'Twas the night before Christmas

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
Carols, church, candles and chocolate. Twelve public figures remember the Christmas Eves of their childhood. Words:Pamela Coleman. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education

"I have always thought Christmas a magical time. I still do.

"When I was a child we lived opposite the church in a north Norfolk village. The church was magnificent, full of light and with a roof adorned with more than a hundred medieval wooden angels. Every Christmas Eve I was always sure I would see real angels swooping through the frosty Norfolk night, against a cold clear sky, thick with stars. I used to spend ages looking for The Star and often was sure I had seen it.

"Preparations for Christmas at our village school were thrilling (because they only happened once a year) and familiar (because we always did the same things). Out would come the coloured paper, the gum and blunt scissors to make paper chains, and the stencils and oil paints, and stiff brushes, to make Christmas cards for our parents - very simple designs for the infants, more complicated ones for the juniors, but always the same stencils.

"We learnt Christmas songs and carols from the BBC's Singing Together - I can still hear William Appleby's voice - and lustily performed them at Sunday School and at church on Christmas Day. A special Christmas school dinner was brought for us from a neighbouring school in containers. A curious purple jelly featured, I recall.

"Christmas Day itself was really special, a wonderful peaceful atmosphere, church across the road, wonderful smells of roasting chicken with pungent stuffing, and the afternoon spent in front of a huge fire in the sitting room, reading the new books and trying to make them lastIand looking forward to the next Christmas."

Revd Angela Berners-Wilson

Senior Anglican Chaplain, University of Bristol, the first woman to be ordained a priest in the Church of England

"My father was a priest, so on Christmas Eve he would be officiating at midnight Mass. When he came back I was allowed to go downstairs and open one present in front of the Christmas tree. It was terribly exciting. The only lights were those on the tree.

"I didn't see much of my father at Christmas because he was so busy. I remember I had to keep quiet on Christmas Day because he was always asleep, exhausted from having done midnight Mass and services at 7, 8, and 9.30 on Christmas morning.

"We lived in a big Georgian rectory in Frant in Sussex. It had an enormous hall and we always had a large tree which was given to us by one of the local lords off his estate.

"It was a rural parish so the carol singers did their rounds in a big coach. They always called on us last and I can remember when I was very little, coming down the stairs in my dressing gown to listen. After the carols everyone was given a glass of mulled wine and I went back to bed."

Kriss Akabusi

Former Olympic athlete, presenter of BBC TV's Record Breakers, appearing in Dick Whittington at Southampton

"From the age of 7 until I was 16, I was brought up in a children's home out in the wilds of Enfield. We had wonderful Christmases. In the run up, the rules were pretty relaxed and we went to the pantomime and to some terrific children's parties, and on Christmas Eve we all hung stockings at the end of our beds. There were 20 children in the home, and we always had lots of fun. When I was older I was the one who organised all the games.

"Christmas Eve, as I remember, was usually spent watching lots of cartoons and films on television and dipping into the great big box of Quality Street we always had. Usually we were rationed to sweets once a week, but at Christmas we always had lots of sweets and chocolate.

"Christmas was probably more fun for me than for a lot of children who spent it with their families because I had so many others to share it with."

John Sessions

Actor, currently appearing in My Night with Reg

"Discovering the truth about Santa Claus was rather a traumatic experience for me. It spoiled things a bit. For the past 30 years Christmas hasn't been quite the same.

"We didn't hang up stockings - presents were just arranged under the tree downstairs - but we always left out a glass of milk and some ginger snaps for Santa. The only alcohol I can ever remember in the house was a bottle of Drambuie which was kept in the pantry and brought out on special occasions, like when the minister came round.

"To stop me being a fidgeting pain in the neck I was given wee jobs to do. I would cut up bits of pastry and peel the sprouts - to the accompaniment of carols on the radio. We always had a traditional turkey dinner and when we were about eight or nine, my sister Margaret and I were made to feel very grown up by being given ginger wine. Until then we drank lime juice at Christmas, which to an eight-year-old seemed a drink of the most unbelievable luxury."

Patrick, Earl of Lichfield

Photographer, 5th Earl of Lichfield; Viscount Anson and Baron Soberton

"There was always an employees' party at Shugborough, the family seat, on Christmas Eve at which presents were given out in a kind of embarrassed silence. As children, my sister Elizabeth and I had to just stand there with nanny, dressed in our best, and there was a lot of doffing of caps and tugging of forelocks.

"The tree in the main drawing room was always cut by the head forester so that the star on top was less than an inch from the ceiling and I can remember the decorating of the tree because we used to have real candles on it. My sister and I were allowed to stand at the bottom of the ladder and hand things up to my mother who always dressed the tree, assisted by aunts. It was never done by the staff.

"The candles would be lit after tea on Christmas Eve and there were always roaring log fires, but even so the house was colder than the North Pole. We were sent to bed relatively early after supper in the nursery and the grown-ups would call in and say goodnight on their way to dinner.

"We used to put out a biscuit and a glass of port for Father Christmas in the nursery chimney and it was always gone the next morning.

"We hung up stockings. We were always given shooting stockings that didn't match and wondered why. Now I realise that the matching stockings to each pair had been stuffed with presents ready to deliver during the night. We still hang up stockings."

Jackie Collins


"My father was a theatrical agent so we got tickets to see the shows in which his acts were appearing. He wasn't into Christmas so it was probably my mother who hung all the decorations. I remember she made her own Christmas puddings and put sixpences in them.

"I was about 7 when I had my best present ever - a second-hand dolls' house. A few weeks before, my mother saw it advertised and she and I went on the bus to have a look at it. She didn't let on whether or not I could have it. It arrived as a wonderful surprise in my bedroom on Christmas morning."

