Memories of Christmas in Cork, Ireland

Maggie Cunningham

Looking forward to Christmas

I remember when Christmas was a wondrous time for us, growing up in Cork City in the 1950s. The anticipation started to build about a month or so ahead of the event itself. On country walks we collected holly and ivy to decorate the house and we also hung up paper chains across the ceilings of the kitchen and the sitting room. We loved going to look at the Christmas toys in the shops. One shop had a train set working, right there in the window. We gazed in amazement, with our noses pressed against the glass, as the engine chuffed along the tracks which wound in and out amongst the bright new toys. Another shop had the latest bikes and scooters on display and every child secretly dreamed of owning one. Most of the things we longed for were beyond our parents' budget and we seemed to know that, instinctively. We never asked for the expensive things when we wrote our Santa Claus letters. My Daddy took our letters with him to work in the Post Office. He told us that there was a special box for putting them in from which they went straight to the North Pole. Mammy told us that Santa Claus would definitely come on Christmas Eve, if we were good.

We were far luckier than most children as we always got a great present, as well as a book. The book was a shiny annual, with a hard cover, with names like: The Beano or The Dandy . I got The Bunty or The Judy which were girl's versions. Our Mary got The Jack and Jill Annual while she was still small and I remember getting the Rupert the Bear Annual when I was smaller. While playing out in the terrace (which is what we called our street) with friends, we used to wonder a lot about how Santa Claus was able to tell in which house each of us lived. All the houses looked the same, which would have been confusing for him we thought. More importantly, we worried about how he managed to avoid being burned to death as he came down the chimney. In most of our homes the fire was kept smouldering in the range or fireplace all night in winter, as it was the only heating most houses had. My friend Rita said that she had written a letter to Santa asking for a bike and a doll's house and a set of paints and brushes. I said she was being greedy.

"What about all the other children in the world?" I said crossly. Someone might end up with nothing if you ask for three things."     
"But Santa brings as many things as you ask for," she argued.
"I heard that the elves only make one toy for everyone," I argued, "and that's why our Mammy and Daddy have to send a postal order to pay for our presents… Having all those elves working for him, Santa has an awful lot of mouths to feed."

They could all see the sense in that, as none of us were well-off and feeding mouths was a serios business.

Getting Ready for Christmas

About two months before the actual day, Mammy started the Christmas baking. Making the Christmas pudding was a special event. The pudding mixture contained aromatic spices which we only experienced at that time of the year: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice scented the house. The puddings were mixed and then steamed in their bowls in the big saucepan on the gas stove. The kitchen got all steamed up, of course, but that was all part of the festive atmosphere. We had a family ritual, as we each were given a turn at stirring the pudding mixture. It smelled deliciously of dried fruit, mixed spices, lemon and orange grated peel and the stout and ale which was added "to keep it moist" and for added flavour. Mammy said each sentence of a traditional wish list, while we were stirring and we repeated it after her. On winter's nights coming up to Christmas, after our baths, we would sit around the fire and Mammy would sing all the Christmas songs and carols she knew, while she darned the holes in our socks. We had a wireless (radio) but record players were expensive and television had not yet come to Ireland. Mammy's collection of songs seemed endless to us and I was always impressed that she could remember all the words to every one of them.

One of the best presents I remember was a baby doll, which I now realise had been naked when bought. It was dressed beautifully with underwear and a pretty dress. It was the same material as a dress my mother had made for someone the previous summer. The doll also had a beautiful knitted cardigan and bonnet which was in the same colours as our school jumpers. I marvelled then at the coincidence that the elves should have had the same material and wool as we did in our house. Now, I marvel at my mother's patience, love and dedication to keeping our childhood dreams alive by going to such trouble.

After our excitement at discovering our presents we would go to the next terrace to show them to Nana and Aunty Theresa, who was home for Christmas from England where she was a W.R.A.F lady. Nana would give us biscuits and watery raspberry cordial. We thought it was a pity that Nana didn't know the correct measurements to make the cordial stronger but we would never have thought to tell her that. Aunty Theresa gave us lovely presents too, more exotic because they came all the way from England, on the boat from Fishguard in Wales to Cork. I remember getting a thick reading book from her titled Heidi. The following year I got the sequel Heidi Grows Up and the next year the third of the series, Heidi's Children. I loved those books so much that I must have read them 10 times each and I still have them today.

Later in the day we'd have our Christmas dinner, which was roast goose with potato, sage & onion stuffing, served with marrowfat peas, roast potatoes and celery sauce.

It was our favourite meal of the year of course and afterwards we had Christmas pudding with custard. We were so full that we were happy to sit and read our respective books for a few hours until the card games started with the adults in the evening.

When we were quite young we all learned to play Rummy, A Hundred and Ten and Forty-five as well as all the children's games of Beggar-my-Neighbour, Sevens, Donkey and Long Donkey as well as Pick-up-Two. We thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being allowed to play for sweets (instead of money) with the grown-ups,(or "blown-ups" as my brother Jim used to say).

We usually went to bed about eleven o'clock, happy and tired out from our wonderful celebrations.