16th November 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

A happy Christmas

, by , in Shetland Life

With this year’s festive season fast approaching, Jean Keith looks back to the wonderful Christmases she remembers as a child.

As we start to prepare for Christmas again (which has now got out of hand, with an abundance of everything from expensive presents to great feasts , causing a lot of stress) I think back to the pleasant and enjoyable time I remember from my youth, with grownups and children looking forward so much to the event.

The first signs would have been folk going to the local shop and coming home with about four rolls of wallpaper sticking up in their kishy, along with the other messages. They cost about two and a half pence per roll. The pattern on the paper was always in bright colours, and usually flowers, such as red or pink roses.

First people washed down the joists of the loft, then coated them with white distemper paint. Next, the wallpapering began. Some flour and water was mixed to make a paste to stick the paper to the walls, which had been brushed down to clear away the cobwebs and dust. No stripping off the old paper in the croft house, which was usually lined with sea driven boards; some of these boards were very uneven, so the more wallpaper that went on the better. Sometimes the ben end got a new coat of paper as well.

The mantelpiece, doors and table legs got a coat of paint, usually cream or brown colours, and of course the inside of the window was painted white. A bleached white piece of a flour bag made a new window blind. The mantelpiece in those days was clad with a piece of bright checked oilskin cloth, which had a serrated edge. This was washed or renewed. Then the table got a new piece of table cloth pasted on to it, also in a nice bright pattern.

The but and ben rooms took on a feeling of serenity and looked so inviting with the lowin’ fire burning brightly on a well scrubbed hearth stone, the flames from the peats flickering and casting a glow around, bringing out the colours, along with a oil lamp burning on the table.

At school we made paper chains and little pom poms from folded tissue paper. We got these to take home at the holidays. We took in vips of corn and coloured each pockle with a different coloured foil paper, collected from the wrappers of caramel sweets. These were the decorations that hung from the joists.

Around this time, the men folk would set off to Lerwick to buy their Christmas bottle. The question going around at this time was, “Have you got your Christmas bottle yet?” It was hidden away and opened on the great day. Every house also bought in a bottle of ginger cordial, a fruit cake, and some apples and oranges (which were only seen in the home at this time of year). Christmas cards began to arrive by mail from folk who were staying on the mainland or overseas. Lovely lace trimmed cards, and some with a pair of clasped hands on them and the words “hands across the sea”.

Neighbours came in with small presents. One would bring a quarter pound of tea and the next a box of cube sugar and an apple. Then another would bring a small cake and be given a similar gift in return – sometimes a bar of soap and a hankie for a single lady, or a bit of tobacco or packet of cigarettes for a man. I always loved the tiny plate given to me by our neighbour Eliza.

On Christmas Eve we heard the guizers in the distance, playing their music as they went from house to house. Sometimes a bright, moonlit night, with a touch of frost sparkling on the ground, added to the magic of it all. The guizers came in playing on a fiddle, and sometimes they had an accordionist with them as well. The occupants of the house welcomed them, shaking hands, offering refreshments such as small biscuits and cordials to drink. Some guizers took the household members up to dance a Shetland reel or similar, while others always sat down beside the old folk by the fire and asked about their well being, made jokes and wished them well over drams. Children of the house were given three pence pieces or a sixpence by the visiting men folk.

All too soon this happy, enjoyable visit ended, with the folk still trying to guess who they were, and still laughing at the jokes and fun they had enjoyed.

Next, the great day dawned. Everyone got up early – children looking for what Santa had put in their sock, which had been hung up at the side of the chimney. An apple or an orange, or perhaps a small wooden toy: that was plenty in those days to bring joy to a child. Dram glasses were set out on the table and soon neighbour men came in to visit, filling up the glass until it was lippering over, passing it around and being wished the very best of everything: “Here’s good health.” Or “All the very best to you”. Then the dram glasses were filled again for the visitors and more good wishes. If anyone had disagreed with a neighbour they were very anxious to make it up and were among the first to visit. This was looked upon as very important. The old folk would say “one only hurts himself by being angry”. This reconciliation contributed to making the day happy. More visitors kept coming and our men folk visited neighbours who were house bound.

Dinner was in the middle of the day and consisted of a boiled chicken, reestit mutton soup or a piece of pork, and a clooty dumpling was usually made – flour, fat, raisins, eggs mixed with buttermilk, then placed on a wet, well-floured piece of a cotton flour bag. In this mixture they put a ring wrapped in a small bit of paper, a sixpence and a thimble. Then, taking the cloth up around the mixture, it was tied at the top and boiled in a large pot. When it was dished up for pudding it was fun to see who found each trinket in their serving.

The croft work had to be done as well of course – each animal getting a bit of extra food – and sheaves were put out for the birds to peck. Bannocks and reestit muttin were eaten at tea time. Then the men folk dressed up in their best suits and set off through the village to visit relations and friends; more and more folk from each house they visited, both men and women, joined the crowd, some carrying musical instruments. Everyone was glad to see the visitors enjoying the music and singing. Large plates of reestit mutton, bannocks, tea, Christmas cake and cordials, and sometimes soup, were passed around. The visiting continued all night, and then the crowds would start to disperse, making their way home.

Next day the folk would say “It’s as far away as ever”. As children, we hated hearing this. At that time, Christmas was a time of goodwill, which brought the people closer together, healing and restoring the community spirit. One would not change the riches of today for those lovely memories.

Jean Keith