Memory of a Childhood Christmas in Ireland

Christmas has always remained in my memory, I suppose because it was such a magical and loving time. For weeks before Christmas, food preparation was in full swing. Mummy would set about making the gigantic Christmas cake and three dozen mince pies. Daddy would spend every spare moment in the Golf Club trying to win a turkey or a special Christmas hamper. Stockpiling of foods and drinks would begin. Large brown glass flagons of Bulmer’s Cidona would be stored on the floor in the pantry under the stairs, green bottles of 7-Up would be bought for the “chiselers” while mummy would always have to remind daddy to pick up a bottle of A Winter’s Tale Sherry for granny. My father would receive gifts of bottles of Jameson whiskey and Cork CDC gin and every year we would be given a box of strongly smelling coal tar soap from McCormack’s Coal Merchants near the old west pier. I never thought to ask why we received these gifts from people I had never seen; it was just the way it was.

The Christmas tree would be bought a few days after my older brother’s birthday on December 15. Usually, we would get it from Davis’ shop around the corner of Temple Hill but sometimes we bought it from the narrow little shop with the two high stone steps leading up to it down in Monkstown, near the roundabout. It was always my job to find the Christmas tree stand, a hollow iron tube with three supporting scroll-like legs. Then the bole of the tree would have to be whittled down, by my brother with the small hatchet, out in the back garden, to fit into the tube or, if the bole was too thin, it would be wedged into place with old magazines.

Christmas decorations would be taken down from the attic above the bathtub and my brother would be needed to climb up there. My father would test the two sets of Christmas lights, the wires still wrapped around a rolled up magazine from the previous year. Invariably some of the bulbs of the Disney decorated lights in their old-fashioned egg-cup-sized plastic shades would need replacing, as would a few of the elegantly shaped plain coloured lights.

Orders for the ham and the turkey and a peculiar, gritty, brown spiced beef would be placed with Farren’s down in Blackrock or sometimes further down the Main Street at Grehan’s the butcher, with its old worn wooden chopping blocks and the sawdust liberally sprinkled on the tiled floor. The Galtee rashers and Hafner’s sausages and black and white pudding, and the kidneys would, of course, be bought up in Rheinhart’s or Hicks in Dun Laoghaire. My mother never did all her shopping in any one shop or supermarket, but would distribute her trade among a dazzling variety of places in both Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire which always made going shopping with her an exhausting business. God help you, if she sent you out alone with two pound notes wrapped up in a shopping list and you bought everything in one of the new supermarkets coming on stream then at that time in Dublin!

Christmas Eve followed a routine. Twice the amount of potatoes – half for mash and the other half to be roasted with the turkey – had to be peeled and left standing overnight in a large pot of cold water out in the scullery. The fires had to be set, but not lit, in the drawing room and in the dining room. The mahogany table in the dining room had to be dusted with Johnson and Johnson wax polish before one of the “good” linen, lacy tablecloths was put on. Then the heavy, gilt-edged place mats would be placed around the table for the six of us while the heavy box of silverware cutlery had to be pulled out from under the sideboard and every piece polished along with the silver table candelabra and the silver sauceboats. Then, they all had to be washed in hot water and dried carefully to prevent watermarks forming. Usually my sisters would have to attend to all of that while my brother and I were in charge of the potatoes and last minute urgent messages up or down to the shops. Everything always had a sense of urgency about it which all added to the Christmas thrill.

Short quarrels would break out among my two sisters and brother -all older than me – waiting impatiently for their turn in the one bathroom, one or other of them impatiently opening the door of the kitchen cupboard and feeling the huge copper tank of the old hot-water immersion heater and complaining that the other was using all the hot water. I was always the last to get my bath as I wasn’t going anywhere on Christmas Eve.
Instead, mummy would give me one of daddy’s or my brother’s, rugby socks and I would pin it up on the wooden mantelpiece in the drawing room beside my sister’s stocking, the elder two siblings too old for that kind of thing. A small tray, with a home-made mince pie, a bottle of Guinness Stout and a small glass of whiskey on it, had to be prepared and left out for the imminent arrival of Santa later that evening

Then, sitting excitedly in the kitchen, watching Bonanza on TV while my mother made last minute, endless preparations and my father sat by himself at the card table playing intricate games of Patience and Solitaire while he waited for my mother to finish whatever she was doing so that they could play their nightly game of gin rummy.

