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The hosts of Christmas Past: North and north-east figures share their festive memories

Many people had no televisions in the 1950s and toys were in short supply, but that didn't mean there was nothing to celebrate.
Neil Drysdale
Christmas came early for one little girl in Aberdeen in 1989.
Christmas came early for one little girl in Aberdeen in 1989.

We’re not too far away from the hour when we can join Noddy Holder and his Slade bandmates in sounding the raucous call – It’s Christmas.

For much of the last month, people across the north and north-east have been involved in a festive splurge, braving the supermarkets and malls – and shopping online – in search of trinkets, trees, turkeys, tinsel and other staples of this time of year.

Youngsters might imagine that December has always been a time for parties, painting the town red and pushing out the boat, yet it is only in recent decades – perhaps from the start of the 21st Century – that the Yuletide lasted for the best part of a month.

We’ve talked to some of our columnists and well-kent faces about their memories of Christmas, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, and one of the most obvious differences between now and then is that even December 25 was a normal working day in many communities throughout Scotland.

A different experience to now

Aberdeen corporation buses wished the public festive greetings in 1964. Pic: AJL.

As for presents, these were once restricted to perhaps a toy and a tangerine, and the notion of parents splashing out on myriad expensive items simply didn’t happen. They didn’t have the money to “go large”, as the Americans call it, but maybe just as importantly, their children didn’t have any expectations of being showered with gifts.

In short, it was a different experience altogether from what we have nowadays. And here’s the evidence from some of those who sang their carols 50, 60 and 70 years ago, beginning with renowned historian and UHI professor Jim Hunter.

Jim Hunter, emeritus professor of history at UHI, grew up in the Highlands in the 1950s.

Jim Hunter hoped for a train set

He said: “I remember a 1950s Christmas Day in Duror, the West Highland community where I was born and grew up.

“It was 1955. Which makes me seven.

“On the face of things, it’s a day that’s none too special. Duror’s post office, which my mother operates from our house, opens at nine and closes at five-thirty. As it does every other day. Just next door is Duror’s general store. It’s open too as normal.

My father – a trapper (today he’d be called a ranger) with the Forestry Commission – shoulders his rifle, calls his terrier to heel and leaves for work – as he does every weekday morning and on Saturdays as well – though he then gets the afternoon off.

Many children wanted model trains such as replicas of the Flying Scotsman. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“Trains chug up and down the nearby railway line – connecting us with Oban and with Ballachulish – as they do daily, except Sundays. The mail’s delivered around midday.

“But for me the day’s more than a wee bit special.

The first copy of the “Oor Wullie” annual was published by DC Thomson in 1940.

“Waking early, I feel with my feet for the parcels I’m expecting to find on my bed.

“They’re there. One parcel’s always bigger than the rest. Inside it, maybe there’s a train set. With an engine that you wind up with a key – plus some carriages and rails.

No TV, but a radio does the trick

“The train set’s box might promise more than what it actually delivers – featuring as it does the Flying Scotsman at full speed and throwing out a plume of steam. But I’m happy with the contents all the same.

“Or maybe there’s a pistol looking like the ones that cowboys carry in my illustrated comics. Firing caps that, when you pull the pistol’s trigger, produce a satisfying bang. The pistols come with belt and holster. So I’ll wear it the day through.

Families sat down to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with James Stewart and Donna Reed. Pic: Shutterstock.

“We have no television – TV reception’s not available in Duror and won’t be until the later 1960s. But there’s Christmas music on the radio – on the BBC Light Programme.

“And at night, when work’s all over, there’s a Christmas dinner, for which one of our hens has been called on to lay down its life.

The Broons enjoyed their Christmas, but had problems with a tree in the 1950s. (C) DCT

‘A grand day’

“There’s a Christmas tree. And fold-out paper streamers pinned across the ceiling. And crackers. With not very funny jokes. And paper hats.

“Dinner ends with custard and a clootie dumpling – served carefully by my mother to ensure that both my sister and myself get one of the coins – sixpences – all such dumplings must contain.

A Canna Christmas card from 1950s. Pic: National Trust for Scotland.

