‘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!
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!
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!
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.
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