Nostalgia: Christmas shopping in Cork in days of yore

There was a time when Advent meant fasting and abstinence instead of chocolated-filled calendars, recalls JO KERRIGAN
Nostalgia: Christmas shopping in Cork in days of yore

Christmas shoppers under the lights on Princes Street, Cork, in 1984.

DOES anyone remember that this is Advent? The quintessential time of preparation for the great festival of Christmas?

The time when you fasted, abstained from anything as decadent as dancing or consuming sweets, when weddings were frowned upon, and everyone endured the long, dark, gloomy days of winter, with only that tiny beacon of hope ahead on December 25?

It brings it home rather forcibly how much times have changed, when you see young parents in Lidl or Aldi buying huge cardboard Advent calendars with a chocolate treat tucked behind each window.

There are more expensive versions to be had too, with a different toy for every day of the month.

What, you ask yourself in exasperation, are the kids going to celebrate on The Day Itself if they have had all of this for a month beforehand? Have we lost the run of ourselves?

It goes back a lot further than Christianity and Advent of course. As you may have noticed lately, this is the darkest, coldest time of year. In the countryside in olden times, hens would have stopped laying, few cows or sheep gave milk, the crops had finished. Hunger and often near-starvation were all too common and fasting wasn’t a religious edict, rather a necessity.

But at midwinter, around December 21, there was a real sense of celebration. The corner had been turned, we could at last look forward to longer days, more light, the coming of spring.

You could risk breaking out the stores of dried fruits, nuts, apples, and perhaps some of the salted meat kept since the autumn culling of animals which were too expensive to feed during the winter.

Midwinter celebrations go back into pre-history and it’s the most natural of our festivals. Christianity knew it could never eradicate that instinct to joy in the turning of the year, and so put their own festival on top of it, the birth of the Christ Child into the story of the Corn King who is born again each year.

The coming of chocolate treats instead of enforced fasting is a fairly recent innovation in Ireland, since back in the Forties and Fifties there was no place for such luxuries.

The whole point of Christmas was that all the penury was forgotten for a day at least, and wonderfully comforting foods were heaped on the table, with extra joys in the shape of boxes of biscuits, tins of sweets, even caskets of chocolates, making their appearance in the evening.

We are all finding these winter months especially trying at the moment because of Covid-19, even though restrictions have been temporarily lifted somewhat to allow us a bit of retail therapy.

It was much the same back then, except it was caused by lack of coinage instead of Covid. Nobody had much money to spare, and what there was had to be husbanded carefully to buy the festive necessities.

Cars, even public transport, were rare. Children hurried to school through rain and darkness, hoping their drenched coats would dry before the return journey.

Teachers warned of approaching Christmas exams, while surreptitiously, those in the back row would craft genuine Advent calendars on the back of their copybooks — neat little squares for the days of December, to be crossed off longingly one by one.

A wreath of holly encircling the handcrafted calendar was considered a suitable embellishment.

You didn’t expect much in the way of gifts back then. There was a very practical reason for that legendary stocking to be hung ceremoniously at the foot of the bed. It was easily available, it could expand to fit an orange, a toffee stick, perhaps a tiny doll or soft toy, a rolled-up small book, and, if circumstances permitted, a bright penny in the toe.

But parents had put themselves out to ensure that even these small tokens could be bought and tucked into the stocking. Scarce was the money and the demands were many.

Things became easier in the 1960s as Ireland finally pulled itself out of the ‘Slough of Despond’ that was post-war Europe, and began to look to a brighter future.

Who remembers those first strings of coloured lights across Patrick Street? Times Square, we felt, couldn’t equal the grandeur.

Shops began to stock more luxuries in the way of toys, and in line with that, juvenile expectations began to rise. Practical gifts were still the norm though — things you could actually find useful in the year ahead. Diaries, small torches, notebooks, and pen and pencil sets were still very popular.

And, in households where finances permitted the issuing of pocket money, children began to think for the first time of giving as well as receiving — of buying Christmas presents for their parents, brothers and sisters. But what to buy, and where?

“I was the youngest of six by quite a good way,” says Ger Fitzgibbon, “so I suspect I was a little late surprise. I had (and still have) four older sisters and one brother.

“As there was nearly ten years between me and the brother, I was part-raised by the sisters really.”

The Christmas rituals in his house, says Ger, were very tightly defined.

“The presents had to be bought over the previous weeks or even months, whenever pocket money allowed. So there would be quite a lot of scraping together and then window-gazing at the shops.

A family window shopping at the Munster Arcade in Patrick Street, Cork city, in the run up to Christmas in 1933
A family window shopping at the Munster Arcade in Patrick Street, Cork city, in the run up to Christmas in 1933

“Almost invariably, as a small boy with limited means and less imagination, the choices narrowed to jewellery (ghastly coloured butterfly brooches made of goldy plastic and studded with glass jewels) and/or perfume (I was no judge of scents, so the main focus was whether the bottle looked posh) and/or bathsalts.”

Remember those early bathsalts? They were always a big item at Christmas. They came in foil-wrapped cubes, either singly or packaged in Christmassy boxes, and so they were a good standby.

“Although, to be honest, I always felt a bit defeated if I had to resort to buying bathsalts,” admits Ger.

Buying for ‘The Brother’ was a fierce problem, he recalls. That’s something most gift buyers would echo today, incidentally.

“I mean, he was entering his late teens and I was only 7 or 8 —so it might end up being a tie, or a new safety razor or something.

“Invariably I ended up getting a tie or a tie-pin for my father. I do remember getting my mother a teapot stand one year — a really dull-looking Bakelite thing — and the mortification of her unwrapping it, putting it upside down on the table and saying with a slightly baffled smile ‘Oh, that’s lovely’. I simply had to lean forward and turn it right way up so she could see what it was!”

Financing all this was very tricky, he confesses. 

“Every year, about ten days before Christmas, my father would give me a Christmas box — a kind of bonus to the pocket money. The problem was I never knew how much it was going to be or when it would arrive. And it always came dangerously late in terms of getting the shopping done.

“So I would do an advance calculation that I could spend, say, a shilling or one-and-threepence on each present for my sibs. I felt it was only fair to try to spend the same on each of them.

“But then, having got most of my presents, the Christmas box would arrive and I’d be a bit more flush than expected, so I’d try to top them up.

“This led to some odd combinations of things: a tie and a nail-scissors; a gaudy pink thing for your hair plus two cubes of bathsalts.”

And where were all these joys to be found by youngsters with limited money in their pockets, trying to cross names off their gift list?

Above all, apparently, Woolworths, with its two floors and myriad tall counters, a positive wonderland.

 We were also starting to see little places popping up in back streets (called variously huxters’ shops, knacky shops, or even “them cheap places”) where fascinating things which most probably originated in China could be bought at incredibly low prices.

“We had a friend in hospital with a broken arm just before Christmas once,” remembers Jane.

“We pooled our pocket money and went into one of those little back street shops and got her a whole shoebox full of little interesting things. She was delighted!”

“The trouble was, those things always came wrapped in The Echo,” Ger points out, “so you then had to find some way of re-packaging them properly, to make them look more expensive.”

Ah yes, and that meant back to the upstairs counter at Woolworth’s where the most wonderful wrapping paper could be had for a penny a sheet. Thick crepe paper, black with glitter daubed all over it, that gift wrap bore the true scent of Christmas for many juvenile shoppers.

(And as a side point, how sad was it when chip shops stopped using old issues of De Paper to wrap your order? All right, you sometimes got print across the crispy chips, but who cared about that? You could have a satisfying read while enjoying your al fresco supper!).

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