xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Christmas Memories

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas Memories

It’s Christmas time again. It is a special time of year. It is a very special time for me.

I was born on Christmas Eve. This year I will celebrate my 77th birthday on the eve of my 78th Christmas. Yes, 78 Christmases. That’s right. Don’t forget to count the first one, in 1937, that came just about an hour and a half after I was born.

When my mother was being taken back to the Labour Ward she heard a heavenly choir singing Adeste Fideles. For non Latin speakers that translates as "Oh, come all ye faithful." Mum thought she had died giving birth and had gone straight to heaven. Actually it was the nuns at St Anne’s Hospital warming up for Midnight Mass.

Naturally enough I do not remember anything at all about my very first Christmas, but, as I grow older I can remember more and more clearly many of the Christmases that I have enjoyed.

Some of my earliest memories involve being woken up at about 10-30pm on Christmas Eve so that I could go with my Mum and Dad to Midnight Mass at All Hallows church in Central Avenue, Inglewood. At that time we lived at 164, 7th Avenue, Inglewood, in the home of my Uncle Ben and Aunty Margaret Magee. Uncle Ben was a Station Master and he and his family lived in Mt Barker. We lived in their house while my parents waited to get a permit to build. During the war and for a few years afterwards, building supplies were in short supply and they needed a permit to build a new house on our family block in Thongsbridge St, Mt Lawley.

I had some memorable Christmases at Number 164. I used sleep on the back verandah, which had been enclosed to make quite a large bedroom. A door on the right led to the kitchen and a door on the left led to the laundry, or washhouse, as we called it in the 1940s.

One night when I was about four years old I was in bed looking at a picture book and waiting for my dad to come and tell me a bedtime story when I heard a noise coming from the laundry. I sat up. Nervous, because I had never, ever before heard a noise coming from the laundry in the night time. Then I noticed that the door handle was turning. I was frightened. Then the door opened and a hunched figure, dressed in a red cloak and with a funny white beard, came and stopped at the end of my bed. “Muuuuum!” I screamed.

“Don’t worry, sonny, I am Santa Claus. What would you like for Christmas?” said the strange figure in a very squeaky voice.

“Daaaaad!” I yelled.

Just then my mother burst into the room and told me not to worry and how lucky I was that Santa Claus had actually come to visit me. I wasn’t feeling very lucky. I was feeling petrified. I just wanted the strange creature in the red cloak to get out of my bedroom.

Well, of course it was my father dressed up as Santa Claus, but it gave me a very traumatic evening. My Dad continued for several years to appear as Father Christmas in my back verandah sleep out. I wasn’t so scared in later years because I had figured out who it was. In his later life Dad made a very good Father Christmas. He usually donned an authentic red suit, white whiskers, big black boots and a couple of pillows to be Father Christmas at Christmas Parties at the Perth Modelling Works and later at his own business at the Premier Fibro Plaster Works at Braid Street in East Perth. On the very last Christmas of his life, in December, 1965, he went to the Supreme Court Gardens to be Father Christmas for children at the Colonial Sugar Refineries Annual Christmas Party. He died the following June 26. A great Dad and a great Santa.

My grandmother lived with us in Inglewood, so Christmas was a time when 8 of her surviving 11 children, plus her niece, my Aunty Vonnie, and all of their children, my uncle’s aunties and cousins, would be with us for Christmas Dinner.  I knew Christmas was coming because Dad would order in a case of Emu Bitter beer and the butcher would deliver a large side of ham.

Then, in the week before Christmas Dad would go into the chook yard, which filled the back of our large back yard and pick out a couple of chooks and a duck that he had been fattening up in a small enclosed pen. Then came what, for me, was one of the highlights of the year. Dad would chop off the chooks’ heads and they would then going scampering around the backyard like a, well, like a headless chook. Then he gutted them and gave me a physiology lesson each year on the innards of our poultry. Fascinating stuff when you are about five or six years old.

