Families may not have had satellite television, computer games or DVD players- but was Christmas actually more fun in 1956 than it is today? Here's my piece on how we celebrated Christmas fifty years ago, from today's Daily Mail.
British troops forced to withdraw after a disastrous military intervention in the Middle East. Cabinet colleagues manoeuvring to replace a tarnished, lame duck Prime Minister. A large influx of migrants from Eastern Europe. In football, Manchester United blazing a trail at the top of the league, with Charlton struggling at the bottom. David Attenborough appearing on our television screens.
At first sight, things don’t seem to have changed much since the Christmas of 1956. But despite the familiar headlines, don’t be fooled. Britain was a very different country fifty years ago, as is reflected in the personal memories of those who can remember what life was like back then.
For a start, the ‘Christmas break’ for most people in the 1950s meant just two days holiday: the 25th and 26th December, and a return to the office or factory the day after. In 1956 however, the fact that Christmas Day fell on a Tuesday, meant that many workplaces closed down the preceding Friday, giving workers the rare luxury of a five day break. Newspapers recorded an “exceptionally heavy rush at main line railway stations” on the Friday and Saturday evenings- with 75,000 passengers leaving Euston alone to spend Christmas with their families and relations. For the vast majority of Britons going abroad was not an option. It wasn’t just a lack of time and the stronger family ties which existed, but the fact that in those pre-package holiday, budget airline days, foreign travel was still a luxury. Just 17,000 people travelled to the Continent on Southern Region boat-train routes on the four days up to Christmas Eve 1956; compare that with the estimated 2.3m people expected to leave Britain this Christmas.
Travellers in 1956 not only had to contend with the heavy snowfalls which swept across the country, but with petrol rationing, which had been reintroduced on 17th December, as a consequence of the Suez conflict. Under the scheme announced by the government, normal car users were allowed 200 miles a month in petrol, with businesses an extra 100 miles. Other special groups such as doctors and midwives were exempt all together. The introduction of rationing led to a sharp rise in the price of petrol, to six shillings a gallon, which taking account of average wages, would be the equivalent of paying £4.50 today. But while rationing was an inconvenience, its impact in 1956 was nothing to what it would be like now. Fifty years ago, less than one in five Britons owned a car: the majority of people still relied on public transport. Indeed, petrol rationing provided rich comic material for the leading comedians of the day, including Tony Hancock, whose weekly radio show ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ was un-missable fare for millions.
In “The Stolen Petrol”, Sid James and his friends decide to start siphoning off fuel from cars and lorries and set the unsuspecting Hancock up as a garage proprietor selling stolen petrol. All goes well until one of Sid’s gang hijacks a beer tanker by mistake, with hilarious consequences. For South Wales housewives in Christmas 1956, the main concern wasn’t the lack of petrol, but lack of turkeys. Record demand meant that those who had failed to put in an advance order with their local butchers went home disappointed and had to make do with chicken instead. “We’ve never known a year like it” remarked one Swansea butcher.
Fifty years ago, only 8% of households in Britain owned a refrigerator, meaning that shopping for food had to be done as close to the big day as possible. The Christmas turkey was usually kept on a cold marble slab in the larder, with milk bottles kept in a bucket of water. “Before fridges, the big worry was that it would be a mild Christmas” remembers Joan Galeney. “Fortunately in 1956 it wasn’t, so the turkey stayed nice and cold.” Joan also remembers the bread queues which-like the queues for turkeys- were a traditional part of Christmas Eve shopping. “You had to get out very early to make sure you got everything you needed. There were no supermarkets and it involved going to a lot of different shops”. There was some good news for shoppers in 1956: the BBC reported that flowers, fruit and vegetables were all cheaper than a year earlier.
The Arctic weather, as well as causing disruption to travel, hit the Christmas sporting programme of hard, with many football matches and horse-race meetings abandoned. In the 1950s, football league fixtures were played on Christmas Day- with return matches held a day later: imagine the outcry from players and managers if such a programme were reintroduced today! Whether it was from tiredness, or a excess of Christmas pudding, there were some remarkable scores. Fulham beat Blackburn 7-2 at home on Boxing Day, having lost 2-0 a day earlier. And an even more dramatic turnaround occurred in the west country, where Bristol Rovers avenged a 7-2 defeat at the hands of Bury on Christmas Day with a 6-0 home win 24 hours later. The biggest crowd was at Old Trafford, where 28,600 saw league leaders Manchester United defeat Cardiff 3-1. United’s “Busby Babes” earned rave reviews for their skilful, attacking football. Who could have known, when reading the news on Christmas Eve of a fateful crash at Munich airport which killed 26 people, that just over a year later, the best team in English football would meet a similar fate?
