Christmas in Penge
Penge has a tradition of celebrating Christmas well and this has evolved over the past century. Focus points over the years have always been the magnificent churches, the high street with its great department stores, the town Christmas lights, Maple road with its much-loved market, various halls and premises, provisions for the poor and lonely, theatre events, pantomimes, carol services, and visits from Father Christmas.
Maple Road used to provide elaborate street decorations between the wars. No doubt the Salvation Army always lent a hand in providing Christmas music with its band and hot dinners for those in need.
Many have fond memories, from 1921 onwards, of the Maple Road Market on the lead-up to Christmas, especially on Christmas eve: the last minute buying of presents, tangerines, nuts, a turkey perhaps, or maybe a goose or duck. Christmas trees were for sale, holly and mistletoe. Stalls were brightly lit with electric light in the darkening air and the smell of roast chestnuts wafted from a glowing brazier. The editor remembers buying 200 oranges each year for a school Christingle service from a market stall, backed up with yards of red ribbon and boxes of cocktail sticks from the sadly-missed Maple Textiles store.
Great department stories such as Bryce Grant, Duponts and Rogers had special Christmas bargains preceding the later January sales. No trip to Penge was perfect without a visit to these stores with their multiplicity of goods and welcoming restaurants.
Indeed people came from surrounding areas such as Beckenham, Sydenham and Dulwich to visit these well-respected stores. Christmas adverts were taken out in all the local papers such as the Penge and Anerley Press. For some reason, people especially remember the piped vacuum contraption which used to send notes and messages whizzing along in metal tubes up high on the store walls to their various destinations.
Father Christmas could be visited in his grotto at Rogers after arriving in style along the high street in a limousine or in a pony and trap about 11.00am. Crowds of excited children and parents cheered and applauded his arrival (in mid November). Every child would then happily receive a present from Father Christmas in his ‘fairyland’, elaborately created with plenty of tinsel, lametta and attendant elves, whispering in his ear what they really wanted for Christmas.
Carol singing took place in the open air in the high street or in Maple Road, often accompanied by the Salvation Army band. Special carol services, like today, would be arranged in all the local churches. Midnight mass would be celebrated to an overflowing congregation. Inside the churches, life-size, straw-strewn, star-lit cribs would be on display, attracting children and families.
Penge Pubs did a roaring trade, literally, with inebriated but conscience-stricken customers turning up late for the Christmas Eve service and joining in, maybe a little too enthusiastically, with the carol singing. As today, pubs were popular social meeting places at Christmas for family and friends and there were over forty of them to choose from. Now there are considerably less.
Penge had its own Christmas cards, predating the contemporary Penge Calendar perhaps, sold nowadays to raise money for the splendid Christmas lights.
The Empire Theatre, opened in 1915, had possibly its most financially-successful seasons with its annual sold-out, professionally-produced pantomimes with their spectacular transformation scenes, speciality acts, and musical interludes. Many have fond memories of a visit to the Penge Empire pantomime being the highlight of
their Christmas. These ran usually from mid December to the end of January. Great stars such as Lupino Lane and Jack Tripp appeared there, along with variety acts such the Dagenham Girl Pipers and Ida Rosaire’’s Performing Dogs. When the Empire was demolished in 1961 the pantomime tradition continued at Anerley Town Hall and Melvin Hall, albeit in amateur form.
Much of this has survived with the Christmas shows at the highly professional, bijou, Bridge House Theatre, continuing the tradition of theatre in Penge. Over the years we have been joyously entertained by A Christmas Carol, Father Christmas Needs a Wee, Another Night Before Christmas, and Miracle on 34th Street ad Plaid Tidings.
In 2019, A Christmas Carol was the riveting production on offer with West-End performer Rachel Izen giving a remarkably humanised performance as Scrooge. The show was nominated for two Offie Awards and garnered a plethora of five star reviews.
Christmas decorations still adorn the high street with electrically-lit garlands and banners, courtesy of local fundraising supported by the traders, and a tall sparkling Christmas tree on the Crooked Billet island strikes a cheerful note.
Alexandra Nurseries had their special two-day Christmas event on December 7 and 8, 2019. SE20 Art Space, during its brief six-month pop-up life, had two Thursday evenings, November 29 and December 13, 2018, selling artworks and cards of all sizes. Taylor and Abel took over the shop space and has continued the seasonal theme in its artistic wares.
Pengemas, a new venture since 2016, invites the whole community to descend on the high street for festive fun with its many stalls, carol singing and an appearance of Father Christmas. Not all the shop windows are lit as elaborately they used to be in the past, but some, like Designer Drapes, make a special effort. In 2018 it was a Nutcracker theme, in 2019 A Christmas Carol theme to tie in with the Bridge House Theatre show. There is usually a decorated crib in Mack’s chemist window and in Parr’s. Many shops have brightly-lit Christmas trees in their forecourts or windows, adding a touch of festive sparkle.
The needy, the elderly and those who live alone are invited to special Christmas dinners and parties at Melvin Hall, Holy Trinity Church, the Salvation Army and the Goldsmiths pub. Many local organisations such as the Bridge House support these generous gestures.
Carols have been sung in the open air in Alexandra Recreation Ground since 2008, courtesy of The Friends of Cator and Alexandra, accompanied by the Beckenham Concert Band and sometimes with the Alexandra School Choir. Although it rained on December 8, 2019, the carols continued in the Holy Trinity Centre with a record number in attendance. There is a raffle, free mulled wine, mince pies, tea and coffee with Himalayan Kitchen providing tasty nibbles.
A good turn out makes sure the event is a happy one and enjoyed by all. Local artists sketch scenes from the event.
No one should feel alone in Penge at Christmastime as there is plenty to do. In the words of Tiny Tim, the spirit of Penge lives on:
‘A Merry Christmas to all! And God bless us, everyone!’