I’d twitch aside the kitchen window curtain sometimes to spot Santa on his sleigh or, even more magical, to see the snow swirling down in the orange glow of the street lights along Monkstown Road.

Up early the next morning, vague memories of my brother sitting on the edge of the bed the previous night, smoking a forbidden cigarette before flicking the butt out the window into the rhododendrons below. My father would shake us awake in the cold darkness by 6:45a.m. but no complaining was allowed on Christmas morning. Waiting downstairs in the hall for my mother, who was invariably the last to come down the stairs, I would just have time to peek into the closed drawing room to ensure that Santa had actually come in the middle of the night, appreciated the thoughtful offerings and that my stocking was bulging.

Then the brisk walk, led by my father, down to the church in Blackrock for the 7:30 mass. Numbed by the cold and the eerie quietness of the hour, our breath hanging in the still air, the church was alive with whispers and murmurs, the altar ablaze with candles and flowers, the air thick with the smell of incense, the priests resplendent in their heavy, embroidered robes, solemnity on everyone’s face, Children, smaller than me, unable to restrain themselves, squirming in the hard wooden pews whispering “Is it over yet? is it nearly over yet?”. The long, tortuously slow, queue for communion, people edging in and out of their pews while we waited our turn and then finally the priest would intone “The Mass is over, Go in peace” to which the congregation would respectfully reply “Thanks be to God”!

It would take an age to shuffle out of the church, dipping the tips of our fingers into the freezing holy-water fount in the vestibule and then stepping out into the cold still dark air, greeting well-wishing neighbours and relatives before heading back home, up Temple Hill, the excitement mounting for the day ahead.

Hats and coats off and put upstairs in the bed rooms to leave room in the pantry for visitors coats and scarves, but still no time for present opening, and then mummy would disappear upstairs to do her hair while my father took charge of the scullery, a linen dish cloth tucked into the front of his trousers, his collarless shirt open at the neck. The large kettle would be put on for tea while I would finish setting the breakfast table in the kitchen. Halved chilled grapefruit, each segment carefully loosened with a serrated paring knife, sweetened with a dusting of castor sugar, a red cherry in the centre, would be placed in glass bowls and put at each place setting. Daddy would light the oven and start the massive fry of bacon and sausages, eggs, black and white pudding, mushrooms, kidney, sliced tomatoes, the lot kept warm in the hot oven, the day outside slowly brightening. Waiting for mummy, my father would impatiently jerk open the kitchen door and go out into the hall to shout up the stairs to his wife “Shall I take the mea?” This was a common spoonerism, along with “Shall I take the most” that we all understood but which only served to irritate my mother who never understood what he was saying but who never failed to respond. She’d open the bathroom door and demand to know what was he talking about.

Finally breakfast, and with a flourish, daddy would serve us all, mummy snapping “mats, mats, mats” for the plates, red hot to incautious fingers. Cups of hot tea, Yorkshire Relish liberally sprinkled on the fry, runny egg yolks mopped up with crisp fried bread. As soon as breakfast was over, everyone had a job to do. Someone had to do the washing up, someone else had to dry and put away everything, then the two fires in the drawing and dining rooms had to be lit, ice put in the plastic pineapple ice bucket on the trolley in the dining room along with the ginger ale (for the whiskey), tonic water and the Mi-Wadi orange squash (for the gin). Then glasses and tumblers needed to be laid out on the sideboard and the oven in the scullery turned on to preheat for the turkey. The ham had to be taken out of the water in which it had been steeping overnight and rinsed in cold, fresh water and then put on to cook gently, steaming up the windows in the scullery.

Daddy commandeered the bathroom to shave, affix his collar to his starched white shirt and Brylcreme his hair, while mummy closed herself up in her bedroom to, yet again, get ready. Last minute ironing of pleated skirts would be carried out by my eldest sister, while my brother and I would wrestle with starched new shirts. Someone would be pounding on the toilet door, mixing accusations of whoever was inside of reading to desperate pleading that they were “bursting” and all the time, the pressure and excitement continued to mount among the increasing bustle of our Christmas morning.

To release some of this pressure – and to keep me from under their feet – my sister and I were now allowed to open the Christmas stocking presents, but on no account to touch the brightly wrapped packages and parcels under the Christmas tree by the drawing room window. Cheap, wind-up toys, made in Hong Kong, and bought in Hector Grey’s, off Henry Street in Dublin, Dinky and Matchbox cars, plastic bracelets, hard sweets and Urney chocolate bars barely dented our fierce anticipation.

