It’s a busy time for everyone in the last frantic few days before Christmas — from finding the perfect tree to the perfect present to pop underneath. But what about the craftspeople working hard behind the scenes to make Christmas special?
Jessica Casey talks to the butchers, the bakers and the Christmas card makers, who remind us of the importance of buying Irish
Nothing beats Christmas dinner: the roasties, the stuffing, even the brussel sprouts. But the centrepiece of the day for most people, vegetarians aside, is the feast of turkey and ham.
McCarthy’s in Kanturk has been meeting the demands of Christmas for generations, with a selection of the finest hams, geese and of course, turkies.
Father and son Jack and Tim in McCarthy’s are especially proud of their version of a particular delicacy, indigenous to the Rebel County — the spiced beef.
“Cork people would tell you, it’s not Christmas until you smell the spiced beef,” says Tim McCarthy, adding that a group of butchers are working on getting a denomination for the dish, which would mean it would be recognised as a speciality to the area. A Cork tradition, the brining process behind the beef takes about five weeks in total, before the beef is spiced with cinnamon, allspice and pimento.
“Walk into the shop at this time of year, you’ll get the smell of the cinnamon.” McCarthy’s is busy all year but it’s Christmas when it really kicks off for the fifth generation of this family to run the shop.
“It’s all ramping up now, 100%” says Tim, taking a quick break to speak with the Irish Examiner.
“It’s long days — we’d be working until 10 or 11 at night, loading and getting things ready.”
As well as the Christmas essentials, people call to the shop for their award-winning black pudding.
The butchers create a festive “Christmas pudding” made especially for this time of year, popular for starters or for adding to stuffing.
Customers also call for whiskey dry-cured rashers, the perfect addition to a Christmas morning fry.
With songs blasting out of the shop (Fairytale of New York, you’d be sick to the back teeth,” Tim says) the shop will be packed in the days before Christmas.
“The shop is like a nightclub here on the 23rd. Turkeys are last minute, whereas you can get the ham or the beef the week before.”
“You’ll find that husbands typically will be sent off to get the last minute presents, the women go then to get the turkey. At Christmas time, there’s more staff, more stock, more pressure, but a great atmosphere.”
Tradition is important to their customers, Tim says.
“People return year after year, because their mother got their turkey from us. You’ll have people travelling down all the way from Limerick to pick up their turkeys, to keep the tradition alive.”
“Emigrants returning home too, they’ll be sent in to pick up the turkey, so you’d get to see loads of people when they come into the shop. For us, it’s enjoyable. It’s a busy time of the year but we enjoy it. It’s the one meal of the year that has to be right and it has to be local.”
The leaves are still on the trees and the children of Co Limerick are just back to school when the preparations for Christmas get under way at Kearney’s Bakery.
Love it or loathe it, Christmas cake is an essential to every household at this time of year. In September, a sumptuous mixture of fruit, chopped nuts, spices, lemon-rind, brandy and whiskey is combined and left to soak for some time before it is baked into dozens of traditional Christmas cakes. After the cakes are cooled and settled, they are wrapped up and left for six weeks, only disturbed to be steeped in more whiskey or brandy before they receive their frosting of icing in December.
Sister team Maura and Siobhán Kearney have been supplying the people of Limerick and the surrounding areas with traditional baked goods for years, employing a team of 22 bakers from the local area.
The hustle and bustle of the bakery at this time of year, along with the festive smells take Maura Kearney back more than 20 years ago to when they first started their business.
“The songs really make you remember — ‘Driving Home for Christmas’, I always picture myself making the cakes in our kitchen when we were starting off when I hear it, and the smell of the mincemeat, it just always takes me back.”
The Kearneys pride themselves on the traditional and homemade Christmas baked goods they deliver.
“On our ingredient list, you’ll find there isn’t a whole lot someone at home wouldn’t have in their cupboards,” Maura says, adding they use Odlums flour and soak their tea brack in Barry’s.
A crucial addition to Kearneys’ Christmas cake is their almond paste, Maura says, adding most companies use almond essence or marzipan instead.
“It’s a little bit more expensive, but you can taste the difference.” Thousands of almonds are ground into a fine paste on site, with a little more brandy added in.
“It is a fairly boozy cake alright!” Maura says, but she adds that because the ingredients are all natural, it acts as a preservative.
