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White-Washed Walls
by Annie Dunne, Rathcoole, Co. Dublin, 1920s

In the 1920s when I was a little girl Christmas was a lot different for us children than it is for the children of today. We got no expensive toys. Actually if our parents had the money that some of these toys cost, they would consider themselves very rich indeed. Nevertheless we were very happy and very excited about Christmas. In fact, we'd be counting the weeks and days for months beforehand.

A few days before Christmas the grocery boy would arrive in a horse and cart or dray as a horse cart was called at that time. Before he came into the house he would hang a little bag of oats on the horse's head to keep him quiet while he was coming into the house. He would carry a large box in and put it on the table. There was always a huge big coloured candle in it. There would also be currants and raisins, spice and candied peel. All the ingredients for the pudding and cake. Next day my mother made a big fire in the grate and hung on the pot-oven, then she made the cake and put it in the pot. The lid would be put on then and lots of red hot embers piled on top of it. I always loved the smell of the cake baking in the pot-oven and can still remember the raisins bursting up through the top of the cake when she raised the lid. We usually gathered sticks in the woods for the baking. During the previous week my mother would have white-washed the kitchen walls. On Christmas Eve my mother or father would go out to the woods and bring in great bundles of holly and ivy. This my mother would put up behind the pictures and on top of the dresser.

Before Christmas too an old man often came, he carried a bag on his back. We called him Martin McCann the Rabbit Skin Man. We called him that because he collected dried out rabbit skins and my parents kept some for him if they had any. We were always very excited to see him. He would reach down into his bag and bring out Christmas decorations and pictures called Mottos. The pictures usually had a black shiny background. Some had a picture of Santa Claus with lots of holly and berries and the words 'A Merry Christmas'. There was one I'll always remember. It was a picture of a beautiful woman with lovely children around her and the words 'What is a home without a Mother?' As it was always near night when the old man arrived, my parents would let him stay overnight, sitting by the fire in a big chair. He would start off again on the road the next morning after he'd had something to eat and a cup of tea. My mother would then tack up the new pictures on the clean white wall.

Well, all was ready for Christmas and Santa Claus which made us very excited. We always went to bed early on Christmas Eve and after we were tucked in, our Mammy came in and gave us a small drop of sherry out of an egg cup. I'm sure she thought it would put us to sleep quickly. One time, one of my sisters, who was always thinking of food, said 'Thanks Mammy and I wish you a Happy Christmas dinner'. On one occasion I couldn't go to sleep for a while so I was still awake when my mother tip-toed into the room and rummaged in the press for a few minutes. I didn't let her see that I was awake so I saw her putting a Christmas stocking on my bed and the same on my sister's bed.

It was then I remembered that I had seen her hurrying into the room with something out of the grocery man's box under her apron. I didn't tell my sisters about my secret. But it made me love and appreciate my mother a lot more because I noticed how tired she looked. It was also out of the box she got the sherry. There was also a small bottle of whiskey and some bottles of stout and a Christmas Brack in it. They were presents from the Grocer. They were called the 'Christmas Box'.

On Christmas morning itself we had to be up early as first Mass was at seven o'clock and it was four miles to the chapel. It was a novelty having the oil lamp lighting in the morning time as it was usually only lit at night, but it was still so dark at six o'clock in the morning. For dinner we seemed to have a lot of food on our plates and my father would have a bottle of stout with his dinner as a special treat, we'd have fowl and stuffing and bacon or ham and H.P. sauce. I always remember how hot it tasted.

By the evening of Christmas Day all the little toys out of the Christmas stocking would be broken and thrown about. There would be a bugle and tiny weighing scales, a few sweets and lots of coloured paper. Next Day St. Sephen's Day my father would be out working and Christmas would be over for another year.

Reprinted by kind permission of Merlin Press from a story in "No Shoes in Summer" - a book originally published by Wolfhound Press in Dublin.
Image: From the Kearas Christmas Card Collection. To see all the cards in the series, please click Kearas.


For more of our Holiday Stories click on the following links.
Advent/Christmas Holidays
Time at this Point in the Year
An Advent Memory
Yes, Kelsey and Maddie, there is a Santa Claus
Waiting for St. Nicholas
Christmas - Preparing the Puddings
Christmas - Food for the Feast
An Irish Christmas - Then & Now
An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
Memories of Christmas Eve Past
An Irish Christmas - Ding Dong Merrily On High
Seasons Greetings in Irish
St. Stephen's Day to New Year's Eve
New Year's Day to Epiphany
Many Years Ago by John B. Keane
Rowing to Christmas Mass
Burying the Baby Jesus
An East Cork Christmas

 

Tue, Dec 2, 2014


Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*

Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.

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