Christmas was always an exciting time in the Mitton household. So exciting in fact, that my sister and I used to periodically practice for Christmas morning, throughout the latter part of the year. Our practice sessions which started as early as July, went as follows. One of us (we took it in turns) would be the person designated to wake up first and inform the other, in an excited and overly dramatic fashion, that it was Christmas morning.
"Janet, Janet wake up it's Christmas morning, look! look! he's been", I would yell at her. (as the July sun beamed through the gap in the curtains).
At which point we would hug each other, bounce up and down and pretend to look through our presents in the imaginary sack that sat at the foot of our beds. All good and well, you may think for a couple of five year olds, but this (like many things in my life) seemed to carry on much longer than it reasonably should. In 1976 when we moved to a house that allowed us to have our own bedroom, we were both terribly disappointed that our practices would become less frequent. We therefore elected to share a bedroom for far longer than was necessary so that our Christmas morning rehearsals could continue uninterrupted.
Our families pockets were not exactly bursting at the seams with oodles of cash, and Christmas was about the only time that we actually got anything that was not handed down to us. I spent the majority of my primary school years wearing ill fitting clothes which were passed down to me from the Marr family. Not only were the clothes worn out, but Stephen Marr, whose clothes I was receiving was a good foot taller than me and had the fashion sense of a Mongolian yak herder. One hand me down that I particularly disliked, was an elasticated tie in the colours of the Leeds United football team. My hatred for this tie was three fold, 1, I disliked Leeds United immensely, 2, It was of hideous design, and 3, All the other kids used to stretch the elastic as far as it would go, before pinging it in my face at an alarming velocity. Can there could be any greater insult than to be pinged in the face by a tie in the colours of a team you hate? Having said that, I am not altogether sure if I hated Leeds United as much before the acquisition of the tie, or it was the constant tie pinging that lead to my hatred.
In my minds eye Christmas was a time when I got more presents than any other kid in the world. The opening of my presents (always at the foot of my parents bed), seemed like it went on forever. However, it has been pointed out to me, by my sister in recent times, that a lot of what we were opening were actually things that other parents would not even dream of wrapping up for their kids. "Oh thanks mum, it's a bar of soap", and yes come to think of it, there did seem to be an awful lot of tangerines thrown in our sacks to bolster them up. Oh, and hold on, our sacks were pillow cases which in retrospect held very little. Delusion can be a wonderful thing.
A typical Christmas morning would go as follows. After the initial "wake up Janet/Andrew, it's Christmas morning" routine. We would rush into my mum and dad's bedroom and wake them up. My mum would go downstairs and throw the beef or chicken in the oven (we never had turkey), before bringing us all a cup of tea to bed. We would then open our presents on a rotation basis until somebody's ran out. During the all opening of the presents routine, my dad would raise our excitement levels by throwing us comments such as "Oooh oooh, I wonder what it can be?", "listen it rattles" or "I hope she's kept the receipt". The last comment arising when we opened my grandma's presents, in reference to the fact that she had an overwhelming appetite for taking things back. My mum meanwhile, who was never known for her lavish behaviour, would be scrambling around on the bedroom floor, stressfully trying to recycle the Christmas paper, which would be re-used for years to come, until it was so frayed that it was impossible to tape together. Her Christmas paper recycling obsession got even worse, after one year, when all the money that my grandma had sent us somehow ended up getting thrown in the outside bin. Thankfully it was retrieved before the bin men came.
While the opening of the presents charade would be unfolding. My dad would often recount stories of Christmas's gone by, and one story would always come out.
"Remember the first Christmas that Andrew could speak?", he would tell us. To which I would think to myself, I'm not actually sure if I do or not, but I hear it every Christmas so it feels like I remember it with perfect clarity.
"Janet ripped through her Christmas presents like a dose of salts, whilst Andrew spent half an hour trying to open his first one which turned out to be a box of Jelly Babies. He then spent another hour looking at the Jelly Babies in awe, whilst repeatedly saying babies, coloured babies".
They would all then laugh at my early fascination with Jelly Babies, whilst making cute noises "Arghh, how sweet", my mum would say with tears in her eyes. Christmas, just would not have been Christmas without the jelly baby story.
The grand finale of our Christmas present opening would be the opening of the big presents which were always down stairs by the tree. In earlier and poorer years my dad would go to great effort to craft the big present with his own hands. And in retrospect what a wonderful thing that was. When we cleared my parents house out after their passing, some of the only possessions stored there that did not get thrown in the rubbish were the things that he made for us, all those years ago. My toy garage is a perfect example of this - beautifully adorned with my name, a fictitious telephone number (we did not have a phone till I was eleven) and the following text " Andrew's garage, work done at competitive prices".
My downstairs presents always seemed to be better than my sisters and it is this fact that I wish to elaborate on.
For two Christmas's running, my sister was desperate to get a beanbag for her main present. The first time that this did not happen was a major disappointment. The main gift that year turned out to be a chemistry set in a large wooden box, which my dad had made. My sister was visibly upset but managed to contain her disdain and show a modicum of excitement for the chemistry set. The second year that the beanbag did not appear on Christmas morning was however, nothing short of a catastrophe. In the run up to Christmas my sister had made it perfectly clear that a beanbag was the only thing that she really wanted, and my parents seemed to acknowledge that.
Before we knew it Christmas morning was upon us and our excitement had reached epic levels. Janet could hardly contain herself, finally she was going to get her beanbag. My own request to Father Christmas was a new bike, but I was pretty convinced that I was not going to get it. I was more interested in Janet's beanbag. With only one thing on our minds we rushed through the upstairs minor present opening ceremony in sheer desperation to go downstairs to see Janet's beanbag. My dad didn't help matters, his motivational comments were all related to how comfy Janet was going to be when she got her new present. And then it was time, the big moment had arrived.
With Janet in the lead we all rushed downstairs to where the heavy artillery was undoubtedly positioned under the tree. With a look of sheer glee upon her face, she pulled open the door and rushed into the living room. My mum, dad and I followed at close quarters, to find Janet totally mesmerised by the gift that sat beneath the tree. There in all it's glory, was the most hideous looking office chair that ever swivelled the earth.
"But whaaa what about my beanbag?", she managed to force out whilst trying hard not to burst into tears.
"Well we thought that this would be more practical love", came my dad's response.
"It will be important for your studies", he further elaborated - rubbing salt into the open wound.
Without so much as another glance at the boxlike monstrosity of a chair, my sister turned and ran upstairs, where she remained all day. Whilst my mum and dad tried their best to console her, I rode around outside on my new bicycle.
My shamed parents eventually bought my sister a beanbag for her next birthday and it remained in the family until the dog died on it in 1991, and it was thrown out. But what about the swivel chair?, well that remained in the family until very recently when my father passed away and we had to get rid off all his possessions. It spent the last 15 years of its existence in his outside shed and laboratory. As for the bicycle, I gave that to my sister in the late 80s, when I had outgrown it. She took it with her to university, where it was stolen from outside her house.