On one side of 164, 7th Avenue, was a long, grassy driveway. Here we used to have a big family cricket matches which got all of the children and men out of the house while my mother and my aunties, May, Tassie, Nellie, Vonnie, Millie and Rosie  tended to the cooking under the watchful eye of my grandmother, who sat in her wheelchair observing the hustle and bustle in the kitchen and dining room. Although she spent most of her time in a wheelchair, my grandmother was one of the fastest chook pluckers I have ever seen.

On one famous occasion my Aunty May came out and played in our Christmas Day cricket match. Aunty May was quite a big lady but she played some mighty pull shots behind square leg to make a very well compiled 22 runs before she retired to “look after the turkey.”
One Christmas, Uncle Ben, Aunty Margaret and my cousins, John, Noreen and Patricia stayed with us at 164. I must have been about seven. After midnight Mass we were all very excited as our parents put out some milk and cake for Father Christmas. I awoke in that deep darkness, just before the dawn and immediately felt down at the end of my bed to see what Santa had left. I uncovered a large cardboard package about 40 cms long, by 20 cms wide and 5 cms deep. Yippee, a giant box of chocolates I said to myself. I started unwrapping the cardboard. It was quite a hard job but, in almost total darkness, I eventually managed to tear away one side of the cardboard container. I dived in to grab a chocolate but what I grabbed was a solid square object slightly thinner than a matchbox. There was a whole row of these slimy, smooth objects. Obviously Santa had left me some very fancy chocolates. I took a great big bite. Yuck! It was horrible.

What I had actually opened was a large cardboard battery set, about the size of a large chocolate box, containing several rows of flat, dry cells batteries. This large box battery was to be used to power the Morse Code set that Santa had also left for me. Well, I had destroyed the batteries and in those days no shops were open over Christmas so Dad could not get replacement batteries for about three days.

I think my dad was more disappointed than I. You see, Uncle Ben, as a Station Master, was a whiz on Morse Code, so the idea was that, over Christmas, Uncle Ben would show Dad and me how to operate the Morse Code set. Apart from going dit, dah, dit, it also had a light on it that would flicker long and short as the key struck the pad to send the signals. However we didn’t find this out until the new block battery was bought later on. We spent Christmas and Boxing Day just staring at the lifeless Morse Code set and practising writing down the actual Morse Code signals. The only one I remember today is dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot. It stands for SOS, the international distress signal. The other thing I remembered was to never wake up early and start eating your Christmas presents until you can actually see if they are edible.

As I said, we always played a family cricket game on Christmas Day. In fact I played cricket almost every day. On our front lawn were two small wattle trees. Dad used to carefully water the grass between these trees and all of the Seventh Ave kids played cricket there throughout the summer. At the time, of course, Don Bradman was every Aussie boy’s hero and I was no exception. So I was a bit peeved one day when Mum said that she was going to buy my cousin, John Ryan, a Don Bradman cricket bat. I had a cricket bat but it was one I had been given a few years ago. Just a toy bat really. And it did not have Don Bradman’s autograph engraved into the willow just below the bat spring.
I became even more peeved a few days later when Mum said that I was going in to town with her because she needed me to try out the Don Bradman bats for size, so that she could buy a suitably sized bat for my cousin John. So, sullen and depressed, I accompanied my mother on the number 18 tram along Beaufort Street into Perth. We went to Boan’s huge department store, down the marble staircase and into Toyland. Here were toys of every description, plus a merry go round that had little aeroplanes instead of seats. It was just magic and, of course, they had hundreds and hundreds of cricket bats. At my mother’s request I tried out various sized bats until she decided which one would be right for John. Then we went home. I was more sullen and more depressed than ever.