“And there are tangerines. They can’t be bought except at Christmas. They come in little boxes with each tangerine wrapped in coloured tissue paper. And they taste, or so I think in retrospect, much better than their present-day equivalents.

“And dates. Packed tightly into a wooden container – with, on its lid, a highly coloured picture of a camel and a palm tree. So that’s Christmas. I’m sent to bed a little later than is usual. And it’s been, I reckon, a grand day.”

Sheena Blackhall is known as the “Queen of Doric” throughout the north east.

Sheena Blackhall’s chilly Christmas

Across the other side of the country, a young Sheena Blackhall – who is now renowned as the Queen of Doric – was getting ready for a big day. Not that it was THE big day.

She recalled: “Christmas in the ’50s wasn’t much. Blink and you’d miss it. I was one of the baby boomers, born two years after the war ended. We still had the gas mask and the identity cards in the house.

“We were lucky though, because nearly all our relatives lived in Aberdeenshire, on farms, so the Christmas meal was provided. From New Deer, we got a big sack of potatoes. From Skene, we got a box with a throttled hen in it, and neeps. That was fun.

The clootie dumpling team with their biggest order of the year of 700 puddings

“I helped granny to rip off its feathers, then she took a candle and singed off its hair. Then its neck was tossed into the broth pot. Granny pulled out the giblets… the liver, heart were added to the broth and sometimes half-formed yellow eggs.

“After the meal, we dried the wishbone, pulled it and whoever broke off the biggest end got their wish. On Christmas morning, I had a grey sock at the foot of the bed with a pencil, a rubber and a tangerine.

Threepennies in the pudding

“There was no TV, just the radio, but Dad would have acquired a Christmas tree from near Braemar, and it was festooned with Disney Snow White lights.

Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan” was a big hit in the 1950s. Credit: Walt Disney

“To really push the boat out, my parents boiled a clootie dumpling in an old muslin nappy liner with silver threepennies in. There was no central heating, so the upstairs windows had frost inside them.

“Everyone practically sat on top of the fire, if you could get any heat past our corpulent Scotty dug. Amazingly, he never burst into flames.

“But no, Scotland’s big celebration was Hogmanay.”

Author and poet Donald S Murray spent his early Christmases in the Western Isles

Donald S Murray dreamed of cowboys

Even in the 1960s, it was still a case of youngsters across the north making their own entertainment and the adults preparing their own festive meals.

Award-winning author Donald S Murray, who grew up in Ness in the Isle of Lewis, said: “One of my early memories of Christmas is seeing both John Wayne and James Stewart in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

“I watched it at a Christmas party in the home of my brother’s classmate, Alex Dan, one of a few celebrations that began to be organised by the mothers of those around my age-group – mainly boys – in the village at the time.

Jimmy Stewart showed it was a wonderful life from San Francisco to Stonehaven

“It was also one of the few houses nearby with a television. Together with the bang and snap of Christmas crackers, it livened up that time of the year, associating it with guns, cowboy hats and holsters in my mind.

“But there was also the occasional present from my relatives and even neighbours. One or two had noticed my fondness for books and had even given me a colourful biography of Winston Churchill in the Christmas that followed his death [in 1965].

“In short, it was a fun time – though not quite the same for the hens that pecked around the houses on our village crofts. All too often, there would be the blur of their feathers in both porches and barns in the days leading up to Christmas when crofters (or normally their wives!) plucked their plumage clean.”

Prof Sarah Pedersen has recalled Christmas in the 1970s. Picture by Paul Glendell

A Girls World for Sarah Pedersen

Matters were definitely changing by the 1970s, as RGU professor Sarah Pedersen can testify, but it was still a very different world – one where the Black and White Minstrel Show attracted millions of viewers and animal circuses were viewed as innocent fun.

She recalled: “Christmas in the ’70s was certainly not tasteful. Baubles were big and shiny, wrapping paper was mismatched and often reused from years before, and Christmas TV was important.

Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas address on the radio in 1952.

“With only three channels, it felt like the whole nation sat down at the same time to watch the Queen’s speech, Billy Smart’s Christmas Circus and – most importantly – the Morecambe and Wise Show.

