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Reflections on a family Christmas: 'Helping those who help others is the greatest gift of all'

I never knew my paternal grandparents - a sad gap in my life. But my maternal grandparents were a constant and wonderful fixture of a happy childhood.

Christmas was invariably spent with them, and was an event to look forward to.

(L-R): His father, his mother, a young Alastair Stewart and his aunt Credit: Alastair Stewart

Space was tight, and sometimes I sat in my grandfather's arm-chair, with a large pasty board, balanced across the well-worn furniture limbs.

If my brother and I had been lucky, and the entire Stewart-Lord tribe had descended, we'd have slept the night before in my grand-parents green caravan, which was squeezed into the concreted area outside the back-door.

Gifts were more personal than extravagant: pencils, with our names embossed in gold paint; always a chocolate coin, wrapped tightly in gold-foil so one could still see the Queen's head; I remember a tin RAF lorry, hand-painted by grand-dad in the insignia of the Squadron and Group my father was then serving: 151 Sqdn; 1 Group, Fighter Command.

My grandfather, a former chauffeur in a grand house, was by then a taxi-driver; he made a little on the side as a sign writer. His script was a joyous thing to behold.

His wife, my grandmother, had been the kitchen maid in the same grand house - Pine Ridge, Frensham.

She'd come up from South Wales in the bleak days of the 20s to find work as there was little in the valleys.

She regaled us with magical tales of service - mixing mayonnaise in the cellars, so it didn't curdle for the family, waiting to be served in the dining room. Nothing was weighed, nothing measured. A pinch of this, a handful of that. I stood at her side and watched in awe.

I was allowed to scrape the mixing bowls clean after custard making, cake making and - best of all - Christmas pudding creation.

His grandmother would regale them with stories as she cooked Credit: Alastair Stewart

Silver thrupences were hidden in the mix, prior to cooking. Wrapped in muslin, it was steamed to perfection, doused in brandy and set alight before being marched, triumphantly, into the dining room.

The dining room was the back-room of a modest three up, three down in Farnham.

The front-room was for special occasions like Christmas. Otherwise it was something between a 'no-go' area and a Holy of Holies. The grand-mother clock, the bits of china on the mantel-piece and the bureau. Not utilitarian, but special pieces, left to them.

Lunch defined tradition.

Turkey - getting the wish-bone, a prayed for bonus. The potatoes, roasted to perfection - par-boiled, tossed in flour, baked to a golden crisp brown; Brussell sprouts, which everyone pretended to like; little sausages and 'angels on horse-back' which people relished and wanted more.

There was, I'm sure, modest wine for the adults and orange squash, I remember, for the children.

After lunch, the Queen's speech on the black and white TV; then charades were played; carols were sung, satsumas and dates consumed; Brazil nuts cracked, the resistant bits of white kernel liberated by what grandma called an 'ucker-out' - like a long silver tooth-pick with a tiny, trowel like end.

We went to bed, exhausted but blissfully happy.

Silver thrupences were hidden in the pudding Credit: Alastair Stewart

As we slept, my grandmother made a turkey broth from the remains of the turkey; Boxing Day was the broth and cold cuts, as I think they are known; stilton -scooped, never cut; and fruit.

We eventually departed.

I have nothing but blissful memories of those childhood Christmases.

We try to echo some of it but these are different times; luck and good fortune have made it all a little bit grander; the gifts, a little more generous.

As, one by one, our own children arrive for tomorrow and the next few days, I often think, quietly, of those days. Good folk, who endured hardship and not a little servitude. There was scant wealth to be measured in money but riches aplenty in the simple pleasures of Christmas and fun that didn't come out of a TV set.

They were generous people, too, and did what they could for charity. My mother inherited it and instilled it in me.

So I think, too, of the charity Crisis and the good folk they help: lacking a roof over their heads but, thanks to Crisis, not a loving embrace and a warm meal at this special time.

The Royal Briitsh Legion is another. The elderly widows of distant conflicts; the younger ones, many with children, tragedy inflicted upon them through no fault of their own; and the veterans, themselves - many hurt and damaged and in need, every day, as well as Christmas Day of love, assistance and respect.

Helping those who help others remains the greatest gift of all.

Happy Christmas and a peaceful, and prosperous New Year to one and all.