This year when so many of us are apart, our memories of Christmases past will bring us all great comfort.
Here, four of our Weekend columnists - Darina Allen, Louise O'Neill, Michelle Darmody and Pat Fitzpatrick share their favourite festive stories. It's just the nostalgia we need in 2020.
For all of us, Christmas evokes a multitude of memories. Mine have come flooding back, I’m back sitting around the kitchen table in my childhood home in Cullohill, Co.Laois with several of my brothers and sisters, pencil and rubber in hand, earnestly writing our letters to Santa.
Mummy with her silver grey hair woven into a plaited bun, multitasking and hovering around answering our endless questions “How do I spell…? “What will I ask for?” Later, I often wonder where all those letters went after we solemnly posted them in the village Post Office.
On Christmas Eve we ransacked the house squabbling and looking for the biggest socks to put at the end of our beds for Santa to fill. This was when we were overjoyed to find that Santa had put a tangerine into one of our Christmas stockings, our favourite… Maybe there would be a ‘cap’ gun, a ‘Dinky’ car, plasticine, crayons, maybe a colouring book or a favourite comic Annual – Bunty or June for the girls. Tiger, Victor, Topper, Hot Spur or Dandy for the boys.
Remember Desperate Dan and Denis the Menace and his dog Gnasher…
Christmas was not so commercial then, yet the excitement gradually built up into a frenzy of anticipation with lots of ‘milestones’ punctuating the months and weeks leading up to the day itself. We were aware of every aspect of the preparations. Daddy would order the Bronze turkey and a goose from a local farmer’s wife. They would arrive several weeks ahead, New York dressed and then they would be hung by the feet in the cold shed (this was pre rural electrification).
Our family also owned a grocery shop and post office in the village.
The post office was very busy before Christmas and not just for greeting cards… As children we were intrigued to see people from our local parish arriving at the Post Office before Christmas with turkeys and geese, ducks and chickens, sewn into ‘flour bag’ parcels with a label dangling from their necks addressed to their relatives in the city. Can you imagine! This by the way was before refrigeration – but they duly arrived at their destination and were enjoyed, fine and tasty on Christmas Day.
I also remember the palpable excitement when Christmas parcels arrived from America with the ‘makings of the cake’ for families who had relatives in the US. After Mass on Advent Sundays before Christmas, talk amongst all the women would be “How did the cake turn out?” – a very serious topic when dried fruit, cherries and candied peel were an expensive luxury and everyone had just one shot at making the cake each year.
Mum would specially wait until we came home from the village school so we could all get involved - washing the glacé cherries, deseeding muscatel raisins, chopping and peeling – everything had to be done from scratch then, and of course it was an advantage to have a few more hands around to help to cream the butter, line the cake tin and stir the plum pudding. That was super exciting because we each had to make a wish, eyes tightly shut, before the fruity mixture flecked with suet was packed into white Delph bowls and covered with greaseproof paper, “don’t forget to overlap it in the centre to allow the pudding to expand”.
Little fingers held the knot to secure the twine handle tightly. Best of all the tradition in our house was to eat the first plum pudding on the night it was made. The Christmas season had begun and without doubt my mother’s plum pudding recipe (inherited from my grandmother and great-grandmother) is the best any of us have ever tasted and I’m not just being nostalgic. If you don’t believe me, try it this year and I’ll be expecting a flood of cards and emails after Christmas.
Icing the cake closer to Christmas was even more exciting. First it was enrobed in a layer of homemade marzipan, allowed to dry in the kitchen overnight. We added a few drops of glycerine to the fluffy royal icing ‘to keep it soft’. The best bit was dabbing the icing with a palette knife to make a snow scene. The cake decorations were retrieved from the old chocolate box, Santy and his sleigh, a couple of reindeers, a fir tree and finally a little tub of silver dragons.
The cake would take pride of place, on the sideboard in the ‘sitting room’ until Christmas Eve when we would all argue about who got the chance to cut in the first slice.
And then there was the trifle, Mum’s trifle was legendary, read all about it in my column on page 30.
There are still so many more memories but I must stop soon.
Expeditions to collect berried holly, long strands of ivy and kindling for the fire, down the hill to Bill Walsh’s barn for a wisp of hay to decorate the Crib. When the Christmas tree arrived we danced around with excitement – a real tree of course, and again lots of squabbling about which of us would get to decorate the tree with the assortment of miscellaneous baubles collected over decades, each with a story. Last but not least, we clipped on the candle holders, lit the candles and sang a few little Christmas carols in our melodious children’s voices – no fairy lights then but the magic of twinkling candles.
