Steve Morris

I miss Christmas in the old East End

Our celebrations were simpler and more honest

  • From Spectator Life
A teddy bear stall on Petticoat Lane, 1962 (Getty images)

My family is from Canning Town in London’s East End. One thing’s for sure, we never curated Christmas, never had it with bells on and we looked forward to the next one the moment it was over. There were essential elements: winkles on Christmas Eve, with my dad rather solemnly getting out the winkle pins. Strange little molluscs, Winkles. You go through all that work ‘winkling’ them out of their shells, add some vinegar and pepper and then they’re gone, barely touching the side of your mouth.

Christmas Eve was the focus of the party. Front door open, everyone welcome

Of course, there was always the traditional knees-up. The whole extended family formed a line in the living room, we whacked on the music and then we passed up and down, singing along, with knees going like the clappers. As a teenager, I nearly died when the knees-up was announced. But now? Now, I wish I could be part of one again.

There were uncles, aunts and friends of the family everywhere. The men generally sat together talking about what happened in the war, in the Suez campaign, in Korea and fretting about the state of the nation. And we boys sat close drinking it up and hoping to be soldiers ourselves someday. My mother and the women tended to be crammed into the kitchen and the laughter hinted that they were having more fun than the men.

Christmas Eve was the focus of the party. Front door open, everyone welcome. At some point, the union jacks would come out and we’d sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It wasn’t a kind of inward-looking nationalism. Everyone was welcome regardless of creed or birthplace. It was more a simple kind of gratitude for the country, not shallow because it came loaded with suffering and sacrifice. It was hard won.

Many of my father’s school friends had been killed when a bomb hit the school they were sheltering in. My father was lucky. He used to stay at home to look after his mum, who was deaf and couldn’t hear the bombs falling.

Christmas day was for family. Food and presents and then a whisky or two and a walk around the streets to clear the head and say hello to the neighbours. Never the Queen’s Speech. It used to cause arguments. And so to Boxing Day when it was always the men off to the football. As Boxing Day moved on, I’d feel that dread that we were heading back to ordinary life. My family weren’t flashy and despite limited schooling, they were sharp and clever. They never expected life to do them a favour.

I know people get funny about the commercialisation of Christmas and my evangelical friends lament that Jesus has somehow not got a mention. But that’s not a modern thing. Our Christmas was about family first. Yes, sometimes we might go to Midnight Mass, but not often.

Looking back on it now, as a priest, I think we got Christmas right. It was an open house – which is perhaps the greatest metaphor for the Christian faith. That and joy and singing and wonder. My Christmas now is still great. But it is politer, more well-ordered, more insular. Sometimes I dream about the Christmases of my youth. My grandfather played the piano in the local pub. My local is now a gastro pub with no sign of a piano. Instead they play Ed Sheeran.