“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.”
― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
When I came across ‘Little Women’ at the age of seven years old (I was an advanced reader) I found it difficult to understand the situation that Jo and the other March girls found themselves in. We always had presents at Christmas; we weren’t rich but neither were we poor. We weren’t particularly vain – especially not my older brother – and we too had a Mum and a Dad. The thought of taking breakfast to a poor family confused me. Did we know any poor families? We lived on a council estate but everyone on our street, everyone at school, on our estate. They all seemed quite comfortably off – except perhaps one woman who lived in the flats and got quite cross when my friend and I babysat for her and didn’t eat all of the shop bought scampi and chips she left for us – she was only gone for an hour and in those days young girls often babysat babies for an hour or so.
As for breakfast – would a poor family really appreciate my bowl of Shreddies or Ricicles? My brother’s Cocopops or the porridge my Mum sometimes made (until the advent of Readybrek – but more of that later).
I was aware of the fact that not only did the March family live in another country, they also lived in a different time. A time when long frocks and white gloves were the accepted mode of dress. A contrast to my own – tee-shirt and shorts in the summer, jumper and cord jeans in the winter. I was only ever dragged into a posh frock on special occasions. Ah, but Jo and I did have something in common – we were both tomboys.
My Christmases as a child were much of a muchness; although a couple of occasions stick in my mind. The year when I still believed in Father Christmas – especially after he brought me a shiny blue scooter. I must have been at school then because my Mum kept the diary entry I wrote for school – complete with a reasonably good drawing of said scooter.
The year when everything went wrong. It started with my Dad having problems with the Christmas tree (not a real one) lights malfunctioning. Whilst he muttered at the lights, twisting each bulb in an effort to find the dead culprit. The rest of us kept quiet as we hung up paper streamers and dusted off the Chinese lanterns that came out of the special box every year. On the day itself things went VERY wrong. My Mum cooked the turkey without removing the giblets; she melted the plastic colander with the Brussels Sprouts, too much brandy was put on the Christmas pudding and it ignited rather too well. Mum cried, Dad shouted, the dog got excited and bit Mum because she was hitting Dad with a rolled up newspaper.
Another memorable Christmas was the one when Dad brought home a bottle of Advocaat and a cocktail mixer. This was a large glass container with a battery-powered whisk in its silver metal lid. We had Snowballs that Christmas – and not the cold and wet ones that you chuck at each other either. After Christmas when Mum and Dad had returned to work and I was left to the not so tender ministrations of my older brother and sister, I decided to utilise the cocktail mixer and make my own Snowball. I hadn’t actually seen what my Dad put in the glass container – so I worked my way through our depleted alcohol stocks and put a bit of everything in. Then I whizzed it. Then I drank it. Then I felt a bit funny – and hungry.
This is where the Readybrek comes in. I wasn’t usually allowed to make my own because of the kettle (not electric but the whistling type that sits on the hob – our house must have been a health and safety nightmare) but my brother and sister were still asleep. I was too impatient to wait for the kettle to whistle so my Readybrek was rather stodgy but a spoonful of honey helped.
I put the empty bowl in the sink and went back to playing with my new Christmas toys. There was a knock at the door and despite having been told NEVER to answer the door on my own – I did. It was only the milkman. As I bent forward to pick up the milk bottles I was very, very sick – all over his shoes. His cries of disgust brought my siblings running. My brother cleaned the milkman up and my sister cleaned me up.
My cocktail experiment was discovered and I was banned from the alcohol cupboard. We swore each other to secrecy but the milkman grassed us up. I never liked him. We used to take it in turns to go out to his milk float and pick some nice biscuits for tea. My brother and sister always seemed to come back with chocolate digestives or custard creams but I came back carrying a packet of plain-looking sugary biscuits that I wouldn’t eat. My Mum was puzzled by this and accompanied me to the milk float, standing by as I asked for a packet of nice biscuits. Without a thought the milky picked up a pack of the hated biscuits and handed them to me. I looked at my Mum sadly. She laughed and handed them back.
‘Those are NEECE biscuits. Not nice biscuits. Which ones do you want really?’
I pointed at the milk chocolate digestives. Success.
I wonder what the March family equivalent would have been?