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An East Cork Christmas
by Consiglio Murphy
Christmas as I remember it nearly 60 years ago was very different from what it is today. The Christmas spirit began with the making of the plum pudding about six weeks before Christmas. All the family gave a stir to the pudding so that nobody would die within the year! The pudding was tied up in greased and floured white cloth and cooked for hours, then it was hung from a crook in the ceiling to season.
On the last day of school we got currants and sugar buns, sweets, apples and we sang Christmas carols. Next day we wrote our Christmas cards and posted them for a halfpenny stamp.
A week before Christmas, Father killed three turkeys and a goose. He nailed pieces of wood together and made two strong boxes into which he placed the turkeys 'feathers and all'. The lids were nailed down, labels nailed on and the addresses of our cousins in Dublin written. Father then took them to the station to post. In return we got a huge brack about the size of a motor car wheel which was made to order by the famous Johnston Mooney and O'Brien bakers.
A few days before Christmas Mother and Father went to town in the pony and trap to 'bring home the Christmas' as the saying goes in the country. They decided whose turn it was to go with them. What a joy it was to be chosen because it meant new style - a coat or shoes perhaps for Christmas morning Mass. Father would drive the pony and trap up one side of the street and down the other, stopping at all the shops where they usually dealt. How eyes would glisten at the dazzle and glitter, the tinsel and the lights, the cakes and sweets. In every shop we got a present, a barm brack from the baker, a cake and candles from the grocer, large tin of bulls-eyes from the tobacconist, meat from the butcher, a calendar from the chemist and so on. We were left sitting in the trap while Mother and Father brought Santa's presents. When time permitted we went into a tea shop for tea and hot crumpets. All of this time the pony stood still outside the shops - no parking signs or fines to push him on, and no car horns to startle him. By the the time our shopping ended all the gas lamps were lit. What a fairyland of gold and glitter to feast the eyes of a country child, who only had an oil lamp and candles at home. Then homeward we would trot, tired bhut happy. The whole family would be out to meet us and carry in the spoils. Mother would grab Santa's presents and hide them as eight lively children unwrapped all the parcels.
A few days before Christmas decorations were put up. Sprigs of red berry holly were put into every crevice in the woodwork of the dresser, Ivy was draped over the pictures, The crib with the infant in it was set up in the hall, decorated with holly, tinsel and cotton wool.
On Christmas Eve the kitchen was a hive of activity. All helped Mother to stuff the turkey and goose. Father took the best home cured ham from the crook in the ceiling. Mother cooked and skinned it, covered it with breadcrumbs and basted it in front of the open fire. Ned our workman got his week's wages which amounted to eight shillings and sixpence, but Mother secretly added to it that day without telling Father. Ned dressed for town, promising to bring us presents. He arrived home that night - merry or 'maic go leor- and true to his word with a Christmas stocking and sweets bulging out of his pockets.
The Christmas candle was placed in a hollowed out turnip, decorated with tinsel and holly and placed on the window facing the road, the door left unlocked and food left on the table, to welcome the Home Family and to light them on their way. After nightfall Mother would fill a basket with fruit, brack, tea and sugar and take it to a poor neighbor down the road. All would sit around the open fire telling stories, Father would read the paper and Mother would air the clothes. The Rosary was said and before going to bed the grownups would drink hot punch and the children little wine and rich cakes. Stockings were hung up on the crane and sixpence left for Santa .
On Christmas morning all were up before dawn. Father tackled the pony, Mother huddled us into the trap and off to Mass we went fasting. On the way as we passed the neighbors on foot, Father would shout, 'Happy Christmas', and they would shout back, 'the same to you and many of them'. The church glittered in candle and lamp light. The singing was heavenly and as we streamed out of the church after Mass all greeted each other.
Home again the fun began. Santa's presents were opened. Father cut the famous ham. Mother made the tea. The ham was delicious, the likes of it have never been reproduced by any factory. While dinner was prepared we played 'tig' around the hay sheds. Dinner was always in the parlour that day. Wine and cake were served after dinner. The postman came in at dinner time. He joined us for a glass of whiskey, a tip and a chat. If he brought the 'American parcel' we could not wait for him to go - to open it. The silks, the satins, the necklaces, the brooches, the high heeled shoes with the peaky toes! There was a fashion parade and much laughter as the boys fitted on the lady's style and modeled them to the amusement of our parents. Ludo or draughts were played that night, Father read the Cork 'Holly Bough' and records newly bought by Mother were played on the gramophone. Nobody went visiting on that day and no visitors came. It was a day for the family.
On St. Stephen's Day all the family slept late, often it was the singing of the wren boys that aroused us. They sang ' the wren, the wren' over and over, they were luck to get a penny or twopence each and be on their way. The local coursing was the attraction of that day. Once dinner was over the whole family went to it.
Two events stand out in my memory of Christmas time. Mother would send us with gallons of milk to the neighbours nearby where there were many children and bottled milk was not ever heard of at that time. In return they gave us slices of rich cake or plum pudding, Mouther would chide us saying' you took more from those poor people than you gave! The second memory I have is that there were no dance halls as such near our home at that time, We had our own dances the neighbours gathered in, someone played the melodeon and we danced half sets, jigs and reels until morning. Tea, wine and spirits were served to all. The Hunt Ball dance was held in Monatrae Hotel, Youghal on New Year's Eve. Our older sisters went, we curled their hair with hair tongs - treated in the fire, they wore fill length silk or satin frocks and as we watched them go we felt like Cinderellas.
Visiting the neighbours went on all during Christmas and anyone who called got a glass of whiskey or wine and before drinking it, he always said, 'Sláinte', and having drunk it he said, 'Go mneirimíd beó am seo arís.
As the lights of our streets and Christmas candles glitter once more may the light and peace of Jesus light up your hearts, with love for all, but especially for the poor, the old and the lonely. The gifts of Christmas are merry and beautiful and of them all, the sweetest the finest and the most precious is truly the gift of love.
Reprinted from an essay in the book 'No Shoes in Summer' with the kind permission of Merlin Press. The book was originally published by Wolfhound Press.
Image: From RTE
For more of our Holiday Stories click on the following links.
Time at this Point in the Year
An Advent Memory
Yes, Kelsey and Maddie, there is a Santa Claus
Waiting for St. Nicholas
Christmas - Preparing the Puddings
Christmas - Food for the Feast
An Irish Christmas - Then & Now
An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
Memories of Christmas Eve Past
An Irish Christmas - Ding Dong Merrily On High
Seasons Greetings in Irish
St. Stephen's Day to New Year's Eve
New Year's Day to Epiphany
Many Years Ago by John B. Keane
Rowing to Christmas Mass
Burying the Baby Jesus
White Washed Walls
An East Cork Christmas
Tue, Dec 2, 2014
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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