Jo Brand


"For me as a child the night before Christmas was more exciting than Christmas Day itself. I grew up in Kent in a village called Benenden which is famous for the girls' school where Princess Anne went. It was a very close community so Christmas was always nice and friendly. We always had a real tree which Mum decorated. My two brothers, Bill and Matt, and me did what we could to avoid being involved in preparing the next day's dinner, but I can remember having to do lots of peeling. We always had an open log fire and the smell of logs burning is one of my strong Christmas memories.

"We sang carols and went to midnight Mass. The father of my best friend, Linda, was the local vicar so we had to go to church really. It was just around the corner so we walked there. Linda and I sat at the back and giggled and threw ourselves into the carols. I love a good sing. My favourite carol was that very miserable one, 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.

"I remember Christmas Eve as a very happy time. We played a few games, like Scrabble and Monopoly, and in between I'd be scuttling off upstairs to wrap up presents. I have always been a bit of a last-minute organiser."

David Blunkett

MP, Shadow Education Spokesman

"Every Christmas Eve my grandfather, who lived with us, would be out on the back porch plucking the goose. I grew up on a council estate in the north of Sheffield and the coal house and the toilet were out in the back porch and I can remember my grandfather with this wretched goose in the dolly tub, spending the entire evening plucking away. It was always a great mystery to me, and a great worry to my mother in case the great piles of feathers and down got into the kitchen.

"Plucking the Christmas goose was a job Grandad had grown used to over the years. It was pretty cold out on the porch but I think people were much hardier in those days than we are now and he kept warm by being well wrapped up. My grandfather always seemed to be wearing about three scarves, a beret and a couple of thick jumpers, even in the summer.

"I spent Christmas Eve trying to find where my presents were hidden after I'd discovered that Father Christmas was my mother and father. I was successful once, I found a model of an old classic car, and it proved to me how wrong I'd been to go searching because when I knew what my present was all the excitement and joy of Christmas morning had been taken away. It taught me a lesson.

Nicholas Bomford

Headmaster, Harrow School

"I was brought up in a farming family in Worcestershire and every Christmas Eve there was a big family get-together at an uncle's farmhouse. We had tea, then afterwards the house was darkened and grown-ups and children all played sardines.

"I think it was the kind of game where you were found fairly easily. There were no prizes, our reward was the fun of seeing adults behave in the same way as children.

"Then we went home and there was a wonderful feeling that something really big was going to happen the next day. I am the eldest of three and we all hung up our stockings for Father Christmas. Even now, if my mother comes to stay she continues the family tradition and I still wake up on Christmas morning to a filled stocking."

Patricia Hodge

Actress, currently playing the lead in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie "I was brought up in an hotel in Grimsby in Lincolnshire and Christmas was the busiest time of the year. On Christmas Day they served a huge number of lunches, not only the dining room but also the ballroom was packed with tables, so on Christmas Eve there was a lot of preparation going on and the bars were full of people celebrating.

"The hotel had an amazing winding staircase and in the space in the centre there was always a huge Christmas tree, sent over from Norway, which went up three floors. We had a big tree in the flat too, standing against tall vertical mirrors in the hallway. On the tree we had bubble lights which when they warmed up, made bubbles float up and down inside the bulbs. Reflected in the mirrors, the tree was magical.

"The Christmas tree was just outside my bedroom door and on the night before Christmas, after my parents had gone downstairs, my young sister, Valerie, and I would poke about under the tree trying to guess what was in the parcels which lay beneath it.

"Often my grandmother stayed with us and sometimes she took my sister and me to a pantomime on Christmas Eve. One Christmas, when I was 10 or 11, I was taken to London to see Where the Rainbow Ends at the Victoria Palace. It was the first time I'd seen anything on the London stage. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

Sarah Dunant

Presenter, The Late Show, BBC TV

"Christmas is the sound of crackling in my memory of childhood, the noise of the string and crepe stocking bulging with presents on the bottom of my bed. I'd wake about four in the morning to feel the weight of the filled stocking on my feet and hear it crackle as I poked it with my toes.

"Immediately I would arrive at my parents' bed wielding the stocking and open it up there and then, and I remember it always took a long time to get the things out, they were so tightly packed in.

"Then I would go downstairs to the sitting room where there was always one special present under the tree. I grew up in a council flat in London and there wasn't a lot of money about but my father worked for British Airways and brought back some spectacular presents from his travels. One year I remember having a very large stuffed Bambi and another year a wicker rocking horse. I was convinced these things must have come from Father Christmas because you couldn't buy those sort of toys in England then.

"When I did eventually suspect that Father Christmas might not exist I didn't let on in case the presents stopped arriving. I also had to keep up the pretence for my brother Haydn, who was eight years younger."

Tom Farmer

Chairman and founder of Kwik-Fit tyre and exhaust company

"Every year for as long as I can remember Christmas Eve was always the same when I was a child. We had a big fire in the parlour and a tree in the corner which my sisters used to decorate with real candles. (There was always a bucket of water nearby.)

"The lights would be put out and we would sit in the candlelight and sing carols. It was just beautiful, just as an old-fashioned Christmas should be. I can remember it so vividly.

"I was the youngest of seven and sometimes my grandmother would be there too and we all sang 'Away in a Manger', 'Silent Night' and 'The Holy City'. As in most homes, the parlour was usually kept for the visits of the priest or the doctor, but at Christmas it looked like a picture on a Christmas card.

"We were given our presents from the family on Christmas Eve. We used to give each other wee things we had made ourselves. And the next morning we woke up to our gifts from Santa Claus on the bottom of the bed. One year I remember I said I didn't believe in Santa - and I didn't get my presents until much later in the day.

"I often think back to my childhood Christmases in Leith. I have memories of a youth where I knew nothing else but total security."

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