There’s Something about Christmas

‘There’s something about Christmas. There’s something about it that creeps inside and finds the child in you.’ These are the opening words of the magical  Barry’s Tea ‘Train’ radio commercial. It is back on the airwaves so Christmas must be near! You can listen to it here.

Christmas in our Donegal home almost 60 years ago is a world away from Christmas in the early 21st Century. My mother used  to begin the Christmas baking in late October when she made two rich fruit cakes. The whole process seemed to take days as she assembled sultanas, raisins and currants, chopped the mixed peel and the glace cherries, soaked whole almonds in boiling water so the skins would slip off, then chopped them finely. This scrumptious mixture was placed in a huge basin, doused in whiskey and covered with a clean cloth to soak overnight. During the evening the cloth was lifted when there was no adult in sight, so we could inhale the beautiful aroma of liquor and fruit. Tins were lined first with buttered greaseproof and then buttered brown paper – an art in itself, akin to Origami as it took a lot of expertise to line a round tin!

The following day the serious business of baking took place; flour and raising agent were sieved; the exotic mixed spice, nutmegs, cinnamon, ginger and mace were measured out; eggs were beaten, butter was softened and black treacle was measured out of the tin. An argument would then ensue as to who  would get to lick the sticky black syrup from the spoon. This entire process took some hours as there was nothing mechanical in my mother’s kitchen — only a wooden spoon and an egg whisk with a wheel on the side. After all the beating, folding and mixing the tins were filled. We got to clean out every last bit of the mixture that still clung to the sides of the big cream coloured baking bowl, then we were banished  from the kitchen and had to whisper for the rest of the day. Any loud noise or banging door might result in the cakes ‘sinking’! A good cook’s worst nightmare!

The following day the cooled cakes were stripped of the paper, pricked all over with a knitting needle,’fed’ with whiskey and placed in an airtight tin. Over the following weeks  we had a weekly ritual of ‘feeding the cakes’ and replacing the greaseproof paper!

Similar preparation of fruit took place some weeks later when the Christmas puddings were made. A stale loaf was laboriously made into breadcrumbs. A bottle of stout was added to the mixture which made mixing easier for smaller people and we all ‘had a go’. The well-stirred mixture was placed on double layers of  large  squares of cotton –  old sheets  made excellent pudding cloths- the corners were gathered up and tied securely for boiling, resulting in a beautiful round pudding!   Christmas was forgotten about then until about a week before when the Yule Log was baked as were my mother’s speciality – ‘Snowballs’. These were rounded balls of cake mixture, baked, then covered in jam and  rolled in shredded coconut – they always looked wonderfully tempting!   The two rich fruit cakes  were iced (two cakes as my younger brother had a birthday on Christmas Day and he was the only member of the family to have a birthday cake)  and decorated.  Then there was the marzipan to make – we smaller ones could not help with this as it was a very stiff mixture of ground almonds and sugars, but it looked lovely when done! About three days before Christmas we had the Royal Icing  that was spread all over the marzipan-ed cakes  and we enjoyed placing lovely little silver balls and little snowmen and  tiny Christmas trees into the icing. The Birthday cake usually had  less seasonal characters stuck into the royal icing, but always had NOEL piped o the surface, for that is my brother’s name .

Some days before Christmas the turkey arrived – alive. It  had to be dispatched and hung for several days then ‘cleaned’. Our next door neighbour Katie Ward did the plucking and it was great to watch her do it as she expertly pulled out all the feathers and then singed the skin with a taper to get rid of the very last signs of a feather. On one occasion, when I was quite small I was given the job of carrying the turkey to her house. Carrying it  by the legs with the long neck and head trailing down, wings flapped open, I  was followed by a dog who wanted to eat it.  He got hold of the head as I went in the gate. I climbed onto the wall and tried to hold the turkey up high so the dog could not reach my precious cargo. I was rescued when my roars for help were heard!

Excitement was now really building and we knew it was close when a strangely costumed man with face covered would burst into our kitchen (front doors were always open) and frighten the lives out of us. He was closely followed by a troupe of Mummers all well disguised, who rhymed their way through a performance  in which there was a narrator, two bragging men who  took part in a fight and various other characters.  One of the protagonists dies as a result of having a sword plunged into him, but is revived by a Doctor who demands money. Most of the characters are long forgotten , but I do recall a few. There was  Belzebub) and there was Jack Straw – ‘Here come I, Jack Straw, Such a man you never saw! and my favourite ‘Here comes I, Wee Divil Doubt, The biggest wee divil that ever came out’

Also in the days just before Christmas Carol Singers would arrive. They stopped outside the door, sang a few carols and hoped they might get a few pence in appreciation..they usually did!

