How the season's changed;Talkback

24th December 1999 at 00:00
Gregory Holyoake fondly remembers a Christmas past.

Christmas came early to the prefab where I lived in the 1950s with Mum and Dad at Deal in Kent. It added a welcome splash of colour to our monochrome postwar lives.

In our tiny lounge, thick velvet drapes replaced the light summer curtains, the settee was pulled up to a roaring coal fire and paper garlands interspersed with enormous bells and stars spread across the ceiling. Fifties decorations were chunky, gaudy and oppressive but I loved them and wanted them to stay up all year.

Early each morning I walked the short distance to our new primary. In the playground, my mates, heavily wrapped up in gaberdine macs, duffel coats, balaclavas and mittens, formed an orderly queue to take a turn on the temporary slides before the handbell called us into school.

December was taken up with decorating the classrooms. We abandoned our studies and hung homemade paper chains and garlands. Friezes were team efforts. We made decorations for the giant tree in the foyer. A crib lit by torches held figures ingeniously formed from toilet rolls. We pinned an advent calendar to the blackboard - it was a mark of honour to reveal the Disney cartoon characters concealed behind closed doors and windows.

We made cards sprinkled with glitter for friends in other classes and popped them into handmade envelopes stamped with colourful charity seals. A circular postbox appeared in the corridor covered with pretend snow and the contents were regularly sorted and delivered by junior postmen.

My class was chosen to present the Nativity. I secured a fly-on part as an angel. Mum turned a discarded sheet into a shining white robe, fashioning wire coat hangers into wings and twisting tinsel into the shape of a halo.

One blissful afternoon we would be escorted, class by class, into the main hall for the school party. Teachers organised party games, and tea was served in the dining hall - buttered huffkins, fish paste sandwiches, fairy cakes and fruit jellies.

Father Christmas (our caretaker in feeble disguise) handed out useful gifts of colouring pencils, geometry sets and quiz books. Oranges, apples and bananas were distributed in brown paper bags before we wandered home.

Each year Dad decorated our Christmas tree. Four feet high with green needles attached to a wire frame, it resembled an outsize bottle brush. Most of the decorations - blown glass baubles, plastic icicles, tinkling bells - came from Woolworth's.

Finally the string of electric lights was wound round, the gaudy coloured bulbs scorching the tinsel. (Dad would allow only flashing lights as he believed this halved the electricity bill.) On Christmas Eve, Dad took Mum dancing at the Palais. She was "all dolled up" in striped blouse, polka-dot skirt, stiletto heels and new nylons. Gran, lured by a chance to watch television, willingly baby-sat. We had been the last family in the avenue to acquire TV - it was a Decca console with doors and a massive 17in screen. But it took ages to warm up and there was only one channel. We watched everything from children's hour to the epilogue. Even at Christmas, close-down was before midnight.

During the evening, Gran helped me wrap up the gifts I had bought - a peg bag for Mum, a puncture repair kit for Dad. (In exchange I was hoping for a Hornby trainset and a Raleigh tricycle.) I watched as Gran's arthritic hands stuffed inexpensive gifts into three old stockings to hang beside the mantlepiece. She filled the gaps with delicacies - toffees, nuts and fruit. There was a tangerine in every toe.

I always remembered to leave a sherry and a mince pie for Santa on the hearth. My only worry - would his reindeer manage to land on our low, sloping prefab roof?

Gregory Holyoake is an actor, writer and supply teacher in East Kent. This article is an edited extract from 'The Prefab Kid' (SB Publications, pound;7.50)

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