While the weather played havoc with sport the heavy snowfalls provided a great opportunity for some outdoor fun for children. Peter Wilby, a writer, remembers going tobogganing on the hill near a local pub and getting into “fearful trouble” when he arrived home for being one hour late for Christmas lunch. Seventy-three year old C.P Bryant from East Sheen took part in an even cooler activity that day: swimming in the Serpentine. Bryant, who had competed in the annual 100 yards ‘Christmas morning handicap’ every year since 1902, was given a 17 seconds start by his rivals and duly came home the winner. He certainly didn’t lack for fitness, for in addition to his swim he cycled six miles from his home to Hyde Park and then pedalled back there afterwards.
For most people however, Christmas morning in the 1950s meant only one thing; going to church. Although regular church attendance had already dropped to below 10% by the early 1950s, attending a Christmas service was still de rigeur for most families. “90% of our village would go” recalls art dealer Sir Rupert Mackeson, who was brought up in rural Kent. “Everyone would dress up in their smartest clothes, with the ladies all wearing hats. Even if they owned a car, families would always walk together to church”. Afterwards, it was a walk back home for Christmas dinner and another festive tradition: listening to the Royal Christmas message.
A year earlier, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast had been televised (in sound only) for the very first time. In 1956, The Queen’s address, recorded live from her study at Sandringham, was preceded by a message from The Duke of Edinburgh, broadcast from the Royal Yacht Britannia in the South Pacific. The Queen used her address to appeal on behalf of the 22,000 refugees from the Hungarian uprising who were spending their first Christmas in Britain.
Television, which plays such a big part in Christmases today, was still in its infancy in 1956. ITV had only started broadcasting a year earlier and there was only one BBC channel. It’s fascinating to peruse the listings. On the BBC on Christmas Day 1956, The Queen’s Message was followed by a recording of the ‘Variety Theatre of China’, ‘Grand Circus from Paris’ and ‘Puss in Boots’, narrated by Johnny Morris. After an episode of The Lone Ranger, came Max Wall in “The Ice Crackers” and Act 2 of The Marriage of Figaro from Germany. Then at 7.45pm, the main event. Fifty years ago, it was not soap operas, ‘reality television’ or Hollywood blockbusters which received top billing, but variety shows which could be enjoyed by all the family. “Pantomania”, written by Eric Sykes and broadcast live from the Prince of Wales Theatre, was described as a ‘fusion between a music hall and a Christmas Party’. It was fronted by the band leader Billy ‘Wakey Wakey’ Cotton and featured as its star attraction the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his puppet ‘Archie Andrews’, a phenomenally popular act in Fifties Britain. Other names on the bill included comedians Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Hattie Jacques and Eric Sykes, newsreader Sylvia Peters, harmonica player Ronald Chesney, the Marquis family of comical chimpanzees and a youthful David Attenborough and Les Rayner & Betty, whose acrobatics in the opinion of one critic “deserved a more generous position and showing.”
For the millions without a television in 1956, there was no shortage of other entertainment on Christmas Day, home-made or otherwise. “A feature of Christmases in the mid 1950s was that a group of children would tour the neighbourhood on Xmas day and came into our house, with others singing Christmas carols.” Peter Wilby recalls. Family games, in particular charades, were also very popular, as was playing cards or board games such as Monopoly and Scrabble, which was first launched in Britain in 1953. “Christmases back then were much more of a family event” remembers Joan Galeney. “We all played together and everyone would join in.” Going to the pantomime was an integral part of the festive fun. Stars appearing in panto in London in 1956 included Arthur Askey in Humpty Dumpty at the Golders Green Hippodrome, Janette Scott in Peter Pan at The Scala and Shirley Eaton in Cinderella at the Chiswick Empire. The Wonderful Lamp at the London Palladium, starring Norman Wisdom as Aladdin, was billed as the year‘s ‘top festive entertainment’ but the critics weren‘t overly impressed. “This is the most charmingly spectacular pantomime that London has seen in some years” wrote one. “It pays the price in a sad deficiency in humour.” Perhaps Buckingham Palace had had advance warning, for the Queen took Prince Charles (then aged 8) and Princess Anne (aged 6) not to the Palladium, but to The Palace Theatre to see Dick Whittington.
Christmas presents fifty years ago were also very different to what people will be buying and receiving today. In 1956, records were very much in vogue, whether long playing versions of film soundtracks like The King and I, the year’s most popular film, or smaller 45s, which were becoming increasingly popular with the introduction of the weekly pop charts a year earlier. Number One at Christmas 1956 was ‘Just Singing in the Rain’ by the American singer Johnny Ray, though competing versions of ‘Singing the Blues’ by Guy Mitchell and the ‘British Elvis’, the young, up and coming Bermondsey-born rock n’roll star Tommy Steele, were also doing a brisk trade.
Looking back at Christmas 1956, it is clear that Britain stood on the cusp of its transformation to a modern consumer society. Despite the temporary imposition of petrol rationing, the age of post-war austerity was at an end and a new age of affluence had begun. Over the next half-century people’s were transformed by steadily rising living standards and new technological innovations. Families may not have had satellite television, computer games or DVD players- but was Christmas really any less fun than it is today?