Christmas Eve was a busy day –  my father would bring home  a Christmas tree that would be put up in the upstairs sitting- room and decorated with tinsel strips and tinsel ornaments.   He also brought lots of  berried holly and sprigs would be pushed in behind hanging pictures in every room.  Paper chain decorations were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen.  Stuffing for the turkey(or goose)  would be made to be ready for Chrsitmas morning – more grating of a stale loaf to make breadcrumbs! This delicious mix of breadcrumbs, onions, butter and parsley  would have to be put out of reach  so we would not eat it all up!

It was impossible to get to sleep with excitement and we were under constant threat if we did not go to sleep Santa wouldn’t come – this only added to the angst and ensured that we would not get to sleep for hours! But on Christmas morning we woke very early  to find that Santa had in fact called and there would be something either on the bed or on the floor by the bed. A doll, a meccano set, a toy train, a button accordion, a jig saw – usually one toy each plus an annual or a book and a red net stocking filled with Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Bliss!  The discovery was usually made in teh early hours, and needless to say we had to run and wake the entire house to announce what Santa had brought!

Then it was up for 8 o clock morning mass . We walked the mile or so to the Church and one of the loveliest memories I have is of a house at the end of the village street with a tall candle burning in every window – a magical site on a dark morning. And so to the chapel to hear the choir accompanied by the big organ give an almighty rendition of Adeste Fideles and Silent Night! It was Christmas!

Lunch was served about 1 o’clock and consisted of a delicious clear turkey soup made from the neck and giblets of the turkey, that had been bubbling away all morning on the Stanley No. 7  Range!

Our Christmas dinner was served much later at about 4.30 pm. On the menu was roast turkey (or goose)  delicious  parsley and onion bread stuffing, brussel sprouts (cooked in true Irish tradition for the best part of an hour, until they  fell apart- not to be recommended in these modern ‘al-dente’ times!) and mashed potato. In north Donegal our name for the rather genteel sounding ‘mashed potato’ was in fact the very descriptive ‘poundies’!  The entire meal was enveloped in my mother’s absolutely fabulously delicious white sauce, made with cornflour and milk and butter and parsley.  After our meal we tucked into the Christmas pudding that was always served with hot milk poured over.  Yummy!

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My 3 year old brother blows out the candles on his birthday cake,Christmas Day 1955

 A little while later it was time for cake – big triangles of beautifully moist cake topped with hard sweet icing were served – how we managed to eat it is a wonder in itself!

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Tucking into the huge box of chocolates. The Christmas tree in the background is decorated with tinsel

Later in the evening we had a huge box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The big box had a beautiful scene on its padded cover – a snowy mountain scape or a Santa scene. What luxury!

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The Christmas guests 1955, in front of the fire, with my father in the centre. I think that the man on the left may be O’Donnell, possibly John? and the man on the extreme right may be Ward from the south of the County.

On some Christmases  we had guests at our table – people who worked locally perhaps and who could not get home to their families for Christmas  for many reasons – they may have not had the transport and there was no public transport to speak of, and they may only have had one day off work, so would have had to make the round trip in one day.

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My father, just a few days after his 34th birthday, enjoying and sharing the poetry of Robert Service on 25 December 1955.

After dinner my father would sit in his chair and recite from The Collected Works of Robert Service  and transport us to the snow-covered wilderness of the Yukon. He laughed heartily  as he read his two favourite poems:  The Shooting of Dan McGrew  (featuring a lady  that’s known as Lou!)  and The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
The only Christmas of my childhood for which we have pictures is this one in 1955. We have 5 photographs in all, and 4 of them are shown here. (the remaining one is of my 3 year old sibling trying to light up a cigarette in behind the sofa!)
This post was inspired by Pauleen at Family History Across the Seas who  in her blog invited her readers to join in with the Christmas Geneameme. It sent me off delving into my family traditions and I am delighted to have had the chance to record a typical Christmas for my family.
There is indeed something about Christmas…

25 Comments

Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland

25 responses to “There’s Something about Christmas

  1. Wonderful nostalgia SV, thank you. The young ones these days don’t believe me when I tell them that the tree and decorations went up on Christmas Eve. (I’ll reblog this but it’s still far to early :-))

  2. Such a delightful post. Thankyou so much for sharing your memories.

  3. crissouli

    This is so beautiful … I feel as if I have spent a Christmas with you all..thank you for taking us back to your house for Christmas and allowing us to savour your memories. Dear Noel, I hoped he shared his birthday cake… and did the children stay awake in the afternoon with all that whiskey in the cake and pudding?