Much anticipated Christmas shopping expeditions into Kilkenny, clasping hard-earned savings from our piggy banks were also a seasonal highlight. Those trips were followed by hours of happy present wrapping, often in paper saved from the previous year. I suppose there must have been some little disappointments but I have totally erased them from my mind and have had much joy focusing on happy memories of Christmas over the years.
Read the recipes that remind Darina Allen of her childhood in her column.
When people talk about the television they watch on Christmas Day, I always feel slightly jealous.
My sister and I never had time to sit in front of the telly. My parents invited neighbours and friends in on Christmas morning for drinks, then we would visit my aunt’s house and my father’s parents before driving to Ahearla to spend the night with my Granny and Granddad Murphy. Over Home, as we called it, smelled of orange skins thrown onto the roaring fire and the rustle of sweet wrappers as my granddad worked his way through a box of toffees and the clink of beer bottles as my uncles slumped on the couch in the parlour, multicoloured paper crowns worn low on their foreheads. I would take one of the half-dozen books I’d found stuffed in my stocking and settle into a corner to read. But the Christmas of 1997 was proving to be a very different proposition. A ferocious storm meant that 4,500 houses in West Cork alone were without electricity, and we were one of them.
Mom and Dad hobbled together a dinner – the turkey cooked in Fernhill House Hotel, vegetables prepared on a gas cooker that you might bring on a camping trip – and invited our neighbours to spend the day with us, singing songs and telling jokes by candlelight. We had made our peace with the fact that we wouldn’t make it Over Home, not this year. We would simply have to break tradition. But as the clock edged later and later, I could feel a twinge of regret. When it was just past 11pm, we looked at my mother and she looked back at us and she said, “is it too late, do you think?” And we rushed upstairs, throwing pyjamas and toothbrushes into bags, piling into the car in haste.
She drove slower than she ordinarily would have, wary of fallen down trees, flooded ditches. In the back seat, I held my breath. As the car turned in the lane, the farmhouse coming into sight, I checked the clock. 11.57. We would make it just before midnight, I thought. We would make it.
We had a perfectly good room that we never used in our house when I was growing up in Kinsale, a ‘Good Room’ that we called the sitting room. My parents decided this was a ridiculous state of affairs, so they put an extension on it. So now we had an even bigger, perfectly good room that we never used. Except, that was, for Christmas.
Every year on Christmas Eve, we’d de-camp into this sitting room. The tree would be there, the telly moved in, the sofa turned around, the fire cleaned and ready for action. Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, I’d spend about 80% of my indoors time in that room. I remember playing Connect 4 with my sisters, eating Scots Clan, watching black and white World War 2 movies at 11 in the morning, Tanora, Tayto, another World War 2 Movie around 3, BBC Radio 2 on the long wave radio on Stephen’s Day to keep in touch with Man United, getting third-degree burns off the fire but not caring because of all the Tayto, Tanora and Scots Clan.
But mainly I remember going in there Christmas morning around 4am to check out if Santa had come and gone. He had. Myself and my sister would spread out around the enlarged sitting room and play with our toys. I remember my parents would never get up with us at 4am, probably because it was the 1970s and parents didn’t fuss about their kids as much.
The Good Room is a joke now in Ireland, ever since David McWilliams made what seems like an entire TV series about it. But our Good Room was magic. We’d close the door on it in early January every year and say goodbye for another 11 months. That room was our Christmas.
I am the oldest of five siblings. Anyone growing up in a large family will know the extra pleasure you got, as a child, at being allowed to stay up later than the others, it felt special and very grown-up. For a few evenings in the run-up to Christmas every year I was allowed to do just that.
Myself and my father would make Christmas Sweets. This entailed me looking through cookbooks in the days before, finding old recipes for bright and colourful mini treats. Sometimes we would simply make clutters of nuts and dried fruit in chocolate, dropped into a sheet of baking parchment, or some peppermint fondants half dipped in dark chocolate. We also made coconut iced pyramids with a drop of cochineal to make them a dusty pink. One year we made fudge and had to wait for what felt like ages for the bubbling sugar to reach the correct temperature on our newly bought sugar thermometer. One year we attempted Turkish Delight, even after what felt like a mountain of gelatine it did not quite set and was not as tasty as the wonderfully perfumed Hadji beys we got in the English Market. After the sweet making sessions came to an end, we would box the treats up and give them as Christmas gifts. I remember nervously bringing a box into my teacher, worried that my handmade box looked childish and the magic of sweet making faded as I handed the teacher my offering. She declared "how domesticated". I sat squirming in my chair for the rest of the school day until I could get home to my mother and ask what domesticated meant. To this day I am still unsure if it was a compliment or not.