On a festive season like no other, our life at Christmas through the decades

It’s time to reflect on the good and bad. Here’s a snapshot look at what the festive season has brought over the years.

Sledging fun at Tettenhall in December 2010, when there was the last widespread white Christmas.
Sledging fun at Tettenhall in December 2010, when there was the last widespread white Christmas.

1920

Industrial unrest, high unemployment, and continuing strife in Ireland.

And for many families it would be another Christmas with poignant empty places around the dinner table, with the anguish of the Great War being fresh in the memory.

This was a year in which many war memorials were unveiled in British towns and villages to remember for all time those who had laid down their lives.

Those who had fought and survived thought they were coming back to a home fit for heroes, but the reality was of hardship and soaring unemployment.

The unveiling of Wem War Memorial on December 19, 1920.

Between August and December the number of former servicemen out of work grew from 142,600 to 265,000.

This was a coal-fired, class-ridden world, in which well-to-do households had a team of servants, and many of the jobs available for women were for domestic service.

But it was also a world of new expectations, and an ever-strengthening labour movement.

The Express & Star launched a Christmas Relief Fund to support the families of those without jobs. Industrial relations were turbulent, and just before Christmas miners in the Rhondda coal field called a general strike of 45,000 South Wales miners.

However there were plenty of entertainments and distractions, as crowds headed for the picture houses to watch the “flicks,” or to the theatres.

And there was some cheer in that pantos on the West End were going ahead after all, after theatre workers decided not to go on strike. The Boxing Day panto at The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, was Dick Whittington.

1930

The year brought another hard-times Christmas following the great economic crash of 1929.

On December 8 a total of 2,306,962 people were registered as unemployed in Britain.

In a speech laden with doom and gloom, the former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told a December audience: “Whoever comes into office is going to have, I think, the most difficult task that has ever faced any individual or any Government in the history of our country.”

Poverty and unemployment brought a mixed picture for shopkeepers in the region, although overall the falling off of business was not as bad as expected.

Christmas gift ideas from Beatties in Wolverhampton in 1930.

One thing that was taking off was Christmas trees. Once the preserve of the better off, they had really caught on with ordinary people.

“More people than ever before in Wolverhampton have bought Christmas trees this year,” one dealer said.

“Last year I sold 10,000. This year I have disposed of 17,000 and I could have got rid of many more if I had had them.”

One way ordinary folk could afford to pay for things at Christmas was the popularity of paying into clubs. They would scrimp and save during the year, paying a little at a time into the schemes, and then take it out at the festive period.

On the entertainment front, there was now the joy of the wireless, with Christmas Day fare on the Midland Regional service including a Christmas message by the Rt Rev E W Barnes, Bishop of Birmingham, to patients in the local hospitals.

And one of the attractions at the Wolverhampton Christmas fair was a car going round the “wall of death” with a lion – a real lion – in the passenger seat.

Looking to the future, there was a prediction that by the year 1960 everybody would be flying a plane.

Looking for ideas for a late prezzie? “Give her a smart umbrella,” suggested Wolverhampton store Beatties in a list of suggestions. Doing so would set you back 6/11 – about 35p.

1940

For three precious days over the festive period, the war ended.

Normal service resumed on December 27. It had been the longest period without hostilities since the Blitz had begun in earnest in September. Warfare started up again with the firing of German long range guns over the English Channel with Dover as their target.

Since the fall of France, Britain was standing alone against Hitler and was under constant threat of invasion, although the immediate crisis had faded with the onset of winter.

Warfare meant rationing, and rationing meant queues at the shops. The shortages meant parents might have to use inventive ways to ensure the children still had a magical Christmas.

Christmas 1940, with the ceiling of the home of the Roden family in Bridgnorth braced in case of bomb damage.

Finding traditional festive fare might take a bit of hunting and a lot of patience, and for some items you would have to find a recipe substitute.

But yes, you could get a turkey. At Shrewsbury general market, prices were 3s to 3s 6d a pound – roughly 15p to 18p a pound.

Apart from the brief Christmas lull, Britons were being subject to an intense aerial bombardment, with raids night after night.

It was not just Luftwaffe bombs which were the danger, as illustrated in a tragic incident at the Boat Inn, Tividale, on December 21.

An anti-aircraft shell returning to earth crashed through the roof and exploded in a room where guests and relatives were celebrating after a wedding. The contemporary Star report said nine died and the 21-year-old bride, before marriage Miss Florence Lily Pottinger, and the groom, Mr J Jones, each lost a foot – although some readers recollecting the incident in later years told us the bride died and the groom lost both legs.

1950

Scandal and sensation on Christmas Day.

Thieves stole the Stone of Scone – the “Stone of Destiny” – from its centuries-old home under the Coronation chair in Westminster Abbey.

On the chair itself were scratched the initials J F S. Suspicion immediately fell – rightly – on Scottish nationalists. Before being brought to London in the 13th century the stone had been used in the ceremony of crowning the Scottish kings.