After my 8th birthday party on Christmas Eve, I went to bed about eight o’clock, woke again at 10-30pm and walked over to All Hallows with my family for midnight mass. After mass we came home, put out the cake and milk for Santa and went to bed. When I woke up I found a Don Bradman cricket bat at the end of my bed.  I leaped out of bed, grabbed the bat and ran out into the dawn’s early light in the back yard to practice my cricket shots. So, there really was a Father Christmas after all.

Towards the end of 1947, Uncle Ben was transferred back to Perth, so naturally he and Aunty Margaret and their family moved back into their home at 164, 7th Avenue, Inglewood. The Bourke family moved to Number 8, Aberdeen Street, in Perth, just a stone’s throw from the city centre. Aberdeen Street was a magical place. It was a double story building. A boarding house managed by my Aunty Millie. It was joined on to an exact replica two storey building at Number 10 Aberdeen Street. Number 10 was where Grandma and my late grandfather lived when they moved with their large to Perth from Kalgoorlie in 1923. It was where my mother lived when she first met my father.
Christmases at Number 8 were big affairs, just as they were in Inglewood. We still played the family cricket match but it was in the stony side lane. Batting here could be tricky. My cousin Maurie said that making 20 runs in the side lane at Number 8, Aberdeen Street was like making a century at the WACA. And Maurie was right!

I remember one Christmas at Aberdeen Street, I walked out the front with a couple of cousins whom I introduced to Alex Slater, the boy who lived next door in Number10. Alex, his parents and his younger brother, Bobby, were from Scotland. They had no other relatives in Australia, let alone in Perth. Later on I appeared with a couple of my other cousins, whom I also introduced to Alex. Still later on in the day I did the same again, whereupon Alex asked, “Just how many cousins do you have?” Well, that day I had nine cousins at Aberdeen Street and I still had three Magee cousins in Inglewood and Bobby Ryan up in Bruce Rock. Bobby's older sister, Dulcie, who worked in the crockery department at Boans', also at No 8 Aberdeen Street. I decided not to give Alex that extra bit of information.

When we lived in Aberdeen Street we still went to All Hallows for Midnight Mass. After mass we would go back to 164, 7th Avenue, where Aunty Margaret would have her large dining table laden with all sorts of food and drink. Quite a few of the All Hallows parishioners came to this feast as well and it was quite a social occasion, although Dad usually took us home before two o’clock so that we could get in to bed before before Santa arrived.

In July, 1951, my family moved into our brand new home at 8 Thongsbridge Street in Mt Lawley. We still used to go the Midnight Mass at All hallows, followed by the feast at Aunty Margaret’s. Maybe my mother felt a bit guilty about me having a birthday so close to Christmas, because from my early years and onwards, she used to provide a fairly lavish birthday party type meal for me on Christmas Eve. We would have chicken, ham, turkey, roast veggies, Christmas pudding and all the trimmings. Then, at 11-00pm, we would drive to All Hallows for Midnight Mass and afterwards on to Aunty Margaret’s at about 1-00am to front up to the large dining table weighted down with all sorts of delicious food and drink.

Then, the next day was Christmas Day and we faced up to another huge meal. This situation became, worse, or better, depending on your views on gluttony, after my marriage to the beautiful, Lesley. We then had my birthday dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by Aunty Margaret’s midnight feast after Midnight Mass. On Christmas Day we would have a huge Christmas Dinner at Lesley’s parents’ house and then an equally large Christmas Night tea at my Mother’s house. Needless to say Boxing Day was a day of Fast and Abstinence.

I did destroy the gluttony routine a bit when I left school and entered Graylands Teacher College in 1956. By this time my cousin, Maurie was working as a journalist in Melbourne. Each year from the age of 18 to 23 I travelled back and forth across Australia by train, plain, boat and car to stay with Maurie and his beautiful wife, Bobbie. Her name was Thelma but she preferred Bobbie. When they moved to Sydney, I continued to spend Christmas with them.

