December 5, 2012
This year, for the very first time, I have made my own Christmas cake. I was a little late for the traditional date of Stir-up Sunday and could only manage a Saturday but I did it all the same. The warm, spicy aroma of the boozy fruits brought back memories of the Christmases of my childhood. Every year, my Mum made a Christmas cake (pictured above). I remember the scorched top of the brown paper tied with string that towered above the tin hiding the rich fruit-filled cake. My sister and I would watch as the marzipan layer was applied with apricot jam and then the final coating of snow-white icing.
Last year, while I was watching Downton Abbey on Christmas Day, it set me thinking about what Christmas would have been like for my own ancestors. As they were all poor, there wouldn’t have been glittering decorations, sumptuous gifts and delicious cakes. In fact, on further research, life during the festive period was pretty grim for many of them whether they lived in the city or the countryside. Harsh winter conditions meant that many vulnerable children, and some adults, died of seasonal illnesses such as bronchitis and flu. Many of the families on my tree were separated from their loved ones at Christmas also due to migration both to the city and abroad.
It was surprising how many family events took place at Christmas: there were several baptisms and a few marriages – some reasons to celebrate! My Italian ancestors enjoyed lively and colourful Christmas festivities in their adopted home of Manchester and even the destruction of their church in the Christmas Blitz of 1940 didn’t deter them.
It was an interesting exercise to browse my family history for Christmas events and I gained some insight into how Christmas would have been in the past. This year, when I tuck into my home-made Christmas cake (hopefully!), I will remember to raise a glass to those who went before me.
The full story, The Ghosts of Christmas Past, is available in the Christmas issue of Family Tree magazine