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'I still remember the excitement': Memories of Christmas in a different Ireland

Did you know stockings held less back in the day? Three memories of Christmas past – and add your own too.

MOST OF US have powerful memories of Christmas. Some good, some bad. Some naughty, some nice.

But how often do we take the time to write them down and share them?

Well, the folks over at GoldenIreland.ie have been running their annual Memories of Christmas Past competition, encouraging users to send in their recollections of celebrating in a different Ireland.

The winner will be announced on Monday, December 17 – but we’ve got three rather touching stories right here. Enjoy – and share your own memories below.

Do you have Christmas memories you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet us @dailyedge.

1. Bridget Smyth, Scotstown, Co Monaghan

I grew up in a very isolated country area. There was no electricity, running water, telephones or motorcars. The pedal bicycle was the fastest form of transport, and even then it was only the better-off people who owned one. There was no such thing as children’s bicycles.

Christmas was the only feast that was celebrated then, and even it was very low-key compared to the festivities we have today. Preparations began at least six weeks before Christmas. The first job was to clean the chimney. This was done by pulling a holly bush up and down the chimney, which created a lot of dusty soot all over the place. The cleaning up then began. The kitchen table, four legged stools and wooden form were taken out and scrubbed white. As there were no detergents then, sandstone was ground down into a powder. The scrubbing brush was homemade from the remains of a heather bissom, which was no longer suitable for sweeping the floor.

Next, the walls and floor of the kitchen were washed down, and a coat of whitewash was applied to the kitchen walls. Then the decorations were put up. These consisted mainly of berried holly interspersed with local wildflowers, and (if available), small dots of cotton wool.

Most farm families reared turkeys, but could not afford to kill one for themselves, as they needed the money to pay bills such as rent and rates. Some people who reared geese used one for Christmas. Not every family reared geese – my mother would buy a pound of meat.

Brendan Howard / Shutterstock.com

There wasn’t much emphasis on Santa Claus in those days. Of course, we were aware of such person, and we were told that if we were good, he would visit us on Christmas Eve. He must have been poor then also, because the presents were small and inexpensive. They were mostly a couple of pencils or an item of clothing. Still, we were always looking forward to his arrival. We had to hang our stockings on the crook before going to bed on Christmas Eve. The stockings would mostly have been hand-knit, and as all the boys wore short trousers, which reached to just above the knee, the stockings would not hold a lot. It was very important to have enough turf stored to cover at least two or three days.

In each locality there were men who made potín for Christmas. Again, this chore had to begin at least six weeks before Christmas. A four-stone bag of sugar was purchased which had to be stepped. A forty-five gallon wooden barrel filled with water, into which the sugar and an amount of yeast and oaten meal were added. The barrel was then buried in a bog bank until the mixture fermented. It was then distilled. The whole process was very secretive, and of course illegal. In a lot of areas, this would have been the only alcohol available to country people.

There was more emphasis on the religious aspect of the feast day in those times. Special confessions were held a few days before Christmas Day. On Christmas morning, there were three consecutive Masses offered up. These Masses began at 6 or 7am. It would be pitch dark that morning, but people would light candles in the windows of their houses. This added to the atmosphere and excitement of the day. The children would be telling each other what they got from Santa. The local flute band would parade to the local mass. They carried Tilley lamps on poles, and it was a magical scene to behold them moving through the darkness playing their music. These are some of my memories of Christmas in the 1940s.

Flickr/bencrowe

2. Antonia Hart, Dublin

Dublin, 6 o’clock, Christmas Eve. My mother packs four of us into the car, and drapes the dog over our knees. It’s a squeeze now we’re into our twenties. She’s bringing us to the dilapidated Wicklow farmhouse for which she and my father have exchanged their city centre life. We crawl along the Rock Road, shaking the worst of the traffic by the time we turn onto the dual carriageway. Through Glenealy and Rathdrum, the drive is a black and quiet one, interrupted occasionally by a flash of passing headlights.

I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas other than with pre-dawn pillowcases followed by morning Mass at the University Church in Stephen’s Green, and the aunts arriving for turkey and vodka and tonic, bringing unnecessary extra puddings and sweets. Christmas is about the deserted, Sunday feeling of the city; it’s not about a half-restored rural house.

