When Tom, black from the back-shift, came home on Christmas Eve he found a blazing fire and his home decked out for Christmas. It is the work of his wife and children.
The bright chains hanging from the ceiling were made by the girls, and they have gathered ground ivy from the Staithes by the river to put behind the pictures.
Paper lanterns made by the girls festoon the brass rail on the mantelshelf, and the chenille cloth that covers the mangle has been covered with stars made from silver paper.
In the centre of the white scrubbed table, underneath the glowing oil lamp, lies an exquisite cloth bright with embroidered red and gold flowers.
But even such a rarity could not outshine the ‘mistletoe’ hanging in the window recess. Sarah Jane has made it from the hoops of an apple barrel, then covered with tissue paper, hung with streamers and now bearing little chocolate coins covered with gold paper.
His walk from the pithead through the bleak pityard may have been cold and dark, but when Tom took the door of his home its brightness burst on him in a wave of light and warmth and love for Sarah Jane and his daughters.
How could Mary and Ethel, Sally and Edith be expected to sleep with such excitement in the house and empty stockings hanging on the bedpost? They snuggled in from the cold and chattered until their tongues ached; they watched and waited until their eyes drooped, then listened in the darkness until sleep overtook them.
Sleep came to all of School Buildings and to all the other houses and terraces clustered round the great hulk of the colliery.
The great winding wheel also slept that night, for no men would be roused from their beds by the knocker-up in the small hours of the morning. And children restless in their beds would not mistake their calls for that other visitor they longed to hear.
“Has he been?” the voice of Edith, calling in the dark morning to her sisters.
A scurry out of the clothes to the foot of the bed, to the stockings hanging there. Their expectant hands reach, grasp and are filled.
“Yes! Yes! He’s been! He’s been!”
Molly lights the candle. The house bursts into life as the girls explode into their mother and father’s room, clutching their stockings and presents. Edie has already started on her candy stick.
“He’s been! I’ve got a jigsaw, look, mam, a jigsaw!”
“I’ve got a hairbrush!”
“A zoo, a zoo!”
“What has he left for you, Sally?” asks her mother.
“I have a ball,” says Sally holding it out for her mother to see.
But the hand that held it trembled – with disappointment, Sarah Jane suspected. There was something else Sally had wanted. What was it?
But no questions now! It is a time a rejoicing.
Ethel settles to her jigsaw, Edie sets out her animals on the floor, and Molly having brushed her hair takes Sally onto the staircase to play with her ball.
But Sally’s heart is not in the game, and the staircase is cold and dark. Soon they are back in the kitchen with porridge on the table.
Then a squabble with Sally at the bottom of it.
Ethel has commandeered the colouring book and is attempting to colour in one of the pictures. Sally wants it and shouts that it is her turn.
“What’s the matter with you?” she demands.
“She doesn’t want her ball,” explains Molly. Sarah Jane looks at Sally.
“Do you not like your ball?”
“Yes,” replies Sally, “but……” she bursts into tears.
“She wanted a skipping rope,” says Molly.
“I asked for a skipping rope,” Sally sobbed looking doubtfully at her mother.
Sarah Jane put her arm round her daughter and whispered:
“Run across to Mrs Holmes to see if she has one.”
Sally did not need a second invitation. She dried her tears, and scuttled out the door across the yard, into the street and down to Quality Row.
She knocked at Mrs Holmes’ door; Polly opened it and let her in.
“Mrs Holmes,” said Sally, half in hope, half in fear, “mam said to ask you for a skipping rope.”
Mrs Holmes looked at the little girl and smiled.
“Polly!” she commanded, “fetch the clothes line!”
Polly brought the clothes line.
“Stand up straight,” Mrs Holmes ordered Sally. Sally obeyed.
Then Mrs Holmes pulling out the rope measured Sally from head to foot, then drew out the same length again. Then she cut the rope, tied a knot in each end of the cut length, and gave it to Sally.
“There you are,” she said.
Sally took the rope from her and skipped her way back home to her mother and sisters.
That was how Sally got her first skipping rope. At least that is what she told me 80 years later.
And learned, into the bargain, that there is more to Christmas than Santa Claus.