I’m not sure how we got onto the subject, my mother and I, but it was after dinner a couple of weeks ago when we had cleared the table and the kitchen and were finishing our wine in the living room. We started talking about Christmas. Not last Christmas but the first Christmas that we celebrated in Himbleton Vicarage. So the year was 1959, and naturally I had no recollection of it whatsoever. My mother on the other hand remembers down to the finest detail it as if it were a mere few years ago. In particular the gifts of food and drink that were brought up to the vicarage.
Major Rushton was a shy man of few words but famous for his hospitality, (it was at one of his champagne and oyster parties that my aunt Myra got quite tiddly!) and a man who believed in the generosity of the Christmas season. So he rang the doorbell, presented a large plucked goose, touched his cap, and left.
Mr Curtis was, by contrast, a man of many words and theological ideas that could only come from a true countryman. He would reason that the birds’ pausing of their dawn chorus was in order to say Matins. And who is going to argue with that? Mr Curtis was the head gardener at Himbleton manor and would shower the vicarage family with seasonal gifts. Year after year, just in time for Christmas, two barrels of cider would arrive, dry and potent (or so I would later discover.) My parents were not devoted cider drinkers and so the barrels would stand in the old scullery with enamel mugs hanging on racks above, to be drunk by the numerous tradesmen who came, did, delivered or collected. And to think that they were always smiling!
That first Christmas Mr Curtis was on a mission and approached my father (who owned a car) with a request. If my father would drive him to Bromsgrove to pick up a turkey there would also be a bird in it for the family. A round trip of twenty miles along narrow country lanes? My father agreed and two huge freshly killed and dressed turkeys were collected. I hope that they had said Matins.
With less drama but with much kindness came the gifts of Mr and Mrs Jenkins who lived in the old rambling cottage halfway up Neight Hill, overlooking the small school. She would clean for us, and instilled in me the love of cleaning brass and silver; and he would do this and that around the garden. And that Christmas, and for years to come, they would deliver a brace of pheasant and a boiling foul.
All that food for a young family of three! Such was the generosity of that small rural community in a day where there were no fridges and certainly no freezers. But also a day when no one in the village ever went hungry or without – for food not eaten or needed was always given away to those who needed it: the genuinely poor, the sick, the house-bound. The meat that made the vicarage kitchen table groan was passed on immediately, cooked or not. Old fashioned though it may sound, this was our Christian duty. How times have changed. And not just at Christmas.