Tag Archives: Christmas

Last Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards are said to have originated in 19th Century England when Henry Cole, who later became the first director of  London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and his friend John Horsley designed the first one in 1843.  It had two outer panels showing the better-off bestowing gifts on the poor,  and a large central panel portraying a family  partaking of Christmas fayre. (Even the children enjoy quaffing the mead by the look of it!)

The First Christmas Card

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843

By the 1880s the practice of sending Christmas cards had risen in popularity. The introduction of cheaper postage and development of printing technology meant that cards and postage were within the financial reach of many.  In the USA Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo shows that the practice thrived amid postwar industrialization and the demise of the family farm. ‘‘As people dispersed geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.”

Meanwhile a German immigrant to the United States, Louis Prange produced affordable cards for the mass market and then in 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today.

In recent years the Christmas tradition of sending greeting cards appears to be succumbing to the instant and free communication platforms of social media.  I can recall having a list of 120 or so to write and dispatch perhaps 5 years ago.  It was an ‘excuse’ to greet those who had touched our lives, yet who were no longer in our immediate circle.  It was lovely to hear from them and to know all was well. Now, however,  the cost of postage has become a major consideration, while at the same time the cost of cards continues to decrease with 3 for 2 offers.  We can now purchase Christmas cards for charitable causes dear to our hearts, such as for dogs for the disabled, cancer charities, the homeless and so on, yet in spite of the reduction in the cost of cards, the increased cost of postage has become an issue in continuing the tradition. Who doesn’t love to receive a handwritten envelope containing good wishes?  Christmas cards lined up on the mantel are as much a part of Christmas as the Christmas dinner, but more than that, they are a link with friends and family who and may be far away and may be treasure for family historians.

Two of my most valued possessions are ‘last’ Christmas cards from both of our grandfathers.

For as long as I could remember we each received an individually addressed Christmas card from our maternal grandfather, Gaga Clinton.  He had beautiful handwriting that we recognized so well and inside each card was an eagerly awaited fortune – a Postal Order for ten shillings.

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A ten shilling postal order like this was a ‘lotto win’ for us children

Our Gaga Clinton dropped dead in his kitchen on Saturday December 19, 1959. He had posted the Christmas cards that morning so their arrival at our house in the following week was particularly poignant.

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One of the cards sent by our grandfather on the day he died in 1959

This card was the one sent to our mother by her father  59 years ago and it has become a family treasure.

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Christmas wishes in the 1959 card

Unfortunately the wishes in the card went unrealized as the sorrow of our grandfather’s passing cast a huge cloud on our Christmas.

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Memorial card for our Gaga Clinton

Many years earlier 74 years ago, during the second World War our paternal grandfather posted a Christmas card from Ireland to his eldest daughter, our Aunt May, who was a nun in England.  The card, from Christmas 1943,  was particularly sombre.

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Front of the 1943 Christmas card

The message was particularly apt for the time.

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When our Aunt May died in May 2007, this card was found in her prayer book. Her much loved father died unexpectedly in November 1944, at the age of 59, having contracted Typhoid Fever, so this was the last Christmas card she ever received from him. She must have had the habit of saving Christmas cards for a year, which in this case paid off as she would never receive another.

Christmas cards have a special place in our family history and I have the last cards written to me by my mother and by my father as well as those from aunts. They give a unique insight into the times that were in it, and they are greatly treasured. I for one regret the demise of the personal Christmas card, a card chosen, written, addressed and posted by those who cared about us.  A loss to family history for sure.

References

https://daily.jstor.org/history-christmas-card-holiday-card/

The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.  Micaela Di Leonardo University of Chicago Press
Prang’s Christmas Cards

 

 

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Wren Boys An Irish Christmas Tradition

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout  St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were  small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

The Wren, (An Dreoilín) King of All Birds, depicted on Irish postage stamp.

The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.

In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.

Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal –  whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy  in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.

The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.

Dingle Wren Boys

Dingle Wren Boys. Dingle in County Kerry hosts a world famous Lá an Dreoilín’

Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While  it is no longer a ritual  to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.

This is an edited version of a post from 2011.

References

An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society

The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas  pp131-169 1996/1997.

Comhaltas

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An Irish Christmas from 60 years ago

‘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 next 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 on 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!

The ‘Christmas Box’ was a lovely tradition of the time. Walsh’s owned the main grocery shop in the village, selling fresh bread, butter, loose flour, bacon, loose biscuits, sweets, apples, Irel liquid coffee, Dundee cake and loose tea from the big foil lined tea chests, that had been packed into half pound packages. In the week before Christmas they gave a gift of a half pound of tea, a bag of sugar and possibly a bag of biscuits or a small cake to many of their customers. The ‘Christmas Box’ was greatly appreciated and well received by the recipients who were often of very limited means. It was a lovely tradition that epitomised the spirit of Christmas.