Then in December, 1961, I stayed home and had Christmas dinner with my family, as well as the Christmas Eve party meal, the feast at Aunty Margaret’s and the huge Christmas Day dinner. That was my last Christmas in Australia for a few years, because in January, 1962, I sailed away to Europe and North America. I spent Christmas 1962 and 1963 in Toronto.

My two Christmases in Toronto were very memorable. I could sing White Christmas while it really was snowing outside. I enjoyed all the snow activities such as skiing skating and bob sledding on the local golf course.Sometimes we just used a dustbin lid and sledded down the steep ravine at the back of our house in Willowdale. I even played a few games of Curling, without much success, though I enjoyed drinking the coffee laced with rum.

Over the years many people used to say, “Poor old Noel, he has his birthday at Christmas time and misses out on a party and the presents. Well, as you have read, I had parties almost every year. I also used to get a lot of presents. I think, because of the Christmas spirit of gift giving, a lot of people who would have sent me birthday card in July or August gave me a gift for my birthday at Chrismastime. However, it was in Toronto that the proximity of my birthday to Christmas caused a few problem. 

On my first white Christmas in Toronto in 1962, I was sharing accommodation with five other Australians. We realised that if we bought presents to send back to our families, as well as presents for each other, then we were all going to be having a very, very quiet New Year. What we lacked was Fiscal fitness. However, we were Party Animals, so we compromised. It was decided that we could only spend two dollars per present for each other. I figured that this cash restriction would mean that I would not be getting any birthday presents along with my two dollar Christmas presents.

Well, my birthday arrived and early in the morning my great friend Mike Jones gave me a large and suitably wrapped birthday gift. After I unwrapped the many, many layers of paper, I found one white sock. “Gee, thanks, Mike. But, one white sock, what use is that?

“Wait until tomorrow,” was Mike’s reply. Sure enough, on Christmas Day I received another white sock. As it turned out all of my housemates gave me imaginative and very cheap birthday presents as well as even cheaper Christmas presents. It was a wonderful time and we had a lot of fun.

Over the years my lovely wife, Lesley, has kept up the tradition of having family and friends gather around for my birthday party on Christmas Eve. It makes a lot of extra work for her and I appreciate her efforts very, very much. One year we did escape the Birthday Party/Christmas Day food overload. We had a booking at Rottnest Island over Christmas and New Year. At that time our three girls were aged about 14, 12 and 8 years old. We had been going to Rottnest as a family for about ten years, but this was our first Christmas on the island. 

We celebrated my birthday at the Quokka Arms Hotel with some Pub Grub on my birthday. On Christmas Day, Lesley provided all of the usual turkey and ham cold cuts as well as hot roast beef, roast potatoes, baked vegetables, savoury snacks, Christmas cakes, nuts, fruit and chocolates. At the appropriate moment I rode my bike down to the Red Rooster shop in the island settlement and collected two large hot chickens. Lesley placed a colourful paper Christmas tablecloth on our cottage's kitchen table along with paper plates together with all of the other goodies and Christmas crackers. We had a great Christmas dinner. Just our family and nobody else. When we had finished, I just grabbed the four  corners of the table cloth, folded everything into a large bundle and dropped it into a bulk rubbish bin as we rode our bikes around to Longreach Bay to play a game of beach cricket with some friends.

Sometimes it is a bit sad at Christmas to remember all of the loved ones who have passed on and who were such a big part of those early Christmases. My parents, Lesley’s parents, all of my uncles and aunties and, sadly, seven of my thirteen cousins are all gone. But you cannot be sad for long at Christmas time, especially when there are young people around.

On Christmas Eve at our place this year, joining our family and friends, will be eight grandchildren making everyone happy and bright with the sheer joy  and excitement of it all. And it is nice to know that I will become part of their memories, that they will take forward into the many Christmases ahead.

Merry Christmas to all.


  1. Aww........great nostalgic blog Noel. And Happy Birthday!

  2. Thanks, Murray.Merry Christmas to you and Sharon.


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