It was a plastic world back then

“In the week before Christmas, living rooms would be draped in scarily inflammable streamers, paper bells and tinsel. No fir trees were chopped down for a’ 70s Christmas – plastic trees in improbable colours were hauled down from the attic, to be adorned with even more tinsel, brightly coloured fairy lights and the type of ornament that would inflict a nasty cut if you broke it.

Morecambe and Wise’s festive show was automatic viewing for millions of Britons

“The highlight of Christmas Day was the dinner – turkey of course, with all the trimmings, followed by Christmas pudding.

“Adults might drink their annual glass of Mateus Rose with dinner, although dads preferred to broach a tin of Watneys Party Seven. Nanas would be tempted by a schooner of sherry or a ‘snowball’, an awe-inspiring mixture of lemonade and Advocaat. Kids had free range of bottles of pop with flavours such as dandelion and burdock.

“I wanted a Girls World for Christmas every year – a decapitated woman’s head and shoulders with her own make-up and styling brush.

“I can still feel the anger I felt when a Girls World finally entered our house as a present for my youngest sister. Presents I fondly remember included a bike, roller skates and the year Dad handmade an incredibly heavy sledge out of odds and ends of wood.

“That was also known as ‘the year it did not snow!'”

Ally Begg has moved from Bad Boys Inc to sports production.

Latest Dons strip for Ally Begg

Ally Begg has evocative memories of Christmases Past. Indeed, he’s one of the few north-east pop stars who can say they turned up on a Top of the Pops festive special when he was a member of the 1990s hit band Bad Boys Inc.

But, a decade earlier, he recalled how a sci-fi franchise cast a magic Noel spell.

“Star Wars” was big in the Begg household in the early 1980s. Pic: LUCASFILM.

He said: “It was a fantastic time to be a young lad. Christmas in the Begg household was always one of joy, laughter and playing with the very latest Star Wars figurines which Santa left under our glistening Christmas Tree.

“It was the same year after year until our teenage years. As we slept, a pillowcase full of goodies was filled for us to rummage through when we first woke in the small hours of the morning.

“This was the appetiser before the main course downstairs. Nothing beats the feeling of waking up on Christmas morning! I would receive gifts like the very latest ‘Roy of the Rovers’ and ‘Shoot’ annuals which would be read cover to cover that very same day.

“Once mum and dad woke, they would lead my brother Peter and I downstairs where the main gifts awaited us. I was always astonished to see the number of gifts under the tree. When I look back now, I feel so grateful to both my parents.

Ally Begg got a pre-Christmas boost when Aberdeen won the European Super Cup on December 20 in 1983.

‘It put me in the best of moods’

“They always knew how to get me off on the right foot and set the tone for the day as invariably my first gift was always the latest Aberdeen FC football strip: top, shorts and socks! I would change almost immediately. It put me in the best of moods.

“In the ’80s, I was very much a huge Star Wars fan and will never forget the feeling of excitement when I received my first ‘Millennium Falcon’. I spent hours playing with it.

Big Interview: Ally Begg has gone from Bad Boys Inc to meeting Sir Alex Ferguson and setting up a new sports channel

“Once the gifts had been opened, Peter and I would disappear into our bedrooms to play with them for hours while mum and dad prepared lunch. We usually had it about 2pm before settling down to watch the afternoon matinee after the Queen’s speech.

“The evenings became a quieter affair as mum and dad settled down to watch all the Christmas Specials: The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game and Only Fools and Horses, to name but a few.

Millions tuned in for the “Only Fools and Horses” Christmas special on Christmas Day in 1982. Pic: Allstar/BBC

‘We loved these Star Wars games’

“Peter and I would sometimes join them, but most of our evenings were taken up with making up our Star Wars-themed stories where the galaxy was once again saved by the heroics of Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia.

“All 15cm of them!”

Nowadays, children are in the habit of asking for computer games and iPads, and all the latest fashion trends. And pretty much everything shuts at Christmas.

Yet there’s no sign that it wasn’t a wonderful life back then for those who celebrated the basics with their families without a supermarket or a hi-tech gadget in sight.