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 Christmas 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 the 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 Mandy Gallagher’s 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 bubbled 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, with a pinch of bread soda 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…

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Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

Only hours to go! The countdown is on! Soon Santa will be loading up and leaving the North Pole for his great journey across the globe with Dasher, Prancer, Dancer,Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and of course Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer! Children of all ages (this writer included) will watch his progress on the internet!

It all began in 1955 when the famous American company, Sears Roebuck, published a telephone number for children to call and speak to Santa. Due to a misprint of the phone number, children were connected to the operations ‘hotline’ of the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). The then director, Colonel Harry Shoup, arranged for children to be given updates by having the radar checked for signs of Santa flying from the North Pole. And so a tradition was born!

Some years later CONAD became the North American Aerospace Defense Command, with Canada and the United States of America joining forces to create an air defence command for North America. NORAD as it is known, decided to keep up the practice of checking their radar and using their advanced technology all across the world, to let children know Santa’s location as he makes his way at terrific speed through the skies. Each year, NORAD staff volunteers reply to thousands of emails and answer the telephone to the tens of thousands of enquiries they receive from children all over the world.

In recent years Santa’s journey can be tracked on the internet and you can join the millions of others who log in to check by clicking here.

He will soon be on his way – Enjoy!
Happy Christmas!

http://www.noradsanta.org

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Irish Christmas tradition lives on

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

On Monday next, January 6, thousands of women across Ireland will gather to celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Womens Christmas.

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night, Women’s Christmas,  Women’s  Little Christmas, and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’ is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern Church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January, whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night, which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

21 years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Galway women are having poetry recitals, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue to grow and grow!

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

This post was first published in January 2012.

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Santa: Making glad the heart of childhood

 

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

English: Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create another illustration in 1881. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time was published in the The New York Sun in 1897, and was the work of Francis Pharcellus Church. Each Christmas I seek out this editorial  to read, for it is a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas  to all of us former children who no longer write letters to Santa. Which one of us will ever forget the magic of waking to find that Santa had called while we slept, and left unimaginable treasures by our beds,or under the tree, or in the living room? –  Perhaps a train set, perhaps a spinning top, perhaps a doll or a book or an orange or a meccano set.Today as my sister and  I talked about this we remembered that Santa left one toy and a book or jigsaw for  the 6 of us –  things that stood out were :  a big humming spinning top, a black push along dog on 4 wheels, a three-note melodeon, my brother’s train set, a doll that cried, a big doll whose arms and legs were joined up by elastic, a jigsaw, a red tin pedal operated car and a big red three-wheeled tricycle.

As we grow older the magic disappears, but it is good to remind ourselves that it is still there in the form of joy and romance and kindness and friendship, not to mention in the faces of enthralled and delighted children at Christmastime. So here it is once again – the story of  8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to the  New York Sun newspaper in September 1897, to ask  Does Santa Exist?  Virginia’s family read this newspaper and set great store by it as an authority on many things. The reply to her letter has stood the test of time.

Dear Editor

I am 8 years old. Some of my little  friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia O'Hanlon

This is Virginia O’Hanlon who posed the challenging question (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The original letter sent asking about the vera...

The original letter sent asking about the veracity of santa claus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Francis Church a journalist,  was asked to reply and his response has appeared in many publications, in films, on stamps, on posters in about a dozen languages  for over a century. His response was :

Francis Pharcellus Church, author of the famou...

Francis Pharcellus Church, author of the famous editorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

The editorial was something of a sensation  and the New York Sun reprinted it every year for over 50 years until the newspaper closed down in 1949.

Original article in The New York Sun

Original article in The New York Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Ireland, as well as in many other countries across the world children will write letters to their cultural  Santa as they have done for decades and they will continue  to do for generations to come and he will continue to make glad the heart not only the heart of childhood, but the hearts of children of all ages. Merry Christmas!

 

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There’s something about Christmas..

Christmas! A perfect celebration for those of us in the northern hemisphere, living in the dark days of winter, with long nights and short days, cool and often freezing weather. Some of us resist the tinsel and glitter and hype for as long as we can, but in the last weeks before the big day we too must succumb to the inevitability of it. Last minute cards, last minute Christmas trees, house decorations and gift purchases all add to the excitement!

In December 2012 I made this post about Christmas in our home which I  am reposting here as it epitomizes all that is Christmas, past and present. I hope you enjoy it!

‘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 whenthe 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 Seaswho  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…
 

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