The smell of Christmas

All seasons have their own particular smell.  The smell of new mown hay in spring.  The scent of a rose on a warm summer’s evening.  The smell of bonfires in Bruern Wood from hawthorn and blackthorn hedges being laid in autumn.  The smell that invokes Christmas for me more than others is the smell of cigar smoke.

In those early days of austerity after the Second World War, children would go to The Swan or The Churchill Arms to buy a bottle of lemonade and a packet of Smith’s Crisps which would cost 9d – less than 5p, or 1 shilling in old English money.  Walking into the tap room to get the lemonade, the place would be filled with the smoke from men smoking Woodbines or ones they had rolled.  Some older men who had served and survived the First World War smoked a strong pipe tobacco called Black Beauty.

This changed at Christmastime.  The taproom would be filled with smoke from cheap small cigars, Whiffs and Manikins, the most popular.

In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Saturday morning was part of the working week.  The Christmas holiday was two days – Christmas Day and Boxing Day; back to work the day after.  It was best when Christmas fell on Thursday or Friday.  It left the weekend to recover.  There was a lot of overeating and drinking to be done in a short time.  Pubs organised thrift clubs to save money during the year to spend during the holidays on presents for the family and friends.  David Hanks ran the thrift club at The Swan for many years.  David was one of the unsung heroes in Ascott.  He served on the parish and church councils, and more important for me, helped re-establish the village football club.  He served on the committee of the Witney and District F.A. well into retirement.

The celebrations began on Christmas Eve and continued in the evening with a visit of the carol singers calling at both pubs.  Closing time was 11.30pm before the service in the church.

Women who went regularly alone to the pub would be thought of as being a ‘bit loose’.  My grandmother, on Christmas Eve, would go to The Churchill Arms with her cousin Harry Habbits from Condicote near Stow.  Harry spent many Christmases in Ascott with the family. Rhoda, my grandmother, was a very pious old lady.  She would attend the midnight service.  It was about the only time I knew her go.  I took my first communion at the midnight service, Christmas 1953, along with amongst others, Joan and Eric Pratley, who for the next 50 years became loyal and generous members of the parish church.

During the fifties and sixties, one or two people would come to the midnight service a little the worse for drink after the pubs closed.  But I never remember any disruption or bad behaviour.  Some would fall asleep at the back of the church.  Christmas Day, after the early morning excitement of opening presents, was spent quietly at home eating and drinking too much.  The highlight of the day in my home was listening to the King’s speech on the wireless, when I was told to sit down and keep quiet for ten minutes. After the speech Harry Habbits would raise his glass of whisky and say, “Here’s to the King.  God bless him.”

Boxing night, the pubs would be full, the regulars expecting a free drink from the landlord for being good customers during the year.  All the old songs would be sung which remain my favourites today.  Songs such as ‘Tipperary’, ‘There’s an Old Mill by the Stream, Nellie Dean’ and one my dad liked to sing, ‘We are the boys of the bulldog breed bobbing up and down like this’.

These were in the green years of my life.  We were unsophisticated and unpretentious.  I thought they would last for ever, but I had to ‘grow up’ and the characters I remember in The Churchill Arms and The Swan have long since gone. 

When I think of those days, I become mawkish and sentimental so I will stop.


Fred Russell

This article first appeared in the Ascott Grapevine, with thanks to Fred for his permission to use it.

April-May 2021