It’s that time of year when lit up reindeers, snowmen and Father Christmases climbing ladders appear on walls of houses. Very different from when I was a lot younger living in Liverpool. The most I would expect to see would be lit up Christmas trees in front parlours in the gap between open curtains. Mind you they never appeared until the week before Christmas, whereas these days, such decorations arrive at the beginning of December. I’m all in favour of such lights because they make me smile and brighten the dark nights. I can even understand the sense of Father Christmas needing a ladder if he’s parked his sleigh on the roofs of the new houses at the bottom of our street as they have no chimneys. But it’s the bright lights that I really go for and maybe it’s because I was born when I was that I love them so much.
When I was a very little girl in WW2 the streets were very dark in the winter evenings and even when I went to infants school in Whitefield Road, Everton, in the mid Forties, our house was lit by gas. Going upstairs to bed could be quite scary because the stairs were unlit and so was the landing and I don’t remember the gas ever being lit in the bedroom. Even downstairs in the kitchen (these days it would be called the living room) if the gas ran out, the room would be plunged into darkness and Mam’s fingers scrabbled for a penny beneath the runner on the sideboard to put in the meter in the parlour. I remember the sense of relief when the penny dropped and one of my brothers would get on a chair and light the gas mantle.
Of course, often there was some light from the fire in the grate but that could send shadows dancing around the walls which could be spooky if I was on my own, especially if I had been to the flicks with Mam and my sister the evening before. I’ll never forget watching a Flash Gordon film in which the walls were closing in on our hero, threatening to squash the life out of him. For days I was a nervous wreck. A certain Laurel and Hardy film on the telly with a flying sheet representing a ghost frightened the life out of my own son Tim when he was little. So it’s best never to under-estimate what a child’s imagination can do.
Going down the backyard to the lavatory during dark winter evenings was scary, too. Fortunately our house was the end one of a row of terraced houses, it was next to a jigger (entry) that led to the next street and was divided into two more narrow entries onto which the backdoors of yards opened. No doubt it was because of the entries that on the corner of our yard wall was fixed a street gas lamp. I loved that gas lamp and I’m glad that my husband thought of photographing it before it vanished forever when our street and neighbouring ones were demolished in the seventies. ( See my google+ page of this blog for the photo).
I’ll never forget the day the men came to put electricity into the houses in our street. Us kids would come home from school and there would be a cocky watchman with an arched covered shelter and a brassiere that burned coke which glowed brightly in the dark, guarding the equipment. It was probably from seeing that brassiere that my brothers and my future boyfriend had the idea of putting holes in tin cans and setting stuff alight inside. With string attached to the cans, they would swing them around as they ran. What was more magical than those cans glowing in the dark was being able with the press of a switch to light up the four main rooms in our house. They did not include mine and my sister’s bedroom or that of my brothers’. Dad who was a plasterer but worked with electricians in the building trade, connected our bedrooms, the landing and lobby to the power. I can’t say that rooms were no longer plunged into sudden darkness because they did when the money ran out in the electric meter.
As it was the street lamps in Liverpool were to be lit by gas for many years and as a teenager, I would gather with friends around the lamp post after dark. It’s only since I became a novelist that I gave a lot more thought to what it would be like in earlier times. I read about mutton fat being burnt in small homemade bowls to provide light in hovels in the 13 century and when researching my ancestry I discovered that on my grandfather William Nelson’s marriage certificate, his occupation is listed as lamplighter in 1896. I well remember the lamplighters coming around when I was a girl, so I can picture him in that role.
In our church and many others during Advent there will be Christingle services.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christingle Now they are really magical! Happy Christmas!