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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

CHRISTMAS AT
CATTLE LAITHE, KNOTTINGLEY


JEAN NORFOLK

Since I wrote my recent articles about life at Cattle Laithe many years ago, it has been lovely to hear from so many people how much they have enjoyed reading and re-reading them and asking me to write more.

This month seems to be an appropriate time to write about Christmas at Cattle Laithe. Not the commercialised money making glitz we see nowadays, where the true meaning of Christmas is largely forgotten, but the beautiful spiritual Christmas that I remember. Even as a child I experienced a joyous uplifting of my soul as the countdown to Christmas began, and the magic lingered on until well into the New Year.

It wasn’t simply the presents that we knew were secretly hidden away somewhere, it was the way our entire way of life was transformed for a few short weeks by the miracle of Christmas. I remember how I tried desperately to cling on to each day, wishing it could go on forever.

I think that to truly love and appreciate Christmas, you must first of all believe in and celebrate what Christmas means - the birth of Christ. Nowadays this seems to be incidental. Even though Dad proclaimed himself to be non-religious he sang loudest of all when we gathered round the piano to sing carols!

We always knew that the festive season had begun however, when Dad produced packs of coloured paper which was cut into narrow strips to make paper chains. He would sit at the table with us and show us how to stick the loops together. He made ‘shawls’ out of tissue paper which he draped over the pictures hanging on the walls. He did this by folding over a sheet of paper several times then snipping out small sections with scissors. When it was opened out again it revealed a delicate lacy shawl. Somehow we managed to fit a Christmas tree in the corner of the room and Dad would bring out a boxful of well-worn tinsel and baubles. With our home-made decorations and a little holly from the nearby fields, our decorations were complete.

Mum always baked enough to feed an army at Christmas. About a month before the big day she would gather all the ingredients together for our Christmas cake and we would all watch eagerly until it was well mixed and transferred into cake tins. Then came our ‘treat’ as we jostled to scrape the mixing bowl clean!

Mum always baked an extra cake "just to try" before Christmas. It was usually gone in a couple of days. Starting the day before Christmas Eve she would bake dozens of mince pies, jam and lemon curd tarts and my favourite coconut tarts, with a gorgeous dollop of raspberry jam under the filling.

As I wrote previously, dad would cycle to Pontefract every week to pay a little money into a savings club run by Mr. Deacon at his toy shop in Middle Row, Pontefract. He would tell Mr Deacon what he wanted at the beginning of the year and I don’t think he ever let Dad down.

One year I got a beautiful dolls house with lights that were powered by a cycle lamp battery hidden away under the chimney. The lights in the different rooms were tiny cycle light bulbs. Oh how I loved that dolls house!

We got lots of other presents as well as our main gift, and one that I remember vividly is the ‘Staring Doll that I always got. Does anyone remember them? They were large stuffed dolls about four to five feet tall with huge painted-on eyes and a permanently startled expression. Dressed in bright coloured trousers and tops, the first one I got was taller than me. As I grew, the dolls seemed to get smaller. Only when I was older did I realise that in fact it was me who was getting taller and the ‘staring dolls’ were still the same height. A ‘Stary Doll’ as Dad called them, was an essential item at Christmas, as important as the chicken on the table for Christmas dinner! I can remember seeing staring dolls at Aunt Mary’s house too, presents for my cousins Betty and Joyce.

Another gift I always got was a kaleidoscope. As a child I used to look at all the tiny bits of coloured celluloid through the window at the bottom and marvel at how they could be transformed into such beautiful intricate designs. I’ve sat beside Dad many time when he was maybe reading his ‘Daily Herald’ and nudged him saying "Quick Dad – have a look at this!" Not realising of course that by the time I’d passed it over to him the design was totally different to the one I had seen.

I was thrilled one year to get a torch as an extra gift. A torch might not seem very exciting to a child nowadays but when you lived in a house with no gas or electricity and no street lamps outside, a torch was very welcome! I always got a few books to read, which were usually saved until after Christmas when I could hide away in my seat by the window and enjoy them at my leisure.

