“Christians, awake, salute the happy morn!”
The time was 4 a.m. I awoke from a deep sleep to hear dad coming up the stairs singing his favorite Christmas carol. He had done this every Christmas Day I could remember. “Rise and shine” were his first words directed at me, “breakfast is ready.” There was no “Happy Christmas son”. It was work as usual for dad and my job, even as a twelve year-old, was to help him serve his customers, Christmas Day or not, as quickly as possible to enable him to have at least some time to enjoy the festivities. I hadn't had much sleep, having attended midnight mass, so it was always a struggle to rouse myself from a warm, cozy bed.
Traditional Christmas breakfast was, even at that early hour, always the same. Cold pork pie with an egg in the middle (this I have recently discovered was called a “Grosvenor pie”), pickled onions and HP brown sauce, washed down with a mug of hot steaming tea. Dad must have had a palette of iron as he always drank his tea scolding hot. In fact he could not abide his hot food going cold, as he always said, “hot means hot, not luke-warm”.
I was putting off drinking my tea and blowing on it with the hope of it cooling down, but there was no time for delay. Dad’s customers came first. The milk had to be delivered to enable them to enjoy their holiday.
Cycling to the dairy took us ten minutes or so. The streets were deserted and dark, in those days only one in three or four streetlights were left on from midnight to six a.m. It was more often than not very cold, not helped by the strong winds blowing off the North Sea and usually raining. I cannot ever remember a white Christmas, but can remember many wet ones.
It didn’t take long to load the milk float. I was used to lifting the metal crates of pint, half-pint and even quart glass bottles of “pasteurized” (silver top), “TT (tuberculin tested)” (red top) and “Jersey” (gold top) milk. As I often helped Dad during school holidays - not that I was expected to, I just loved doing it, making me feel grown up I suppose – I knew all of his many customers and their orders, so unless there was a change in the order, we didn’t talk much. I delivered on the left side of the road whilst Dad looked after the right (drivers’ side).
We had usually finished and were back home for hot mince pies by 8:00 a.m. After a quick change, I then joined Mum and some of my paternal family (although not Dad) by attending Christmas morning mass at the local R.C. Church. Even though Mum was Church of England, she had been educated at a Roman Catholic school (I never did find out why), so we had to sit out the Communion.
By the time we had Christmas Dinner, which Dad had prepared and got started, it was time for a great English tradition - "The Queen's Speech". Dad an I normally took a nap before walking to my aunt's home for the family get together. After yet another enormous meal we retired to the rarely used parlor, where a coal fire was already roaring away. With an Uncle tickling the ivories we always had a sing-song, gradually getting hotter and wearier as the evening progressed. Around 11:00 p.m. the women would disappear into the kitchen and after a while, a head would pop round the door to state, "Supper's ready".
How we ate all that food I'll never know, but by the time Christmas Night turned into Boxing Day, we were walking home and were ready for bed as, of course, the next morning milk had to be delivered again.
By the way, I can never hear or sing "Christians, Awake", without remember my very happy childhood, thanks entirely to a wonderful, loving family.