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Christmas Memories
Tamara Mazurenko

Each year just before Christmas, my father becomes ill - too ill to do any Christmas shopping, get a Christmas tree or do any thing that might be associated with Christmas. It has always been so, as far back as I can remember, but this year he was particularly successful and even managed to get into hospital.

My mother now no longer walks against the prevailing wind and does not usually get anything started until I travel up with my son to stay with them. It has not always been that way with her. In the first year of their marriage she insisted on buying a tree and decorating it herself. After that she siphoned off small amounts of money from her housekeeping allowance over the year and so was able to create her own traditions, despite my father's disinterest. She knew that when it came to Christmas day he would make a sudden recovery and the family would revel in all that she provided.

I remember nights, in the dark, out on the golf course near our house. There were areas of common covered in pine trees. This was the best part of Christmas for me, stealing along quietly by my mother's side. She carried a saw under her coat, and now and then flickered the torch onto a tree to see if it was the right shape. I watched for anyone walking their dog out late, while she did her sawing as unnoticeably as possible. Then there was the task of carrying the tree home without anyone seeing us. After a few years my father became worried enough about the consequences to his standing in the community if we were caught, and managed to rouse himself to go out and buy a tree himself - much to my disappointment.

My mother would never have wasted the money. "When I first came to England I was struck, and still I am, by the tradition of saving Christmas decorations. That they were saved and put away for the next year - knowing that they were going to be taken out and used again." My mother was talking to me as we put the little glass baubles onto the Christmas tree together this year. "We just made paper chains - there was no point in saving decorations - because we didn't know if there would be another Christmas. But here they did know - it was taken for granted."

Suddenly my mother starts to tell me about her own childhood Christmases in Prague during the war. She never has before. "It was always me who went out to find us our Christmas tree when I was a child. No one else was bothered. I discovered that I could get them very cheaply at the market and if I left it until the last minute they would even give me one free. Once someone helped me carry it all the way back to our flat. "Christmas day was mother's birthday and she didn't like it. She explained to me and my brother from the very beginning that there was no such thing as the original Christmas, it was all a load of hypocrisy, but I refused to believe her.

"The tradition in Czechoslovakia was for children to leave their boots outside the front door on Christmas Eve for St Nicholas to come by and fill then with presents. "'There is no point in taking your boots outside' my mother said when I was five, 'because St Nicholas doesn't exist.' She didn't have anything to put in them even if she had wanted to. Nevertheless I insisted on leaving them out that night and the miracle was that the next morning they were filled. Who in that time of want and rationing had filled them I never found out.

"The gloomiest Christmas we had was when I was seven. We had adopted a hen. We got it in the summer when it was a little chick and now it had grown up and liked to sit on top of the door of our second floor flat and croon, or did it crow? Perhaps it was a cockeral after all - that would explain why it had never produced any eggs. Mother liked us to have pets, we kept two small tortoises in our bathroom as well. "The concierge began to ask us for eggs. We knew that she was an informer and that you were supposed to declare all livestock to the Germans. The Gestapo liked to keep an eye on my mother. They had already taken her for interrogation once. Where was my father - they wanted to know. They didn't know that he was in England making broadcasts against them on the radio. Lucky for us. We were not a priority with them, but they made routine calls. They were suspicious of everyone. Mother taught us always to be as quiet as possible when we heard the bell go, just in case it was them.

Down in the flat below us lived a policeman who often complained to my mother about the noise we made, but when the Gestapo called, he would tell them we had gone away. "My mother decided that to avoid problems we would eat our hen for Christmas. She found out how to kill it, draw the innards and pluck it. She had a scientific mind and was able to consult her anatomical textbooks. What she never could do was cook. She boiled our hen for a few minutes in a pot of water and presented it to us with some ersatz bread fried in codliver oil. "The three of us sat around the table in a bereaved silence and managed only the smallest of portions." After New Year my mother and my son dismantled the Christmas tree together , and carefully put away all the decorations. It was a chore she was glad to get out of the way. All the same they are there packed safely in the garage, older than I am and saved for next year.

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