I remember my brother and I playing with his gift of a toy fort with lead soldiers. He also got a Bagatelle one year, which kept us occupied for many months later.

Every year we got jigsaw puzzles, dominoes, snap cards, paints and colouring books. We made planes from Airfix kits and built garages and hotels from a huge Meccano set that was one of Dads more inspired gifts to my brother. We got marbles by the bagful, Hornby train sets and enough sweets and chocolates to open our own sweet shop!

Christmas dinner was one of our chickens – killed by my Dad – which was the main reason I couldn’t eat chicken for many years! As kids we knew all the chickens and in fact had given names to many of them. I’d sat down on occasions and fed them by hand, they took food from my fingers. I simply couldn’t face eating a chicken I had fed and raced around the garden! It didn’t worry Dad though, food was never wasted.

At teatime we would eat the pork pie that Mum had bought at Riley’s, the butchers in Ferrybridge, and there was always a big ham joint. We also tucked into Mums baking, and the cake, which by now was iced and decorated and had a crepe-paper frill wrapped around it.

Dad always took us by surprise at teatime and handed each of us yet another present. We would be so excited and engrossed in all the gifts we had received that Dad’s last surprise of the day was always totally unexpected – even though he did it every year bless him! Sometimes it was a book or a game and once I remember getting a necklace from him. Not expensive jewellery, but a simple bead necklace. I was delighted with it though.

Going to bed on Christmas day was always difficult. We were reluctant to leave all our presents and do something as mundane as going to sleep. But we did eventually.

Boxing Day was the day Dad and I usually got out our bikes and rode to Wentbridge to see The Hunt start out. There was always a huge crowd of sightseers, but never any sign of protesters as we see nowadays. Once the huntsmen and the hounds had set off we cycled back home.

Dad would go visit Aunt May and then he and my Grandad would go for their Christmas pint to Hill Top Working Mens Club.

We would resume playing with our toys etc whilst Mum cooked Boxing Day lunch, when we had a joint of pork. Afterwards I would begin counting down the days until the Christmas holiday was over, and we had to go back to school again. Somehow though, the magic of Christmas lingered on during the first few weeks of school and then slowly normality returned.

A Christmas Carol can sound so rich and poignant at Christmas yet somehow seems flat and meaningless once Christmas is over. I always knew that Christmas was over for another year when the sound of "Silent Night" or "While Shepherd’s Watched" failed to inspire me!

There’s always another year though when you are a child and before you know it you are practising "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" again and making cards for your Mum and Dad.

My Dad never turned away Carol Singers and would always have coins ready and waiting for their arrival.

I didn’t realise at the time just how much scrimping and scraping my parents must have put into our Christmas celebrations each year, and years later when I had three children of my own their efforts continued selflessly.

Each year on Christmas Eve, my three children would wait eagerly for the car laden with gifts that my Dad sent to our house. They were not allowed to open them of course until Christmas morning but excitedly sorting them into three heaps became an eagerly awaited treat.

One Christmas morning I was awakened about 3am by a strange loud noise. When I investigated I found my kids all perched together on one bed playing ‘Dizzy Bugs2, one of the games Dad had sent. It involved revving up clockwork ladybirds and seeing who scored most points. Well it was Christmas morning!

Dad always sent me an extra little gift too, a pack of six bottles of Babycham. I didn’t even like Babycham but I never had the heart to tell him.

I realise now that Dad wanted to give me as much as he could to make up in some way for what he had missed out on as a child. He was determined that we would never ever wake up on Christmas morning only to discover that Santa Claus hadn’t called at our house.

The world has changed greatly since my children were small and even more so since I was young. Christmas has come and gone more times than I care to remember, yet I still hold dear all the happiness and joy my parents created. They are in my heart every day, but especially at this time of year.

I wish everyone a peaceful and joyous Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Jean Norfolk (nee Hobman)
February 2004

[Memories Index]


Other articles by Jean Norfolk

Memories of Cattlelaithe, Knottingley
Charles Burton Hobman
Mrs Madge Holman

Pontefract Website:
Memories of Holmes Printers, Pontefract
M.L. Jennings, Ropergate
William - A constant Companion



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