Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

My childhood home at Christmas was a real-life Dickens tale

Every family has its own traditions at Christmas. In ours, from December 1 onwards there's always a big pot of mulled wine on the go.

The red-stained oranges studded with cloves bob merrily as it simmers and fills the whole house with a wonderful spicy aroma which mingles beautifully with the fresh scent of pine from the tree.

We begin the decorating at the same time too and continue adding to the festive display every week until it's utterly illuminated with sparkling fairy lights around every corner and glowing candles on every surface.

By Christmas Eve it's finally finished and I love to stand back with the last glass of mulled wine and mull over my own Yuletide memories.

But when I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to decorate the house until the morning of Christmas Eve. Mum was always adamant about that, even though I started to campaign for Christmas decorations as soon as Halloween was over. She used to say: “You don’t eat your birthday cake or open your cards a month before your birthday do you? Christmas is a birthday celebration, don't ever forget that!”

In retrospect, it took for me to have my own kids before I understood her reasoning. Now I suspect that leaving it so late was more to do with self-preservation than religious piety. It was a damage-limitation exercise before the phrase had even been invented. Try to imagine the chaos of a home with eight kids between the ages of one and 16, all under one roof and all hysterical with festive excitement at the same time ... It’s no wonder that my mum and dad wanted to keep the lid on it for as long as possible.

Of course once the decorations were deployed it was all worth the wait. The sight and smell of a fresh Scots pine, twinkling with tinsel and sparkling with lights, towering above a mountain range of wrapped-and-bowed presents and a fireplace decked with boughs of holly was a wonder to behold and made our house into the most magical place on earth.

But until then, all we could do was watch and wait, pressing our noses up against the frosty window-pane like poor deprived Dickens characters, as the surrounding homes in the neighbourhood lit up one by one and ours stayed sane and sombre. And until Christmas Eve, the only indication that the festive season was approaching was a solitary Advent candle flickering in the front window, next to the statue of the Sacred Heart.

It must have looked like a big, bleak orphanage to passers-by.

One year at about this time in mid-December, when everywhere else was in festive full-swing, the doorbell rang and mum glanced out of the window. There, standing on the doorstep was a small group of people dressed in red and black uniform, holding a bucket full of change.

“Kids! Kids! It’s the Salvation Army carol singers! Come quick!” So as we all assembled there, like the Von Trapp family, mum opened the door.

“Hello, Mrs Burscough!” one of them said, “You don’t know me, but I’m the manager of the post office in town. Your postman told us about all these poor children that live here in this home with you and we all agree that it’s a wonderful thing you do!”

As mum stood there, agog, he went on: “So this year we decided to have a bit of a whip-round — for the poor kiddies — and here it is. Maybe you could get a few decorations to brighten the place up a bit, or even a tree. But whatever you decide, we hope it helps.

“Anyway, keep up the good work — and long may it continue! You’re an inspiration to us all!”

Poor mum was mortified. But every Christmas after that we kept up with the Joneses and started the decorating extra early in Advent.

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