No presents could be opened until we were all assembled in the drawing room and the turkey had finally been put into the oven. A week or so before Christmas, Daddy had given me a few pounds to buy presents for my brother and sisters well as giving me a present – usually a heavy brass figurine – to give to mummy. Now, sitting on the couch in the drawing room, the heat from the fire, the twinkling of the Christmas tree lights, the chocolate already eaten on top of the huge breakfast, the imminence of present giving made me almost sick with excitement. Not only were there the presents from mummy and daddy, but also from my sisters and brother, granny, my Godmother, and from different aunts and uncles. In addition, there were also the communal presents of large tins of Quality Street sweets and flat tins of Butter Shortbread.

And then mummy would finally come down the stairs and daddy would insist on her having a small whiskey and ginger before anything else could be done. At last, reaching under the tree, he would lift up the first present and make a great show of squinting at the label on it before reading out loud the gift card sellotaped to it. The frantic tearing off the paper to reveal jig-saws, Mechano sets, Lego, storybooks, Christmas Annuals of The Beano and other popular comics, The Guinness Book of World Records, sets of cuff-links for my brother, Switzer’s vouchers for my sisters, torches with coloured plastic overlays, board games of Cluedo and Checkers, new shirts, fleece-lined pyjamas. The big moment, of course was when daddy gave his present to mummy. We all knew that the success of that particular gift would make or break our Christmas Day. There would be an involuntary silence while daddy would present a carefully wrapped package to her. Sometimes it would be a large flat package which, when opened, would reveal another smaller one inside that and so on until finally Mummy, with a great show of exasperation, would demand to know was she getting anything at all.

Looking back now, I can’t remember the hits and misses that must have occurred over the years. I do remember the elegant bracelet, each slender, oblong green stone encased in fine gold links and the looks of joy and happiness that passed among us all. And then, “Cripes, the turkey”, daddy would shout and rush off to the kitchen to baste the slowly roasting turkey with hot oil.

My sister gave daddy one of the first small, pocket electronic calculators I had ever seen and we amused ourselves by calling out involved sums to daddy which he would do in his head faster than our clumsy fingers could tap the numbers into the display. “Bloody thing!” he’d claim, proudly “Sure, can’t I do all of that stuff in my own noggin just as well?” Months later, I noticed that he always kept it in the breast pocket of his suit for ease of constant access!

By 12 noon, the first visitors arrived. We didn’t have a car, so we never went anywhere on Christmas Day. Instead, uncles and aunts, cousins and neighbours would drop in for Christmas drinks and to exchange presents, if they hadn’t already dropped them off in the days preceding Christmas. “How art thou?” mummy would archly greet the menfolk. Granny, in her high heeled, black, buttoned boots, diminutive in an armchair, clutching her glass of Winter’s Tale, a morose aunt in a coat with a fur-trimmed collar, sipping a small whiskey and ginger, a jocular uncle in a mustard coloured waistcoat, his hands tucked under the flap of his loud check jacket, warming his backside at the fire, a large gin and tonic on the mantelpiece beside him, a thickset uncle, reminding me a badger, a white streak in his thick head of hair, a twinkle in his eye belying the severity of his look, cuddly aunts, smelling of perfume and sherry, the sweet tang of pipe tobacco, the roars of cousins racing up and down the hallway and stairs, a tall uncle with a beaky nose coming out into the hallway to bellow “Shout quietly, or I’ll knock the block off the lot of you” before helping himself to another whiskey in the dining room.

Just as suddenly as they had all come, they were gone and the job of picking up the torn wrapping paper – mummy always wanted to save it while daddy would order me to throw “the bloody lot out, for cryin’ out loud”.

On the second basting of the turkey, daddy managed to splash his wrist with the hot oil and an enormous, painful blister immediately developed. I was amazed at his stoicism until I overheard my brother whisper to my sister that he was fluthered. The kitchen – the heart of the house – was unnaturally quiet and empty, the smell of the roasting turkey and the gently cooking ham and spiced beef flavouring the room. As suddenly as the bustle had begun, quiet descended with mummy and daddy going upstairs for a snooze, after giving strict instructions about putting on the potatoes and preparing the vegetables for a late dinner at 5:30 or so.

