How we celebrated Christmas in Cork in our day

From holly picking to what you got in your stocking, from seeing Santa to putting up the crib, tree and Christmas candle... Yuletide has changed utterly in a couple of generations. JO KERRIGAN takes a festive trip down memory lane with Corkonians
How we celebrated Christmas in Cork in our day

Denis and Billy O'Mahony with Santa. Denis recalls getting cap guns for Christmas, and playing on the streets with hardly any traffic about on Christmas Day

SEEING SANTA

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.

Janet McGreevy and her six siblings went to Buckley’s in Academy Street. “They had a real deer!” she recalled.

“We always went on December 8, the traditional start to Christmas in Cork, but it was also my sister Carol’s birthday, which made it a treble celebration. And my brother Owen’s birthday is three days later!”

Janet McGreevy and her six siblings and parents with Santa at Buckleys — they always went on December 8, the traditional start of Christmas in Cork
Janet McGreevy and her six siblings and parents with Santa at Buckleys — they always went on December 8, the traditional start of Christmas in Cork

Afterwards, Janet recalls, they went to the Old Bridge restaurant for tea. “Our aunt worked there, so we were well looked after!”

Yvonne Williamson, nee Hurley, used to visit the city the week before Christmas to look at the shop windows all decked out.

“Kilgrews, Woolworths, The Queens Old Castle and Roches Stores would have plenty on display. A visit to Santy was next. We waited in a long queue at Buckleys or The Queens Old Castle. That was probably the most exciting bit, waiting in anticipation to see what you would get.

“Our parcels came in a paper bag marked ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl’ and the age. We couldn’t wait to get outside to open them and see what was inside. It was usually simple things like marbles, crayons, colouring books, pencils, yoyos, paper planes or dress up doll books.”

Patrick Cooper vividly recalls going to see Santa, at Day’s.

His other great memory of Christmas is going to Thompson’s café on Princes Street. “I recall the decorations and holly, the loud chatter and excitement, the waitresses in their smart uniforms and the smell of the cakes on the trolleys that they used to wheel to the tables. I always had a chocolate éclair and a bottle of Fanta orange.”

Patrick, who now lives in Chicago, added: “I clearly remember the big mural of the Innisfallen, which at that time went from Penrose Quay to Fishguard, on the wall and dreaming about what it would be like to one day go somewhere far away on a ship.

“I also remember my father used to take me to Frank’s Barbershop — I think it was also on Princes Street — for a Christmas haircut. The barbers in their white coats twirling their scissors always seemed very excited about Christmas, and the best part was when he gave me some money, probably two shillings, to tip the barber before we left.”

THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE

“The Christmas candle was very important,” says Mary Holly.

“We had a wrought iron stand about 3ft high, that an aunt had specially made for us as a Christmas present. It was placed inside the sitting room window.

“The candle had to be white and some years they were hard to find. I remember one year mum triumphantly sourcing it in Waters in the South Main Street when it seemed all avenues had been exhausted.

“A string of silver tinsel was wound around the candle in a spiral and held in place with a drawing pin. As the candle burned down, the tinsel was moved down too.

“The youngest child in the house had to light the candle on Christmas Eve and dad would say a prayer for the living and those no longer with us. He would finish with ‘Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís’.

“After that, we each would have our turns to light the candle over the 12 days of Christmas.”

Yvonne Williamson said: “The red Christmas candle was placed in the middle of the mantelpiece over the fire. It was lit to welcome baby Jesus and was usually done along with a sprinkling of holy water.

“We would buy our holly with lots of red berries in the English Market or on the Coal Quay, and would decorate pictures which hung on the wall.”

PUTTING UP THE TREE

For many households, the tree was all-important. Who recalls the wonderful scent of firs stacked together at the corner of the Coal Quay, awaiting eager purchasers?

My brother Tommy remembers going to get our family tree from a friendly farm out at Rooves Bridge (the farm, alas, is now under water, after the flooding of the Lee Valley, but the trees still stand on the hill above).

“My father would climb up a huge pine and cut off a branch which would be big enough to brush the ceiling at home. We would tie it to the car and bring it back in triumph.”

The tree was placed in a traditional Cork butter box and banked with sods of turf to keep it straight. “One year, our despairing mother opted for an artificial tree but it received a chilly reception,” said Tommy.

