A century of Christmases

Betty Gould, 101 years young, recalls traditions of Christmas past she has known. photo by Michael Erskine

Betty Gould reflects on memorable ones from her long life

LITTLE CURRENT – Manitoulin Centennial Manor resident Betty Gould is celebrating her 101st Christmas this year and she graciously agreed to a chat about her Christmas memories down through the years with The Expositor.

Ms. Gould was born in Australia; her father was a rubber plantation operator in Malaysia before the First World War. “My mother decided that a rubber plantation in Malaysia was no place to have a baby, so we moved to live with her aunt near Perth, Australia.” The memory of those very earliest years have faded into history, but Ms. Gould vividly recalled life in England when the family settled into a little house in what was then the small town of Hillingdon, near Uxbridge, west of London.

“My earliest memories of Christmas were when I was about five or six years old,” she said. “I went to a little private school and I remember our teacher, Mrs. Watson (of course we all called her Miss Watson), would make a little crèche in the classroom so we could see what the original meaning of the day was all about.”

As a class project, Ms. Watson would distribute little pieces of coloured paper for the children to create colourful paper chain decorations. “She made a paste of flour and water and we each made a chain,” recalled Ms. Gould. “We took them home and my mother would put them away. We didn’t decorate in our house until Christmas Eve.”

“My father had a job in the city (London) with the P & O Shipping Company (Peninsular and Orient Shipping, which by this time was the largest shipping company in the world) and we always waited until he got home to decorate the house,” she said. The sole Christmas item in the house up to Christmas Eve was a Christmas tree.  “Of course there were no lights on the tree in those days,” she laughed. But there was a deliciously exciting pile of wrapped packages lying intriguingly beneath its branches that had arrived by post the day before. “We were all very excited about what might be in them,” said Ms. Gould.

“We would be sent to bed early and my mother would make dinner for my father,” she said. “After they ate, they would set about decorating the house.”

 When the Gould clan arose in the morning, a magical transformation had occurred in the family home.

“There was twine on the bannister and tinsel hung about,” she said. “They really did a good job of it. When we got up the house was decorated beautifully.”

Following breakfast, the children were put out into the garden to play while their mother prepared the Christmas meal. “We had dinner at midday in those days,” explained Ms. Gould.

The table would be a sight to behold. “We had inherited many precious things from my grandparents,” she said. “There were silver platters, fine china and silverware. The silver dishes polished to perfection and beside each of our plates were little silver dishes of crystalized fruit. My mother always loved those candies.”

Then there were the crackers.

“Beside each of our plates were crackers, they made such a wonderfully loud noise when you pulled them apart and a paper hat and little toys like tops and things would fall out,” said Ms. Gould. “We would have to put the paper hats on.”

At Christmastime, the Gould family would hire a cook who would come in and help Ms. Gould’s mother prepare and serve the meal, “just for Christmas,” she confided.

The cook would bring in the turkey and Ms. Gould’s father would set to sharpening his carving knife with a steel. While English Christmas stories tend to feature a Christmas goose, Ms. Gould’s father’s company would provide them with a turkey each year.

“We would each get healthy helpings of turkey and other foods,” said Ms. Gould. “I had an enormous appetite in those days. Now I can barely get through a mug of broth,” she confided. At 101 many things have changed.

“My father would rise in his seat to give a toast to the provider of the turkey. Then he would give ‘a toast to the king, God bless him.’ That was George V in those days (King George V reigned from 1911 to 1936).”

“The Christmas pudding would come out. They would cover it in hot brandy and set the whole thing on fire. You had to be careful when you put a piece in your mouth—there were silver three-penny bits and other silver things it in. It was very exciting to find a silver bit.”

“We had stockings laid out on Christmas Eve and before we went to bed they would have little things put in them, like tangerines,” she said. In the morning the stockings would be stuffed with treats, trinkets and other small toys.

Then it was time to go back into the sitting room where the Christmas tree stood sentinel over the intriguing packages nestled under its limbs. Many bearing postmarks from all across the globe. “My aunt in Australia would send us the most exciting things.”

Ms. Gould’s parents would carefully hand out each of the parcels in turn.

At three o’clock the family would gather solemnly around the radio. “We would sit quietly while the king gave his Christmas speech,” she said. “Of course we had to listen very carefully to every word.”

Later, when Ms. Gould was working in Bexhill during the 1950s her family had become quite scattered and Christmas traditions changed. She and her good friend Betty Apnes decided they both were tired of their jobs and wanted to add a little adventure to their lives. Postwar Britain was a dreary and difficult place for a young woman.

“My friend was a registered nurse and I had experience in nursing from during the war,” she recalled. “So we came over to Canada and got a job at a hospital in Oshawa.”

What followed could form the basis of a great blockbuster buddy movie—with the duo traipsing across the continent in an old one-tonne panel truck they purchased and kitted out, complete with bunk beds and other items they would need for a comfortable life on the road.

Ms. Gould insisted that although they were seeking an adventure, Canada was a much safer place in those days. “It wasn’t all that dangerous,” she said. “There were none of the kind of things happening you hear about today.”

They learned to drive in a vacant field across from where they were living at the time. According to Ms. Gould, a fair bit of grinding and cringing ensued, but the pair eventually secured their licences.

Lifelong companions, the Two Bettys, as they affectionately came to be known around Mindemoya, celebrated Christmas with many of the traditions with which they had both grown up. “We tried to keep the Christmas season very much as it was at home,” she said. But with a significant difference.

“Betty didn’t care for turkey,” laughed Ms. Gould, “so we would have goose.” Although she was the designated cook in their partnership, Ms. Gould did not have the faintest idea how to cook a goose, but she quickly happened upon a solution.

“There was this woman, Delia Smith who had a cooking show,” she said. Delia Ann Smith CH CBE is an English cook and television presenter, best known for teaching basic cookery skills in a no-nonsense style. In her time, Ms. Smith was the best known celebrity chef in British popular culture. “One of her programs was going to be on cooking a goose,” she recalled. “I taped the program and when it was time to cook the goose, I put on the tape and followed her cooking the goose.” The result was a perfectly cooked Christmas goose.

Another cherished Christmas tradition is the pudding. “Every year, my brother would send us a wonderful Christmas pudding. It would come in this nice tin.”

Following the Christmas meal, Ms. Gould and Ms. Apnes would settle in front of the television for another tradition. “We always had to listen to whatever the royal family would be going on about,” she said, a twinkle in her eye hinting of the adventurous young woman who left everything she knew behind to explore a brave new world.