“If you aren’t good you might find nothing but a lump of coal in your stocking on Christmas morning,” my mother used to say when we were growing up.
I discovered later that we were the only kids in the neighborhood threatened with lumps of coal if we weren’t good at Christmas. Apparently, this was how kids in the region of Great Britain where my mother grew up were cajoled into keeping out of mischief. My mother came to Nova Scotia from Kent as a war bride in 1918 and she brought with her a few Christmas customs unheard of in our neighborhood.
For many years we received modest gifts from our parents on Boxing Day, for example. I was in my teens before I discovered that no one else around us observed the British custom of gift giving on Boxing Day.
Christmas dinner was a bit different at our house as well. Like most people in the 1940s, we usually enjoyed the traditional goose for Christmas dinner. This remained the custom in our house long after the goose dinner was replaced by the now ubiquitous turkey dinner. Christmas dinner was always held at midday and the dessert always was home cooked mincemeat pie. The mincemeat for the pie was homemade as well, many of the ingredients coming from our own garden. I don’t believe anyone makes mincemeat the way my mother used to, and I don’t think anyone would want to in this fat-conscious era. My arteries shudder when I remember all the suet that used to go into its making.
This is an aside, having nothing to do with our celebration of Christmas, but I must tell you that when the goose was being cooked, a lot of fat was rendered from it. The fat wasn’t wasted. Stored in jars after it cooled, it was later mixed with wintergreen oil or Minard’s liniment and used as a chest rub for colds. A chest rub was also made by mixing the goose fat with a juice obtained by boiling onions in water. In other words, memories of our Christmas dinner often lingered on through the winter.
Fruitcake was another Christmas staple at our house, and it was always served during a light evening meal on Christmas day evening. The fruitcake was homemade and was concocted from scratch. I recall that it was a dark, really heavy fruitcake and it always had almond flavored icing. You can buy dark fruitcake with almond icing today but it doesn’t compare to the homemade cakes that came out of our old woodstove oven.
Because my father was a hunter, we always had some kind of wild game meal around Christmas time. Usually it was venison, a roast or chops. If my father was successful and managed to bag a deer, some of the meat was used in preparing the mincemeat for the pies. I’m not sure if it’s a tradition or simply a way of making sure all of the deer was used, but the mincemeat was always made from neck meat. The meat from the neck was carefully preserved and set aside especially for the mincemeat.
Later, as my brothers and I learned to hunt, black duck, grouse, and rabbits were added to our holiday wild game dinners. Having a wild game dinner around Christmas time and especially at New Years was a family tradition, one many of us with hunters in the family still observe today.
This was our Christmas in the 1940s and 1950s and for the most part it’s celebrated the same way today. What has changed perhaps is the way Christmas is actively, almost aggressively promoted as an occasion to exchange gifts and never mind the real reasons for celebrating.