Grandchildren ask 3 heart warming questions about Christmas past

"What was Christmas really like in your day?” Three children quiz their grandparents on Christmas.

Tia Forde, 13, interviews Winston Forde, 71, a retired RAF squadron leader from Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

grandchildren ask about christmas

Tia: What do you remember about Christmas when you were young?

Winston: Well, Tia, that was a long time ago and so much has changed. As you know, I grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, so perhaps the most striking difference was the weather. Christmas was a sunny day. We didn’t have a Christmas tree because conifers didn’t grow there. On the other hand, the palm trees made a convincing backdrop for our Nativity plays!

I was a chorister in the cathedral in Freetown, where my father was a civil servant, and it was always strange for me to sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” because none of us had experienced snow. When I came to England in the 1960s, I couldn’t believe the cold and the chimney smoke rising from icy roofs.

Tia: The first thing I think about on Christmas morning is opening my stocking. What was the first thing you did?

Winston: We didn’t have Christmas stockings, and we didn’t have the idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney. But I always looked forward to seeing my new clothes laid out—my parents always had new clothes for us—and we’d get dressed up and go to church. The streets were full of people, all in their Christmas finery, and we’d watch the “masked devils” dancers. It wasn’t a Christmas tradition, precisely. It was the indigenous people’s way of celebrating.

Tia: It sounds like a carnival!

Winston: Well, we didn’t call it that, but you’re quite right. We had so much fun all day. When we came back from church, we had lots of lovely food. The special Christmas dish was called Jollof rice. It looked wonderfully festive—cooked in tomato purée so the rice turns red—and was full of pork and beef and all kinds of rich ingredients you wouldn’t have every day.

Potatoes had to be imported—we always called them “Irish potatoes”—so they were thought a most exotic ingredient! And this is why, when you come to us on Boxing Day, Grandma always cooks Jollof rice for all of us.

Tia: And now Grandma has taught it to Dad [Kevin] and he makes it, too! I love the way these things are handed down. I think my favourite Christmas present ever was the book Grandma gave me about sewing, which her grandmother had given her. It’s in my bedroom, still in mint condition! And I love it when we all get together at your house and swap family stories at Christmas.

Winston: Families in Sierra Leone are quite extended, and we don’t wait for invitations. It was open house at Christmas. Food was always there, and people would go from house to house. Or we’d go to the beach and play games until night time. The Queen’s Speech was a highlight. 

Sierra Leone was a British colony, and we were very loyal. Everything that happened in Britain was important to us, and there used to be real excitement about what Her Majesty might say. Now we live in an age where we have to be told things before they happen. They’ve started “trailing” the Queen’s Speech, and I find it destroys the thrill.

Tia: So was Christmas better then?

Winston: There were different priorities. You and your brothers and sisters are lucky that presents play such an important role. I didn’t have that as a child. To us, the real present—the biggest gift from God—was the Baby Jesus. Freetown was a mixed community of Christians, Muslims and other denominations. But Christians seemed more ready then to celebrate the birth of Christ. And it was a special time for everyone, rich and poor, religious or not. Because, wherever you live in the world, Christmas is a time of celebration.