The Stone of Scone in the Coronation chair was famously stolen on Christmas Day, 1950.

The culprits were four Scottish students. As they removed the stone, it fell on one of their feet, breaking two toes. It also broke into two as they wrestled with the heavy stone. They were successful in returning it to Scotland and creating headlines around the world. Feeling their mission accomplished, they placed it in Arbroath Abbey in April 1951.

It was then brought back to Westminster Abbey, but went back to Scotland in 1996 on the understanding that it could return to England for future coronations. It is on display in Edinburgh Castle.

Nobody ever admitted scratching J F S – it perhaps stood for Justice For Scotland – on the Coronation chair and none of the stone raiders was ever prosecuted.

On the international scene, Britain was at war again, supplying troops as part of the United Nations force fighting in Korea, where conflict had broken out in June. The intervention of Chinese troops from October changed the dynamics and ensured it would be a long war. A feared renewed Chinese offensive on Christmas Eve did not materialise, and British troops amid the Korean snow were able to enjoy their turkey, plum pudding, and mince pies.

1960

Revolutions were taking place, in motoring, and in sport, at the beginning of a decade which was to transform Britain.

Some folk were driving a new small car, made here in Britain, which was to change the face of motoring. It was called the Austin Seven. Designed to be as compact as possible, among its innovations was saving space by having the engine sideways. Later it was known simply as the Mini. A star had been born.

And in December 1960 negotiations were under way between the Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association which paved the way for the big money game with big money stars of today.

Player's leader Jimmy Hill, left, with beard, changed the face of of football forever in talks over the winter of 1960 to 1961. He is pictured shaking shaking hands with Joe Richards, President of the Football League, after a meeting which led to a players' strike being called off.

The PFA was chaired by former Fulham player Jimmy Hill, who later became a renowned Match of the Day presenter, who was campaigning to get rid of the maximum wage for footballers of £20 a week.

The PFA had given notice that the players were going to go on strike. Players’ leaders were demanding two main freedoms – for a player to negotiate the length and conditions of his own contract of employment, and to negotiate his wage with his employer.

Incidental demands were for a rise in the minimum wage to £750 a year and a share for players of their transfer fees.

The strike threat worked, the maximum wage was blown apart with an agreement in the New Year, and in 1961 Fulham’s Johnny Haynes became the first £100-a-week player.

While we’re talking about revolutions, let’s throw in a television revolution, with the advent of the world’s longest running soap. The first episode of Coronation Street was shown on ITV on December 9.

1970

Who turned the lights out?

Electricity supply workers did. This was, after all, the first December of the famously strike-ridden 1970s, and as folk tried to get into the festive mood they found themselves plunged into darkness with regular power cuts.

On December 7 power workers began a work-to-rule in a pay dispute, and immediately homes and businesses were hit by power blackouts. Manual workers in the electricity generating industry were looking for a pay rise of about 25 per cent.

Householder Mrs Jean Prince pours a cup of tea by candlelight during a December 1970 power cut. In the background, with lights blazing, is Ironbridge Power Station.

There was an angry backlash. The Whitchurch electricity depot was sprayed with pig swill. Some power workers were refused service in shops and garages.

On Saturday, December 12, the Cabinet of the Tory government of Edward Heath met and decided to proclaim a state of emergency, giving the government powers to intervene to ease the crisis. The power men called off their week-long industrial action on December 14.

The region saw a white Christmas, with snowfall on Christmas Day. As the Star took a short Christmas break back then we haven’t seen any report to say exactly how “white” it was, but there was certainly heavy snow after the big day, and there were “more snow is on the way” stories when we started publishing again on December 28.

Incidentally the definition that the Met Office uses to define a white Christmas is for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of December 25 somewhere in the UK.

And what was the Christmas Number One in the pop charts? – I Hear You Knocking by Dave Edmunds.

1980

With only three channels, ATV, BBC1, and BBC2, you would have thought that there would not be much need to fight over the television remote – and yes, we did have remotes for the telly back then.

The trouble was that, few though the channels were, there were some cracking family shows.

So was it going to be ATV and the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, featuring Alec Guinness, Hannah Gordon, Glenda Jackson, Peter Cushing, and Peter Barkworth? Or the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show on BBC1 – Yarwood was the king of the impressionists.

Morecambe and Wise were family favourites for festive viewing.

It was basically an either-or, as most ordinary viewers would probably not plump for BBC2 where it was a bit more highbrow, with Tosca, a film version of Puccini’s three-act opera.

On the toy front, there were some significant debuts. The Rubik’s Cube had been introduced at the beginning of the year and went on to be one of the most popular festive presents.

And in May the Pac-Man video game had been released in Japan, featuring the Pac-Man character moving around a maze eating things. Deliberately aimed to capture a wider audience than the male-targeted “shoot-em-up” arcade games of the day, it became an icon of the 1980s and one of the most popular and successful video games in history.

