May your days be merry and bright
West Cork Christmas of the 60’s
Was Christmas better in the old days. Was there more mystery and magic to it? Was everything more innocent and more memorable?
All this runs like a river through my mind as I recall the Christmases of my youth, back in 60’s Ireland in a small farm in West Cork. Yes, we did have wonderful Christmases back then.
I vividly remember that tingly feeling of excitement at the idea of Santa Claus actually coming down the chimney and leaving toys for me and every boy and girl in the whole world. These were heady days and nights indeed. One must remember that life in rural Ireland was idyllic but not terribly adventurous, so the idea of Christmas and the fantasy of Santa Claus, was definitely the highlight of the year.
The excitement would build as the priest announced the “First Sunday of Advent” at Mass. From that day on, sweets were given up for Advent. A jar was found, to hold all the sweets that would be saved up between then and Christmas Day. When I say ‘all’ I would be lucky to fill a small jar of sweets, as they were definitely a rare treat. A bag of Bulls Eyes or Clove Rocks, bought by Mum on Sunday, lasted most of the week between the family. Imagine how sticky those precious sweets were after nearly three weeks in a jar!
I was in the Church choir and the weekly choir practise took on a sense of anticipation as we practised our carols for Christmas morning Mass. School days were also brighter as we continually discussed Santa and were reminded of the beauty of Bethlehem and the story of Jesus’s birth.
On Christmas week Mam declared the house a complete argument free zone where only joy and harmony was to reign over the sacred season. On the Sunday we were sent trailing through a nearby wood in search of holly and ivy. If we got holly with red berries on, it was a real thrill. Work around the farm became very intense as the gable walls got a good whitewashing. Sheds would be cleaned out and extra fodder would be brought in to feed the animals over the season. The turkey would be killed and hung on the roof of the cowshed for a week to mature.
Three days before Christmas the waiting was almost unbearable. The treats that the teacher gave us on the last school day were brought home and put in ‘the jar’ We sang our carols with great gusto, wished each other joy for the season and off we skipped, down the long road home – holidays at last and Christmas at last!
At home Mum was busy getting down the box of decorations. The Christmas smell of baking wafted from the kitchen. Chairs were upturned, mats were put out to air and there was hurly burly everywhere in preparation for the coming of ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’.
Then Christmas Eve arrived at last. There was no loitering over the jobs around the farm today! Everything was done in a flurry. At 4pm everything was abandoned as we children crouched around a big radio to listen to Santa from the North Pole. That memory is as sharp and emotional in my mind today as it was fifty years ago. We hoped and hoped that Santa would call our names out over the radio, but he never did. It would have helped if Mam had actually written to him! At about six thirty Santa signed off the programme with the declaration that he was ‘now Leaving the North Pole with Rudolph and his reindeers and to be sure and go to bed early tonight’.
In West Cork we didn’t have midnight Mass back then, but rather had three Masses on Christmas morning starting at 7am. This gave us an opportunity to savour Christmas Eve to its utmost. Evening tea was quite exciting as every effort would be made to milk the cows early and finish the farm work so we could all sit together for supper. The big, round seed brack would be brought out and shared.
After supper a big fire would be lit in the ‘illusive parlour’. This room was kept for very special occasions such as ‘the Stations or a visiting Yank in the Summer. We may not have been in this room since the previous Christmas. This was a magic room. We would gaze at the blazing fire as we bounced around the soft couches and chairs. We spent the night running from the parlour to the ‘back kitchen’ on the other side of the house. There was no rest for Mam as she busied herself with the turkey stuffing, soaking the marrowfat peas and making the trifle.
When all her work was done she sat and opened a box of Lemons sweets. I always picked a hard sweet as it lasted longer. Then she would get some juicy oranges and quarter them for us. Oranges were such a novelty then that we only got a quarter each! Then the highlight of the night was when we got hot raspberry cordial and biscuits from a fancy tin. Christmas had truly arrived! As the fire faded and the embers turned to black we were reluctantly put to bed. I always vowed to stay awake to see Santa in the sky but sleep always overtook me.
And then we heard the call for Mass. Oh was there ever a feeling quite like that joy, on waking to the realisation that it was Christmas morning and Santa had been and gone? Down the stairs we ran and lunged forward to see what presents we had got. We didn’t always get what we had asked for. Sometimes we got something we hadn’t asked for and, somewhere in between, was the coveted doll or tea-set that I had dreamed about for months. A doll and pram was always an extravagance that few got so it was never expected.
It was 6am in the bleak mid-Winter and we had to hurriedly put our toys aside and get ourselves dressed for 7am Mass. Dad had a car and so brought some of the older parishioners to Mass. So, very often, we had to trek the three miles to the Church. It was pitch dark and often cold but this morning held a magic to it and spirits were high as we floated like clouds under the twinkling stars.
The first Mass was long as every parishioner went to the altar for Christmas, but the other two Masses were short and quick. Anyway I was in the choir so it made the morning a lovely experience.
After many pleasantries outside the Church we made our way home again. Breakfast was a big affair of a huge fry. Of course we were quite ravenous after our long mornings work.
After that the fire was once again lit in the parlour. I still have a vision of Mam going out to scoop off the cream from the milk churns for the trifle. Because I was in the choir I often had to attend last Mass at 10am as well. But on Christmas morning it added to the awe of the day and I loved the opportunity to sing those beautiful carols again.
Dinner was, of course, special. It was served in the parlour using the good china and glasses from the fancy side-board. We carried out the ritual of bringing the food through the house from the back-kitchen to the table and we sat in the plush chairs and tucked into our feast. The most delicious part of this meal was always Mam’s trifle. Oh the sweetness of it!
After dinner we either played with our toys or played with some friends. If I was out, I was always anxious to get back to the warmth and cosiness of the parlour.
We didn’t have a T.V. so we sat around the radio and listened to all the programmes from early afternoon. Every programme had a Christmas theme and always held our interest. When the boring news came on I got out the Cork Hollybough and read the stories and attempted the quizzes.
The milking was done and all the animals were settled in for the night, so it was time for supper. This consisted of cold turkey and fruit brack. We seemed to be continuously hungry in those days. Then the night was spent with the five of us sitting around the glowing fire listening to the radio or chatting. We revelled in just being together on this holy night. I wonder were our parents aware of the sacred memories that they were creating for us children by their simple but beautiful Christmas rituals? They were such special parents.
It wasn’t until the last programme had ended on the radio that we contemplated going to bed. Tiredness began to overtake us and there was no more magic to eke out of this day. As I plodded up the stairs I can still feel the heaviness of heart and the loneliness at the end of another perfect Christmas day. Special days were few and far between and next Christmas seemed forever away. That feeling of sadness often overtook me in poignant times as I grew older and as the circle of life threw events and loss at me in my life. But memories will always sustain you and the magic of Christmas will never die.