The farmhouse has electricity in one room: it runs through a single temporary flex and power point into the kitchen. We plug in a four-way extension cable, and load as many appliances as we dare. Christmas is not about stepping into the pitch dark garden to go to the loo in a bush before bed because the bathroom is not yet properly plumbed.

An hour later we descend the rutted drive in first gear. I am ready with the big torch that takes a battery as thick as my thigh, and my brother jostles me out of the car into the freezing Wicklow night. I hear my father’s voice raised in greeting, and turn to the house for the first time. Yellow light spills from every window of this house I have never before seen lighted. Inside, my sister and father have placed tealights and candles on every windowsill and table. Two vast fires burn, and the smoke barely stings my eyes.

Boris15 / Shutterstock.com

The dining table is spread with the same pale Italian tablecloth and napkins we’ve used every Christmas I can remember. It shines with familiar silver, and the crystal from which we are finally old enough to drink wine. It looks like some sort of medieval feast, and despite the looped orange cord of the Black and Decker drill on the sideboard and the planks of wood leaning against the wall, it is by a distance the prettiest start to Christmas I have ever had.

“Thank God we don’t have electricity,” my father says, when he’s filled the glasses. Despite the fires, it’s so cold in the house we have kept our overcoats on, and I push my scarf down from my face to take a sip. “Spoil the effect entirely.”

“You might feel differently tomorrow,” my mother says. “Christmas lunch isn’t going to appear out of nowhere.”

“Quite right,” he says, “it isn’t. It’s going to appear from the Woodenbridge Hotel.”

The prepared turkey goes to the hotel on Christmas morning. When the chef telephones a couple of hours later, we start the vegetables on the portable two-ring electric hob we’ve borrowed from someone’s bedsit, and they are ready when my brothers carry in the hotel-cooked turkey, a golden 18-pounder. My father says it has taken all the trouble out of Christmas lunch.

Later, we peer at the Trivial Pursuit dice, trying to make out the numbers by candlelight. No one has the heart to tell my father that the chef has said this is the last year the hotel will be open at Christmas. I suppose we may have an oven by next year, though given the choice of lavatory or oven, I’ll take a lavatory every time.

Flickr/bencrowe

3. Maura Flynn, Westport, Co Mayo

After weeks of counting the days it was finally here. Christmas Eve, the highlight of every child’s year. We awoke that morning with the thought that not only was Santa coming but so was Martin. Martin was my mother’s cousin who worked in the nearby big house and everyday at around ten past one he came to our house for lunch. Every other day of the year if Martin was late it did not matter, but on Christmas Eve he brought presents, a gift for our mother to thank her for her kindness during the year and best of all a crisp green pound note for me and my sister Patsy.

On Christmas Eve we went to Ballinrobe on the ten past one bus to buy presents and Martin’s pound dictated our spending power, so you can imagine our dilemma – it was Martin’s bicycle versus the might of a big green CIE bus. We would be waiting on the road at one o’clock so we had a good view of the bus coming in one direction and Martin in the other.

First he appeared as a speck in the distance, at least we hoped it was him and not a neighbour coming home from town after buying the Christmas, or maybe it was Pa the Post coming with the Christmas dollars from our cousins in New York. Our excitement grew as the cyclist came closer and we could see it was Martin and we willed him to cycle faster. Then we could hear the faint chug chug of the bus in the distance. Minutes passed and Martin and the bus approached one another like soldiers going into battle and it was all we could do to stop ourselves from cheering Martin on as the drama unfolded.

Martin always made it first and presented us with the precious pound note as we looked suitably surprised. Then we would jump on the bus to town and make our way to Nellie Walsh’s shop where she had a back room converted into a Christmas grotto.There we would spend ages deciding what to spend Martin’s pound note on.

Martin is long gone now, and so is our green pound, but I can still remember the excitement of those Christmas Eves of my childhood as we awaited the arrival of Martin with our Christmas Pound.

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Photos: Is this the most festive house in Ireland?>

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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