There was joy to the world on the health front, as this was the first Christmas officially free from a dreaded disease which had claimed untold numbers of lives through history. In May 1980 the World Health Organisation had announced that smallpox had been eradicated worldwide.

1990

Christmas went down a storm. Strong winds, and even thunder and lightning, during the early hours of Christmas Day left homes without power, brought down trees, and caused extensive flooding.

The IRA had a three-day ceasefire over the Christmas period, while on the international scene tension was high as American-led forces cranked up their preparations to expel Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait.

They included British soldiers who spent their Christmas in the Saudi desert as they geared up for potential military action. Operation Desert Storm, as it was called, was launched in January 1991.

The movie Ghost, starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, was a Christmas blockbuster in 1990.

On the political front, this was the first Christmas since 1979 without Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. She had resigned in November after losing support among her own MPs, and was replaced by John Major.

There was a new record for Christmas mail, with a bumper postbag of 1.5 billion items, including a record 750,000 letters to Santa Claus.

It was goodbye at last to Josef Stalin, the notorious Soviet leader. The last statue of the genocidal mass murderer standing in a European capital came down at Tirana, Albania, on December 20.

As for our local football clubs, Wolverhampton Wanderers were playing in the old Division Two – these were, of course, the days before the advent of the Premier League a couple of years later – and Shrewsbury Town were in the old Division Three

Among the movies being shown down at your local multiplex during the festive season were Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghost, and Flatliners.

2000

Wet, wet, wet. For some homes and businesses there was literally a dampener on their festivities as the UK had seen its wettest autumn on record.

There was severe flooding in October and into early November. And then in Shropshire, just as people were mopping up the damage and trying to get their lives back together after seeing the River Severn at its highest levels for over 50 years, there was another round of severe flooding in December when the river once more burst its banks, giving another dose of misery.

While folk will remember the great millennium floods, less well remembered are the gales at the end of October, one of the victims of which was the famous Royal Oak at Boscobel which suffered severe damage. The tree is a descendant of that in which King Charles II famously hid from prowling Roundheads.

Last minute Christmas shopping in Stafford in 2000.

The spirit of festive goodwill was wearing thin at the Athena nightclub in Telford, which banned its DJs from playing Bob The Builder (but did they really play it in the first place?). It was a protest against plumbers and builders who, according to the nightclub, had left for their Christmas break without finishing the venue’s toilets.

One last pedantic note for 2000. December 31 that year was the last day of the 20th century, but nobody celebrated the arrival of the new century and new millennium. That was because by popular demand they had already celebrated a year early, on December 31, 1999.

2010

Some folk might call it magical, others might call it a blessed nuisance. Either way, this was the last widespread white Christmas in the UK, with lying snow making for a winter wonderland, although a few areas had the bonus of some snow actually falling on Christmas Day.

The other side of the coin was that the snowy December of 2010, with many days of sub-zero temperatures, caused tremendous disruption to travellers and for sporting fixtures. Some stranded motorists were snowbound in their cars for many hours, and airport terminals were crowded with holidaymakers unable to get away.

In fact it was, according to the Met Office, the coldest December since records began in 1910.

Sledging fun in Tettenhall in December 2010, when there was the last widespread white Christmas.

Among the top Christmas gifts was the Toy Story 3 DVD, which was cheap even at contemporary prices at £4.99. Somewhat less cheap was another favourite present for this year, the iPad.

While you may never have heard of Mohamed Bouazizi, his actions on December 17 had a far reaching effect. A Tunisian graduate, he sold fruit and vegetables illegally because he could not find a job.

When police confiscated his produce because he did not have a permit, he set himself alight. It led to violent protests across Tunisia and helped inspire wider pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi died of his injuries in January 2011.

2020

No mingling amid the jingling please.

The Christmas of 2020 is a Christmas like no other, and unless you have just returned from Mars, you will not need to be told why.

The good news, relatively speaking, has been that Christmas has not actually been cancelled. The bad news is that a carefree Christmas bringing together family and friends is only possible within the limits of the government guidelines.

For the sake of the children, make sure you have included Santa in your bubble.

Margaret Keenan, 90, became the first person in Britain to receive the Covid vaccine at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the UK's history.

You-know-what has affected the way people have done their festive shopping, and we shall have to wait for the retail figures to see how High Streets have fared. And it has hit those who at this time of year, in normal times, have the money and the inclination to fly out to warmer climes.

But look to the future now, it’s only just begun, as the great philosopher Noddy Holder said. Santa is bringing presents, but so are the scientists, bringing hope that 2021 will be a year when we can enjoy more cheer.

On December 8, Margaret Keenan, aged 90, became the first person in the world to be given the newly approved vaccine. The rollout of this Christmas gift is well under way and with other vaccines in their final stages of testing and review, there is the prospect of achieving victory in this great battle of our times.

Stay warm, stay alert, and keep safe, and remember to say the right things if you get a packet of standard face masks as a Christmas present.

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