During December, the cakes will be iced and a hand written Merry Christmas will be piped on top of each one. The cakes are then decorated with holly before shipping out.
Households doubtful they will get through an entire Christmas cake over the holiday season needn’t worry — you can buy the cake in quarters.
The bakery also bakes dozens and dozens of mince-pies, with traditional mincemeat and shortcrust pastry.
Apples from a farm in nearby Tipperary are also added into the mix.
“A lot of people think they don’t like mince pies, because of the association with mincemeat but then they’ll say that they’ve never tasted them,” Maura says incredulously. “But they’re lovely served warm.”
The Christmas card makers
‘Even in July people are asking us for Christmas cards.”
The simple, traditional design on the front covers of Paperbear cards give no clues to what’s hidden inside; once opened the cards come to life, with elaborate 3D scenes appearing before your eyes.
Deer roaming a wintery forest, a VW beetle complete with Christmas tree strapped to its roof, and Molly Malone pushing her cart through the streets of Dublin’s fair city are just some of the scenes that pop up to greet you when you open a Paperbear Christmas card.
Aaron and Katie, the husband and wife team behind PaperBear, have been in business together for three years.
And although the design duo create all kinds of cards for every occasion, it’s their unique Christmas cards with a distinct Irish twist that have caught people’s attention.
The pair will set up a stall at dozens of markets in the run-up to the big day, sometimes at two or three different events daily. The requests for their cards come early in the year. “Even in July people are asking us for Christmas cards. I did debate if it was too early to set up then,” Aaron laughs, adding that visitors always enquire if the pair make festive cards all year round.
After getting so many requests at markets during the summer, “August is when I really start thinking about Christmas,” Katie says.
Her favourite festive card they’ve created is the ‘Must be Santa’ — a fireplace scene, complete with stockings, a little girl and Santa Claus, because it reminds her of herself when she was a child, she says.
“The little girl, the fireplace with Santa peeking out, the stockings — I think it’s an image a lot of our customers associate with Christmas.” The number one reaction they see when people open their cards is bewilderment as they try and work out the engineering that went into it, Aaron says.
All cards are designed by the couple.
“We could be walking along the canal and then visualise the canal as a pop-up card and talk about what we could have in the card during the walk. We find our imagination more open this way rather than sitting in our office putting pressure on ourselves,” Aaron says.
After brainstorming together (“Our ideas often snowball from one another!”) Katie uses a drawing pad to sketch out a rough design. After the design is refined it is then then laser cut and assembled.
Up to ten samples can be produced before the couple are finally happy with the finished product.
Katie thinks their Irish cards especially resonate with people with loved ones who are abroad at Christmas.
“So many people have emigrated, it’s nice to send them a memento,” Katie said.
The Christmas tree farm
Christmas trees have been springing up in homes across Ireland over the last few weeks — well in advance of December in some eager households.
There’s a good chance the 30ft tall trees you see lit up with lights and adorned with decorations in town centres across the country originated from one farm in Killarney.
With more than 40,000 Christmas trees at his farm in Knocknasartnett, Ballyhar Road in Kerry, Nick Foley works tirelessly to tend to the trees throughout the month of December.
Helped by his sons, John, Podge and Seamus and a “wonderful fellow” Les, Nick and his team harvest Christmas trees from morning to night in the run up to Christmas.
Previously a chef, Nick switched to the trade more than 25 years ago when he set up his farm and today his farm, Killarney Christmas Trees, is one of the biggest suppliers in Ireland.
More than 4,000 trees this year will be sold and moved around the country, Nick and his team are busier than Santa and his elves.
Specialising in Nordman firs and bigger trees, growing Christmas trees takes work all year round. Throughout the year the team picks the lateral buds “because if you don’t the tree goes out of shape,” Nick says.
This process takes weeks, Nick explains because all 40,000 trees are growing in different stages.
The best Christmas tree seeds come from Georgia, Nick says. Here the seeds are extracted dangerously, with the trees scaled to pick the seeds directly from each pine cone. These seeds then go on to be sowed in Denmark, where they are grown over four years into saplings.
Nick imports these young trees from Denmark and plants the eight or nine-inch saplings in Killarney.
“It takes 10 years from when you put the saplings in the ground for the trees to grow to height.”
