John Arnold: A different Christmas... but at least the pigs will be happy!

In his weekly column John Arnold recalls traditions past, present and future at Christmas time
John Arnold: A different Christmas... but at least the pigs will be happy!

LUCKY SWINE: Pigs have had a stay of execution because of the effects of Covid-19 on farming

“GRANDAD, do you know what a Cristingle is?” my eight-year- old granddaughter asked me on Monday night.

I’d just called in of a wet night to see how they were all getting on in the run up to Christmas. I was asking about school and the upcoming holidays — they got hardly any homework this week.

Anytime I’d call, one of the three girls would have to show where Elf was. Elf arrives mysteriously in the house about the start of December when the decorations go up. Elf just sits atop a cupboard or a shelf and when they get up in the morning Elf has mysteriously moved to a new location! He might be on the window ledge or on the television or maybe behind the Christmas tree.

It’s part of the early morning ritual — searching for Elf. My grandchildren can’t understand that when we were young Elf never appeared at Christmas or at any time of the year!

“Well,” she persisted,” do you know what a Cristingle is?”

I thought she meant Kris Kringle, which I equate with a German version of Santa but no, that’s not what she meant at all.

“Wait a minute,” she said. I obeyed and soon she returned from the kitchen. In her hands she had what looked like a decorated apple and she announced that this was what she meant by the word ‘cristingle’.

The apple she said represented the world and the red ribbon encircling it is God’s presence all around us. Stuck in the apple were four cocktail sticks, each with a piece of fruit on top. These, I was told, represent people and the small candle lighting in the middle is the symbol of God’s love.

Wow, what a lovely and symbolic little ornament for the Christmas season. I did some research and apparently in some places it’s spelt Christingle, but one way or another ‘tis a grand reminder for the times we live in.

When we were small, oranges weren’t commonplace — they could be had but not like today, what with sevilles, satsumas and mandarins.

I used always associate Christmas with things like oranges and lemonade in small bottles, Tanora of course and USA biscuits. I’m not sure what was the first present I got from Santy — that’s what we called him — but it might have been a jigsaw or a ‘compendium’ of board games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders in a small box.

I remember one year I got two Dinky cars and ‘racing’ them around under the old table in the room was great fun making the ‘vroom, vroom’ engine noises. Battery power wasn’t yet invented but wind-up toys were all the go until the spring in the winder gave out from too frequent use!

Going to visit Santy in Fermoy or Cork was never a feature of Christmas time in the early 1960s but the trip to Fermoy on December 8 was always looked forward to.

The Church Holiday always meant no school and half-nine Mass followed by the epic journey to ‘town’.

Sixty years ago, our world was small. The day to day shopping was done in Woods’ shop or maybe at the Creamery in Castlelyons. Trips to Fermoy were undertaken only when really needed — maybe timber for a door below at Barry’s Yard or nails, hinges or paint at Dunleas.

Coming up to Christmas, ‘twas different going to town. On the Church Holiday it was a kind of treat that for us children marked the start of the Christmas season. We always got sweets from Mrs Condon near the Garda Station. Mam would always be getting children’s clothes at our cousins, the McSweeney’s shop, and we might get second hand comics at the bottom of the town from Mrs Phelan.

A great treat on a day our like that in early December was the tea and buns at Colls café.

 I can remember when I was six or seven I started collecting little plastic farm animals and on that annual trip I’d be pricing maybe a cow at 1/6 or two sheep for a shilling or perhaps a horse for half a crown.

Pocket money didn’t come in, I’d say, ’til we went into the EEC, so self- financing was the name of the game. The money box might still have a rattle in it from that autumn’s blackberry money. Often, when uncles and aunts and other relations would come visiting, we’d get ‘a stand’ and the few bob would stretch a long way when Christmas was coming.

When I see the vast amounts of toys and other presents that modern day children get, I’m not jealous — no this is now and 60 years ago things were different — there’s no point, as they say, in comparing apples and oranges.

Yes, many things change and little stays the same, but isn’t it great all the same that so many people still yearn to attend mass — even if only at Christmas? Who would ever have envisaged limited capacity in churches and Mass being an ‘all ticket’ affair!

The crib is still central to Christmas and every time I see one I think of the SHARE Crib in Patrick Street in Cork and the generosity and humanity of our young people.

A lovely new ‘tradition ‘that has emerged in recent years is something happening next Sunday. From Italy has come Bambinelli Sunday whereby people are urged to bring the Crib figure of baby Jesus to Mass and have it blessed, and then wrap it up until Christmas morning when it’s placed in the Crib.

This is a Christmas season like no other. I love Christmas and all the traditions and customs associated with it. With decades I’ve made an effort on each of the 12 days of the Season — up ‘til Little Christmas on January 6 — to visit a different house each day. Relations, friends, neighbours, someone bereaved during the year — just for a chat and to recall other Christmases and other folk who brightened up our lives.

This year will be so different but it will still be Christmas, I feel it’s in the air already, and I am determined to ensure we have a grand, peaceful season.

Our pigs will really enjoy Christmas this year with plenty spuds and Brussels’s sprouts! Normally we would have sent them ‘away’ around this week each year. They’d come back then maybe a day or two before December 25. It would take us the most of the year to fatten them and have them ready for their ‘substantial transformation’ into bacon and pork.

Because of the first lockdown this spring, the pigs didn’t arrive here until early May. Because of this later date they are not fat enough and might see Patrick’s Day yet — all thanks to Covid; it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody good they say!

Thinking of the Christmas dinner, wouldn’t a goose be great this year? I think when we were small the goose was normal fare, not just on Christmas Day but on several of the 12 days. That was before the turkey became popular all over Europe.

Personally, I think ‘twas the television brought the turkey to the table. We used be watching The Virginian, The High Chaparral and The Fugitive and they’d all be having turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year. In my opinion, it was the influence of the TV that popularised the turkey — then again, that may be fake news!

I might be in town tomorrow and if I am I might get a few red apples and try my hand at making the cristingle — indeed, an ‘old dog can be taught new tricks’!

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