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THROUGH THE AGES
Christmas Long Ago

                      CHRISTMAS LONG AGO    Frank Harte

They started preparing for Christmas in October at the first threshing because they had to get the straw to thatch the house. Next job was to dress the cast of meal at the mill, and to have it in the corner of the kitchen. After that they got ready for the whitewashing. But they didn’t go to the shop for the lime. There were people who had lime-kilns and who burned the lime themselves, so they ordered a half-barrel or a full barrel of lime. They knew how many shovels of lime needed per barrel. They whitewashed the house both inside and outside, the stable, the sheds and the walls –the whole lot.

 When the thatching and whitewashing were done, the next thing they set about doing was killing the pig. This was a two- day job; a day killing and curing the meat, and then a day making the puddings. That was a big job- there was a skill to that because the puddings were only three-quarters filled, and as they started cooking and hardening the air started tightening them, and they’d come up to the top of the pot. So you’d have to be there with a sewing needle to prod them and let the air out and you’d have to keep them stirred and twisted with a potstick so they wouldn’t get trapped in the bottom, because if they did, they’d burst and you’d have an awful mess. That was an important job to keep them stirred. Then when the puddings were made they set off delivering the different bits of the pig to the neighbours and especially to the people who didn’t have a pig to kill themselves.

Everyone had friends and family in America that time so the parcels would start coming in November and early December. Curtains and drapes would be in the parcels –they’d be seen from the road so they’d be put up. There’d be a couple of things for the woman of the house and for the kids and a few shirts maybe for himself. The 8th of December was the day for posting off the cards and letters to the U.S.A. and that was non stop, year after year, it had to be the 8th. of December. The postman had a big carrier, front and back-these American parcels were very big. Sometimes they had to go to the Post Office to collect the parcels because he couldn’t carry them all.

That was that much done then- whitewashing, thatching and all that. Then it would be coming up nearer to Christmas and into Christmas week.

There were two markets then-the first one was about three weeks before Christmas for the export market, because they would be sending geese to England to family and friends. Then there was big market day for the home market; and the biggest day of the lot was the day for going to buy the Christmas. It was off in the jennet and cart, ass and cart, or horse and cart; and it was a full day from early morning  to late at night until they got all. There’d be queues outside the shops and they’d all be watching to see what Christmas box they’d get. If they bought a half bottle of whiskey or a naggin, the shopman might give them a full bottle for the same price, or they might get a sweetcake or a dozen of stout or a jar of porter. There were jars in every house that time so they might buy a two gallon jar or a one gallon jar of porter. They’d buy tea, sugar, jam, currants, raisins, spices and lemon peel; a bag of flour, jelly, custard and bag stuff for the cattle. One important thing was polish because the shoes had to be shining no matter what! The woman of the house did all the cooking and it wasn’t easy because during the wars it was hard to get stuff. The flour was black then and here again the Yankee parcels came in useful. There was always silk stockings in the parcels for the ladies and they used the stockings to sieve the flour. They’d get pollard out of it to feed the cattle, pigs and hens; and they had the white flour to make the treacle cake and currant cake. They baked them in the heavy metal oven hanging over the fire.

Then Christmas Eve came and they went to confessions. Sometimes they would go early.

 

The foddering was the big thing and Neddy was the most respected animal that night. On Christmas Eve he got a mám of oats and a gól of hay.

The young ones would be wondering what Santa Claus would bring. That time the small ones would get crayons, pencils, copy books or cap guns; the bigger ones got tin whistles or mouth organs for the wren boys on St. Stephen’s Day. The stockings would be hung; the presents were ready and hidden somewhere; and the young ones would be off to bed in good time after the Christmas supper. Everyone would be at home for the supper; no one would be out that night-everyone was at home. Of course no door was locked that night, in case the Holy Family wanted to pass through.

They decorated the house with holly and maybe little bits of coloured paper, not a lot; there was a red candle in each window and two of them on the table for the supper on Christmas Eve. The candles were lit on Christmas Eve, Christmas Night, St. Stephen’s Night, New Year’s Night and on the Twelfth Night.