    • Thanks Chris – oh yes – the birthday cake was shared !
      We were kind of ‘whiskey- proofed at a young age from sneaking a bit of ‘soaked’ fruit out when noone was looking and licking the spoon that was used to drizzle it over the cake. I knew that warm feeling from an early age,so come Christmas day we were able to take it! By the way the only alcohol in our house at Christmas was in the cakes and pudding!

  4. I truly felt I was with you on this trip down memory lane. Your story was so evocative and in many ways quite familiar. I could readily imagine the days unfolding. My mother was lucky enough to have a Sunbeam mixer but I have no difficulty understanding the hard work that went into making the cake by hand with just a hand beater. And we too grated breadcrumbs for the pudding (much easier last night when the bread put it in the blender).

    So it’s Ireland we have to thank for our cooked to death vegetables is it ;-) It took us a long time to get past that -in fact not sure my mother has entirely.

    Did you get to lick the bowls after the cooking? That’s a tradition in our house… so much so that when no one is at home the “lick” has to go in a small bowl to keep for the next visit :-)

    Laughed out loud at the dog and turkey story…great mental image.

    Thank you for crediting me with inspiring this post…I’m delighted that you wrote it and shared with all of us.

    May you have a wonderful Chrismas filled with joy and peace.

    Pauleen

  5. Patty Murphy-Medlin

    I really enjoyed reading your Christmas memories (and the photos). Makes me wish I could go back in time and join you all for even just one day!

  6. Pingback: Deck the Halls – Christmas geneameme responses | Family history across the seas

    • Thank you Pauleen. In these days of technology and iPhones and digital cameras, it might be a challenge for younger people to realize that we have very few ‘digital proofs’ of how things were ! Thank you for sending me back into those old albums!

  7. What a wonderful memory of Christmas! It makes me want to go back and remember my Christmas of 1955.

  8. Leith Landauer

    Angela, thank you for taking us back so vividly to Christmases of yesteryear. The toys you mention particularly rang a bell with me. Lots of similarities with my memories of the fifties, tho’ the setting was the bush in SW Australia, and there could be the whiff of smoke from a bushfire. We drove 15 miles in our unreliable car to midnight mass, and sang some lovely Australian carols as well as Adeste Fideles and Silent Night. I greatly enjoyed reading your description of Christmas preparations and seeing your family photos – they are so precious. May you have a very happy Christmas!

    • Leith – Only now catching up after a bit of an ‘out of office’ over past few weeks. Glad you enjoyed the post. We too had whiffs of smoke from our hand cut turf fire and it was usually fairly cool at this time of year. Its’s great how traditions pass across the miles and down the generations. Happy New year to you and yours and thank you for your comment

  9. Lyn

    Thankyou for writing this Angela. I loved the journey, I really felt like I was there with you. The one thing that struck me in the photos was the clothing. You brother has shorts on in the middle of winter and the men are in suits and ties, a formality unfamiliar to me in my Australian childhood. The ywere reserved for going out to formal occasions or a trip to the city. Fantastic photos!

    • Hi Lyn. Thank you for your most welcome comment. In those days boys wore short trousers all of the time – with knee high woollen socks in winter . I think my brother had his first pair of long trousers for Confirmation when he was about 11 and I vaguely remember the event and the promise of it . I suppose boys were always falling over – easier to repair a knee than to repair holes in trousers every other day! All Irishmen seemed to have a suit, regardless of background and social status. All the very best to you for 2013 and thank you for your visits to my blog – much appreciated. Angela

  10. Really loved this! Read it out loud to my Irish hubby (member of a family with generations of bakers) and he loved hearing about the cake. Wants to make one now! He shared this on Facebook, too, by the way.
    I had my big surprise at the end, with the mention of R. Service. Back in the late 70’s or so, our local Florida library was discarding books too worn to keep. One was an odd little tome of poetry, which I still own. My dad was in the military in Alaska and the poems mostly gave him the chills; but me? I love chills and The Cremation of Sam McGee is one of my favourite poems, ever. What a unique choice for Christmas reading!

    • Thank you for such a lovely comment! I can supply the recipe for that very cake if he would like it ! Thank you for sharing the blog too! Robert Service was such an integral and important part of our house! My father had a wonderful array of poetry that they had to learn by rote at school. These were days before TV, yet we kids (I was 7 then ) knew about the vast wastes of the Yukon even then — not to mention knowing about the likes of ladies named Lou! Thanks so much for such a lovely response and continued success with your blog for 2013.

  11. Good post … Was looking for something recent … Have a good week in Ireland.

  12. Lyn

    Angela, I missed the tea advert last time I read this and just listened to it now – what a wonderful advert, such a change from the usual. :)

  13. Pingback: There’s something about Christmas.. | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

  14. Pingback: SNGF & Deck the Halls Geneameme 2012 Revisited | Family history across the seas

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