Harvesting the trees is also hard work. The bigger trees have to be handled extremely delicately.
“They have to be brought out carefully, so they’re not damaged,” Nick says, adding they operate a pulley system to ensure needles stay intact and the tree’s shape is kept.
After the trees are cut they are left for two days to release their gases before being pulled through a net stocking to keep the tree’s shape.
The trees are then sold wholesale or directly to buyers, and shipped out around the country.
“Killarney trees are a wonderful colour, whatever it is we have in the micro climate — we’ve a wonderful colour.”
Christmas decoration makers
Tinsel, lights and angels — a Christmas tree is just a tree without its decorations.
Every house has that one special ornament; it could be a priceless family heirloom handed down from generation to generation, or a dried-pasta creation covered with glitter, handmade by the youngest child when they were in montessori school 20 years ago.
At their studio in Waterford, a team of master craftsmen create unique glass ornaments, using processes that have been in their family for generations.
Previously employed at the Waterford Crystal factory Tony Hayes, Danny Murphy, Derek Smith and Richard Rowe have a combined total of 130 years of glass-making experience.
Their fathers had been master craftsmen at the same factory, where they joined them as apprentices at the age of 15.
After working on their trade and perfecting the craft for eight years, the group became master craftsmen in glass making and cutting.
After the factory closed in 2009, the group were determined not to lose the trade and set up Irish Handmade Glass.
Today their shop in Waterford specialises in coloured hand-cut crystal and bowls, dishes, figurines, and a special line of Christmas decorations. Their baubles are created all year round. Over the busy holiday period, the company is able to take on additional staff they used to work with in Waterford Crystal.
After glass fragments are gathered and melted in a furnace, the molten glass is then coloured with claret, amethyst and emerald green.
This glass is then blown before being left to cool, and is then cut.
“And because the decorations are hand cut, everyone we have is slightly different,” Tony explains.
Some of the decorations go on to be hand-etched with snowflakes and stars, some are multicoloured and some are left clear. The Irish countryside inspires the range with designs like ‘Wild Heather’ ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ and ‘Irish Rose’.
With the company’s strong emphasis on tradition, the decorations are something you would hand down in a family.
“One half of Ireland is living in Australia and the other half is in Canada,” Tony says, adding they also have many people home for Christmas purchasing their items as well.
The toy maker
Toymaker Jacinta Leigh is hard at work in her studio, creating toys that bring children’s imagination to life. Her children, Quinn and Fay, play a big part in her company, Scatterpillar , so much so she calls them her directors. She describes her toys as “imagined by a child and brought to life” — Scatterpillar began when Jacinta started to turn the characters in her children’s drawings into soft toys.
Today, Jacinta also makes customisable orders so parents can send their own children’s drawings to her.
“There’s been a few not from drawings but from sculptural pieces — little pottery pieces a child has made,” she says.
These orders are custom made and either hand crafted or hand finished. You can also get a family portrait, as well as figures designed by Quinn and Fay. Jacinta is working around the clock at this time of year. She imposed December 18 as a cut-off date for posting orders out, and is no longer taking customisable orders until after Christmas, although other items on the site can be purchased after this time.
“The toys are everything to do with childhood. Soft toys for kids at Christmas, they are just so personal. And it’s something that Mummy and Daddy can give to me and then it’s brought to life.” Angry Eyeball, a “softie” designed by her son Quinn even made an appearance on The Late Late Toy Show a couple of years ago.
“My son and daughter were watching the show and I was in the kitchen when I heard them shouting ‘he’s on the table, he’s on the table!’” Jacinta says.
There he was, Angry Eyeball, lying on one of the tables on the set of the infamous show, Jacinta laughs.
“Fay my daughter was saying “Get up Angry Eyeball get up!” and I was trying to explain to her ‘Well..he’s not going to get up on his own’”.
But they needn’t have worried because Ryan proceeded to pick up the toy and show him to the audience.
“I’d knew he’d gone in but for Ryan Tubridy to hold him up — we were chuffed.”
Some of the touching projects Jacinta has worked on over the years include a number of projects for parents of children who have passed away.
“It touches me greatly that people have given me that drawing and entrusted me to make it into a toy for a sibling. It’s a unique way to remember them. It’s very sad, but I feel like I am helping, that it’s therapeutic.”
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