Then it was up early on Christmas morning and mass would be around 8 o’clock. Some people would walk 3 or 4 miles, maybe, across fields, through the boreens and byways and if it was a bad morning they would have to put on the boots and have a pair of shoes in a bag to change into at the church. We’d all be looking out for the spailpeens at mass that morning, dressed in their white shirts and long scarves and looking immaculate! They had a grand choir in Garrafrauns that time. Babsy Kenny played the organ; they sang up at the front of the church. I remember Martin Quinn, Bridget Connell, Mary Glynn, John Mullarkey and Nicholas Glynn.

After coming home from mass it was down to business for the woman of the house to get the dinner ready. It was mostly goose they cooked that time – there wasn’t much talk of turkeys and most people reared their own geese. They stuffed the goose with potato stuffing and they ate mashed potatoes and vegetables like cabbage and turnips. After dinner they’d have a stroll around and in the evening the bigger ones would ramble into a neighbour’s house for a few drinks and maybe a game of cards, mostly 25. Some more of them would be off out looking for a wren for St. Stephen’s Day. They’d be searching around the roofs of thatched houses- they’d have torches that they got from Santa Claus. There wasn’t anyplace open of course that day or night but when the Community Centre opened in Garrafrauns in 1967, we got a Drama Group going and we put on a play on Christmas Night.

St. Stephen’s Day was visiting day. They’d be up in the morning feeding cattle and sheep. One man would be out in the field and he’d see one of his neighbours and he’d make for him for a chat; then another would meet up with them and they’d go to one of their houses for a few drinks and a cup of tea. They’d go home then and have the dinner. It was mostly leftovers that day- they weren’t hungry and anyway the poor woman wouldn’t be fit to cook. Of course, two or three days later they’d be longing for crubeens and cabbage and spuds! For the young ones it was off out on the wren boys and that’s where you’d hear the Santa Claus whistles and mouth organs. They played or sang and got a few pennies or a couple of sweets or biscuits maybe. Some of the bigger ones went out too. The  lads might dress up as girls and the girls dressed up as men and they were well disguised. They’d get money, and they had that then for going off out that night. They’d be deciding together where they might go. Around here it was Dunmore, Milltown, Cloonfad or Ballindine, and if the night was fine it was to Ballindine or Cloonfad they’d go. The small ones would be off to town the next day with their few pennies and it was in to Mr. Chapman they’d go. He had a haberdashery shop in Castle St, beside Julia Hussey’s shop, and they could get penknives, handballs, torches and comics like the Dandy or Beano or Buck Rogers.

On the Sunday after Christmas they’d go in for a few drinks after mass and they had a chat all about the Christmas. New Year’s Eve was a night to be at home and of course New Year’s Day was a holy day. I think it should never have been done away with. As well as that it was fair day in Dunmore. One more important day was left and that was the Twelfth Day or January 6th.- it was, and still is, a holy day. This was when we lit the twelve “candleens”! Of course at that time they made their own candles. They dipped rushes into grease- probably goose-grease- and they were put standing in a cowpat! Then they lit them; each person in the house picked a candle and they watched to see who would die first and who would last the longest. They said the rosary while the candles burned. That was the last of the Christmas.

It was a special time and once the Twelfth Day was over they looked forward to the springtime. The days were getting a little bit longer-“ fad coiscéim coiligh ar an gcarnán aoiligh” or “the length of a cock’s step on the dung-heap” on to each day after that. They were out fencing; cows were calving and sheep were lambing. They were happier times altogether; less money and no big debts; no cars; we walked or cycled everywhere; we knew our neighbours and had time to talk to them.

 

As told by Frank Harte, Gortnagoyne , to Chris Healy.

January 2004.

 

 "Téann an saol thart mar a bheadh eiteoga air, agus cuireann gach aon Nollaig bliain eile ar do ghualainn."
Life goes as quickly as if it had wings, and each Christmas places another year on your shoulders.


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