CORK city children used to gaze in awe at the windows of the Lee Stores, Day’s, Kilgrews and more in the run up to Christmas.
But for Mary Crowley in Kanturk, Miss Howard’s shop in Strand Street was the first real confirmation that Christmas was imminent.
“It was there the Aladdin’s cave of toys first appeared,” she remembers with delight. “We rushed there on our way home from school, and pressed our noses against the window, absorbing every detail of the visual delight in front of us.”
The bigger, more exclusive toys took pride of place at the front of the display, she explains, with the lesser ones bringing up the rear. And one Christmas was particularly special.
“It was the year that the two big dolls appeared in all their glory, right there at the front of the display. One was in a yellow ‘shower of hail’ dress, the other in a similar dress, but in blue.
“Some girls declared that they were getting one or the other, but, like the Barry’s tea ad, I didn’t dare dream!”
But Christmas morning came, and for an overjoyed Mary came the surprise of her life.
“I just couldn’t believe that Santy had brought me the doll in the yellow dress. Somehow or other the message had been relayed to the North Pole that I coveted this present above all. I will never forget my delight and happiness.”
Of course, she points out, you didn’t get a great pile of gifts back then. “If you got that one item, then you were delighted, and didn’t expect any more.
Huge and demanding lists weren’t thought of, and would have been dismissed as nonsense if they had turned up.
Another sign that indicated that the festive season was on the way in Kanturk, contributes Mary Crowley, was the local boys going up to Fitzpatricks in Percival Street for ‘The Plucking’.
“The preparing of the seasonal bird was a nice little earner for families,” she recalls. “The money was of course handed up at home. The young lads didn’t need reminding that pennies were in short supply, and any help they could give was important.”
In school, formal learning eased off a little, says Mary.
“The religious part of the ceremonies was paramount. It was all part of the build up to the big day.
“We headed up to the Church to see the progress on the Nativity Crib, and in sixth class one of the girls was picked to be Santy, going from class to class with a bag of sweets .Oh, if school could be like this every day!”
At St Anne’s primary school on Summerhill on Cork’s Northside, run by the redoubtable Miss Cahill, breaking up for the Christmas holidays was an eagerly-awaited and never-to-be-forgotten day. Not so much because of the holidays themselves, but because this was the day that everybody in the school (all 12 pupils in a good year) would range themselves against the sideboard in the drawing room that did duty as schoolroom, and recite or sing, first their own party pieces, of which you had to be possessed if you had any sense of dignity at all, and then, as the great finale, The Christmas Story, chanted en masse.
It was never absolutely clear how much of this Miss Cahill had written herself, and how much she had picked up elsewhere in her wide readings, and incorporated into the canon, but to her small pupils it was Biblical in its importance.
“O’er Bethlehem that wintry night, the stars were shining very bright,
And every house was full and gay, such crowds of people gathered there.
But who is this comes down the street? A gentle maiden sweet and meek,
St Joseph knocks at every door; harsh voices shout ‘No room for more!’…
And so it went on, recounting the ageless fable. The stable, the shepherds on their hill, the song of the angels, the Magi coming from the East (‘Oh swing us to your camels’ backs, three Wise Men, To look for God, whatever lacks, before all things…’)
And in between the stable, the shepherds, the angels, the Wise Men, came several traditional carols, sung with gusto. By the time that was finally over, applauded by Miss Cahill, and children were clambering into boots and coats, the festive message was well and truly taken in.
I would take a bet that there are one or two reading this who can look back and remember similar junior recitals and concerts before breaking up for the holidays. Did you play a shepherd, or recite Little Jack Horner? Were you in a Nativity play?
What was your special “party piece”, perhaps to be shown off to cousins and friends after dinner on Christmas Day? Do let us know if you have such memories!
In many households back then, presents to delight the youngsters were made, not bought. A father might hide away in the garden shed, working on an old orange box which appeared on Christmas morning, transformed into a wonderful doll’s house.
An older brother might create the perfect railway station to accompany a train set being given by his parents to a junior sibling. (Can anybody remember the days long ago when Kellogg’s Cornflakes had cut-out railway stations on the back of their packages? They were wonderfully detailed and many a breakfast time passed all too swiftly for young eyes, gloating over every detail and wondering how long it would take for the packet to be finished.
Mothers with knitting machines turned out sweaters for everyone from growing children to uncles and aunts. Others handknitted gloves and scarves.
Rose remembers her baby sister getting totally into the spirit by finding a tiny empty scent bottle in her mother’s drawer and carefully filling it with talcum powder (also from her mother’s drawer) so that she could proudly present it on Christmas morning. Never too early to start!
As a child, this writer remembers seeing a Christmas issue of the Saturday Evening Post with its wonderful seasonal cover picture, by the gifted artist Norman Rockwell. It evoked sheer disbelief. A gigantic fir tree reaching to the ceiling, decorated with every kind of magical glass bauble, and underneath, on a rich carpet, gifts of the kind you could barely imagine. Huge train sets. A full sized rocking horse, dolls, teddy bears, and parcels, parcels, parcels, each one wrapped in festive paper and all decorated with ribbons and tinsel.
What kind of household, I wondered at that early age, could have a display like that?
A similar experience was seeing a Doris Day movie where she was talking (or, given that it was Doris, probably singing) to children in their nursery. Not only was the room decorated totally and purely for children, with special wallpaper, curtains, cushions, and child-sized chairs, but the kids were surrounded by a positive extravagance of huge stuffed toys. Clearly America was a very different world to that of 1950s Cork.
My parents, who ran The Book Mart in Washington Street, carefully kept any Enid Blytons or other popular children’s books that still had their good dust covers (not many survived childhood handling!) We were never allowed to handle these, as they were hoarded for the window display in the shop, where parents could pick them up as presents.
You wonder if today’s children would even accept pre-read books (or indeed if their parents would). Back then it was a practical fact of life. Who could afford to buy shiny new storybooks when such riches were to be had secondhand?
Then there was the wonderful business of buying and sending cards. Katie O’Brien always thought that the venerable little post office in MacCurtain Street (close to Thompson’s bakery) was a magical place as Christmas approached.
“There was a long wooden counter on the right hand side, which usually held envelopes and writing paper, but in December it was laid out with Christmas cards, some of which cost only a penny. Very simple cards, but with lots of glitter on them, which was what I loved.”
Eileen remembers making her own cards at home with her sisters.
“We used Indian ink and nib pens and sheets of card and made little Crib scenes. I think we got the ink all over ourselves but we were so proud of the cards!”
And she remembers the excitement of exchanging addresses with her school pals and even getting those of their teachers.
“Posting all those envelopes was a treat in itself!”
And getting cards too! The postman came several times a day, and each time you rushed to the letterbox to see what had arrived. Adults sighed and smiled over greetings from friends they hadn’t seen in years, and then sat down hastily to write one back.
It was a way of keeping in touch, remembering old acquaintances and indeed times past. It linked families, communities, and countries far apart, reminding both sender and recipient of the days when they too were young and thought Christmas was the most wonderful time in the year.
Send us your Christmas memories! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.