WHEN CHRISTMAS CAME BUT ‘ONCE A YEAR’
When we were children the year seemed so long from one Christmas to another -maybe it was because Christmas only came but ‘once a year’ back then.
We really looked forward to this holiday season, it was the only time of the year when there was an abundance of food around the house, special foods that only appeared at Christmas time, like the spiced beef, will I ever forget the smell on Christmas Eve when it was cooking and then had to be steeped in its own juices to be served cold with the smoked ham for Christmas breakfast or at any time of the day you might feel like a sandwich or snack.
We had tins of biscuits, Jacobs Elite and USA Assorted, there seemed to be more in the tine or was it just the tins were bigger. The big box of Lemons Sweets Mixture from Father Michael Purtill, my Father’s cousin . Clarnico Murray selection from Uncle Joe, my brother Michael’s god-father. The turkey always arrived from the cousins in the country, a big black feathered bird that had to be hung for a few days before my Mother set about plucking and cleaning him. The feathers were used for cushions, the giblets where boiled at the back of the range in the ‘stock-pot’. every part of that bird was utilized…would this happen today?
The excitement grew as the date drew nearer, and the traditional pattern of events commenced. Santa had to be written to, the plum puddings had been made together with the Christmas cake and mince pie mix way back in October sometime. All the fruits, peel and nuts used in the baking had to be prepared by hand and the whole family was involved one way or another in the preparation. I was sent to Punch’s to get the naggin of whiskey to preserve the cake!!, no one drank in our house and Christmas was the only time when alcohol was allowed.
It was not just the food that had to be prepared and made ready for Christmas, there was the new clothes for us children that had to be made, altered or embroidered on and maybe some dolls clothes knitted for presents etc.
The crib had to be set up on the hall table with the grey paper to give it a rock cave effect. This paper was bought from O’Toole’s in Catherine Street. I remember going down for one sheet so we could cover a shoe box, and my sister Marie painting a hillside scene on the inside of the box. Collecting the moss and ivy off the garden wall. Making the star from yellow crepe paper and going out to Molloy’s farm which was situated passed the white railway gates down Rosbrien Road up the Mill Boreen to get some hay for authenticity. The Christmas tree was placed in a old wooden butter box and held steady with sods of turf, and a piece of holly over each picture.
We children had to save our pocket money to buy Christmas presents for each member of our family, that meant buying eight altogether. Again there was a day set aside for this tradition, usually after we got our Christmas holidays from school. Holidays at Christmas were for a full four weeks – it seemed an eternity.
The day of shopping arrived and was usually quite an event. You dressed up in your best outfit and went with friends of course to Woolworths in O’Connell Street – a treasure house, something for everyone, toys, household goods, sweets, biscuits, perfumes, toiletries, hardware, music sheets, decorations you name it they had it.
You had a lot of money if you had a ten schilling note back then. That was half a pound the equivalent to 50p. to-day. But, that was when you could get bath salts in decorative jars in any colour for 1/-d hankies in boxes for 6d. a brooch or necklace for maybe 2/6d. It was such a joy to look around and see all the novelties that only appeared at this time of year. The sparklers, packets of Jack Frost, that people bought just to open and sprinkle on friends. Woolworth’s floor was always kind of slippy due to all the ‘Frost’ that spilled over onto the wooden boards.
Then there was the visit to Santa. The best Santa was in Todd’s Store, he had a big snow house with a magic ride all through the shop to get there. You never had to wait very long in order to tell him what your wish and hopes were. On arrival at Sant’s House there was a photographer who would take your picture, you did not have to pay right there, you viewed it at his Studio located in O’Connell Street near the Independent Offices. I have photos in my albums from Frank’s Studio of me and Santa many years ago
Christmas Eve we were off to bed early and we never knew when Santa was coming. The big red candle stood in the scrapped out red turnip on the window lighting the way for the ‘Infant Child’. We were all bathed and had our hair washed put into our clean pyjamas and sent off to bed.
The routine for Christmas Day began by all the family going to 9.o’clock Mass at the Franciscan Church in Henry Street. The hackney had been ordered a few days earlier, there were no buses running on Christmas day so, Mr. Yeoman had to give his Christmas morning to driving us, as we did not have a car. Permission to attend Mass in the sacristy of the Franciscan church was arranged by my father’s sister so that my brother Michael, who had cerebral palsy could attend Mass, and after Mass we could go across the altar area to see the crib.
On return from Mass we had a big breakfast of sausages and rashers, or cold spiced beef and ham. Then came the opening of the presents. This took some time, as there were nine people to receive and give presents. Then it was off for a long walk to visit the relations while my Mother and Mary (the housekeeper who was with us for over 60 years) got the Christmas dinner ready.
I loved this part of the day as each house you went to gave you a glass of red lemonade from a siphon and a big hunk of Christmas cake. My father’s aunts in Thomondgate, the Kennedy’s I remember particularly well, they were either widowed or spinsters – there were about four of them living together, always dressed in black and doubled over with arthritis so that they had to shuffle around the kitchen holding on to the big kitchen table in the middle of the floor. Then it was on to his sister’s house and again you got the red lemonade and cake, but this time you might also be offered some Jacobs Elite biscuits or Mackintoshs sweets from the big round orange tin box. Would this be treat for children to-day?
No shops were open, no buses ran – you had to have a stock of bread and milk in as there were no shops open on Christmas Day. The streets echoed your footsteps as you walked as no one moved outside their home except to walk-off the big Christmas dinner.
When we arrived home from visiting the aunts, the dinner was ready; the table was laid and pulled out into the middle of the floor. The white table cloth with the red napkins, the big glass jug of water and container of raw celery. The turkey soup to start I remember well. The turkey, ham, roast potatoes served with ‘mushy’ peas, the plum pudding with red jelly and custard. Everyone around the table, of course there was no television back then.
After dinner we went into the ‘front room’ where there was a fire lighting and played with our toys, while my father played records on the gramophone. Always John McCormack, but, he also had the Laughing Policeman and Hallo-a Hallo-a How are You OO OO – Maybe we went for another walk around the Four Mile Course but always had to be back in time to go to Benediction in the Fathers at 7.30pm. The altar was lit up with candles, which was a sight to behold, Tommy Drennan singing O Holy Night and the Army salute during the ceremony.
Walking home to Christmas tea of Christmas cake, mince pies sausage rolls of if you preferred some spiced beef with pickles. Trifle was my favourite treat with fresh cream. The icing on the Christmas cake depicted a snow-scene carefully done by Mary with silver and white decorations.
After tea we all put on our warm coats and scarves and walked over to my Mother’s sister, Aunt Sade, where all the cousins and relations gathered for singsong. She had a piano and each year each member of the family performed their own party-piece. Aunt Sade played the Moonlight Sonata; my Grandfather sang ‘Bottle Alley ‘ and Jerusalem. My Mother and Aunt Sade sang a duet called Gliding. Then at eleven o’clock tea and cake was served and once more Christmas Day was coming to a close.
Walking home at around twelve o’clock was exciting as I had never been out that late at night and you could look up and see the stars, Orion’s Belt had to be found as we walked in the middle of the South Circular Road, singing carols as we walked home to Punch’s Cross. It was exciting to look into the houses along the way to see Christmas trees and listen to people singing their favourite songs at their own family gatherings.
I never thought, until I became a Mother myself years later, of all the hard work it took my parents to make Christmas memories that are remembered by me today.