A Christmas Tale from The Applegarth in 1956
They were tiny people, all under six years old and without exception firm believers in Santa. It would be a couple of weeks before the Christmas break when Miss Lee would tell them that the hall is being decorated and there will be a Christmas Tree in the corner.
Morning Assembly in the Hall
Mr Oliver would begin his morning assemblies with a short tale of Christmas that became more bible orientated as the date approached. In the last week before breaking up for the holiday it would be about Mary and Joseph heading towards Bethlehem and in the last couple of mornings, there’d be the birth followed by a visit from the wise men. Looking back, this build-up was perfect and all the stories were fashioned like a well planned TV Series, the instalments were all-new, interconnected and exciting.
What would happen to Mary when there was no room at the inn and the baby’s birth was imminent? We wouldn’t know until the following morning!
What was the star in the East? The little boy would turn off the light and look out of his bedroom window last thing at night to try to identify ‘it’ but that’s 60 odd years ago and his memory only returns a vision of hundreds of millions of different coloured specs, some twinkling and all varying in hue. How could he tell which one was ‘it’?
In the morning he’d wake up and there would be a small cloud in front of his mouth and he’d hug the blankets and the great-coat that had been thrown across the bed where a warm cocoon had developed overnight. He’d take deeper breaths and exhale slowly to see how much ‘cloud’ he could produce in the icy air. He found that if he did it slowly then the white vapour would hang in the air like a proper cloud and he’d quickly breathe in again with a view to producing more that would join it.
The sun would be very low on the horizon and would strike images that had formed in relief on the window. They had developed overnight where the moisture from his body and breath had met the frozen glass to produce huge frozen images on the window, each one looking like a crystal leaf that, if he was lucky, would diffract the light into a rainbow of colours on the white glossy windowsill. It would be years before he understood the concept of the spectrum and the components of light but here, when he was five, he could see the practical effect of light diffraction and it was beautiful.
There’d be even more excitement as he remembered yesterday’s instalment of the Christmas Story and wonder what today would bring when Mr Oliver delivers the latest update.
The school was about a quarter of a mile away and the walk was up an unmade lane that was uneven and prone to mud when it rained. Every morning was cold and any puddles would be covered with a sheet of ice. He’d take great delight breaking the ice on some of them but there were too many to shatter them all. On some, the ice was so thick it’d never break under his tiny weight even if he jumped really high.
Creating Ice Slides in the Playground
The school playground would often be covered in a white hoar frost. If that was the case then, with a little bit of patience and the input of an enthusiastic gang the transformation could take place. First, they’d walk along in a straight line and drag their feet to create a mark in the frost that had the potential to be a slide. Then some of the more competent ones would run along the same track and land with their feet at an angle and with legs slightly apart for balance and the magical result would be the transformation of the beautiful white hoar-frost into a thin layer of ice and the slide would begin to take shape. He was helped by an unlimited supply of other children, of course, most of them were boys as the girls would assemble in small groups to point and giggle when one of the slide-makers would fall or trip and then, in a fit of flailing arms and staggering legs, he’d try to maintain balance and dignity but usually failing in both. When complete the slide would be fifteen or twenty feet in length and would become more slippery with use. These wonderful pieces of self-made playground equipment usually resulted in a couple of broken wrists together with a sprain or two but they were well worth it.
Inside the school, Miss Lee would transform their classroom into a wonderful grotto decorated with handmade streamed crepe paper that had been cut into short lengths and then glued together in the form of links like a chain. Visually, it was similar to the ones that tether ships in the port only these would be fragile and easily broken. The ones at school tended to be all one colour whereas at home their parents were more adventurous and alternated the colours with each link. There would also be long strands of coloured paper that would be twisted and hung in long loops across the windows it would be thicker than the crepe that made up the chains and the shiny side would glow when the sun struck it through the window. They also gathered holly branches decorated with shiny green leaves armoured with points as sharp as a mouse bite, if he was lucky, he’d be the one that would find the much sought after branch that had bright red berries so vivid they looked almost fake.
Miss Lee’s Class 1956/57
Back Row: Ian Watson, Andy Burn, Trev Pickering, Alan Kilding, ?,?,?,?,?,?,? Eric Walker, ?
Middle Row: ?,?, George Layfield, Mike Rowland,?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?
Front Row: Judith Atkinson, Barbara, ?,?,?,?,? Karen Briggs, ?,?,?
A Christmas Party
As this class was the youngest in school it was deemed that their Christmas party would be in their classroom whilst the older children would have theirs in the hall. The little ones were slightly envious and looked forward to being old enough to be in the hall.
Their parents were asked to bring in any type of food that their children enjoyed and it would be laid out for all the children to pick and chose what they would eat. This had the dual advantage of ensuring that they all had something that they liked and also exposed some children to food that they may not get at home. It should be born in mind that this is only a decade after the end of the war and only three or four years since the end of some rationing. The parents always ensured they left more food than was needed for their child. This had the dual effect of covering for any that couldn’t afford it with no embarrassment as the children had no idea who’d contributed and who hadn’t.
Miss Lee had them singing simple carols and there were games including a ride on the rocking horse which was normally allowed only if you had been particularly good but at Christmas, all the children got to have a go on it. This was followed by a final assembly where Mr Oliver completed the Christmas story with details of the crib packed with straw and surrounded by animals and the visit of the three wise men to see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. The little boy remembered the word ‘swaddling’ and resolved to ask what it meant.
All this was topped off with the whole school singing “Away In a Manger” and followed by each class marching out in a meandering single file and all the teachers would wish the children a Happy Christmas followed by an affectionate hug where Miss Lee would put her huge hands and arms around the back of each of her children and pull them to her as they left. This was the only time that this level of affection was exhibited during the school year unless there had been a fall and tears needed to be stemmed.
As I write this I can smell Christmas in the school, I can feel the care of those teachers and the warm hug of security where nothing could go wrong because we were looked after by such a dedicated group. We had very little in terms of money but we didn’t know that because what we did have could never be quantified or bought.
The school was the Applegarth in Northallerton, the year was 1956, the teachers named were real and the lucky little boy…
…well, he was me!
My childhood was idyllic, thank you Applegarth and teachers and all of my friends who were part of it.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Feel free to ‘share’ especially if you know people who went to this lovely school or indeed, any school if you had a similar childhood, it may create a nostalgic glow.
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