Monday, December 18, 2006

The School Christmas

Daisy Lupin has invited everyone to contribute a Christmas story, poem, song, etc. to a special blog that she has set up. All contributions will be transferred by Daisy to this blog and left on the web for a few weeks for others to read.

As this is the last week of the school year in Australia before they break for the summer holidays (about 6 weeks), I thought I would contribute this story about how my school prepared for Christmas and the holidays more than 50 years ago. Much of this story would have been typical of small schools around the country for many decades. Sadly, scarcely any of these schools still exist; children now having to travel further to attend larger schools in the towns.


As the November days slipped by, excitement mounted in the little Victorian, one-roomed country school. It would be only a few weeks until the end-of-year school concert and Christmas Tree. The big decision would be, which play should we perform? It needed to be one that had roles for almost all of the 25 or so children who attended the school in the early 1950s. A play which included a crowd scene would be ideal. Although I don’t remember specifically any of the plays we performed, we must have found one that filled the bill each year. It was easy enough to select the other items for the concert – poems, songs, and one or two skits, maybe even a dance.

With the main play chosen and roles allocated, a certain amount of time each day was dedicated to practising. One of the mothers volunteered to accompany our songs on the slightly out of tune piano, something we were not used to as we usually sang unaccompanied throughout the year. Lines had to be learnt and costumes made, and somewhere amongst it all we still had schoolwork to do, and worse still, end-of-year testing.

Gradually, all things relating to the concert and Christmas took over. We stencilled Christmas motifs like holly, bells, puddings, Santa and reindeer on the blackboard and coloured them in with chalk. Decorations were made with long strips of crepe paper. Two different coloured strips were joined at right angles at one end and then each strip alternately folded back over the other and finally joined at the other end. When opened out, they made very pretty streamers with which the schoolroom would be decorated for the concert. We also made lolly baskets from cardboard and covered them with crepe paper. The cardboard usually came from cereal packets, but I seem to remember the covers of our exercise books mysteriously disappearing too. These baskets would be filled with mixed lollies and given to all of the children, including pre-schoolers on the big night.

We practised our roles until we were word perfect and sang like angels, with only the occasional fluffed line and flat note to bring an exasperated sigh from our teacher, and on the night, a smothered smile from our parents. In the last few days we brought our costumes to school and had real dress rehearsals.

The excitement and anticipation continued to build until, finally, the day we had so looked forward to, arrived. There was no need to bring lunch to school that day because after a final rehearsal, we were sent home at lunchtime. For most of us that was anything up to a three-mile bike ride, or in our case, walk. Having the afternoon off had a dual purpose. Firstly, it allowed the members of the school committee time to set up and decorate the room and Christmas tree, and secondly, it meant that the children could have an afternoon nap ready for their late night. All of the children lived on farms and, in those days, they rarely went out at night. In fact, one of the things I looked forward to was the drive home after the concert and watching the headlights of the car illuminate the tree branches as they met overhead. It was the only night of the year that I went out and it was all such a novelty.

At 7.30, dressed in our very best clothes, and barely able to contain our excitement, we arrived at the school and gazed in awe at the transformation. All of the desks had been taken out and stacked in the shelter shed, and replaced with long wooden benches on which the parents could sit, and taking up what seemed like a quarter of the room was a magnificent Christmas Tree reaching to the ceiling and sparkling with tinsel and coloured baubles. Underneath the tree was a huge mound of packages of all shapes and sizes and gaily wrapped. The room itself was adorned with the streamers we had made and clusters of brightly coloured balloons. We could contain ourselves no longer, and as it was still daylight, we careered around the schoolground like mad things until the teacher and a couple of parents managed to assemble us in the porch ready to begin the concert.

All dressing up for the various items had to be done in the half-dark of the porch, as the school had no electricity, and the schoolroom was lit by pressure-lanterns just for the occasion. With many barely concealed stage-whispers and frantic yelps of “where’s my hat, and who’s got my beard?”, item followed item, almost as we had practiced it, but only after we had made eye contact with our parents just to make sure that they were watching. The parents clapped and laughed in all the right places, plus a few wrong places, and joined in the carol-singing at the end. To this day, the sound of traditional Christmas carols always brings memories of Mum sitting in the audience among the other parents, and I miss her more then than at any other time.

Finally, one of the fathers would come inside and call for silence. “Listen” he would say, and in the distance we could hear the sound of bells. That was the cue for the jolliest rendition of Jingle Bells, until through the door came the man himself, all round and puffing, dressed in red and white and a pair of carefully scrubbed rubber boots, carrying a large sack on his back. The previously tired and fractious toddlers were suddenly wide awake, although some were a little scared too. The distribution of presents from under the tree and from within the sack was noisy and chaotic, but so much fun. Although I remember when I was in Grade Two writing my letter to Santa and listing three things that I would like. I meant to write ‘train’ but made a mistake and wrote ‘tram’. Sure enough, I received a tram and was very disappointed, particularly as I had little idea what a tram was. One year, Mum didn’t go to the concert, as she was not long out of hospital with a new baby. She asked my four-year-old brother what Santa had brought him? He replied, “Just an old billy and a shovel”. He had really wanted a truck and could see no use for the bucket and spade that he was given.