A second round of visitors would arrive then for my older brothers and sisters. The drawing room would fill with the smell of cigarette smoke, bottles of Smithwicks beer and Harp Lager would appear. I sat, half hidden, at the top of the stairs, peeping down at my sister kissing a tall, dark, saturnine boy in the hall under the mistletoe while I nibbled home made traditional mince pies.

The dining room table had to be checked, fresh mustard made in a tiny blue dish which sat inside its own silver pot. My brother would carefully open a bottle of red wine for my parents and make sure that there was enough white wine in the fridge. No shortages of anything could be tolerated on Christmas Day

Mummy and daddy would come downstairs, looking refreshed after their afternoon snooze and my father would carefully stoke up the fire in the drawing room so that there would be a good blaze there when we returned after dinner. Mummy would cautiously stir her home-made parsnip soup and adjust the season while daddy would have another small whiskey before dinner to take the edge off his appetitie (he used to claim) so that he could enjoy the dinner the more!

Then, when we were all ready and set, the lights would be dimmed, the candles lit and mummy and my sisters would start carrying in the food from the kitchen. Turkey on a huge oval platter decorated with sprigs of holly, crisp roast potatoes in a bowl of their own, creamy, fluffy mashed potatoes with a glaze of brown sugar in another, moist Brussel sprouts adding colour to the carrots cooked with honey and brown sugar, peas glistening with melted butter, the round Irish ham studded with cloves, spiced beef, pink and rare in the centre, crusty and brown around the edges, candlelight glinting off daddy’s precious Waterford crystal glasses, our plates loaded with everything we desired, and always plenty more to come. When we could eat no more and the dinner plates had been cleared away, the candles blown out, my brother and mummy disappeared back to the kitchen to reappear with the plum pudding on its special Christmas plate. My brother had carefully poured a small glass of brandy over the pudding and just as mummy carried it into the dining room, he would light it with a match so that the round hump of the pudding was wreathed in exquisite blue flames as the liquor burnt off. Of course we were all far too stuffed – had sufficient, mummy would attempt to get us to say – to even attempt a serving so the pudding, after being admired by all was carried back to the kitchen and stored for the following Easter! Instead, the fruit and sherry trifle would be carried in by my sister. A light sponge base, doused in sweet sherry and loaded with fruit suspended in jelly topped with fresh, whipped cream, we could always find room for a few spoonfuls. Daddy would make the coffee in the rarely used percolator and allow us all to have a tiny glass of liqueur – coffee-flavoured Tia Maria, honey infused firey Drambuie, or the sweet orangeness of Cointreau.

The tedious task of clearing the table and washing all the plates, bowls, dishes, cups, silverware and glasses was divided up amongst us all. Once again, everybody had a job to do, picking up and tidying because, as mummy used to say, ”You’d never know what dog, cat or divill might drop in on top of us.”

Back from the chill of the unheated kitchen and scullery and into the warmth of the drawing room where the flames were just beginning to lick through the coal slack daddy had heaped on the fire before dinner. A fresh tea-towel would be laid on the low coffee table and the Christmas game of poker would begin. Almost a rite of passage, it was not a game I was allowed to play as a child. Daddy took poker seriously and showed no mercy to mummy or anyone else as he bluffed, raised or bet. Woe betide anyone who mis-called their hand of cards. I remember, sitting on the arm of his armchair, when someone, in an attempt to theatrically raise the tension of a winning hand, called out their opener as two pair when fours were actually held. Daddy insisted on enforcing strict rules and a declared hand was entitled to that value only. Tears and apologies were brushed aside and no quarter was given in a cut and thrust game of family friendly poker. “Sure, if you can’t afford to lose the money, you shouldn’t be playing the game in the first place” was daddy’s hard maxim. Looking back now, I see it as an attempt to prepare us all for the harsh realities that we might well face outside the security of our own family. Hard lessons were learned by us all but, for us all, it was still a part of Christmas.

Exhausted by the excitement of the long day, sated with rich food, bloated with fizzy apple Cidona and Seven-Up, giddy from the strength of the liqueur, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as the carriage clock on the drawing room mantelpiece ticked away the minutes remaining on Christmas day. Gathering up my books and games and toys, the Airfix models sets, the Mechano, Lego boxes, coloured-light torches, teddy bears, the new shirts still in their cardboard boxes, I often needed a strong extra arm to help me upstairs to bed. And then the pleasure of finding, last thing of all, that someone had remembered to put a hot-water bottle into my bed. Drifting off into warm sleep, my last thought would be that the next day would be just as good

Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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