradition surrounding it.
The day started with a visit to my Grandparents’ neighbours to borrow a large dining table. It came in pieces which were assembled in the lounge room, taking up almost all of the room. It was a huge table and all of it was needed for all of the family and friends that were there every year.
A large traditional Christmas dinner was served shortly after midday, turkey with vegetables followed by Christmas pudding.
After dinner we would all sit around the table playing cards for pennies. My Grandparents collected them for months to share among the children while the adults provided their own. The game was called “Newmarket” but I’ve forgotten how it was played. It was the one time of the year when there was any “serious gambling” in my family.
Late in the afternoon we would have our Christmas “tea” – I don’t remember what food was on offer apart from trifle and Christmas cake.
After tea the snowman would be brought out. This was a hollow container (shaped like a snowman) filled with small presents labelled with numbers. The snowman’s hat was opened and we each drew a number out of it and were given the corresponding present which were mostly cheap toys that would keep the children amused for a while.
Early in the evening most of the adults would walk to the nearest pub for an hour or two and the children would be left in the care of our Grandparents. While our parents were away I’d often lose my remaining pennies to my cousin. We’d toss the pennies against the wall and the person closest to the wall would win the rest of the pennies thrown in the game.
One year an older child tried to demonstrate “levitation”. One of us lay on the floor surrounded by the other children and after a repeated incantation we were supposed to be able to lift the prone child into the air using only one finger each. The incantation was something quite spooky, mentioning death and evil spirits. The attempt failed when a noise from an empty room scared us into abandoning the “game”. My grandad found out what we had been doing and warned us against doing anything like it again.
All of that came to an end in 1970. It was our last Christmas in England. For the first time in my life Christmas day was not spent at my house. My dad had to work and we went to my Aunt’s place for dinner and we had to walk there in the snow.
The following year we were in Australia and spent Christmas with some new friends, also recent migrants far from their family. We heard later that the Boxing Day dinner went ahead at my Grandparents but my Grandma was so upset about our absence that the family Boxing Day tradition was stopped altogether.