Children compared presents, and mothers tried desperately to hold on to their toddlers and their presents, which always seemed to be larger than the child itself, while the wrapping paper threatened to smother us all. Then Santa departed amidst much waving and admonishing us to ‘be good’. As we got older, we checked out which father was missing during Santa’s visit, and then we knew whose turn it had been to don the suit and scrub the boots. Next came the distribution of the lolly baskets and a real treat, dixie ice-creams, which in the absence of refrigeration had been kept cold in a canvas container packed with dry ice. Slowly parents began collecting their tired and over excited offspring ready for the journey home.

The next day was Break Up day, but it was usually only the older children who made it to school, the younger ones still sleeping off the effects of their big night. We brought lunch to school but this time it was to share with the other children in a party. But first there was work to do. I don’t remember how the tree was taken out or the decorations removed, but I think it must have been undertaken by a couple of parents not afraid of heights. The tree possibly had a second outing in another home a week later, complete with tinsel and presents. After the streamers and balloons were folded up or burst, whichever was appropriate, and the benches stacked away under the school, it was time to sweep the floor and give the unpolished floorboards their annual scrubbing. So it was off with the shoes and socks, and out came the buckets of water, scrubbing brushes and soap. A few nimble-footed children can cover a floor with soapy water in very quick time, and if you didn’t have a brush it didn’t matter because skating over the floor on a bar of soap was sure to knock a little dirt off anyway. Finally all of the water was pushed towards the corners of the room, where a number of holes had been drilled through the floor solely for the purpose of draining the water from this once a year ritual. At last the floor was clean and we were wet, and whilst both dried we set up our party on a long trestle table outside. Cakes, sandwiches and even some leftover lollies were laid out on plates down the centre and ornate bottles of red Raspberry Vinegar made their appearance. A very sedate and unimaginative party by today’s standards – no chips, sausage rolls, or Coke – but a real treat for us nevertheless.

With the party over and cleared away, the floor dry and the desks brought in from the shelter shed and rearranged, there was nothing left to do but wish everyone a happy Christmas and turn for home. It was always a sad time for me as I loved school and didn’t look forward to six weeks at home with no friends to see or play with. Still, Christmas was only one week away; I could always focus on that.


Anonymous said...

Love the story. I hope our children have as fond memories of their Christmas time.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed that Alice!
It brought back so many memories- the lolly baskets, & the concert acts, & the costumes.
And of course the excitement levels!
Very much the same in NZ as it was here!

slap me happy said...

Have a great Christmas Alice to you and yours fromus and ours. Hope the bush fires steer clear of us all

Maureen said...

Wonderful! It was a real treat to read your story, Alice. I laughed out loud at this: "As we got older, we checked out which father was missing during Santa’s visit, and then we knew whose turn it had been to don the suit and scrub the boots." That is so funny and one of those bittersweet memories of childhood - when you find out the truth about Santa.

Thanks for sharing your memories.

Merry Christmas!

Daisy Lupin said...

Lovely memory Alice, I will be moving it over to the Memory and Story Cicle later today. Thank you. Have a lovely Christmas

Motherkitty said...

Lovely story, Alice. I could almost picture all the students and their families. What a nice thing to share with us, your faithful readers. Have a very merry Christmas from our house to yours.

Kerri said...

I love your stories Alice! Thanks for sharing these memories with us. As I was reading, I was thinking about all the work that went into making this fun night possible for the children.
I'm always amazed your ability to so clearly recall details of events from your childhood.
I hope your grandchildren will look back on wonderful memories of the Christmases too! I feel sure they will.

jellyhead said...

What a sweet, nostalgic story... I love to read about your country childhood.

Wendy A said...

A moment in time. So precious are the memories.

Linda A said...

I found myself glued to your story.. much like a novel that you start and then find yourself so focused on the story.. and you hate it when it ends.. Thanks for sharing that. Have a blessed, merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story, Alice.
Hope your week is going well, and that Christmas preparations are under control.
Merry Christmas.
Take care, Meow

Anonymous said...

I was glued to your story as if I was a fly on the wall, so to speak. I was taken aback by summer vacation in December...It had never crossed my mind about it being December & summer in Australia. I knew it was summer there, but summer & December just don't go together for me, here in the U.S.

I enjoyed your childhood recollections of your Christmas celebrations and rehearsing for the plays, singing and the delight of watching Santa handing out presents. It was all so very interesting Alice and thank you for sharing your story with us.

Merry Christmas,
Sandy of Abandoned in Pasadena
(I'm having problems logging into some sites today)

Val said...

Lovely story, blogger wouldnt let me comment till now. I was right there with you. Wonderful times.

DellaB said...

Hi Alice, thank you for the lovely Christmas comment you left at my place - I completely echo your thoughts about friendship, this is my first Christmas in BlogLand and it's been a bit of a surprise how much I am looking forward to doing visits to my new friends too.

Lovely story, many memories - although my school was bigger, and it seems as though our plays were always about the nativity, with the baby Jesus and the stable animals, the 3 wise men and angels and shepherds everywhere.

I remember very clearly, the making of the paper crepe streamers - I'd forgotten about that... you don't see them today, all bought ready-made from KMart - I must remember when I start to do them with the grandkids, hopefully.

Thanks Alice, have a lovely time and a Merry Christmas, overseas visitors too - how special!