The magic of Christmas past
From Harry Foy's Book 'Growing up in Portadown in the Thirties and Forties'
When I was young the magic of Christmas stood out as the best time of the year. No sooner was Halloween over than the "Join Our Christmas Club" signs appeared in all the shop windows. People had little money in the "Hungry Thirties" so they paid weekly into a savings account for everything they needed at Christmas. Children's faces lit up with excitement as they gazed, noses pressed close to the window, at the great variety of toys. All the shops took on a festive appearance as they vied with each other for the best display. Shopkeepers were generous to their customers at this time of the year - the butcher often gave a free chicken or pound of sausages while the grocer gave regulars a large fruit loaf and a bottle of cordial. Christmas was turkey time and local butchers had special racks outside their shops to display dozens of turkeys, ducks and chickens. Some families had no way of cooking a large turkey so they went along to Davidson's or Irwin's bakery who cooked them in their large ovens for a small fee.
Music has always been part of the wonder of Christmas, so school concerts were rehearsed, church choirs sang carols from the first Sunday of Advent and the most popular tune on everyone's lips was "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot". The local picture houses put on special attractions and there was always the Regal Cinema treat for poor children. Going in you received a large paper bag containing an apple, orange, a bag of sweets and three new pennies. Inside you had a Christmas sing-song with "Albert Wilson and his Nightlights band". This was followed by cartoons and a big picture. Another treat was the annual visit to the Fair Green of Sharp's Hobbies with its chair planes, hobby horses and sideshows.
Children went to bed early on Christmas Eve. Stockings were hopefully hung on the end of the bed and we fell asleep with one eye open! The popular toys then were dolls and prams for the girls and footballs for the boys. There was a compendium of games and cowboy, Indian and nurse outfits. Probably the best stocking filler was the selection box.
I remember one Christmas in particular. I think it was 1934. I was on my way to Midnight mass when flames started coming out of the upstairs windows of Rex McKays draper shop. People passing by started to save merchandise carrying it across the road to the gateway of Faloon's pub. The fire spread quickly and flames encompassed the entire block. First went Sandford's large grocery and chemist complex. On the other side, in the Cafe Rex, brave men finished off fish suppers as flames came through the wall. Next to go up in flames was J & M Reid's drapery shop, the Carleton Bakery and then Sandford's Wine Shop. The local fire service fought the blaze. It was thirsty work but they carried on, a hose in one hand and a bottle of Gilbey's finest port wine in the other. With all the corks popping, it sounded as if World War Two had come early.
Alas, not all the saved merchandise made its way to the temporary store. Next morning children in the nearby streets woke to find new bedspreads on their beds and fluffy toys and ill-fitting clothes at the foot of them. Downstairs, new curtains adorned kitchen windows and a new table cloth was draped over the large kitchen table. On the sideboard were dozens of boxed gifts and everyone had fish suppers for breakfast.
Santa Claus, his beard badly singed, had arrived in style.
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