“The following festive season saw that good old needle-shedding giant back in place.

THE CRIB

Putting up the crib was central to the spirit of the festive season, and many a battered box was carefully rescued from the attic and brought ceremoniously downstairs.

In the Hurley household, it was a timber one made by Yvonne’s dad, with a star on top cut out from a mirror.

“Mary, Joseph, a donkey, some sheep and shepherds were placed inside. The baby Jesus was put in on Christmas Eve after we went to bed.”

Yvonne also remembers how they would move the Three Wise Men from one place to another around the room until they were finally placed at the crib on January 6. “We had great fun arranging and rearranging the figures.”

“One wasn’t enough for us kids,” remembers Katie O’Brien. “Our parents put up the main one in a butter box with crumpled black paper over the top, but we made another on a big windowsill with our dolls and soft toys. And one year I made a tiny one in a little toffee tin with lead farm animals and a walnut shell for the manger. I still have that somewhere.”

Mary Holly recalls: “For my first Christmas, Granny O’Donovan gave me a present of a crib. Three-quarters of a century later, that crib is still in use. The baby Jesus was not put into it when it was put up, only at the same time as the Christmas candle was lit. The crib always stayed up for a week after the rest of the decorations came down on January 7. That was to give the poor Wise Men a bit of a chance as they had only arrived on the 6th!”

Going to see the opening of the crib in churches was a must on Christmas Eve. Eileen Barry and her sister went to St Patrick’s on the Lower Glanmire Road.

“Late afternoon, and there was a great atmosphere in the church with everything dark and you could smell the straw in the crib. Then they lit the candles, and there it all was!”

Janet McGreevy was taught to take a few strands of straw from the crib and keep them throughout the year. “It was said you would never be broke while you had some in your purse, and it’s a thing I still do!”

After Christmas, a tour of the cribs in the many churches around the city was common among children, marks being awarded to those they considered especially good (real clothes on the figures scored highly).

LETTER TO SANTA

Whatever the likelihood of getting what you wanted (see panel on facing page), writing a letter to Santa is a long-held tradition.

The O’Learys had one that definitely was unique. “Letters were always written on December 8 and when it got dark, Sean’s father, Pat, headed off with them in his pocket,” explains Mary O’Leary.

“You see, he had a special arrangement with Santa Claus and met him at the junction of Glasheen Road and Hartland’s Avenue every Christmas Eve to deliver his children’s letters. Hard to beat that, isn’t it?!”

CHRISTMAS DAY

Girlie O’Donovan was born in 1915 and had these memories from the 1930s

“There was a postal delivery on Christmas Day, but of course, no collection. I remember one Christmas Day when the postman called he was very much under the weather with drink. You see, many of the householders he had called to had given him a drink as well as his Christmas ‘box’.

“The postman, milkman, breadman, coalman and in our case, the delivery man for Kelleher and McKenna on the Grand Parade, all got a Christmas ‘box’ from their customers.

“When my father saw the cut of the postman this particular Christmas Day, he asked my mother Lena to make the man a few sandwiches and a cup of tea.

“While the postman was indulging in these, my father took his postbag and divided the remaining letters in three. He gave one pile to each of my three older brothers to deliver. They only took about a quarter of an hour to finish the job and the postman was then ready to go back to the GPO.”

Girlie also recalls two unusual traditions around New Year’s Eve and Little Christmas.

On December 31, she said: “My father would take either a loaf of bread or a baked soda cake and throw it against the back door, being sure to catch it before it fell. This was supposed to keep hunger from the house for the year.

“That ceremony has long since ceased in the city but I wonder if it is still done in the country.”

Meanwhile, when Little Christmas was over, the holly and ivy were taken down and burnt, says Girlie O’Donovan — but one piece of holly would be put behind a picture and burned under the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. “I do not know what the significance of this custom was,” she added

PICKING HOLLY

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.

Christmas week at the Coal Quay in Cork city in 1933
Christmas week at the Coal Quay in Cork city in 1933

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!

“My poor parents were sometimes only just gone to bed, having stayed up maybe finishing off a doll’s house or some knitted clothes. We would have got an orange or apple in the stocking with some sweets, maybe a Peggy’s Leg and a colouring book and crayons or a little torch.” 

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.”

Read more articles like this in the Holly Bough, on sale in shops now and at hollybough.ie

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