GOING to see Santa was a relatively new development of the late ’50s and early ’60s as Ireland gradually eased its way out of post-war austerity.
IT was clear and bright, that Christmas Eve morning, writes Mary Angland. I awoke at my farm in Tullylease on the Cork-Limerick border, unsure for a moment why I felt a tingling excitement all over me. Then I remembered and hugged myself with anticipation, imagining the magic of the day tumbling lazily before me.
Jumping out of bed, I glanced through the window and the dew of the haggart sparkled and shone like polished marbles through the glass.
In the kitchen, my grandfather, James Delee, scraped the spoon around his bowl of porridge and mother was frowning busily among the clattering pots and pans. I finished breakfast quickly, hardly tasting the porridge, keeping an anxious eye on grandfather, in case he’d take off without me.
Within minutes, my duffle coat was buttoned to my chin and a woolly cap pulled tightly over my head. Holding grandfather’s hand, off we trudged towards Curramore and the back avenue, as we had done every Christmas Eve for as long as I remember. There was business to be done.
In between the overgrowing hedges were the most luscious holly trees. Bright red berries, so heavy the branches drooped and sagged. I held the bags as grandfather clambered up the ditches, a little robin eyeing us curiously from a nearby branch. The two fertiliser bags we had brought were filled to the brim and soon I was skipping home beside grandfather, who carried the bags, now filled with holly, slung over his shoulders.
Inside the house, we emptied the bags on the kitchen floor and got busy. We decorated over the mantelpiece, even sticking a bough laden with succulent berries over the picture of the sad-faced Sacred Heart, though it didn’t make Him look any happier.
Once we had decorated all the window ledges, grandfather got two large turnips and I watched, fascinated, as he hollowed out a deep hole in each. Slowly, carefully, he worked, whistling softly through his teeth, testing the depth by inserting the candle into the hole until he was happy it wouldn’t pose a fire hazard, by keeling over and setting the holly alight on the window ledges. Then he set it comfortably among the holly branches.
IN THE STOCKING
WE think of Christmas now in purely commercial terms, when extravagance and escalating demands play havoc with finances.
But gift-giving is comparatively new. In older, more stringent times, a coin or two was given to bigger children, and perhaps an orange, a stick of toffee, or a penny in a much-darned stocking to younger ones.
“On Christmas Eve, we would get one of my dad’s socks as they were the biggest,” recalls Yvonne Hurley, “and put them on the end of the bed as we went to sleep. If you woke during the night you would feel the stocking to see if Santa had come, and if he had, all hell would break loose as everyone would be woken up with the excitement!
Kay O’Sullivan also remembers waking up early Christmas morning and finding her full stocking on the bed. She would look and if there was a book, she would read it then and there by the street light coming through the window.
Mary O’Leary affectionately recalls the shop-bought Christmas stockings that had begun to appear in the ’50s. “They were made of white fishnet and the edges were bound with red paper. Inside, at the toe, would be a ball made of sawdust and covered with silver paper. There would be either Ludo or Snakes & Ladders printed on very poor quality card. Another sheet would have cut-out counters and a cut-out hexagonal dice. To use the dice, one had to insert a spent match through its centre.
“The stocking might contain a colouring book and a block of six paint colours and a brush, or alternatively a book with faint outlines on its eight pages and a paint brush. When the brush was dipped in water and applied to the pages, a drawing appeared, as if by magic.
“There would be one or two more items, perhaps a yo-yo, an eight-page story book or dressing doll, again on poor quality paper. But no plastic anywhere!
Mary also recalls the bigger toys. “One of my sisters was so delighted with her doll’s go-car that she wouldn’t let it out of her sight and even lugged it upstairs when she needed to go to the bathroom.
“Another sister had a teddy named Tadhgín. I remember him in old age, completely bald but still much loved. There were dolls with china faces, and dolls whose legs and arms could move by rubber bands. Parents were frequently required to perform surgery to re-attach a limb!
“One of my friends remembers getting a treasured miniature china tea-set and can still describe the colour and design vividly.” The excitement of a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve was huge, says Denis O’Mahony. “It was off to bed early and don’t you dare wake while he’s there! The influence of Hollywood meant we were all into cowboys and virtually every boy in our area got a cap-gun and holster with a supply of caps. If you were well off, you even got a whole cowboy outfit, hat and all. If you were really, really well off, you might even get a pair of silver spurs.
“On Christmas morning, Tombstone City had nothing on us. Some kids got Indian outfits, with exotic feathered head-dresses. The street resounded to the sound of caps going off all day. When the caps ran out, we reverted to whoops and roars of ‘Bang, bang, you’re dead!’ One year, Denis got a toy guitar. “The strings didn’t last too long. My great-aunt, who worked in Denny’s Cellar, the local pork factory, came home one day with replacement strings that worked quite well. They were the stretched and dried pig guts!
“Another Christmas I had a toy film projector, I’m sure I bored the pants off everybody watching very short film strips projected onto a sheet hanging on the wall.
“Meccano sets featured too. A little like early Lego but much more complex. You needed a certain skill to fit the parts together with tiny screws and nuts, but they were great to exercise your imagination.
“Very lucky kids might get a bicycle. Oh, the looks of envy as they rode out on Christmas morning! Who can recall those quiet Christmas Days when streets were free of traffic and children were out showing off their scooters and cowboy outfits, doll’s prams and go-cars?” My brother, Tommy, recalls the year he got his most desired wish, a tiny wind-up model car. “There was a place just outside the front window where a puddle formed when it rained, and I remember standing at that window, waiting for it to rain so I could drive my little car through that puddle!” As he grew older, he would make special trips downtown after Christmas while the shops were still shut and everywhere was deserted. “I wanted to look in the windows and see what they would be selling after Chirstmas was over. I remember a packet of stamps in Day’s window — they were for Ascension Island and I wanted them so badly!” My other brother, Gilbert, vividly recalls the year he got a Meccano set. “I had seen them in shops, but never thought I would actually be lucky enough to get one.” Hannah O’Donnell grew up in the 1940s in Kilclooney in North Cork.
“In mid-November, children’s thoughts turned to Santa’s arrival,” she said. “My wish list was on its way to the North Pole, a long list, but the doll I saw in a shop window downtown was top of it. She had blond hair, lovely ‘take me home’ eyes and a bright pink dress. I asked mammy could I have her, but she said no!
“I still had a dream Santa would deliver, he is a kind man.
“On Christmas Day, after church, I made the mad dash for my stocking, almost taking the door off the hinges, such was the excitement. Out popped an orange, an apple and a few sweets, but no doll. Could she have gotten stuck on the chimney during Santa’s descent, I thought?
“I decided to have a look, but no luck, all I could see was the sky. How could Santa have forgotten my so longed-for doll? Ah well, ‘what’s another year,’ I muttered to myself.”
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