Memories of bygone Cork Christmas Eves

This has long been a day of unbearable expectation for children, says JO KERRIGAN, who speaks to people about their memories of Yuletides past
Memories of bygone Cork Christmas Eves

A Christmas party for Army children at Collins Barracks, Cork, just before Christmas in 1934.

WE talk of Christmas Day, but for many children, it is actually Christmas Eve, with that almost unbearable sense of expectation, that is most wonderful of all.

Once the big day itself dawns, there is so much to do — opening presents, having a huge festive feast, playing games — that the time whizzes by.

But Christmas Eve has long been a time of breathless waiting, of sensing the importance of what lay ahead... almost a vigil.

Which it was in older times than ours, of course.

And, in some Eastern European countries, especially Poland, the eve of the festival is still observed with a special fish dish, a sort of Good Friday.

In other lands, the event has already happened. The feast of Saint Nicholas is observed on December 6 in Western Christian countries, and on December 19 in Eastern Christian countries, where the old church calendar is still used.

A child with a toy at the Munster Arcade in Patrick Street, Cork, in December, 1970 — 50 years ago
A child with a toy at the Munster Arcade in Patrick Street, Cork, in December, 1970 — 50 years ago

On that eve in the Netherlands, children would put out their clogs filled with hay and a carrot for the saint’s horse, and hope to find chocolate replacing their gifts the next morning.

In Austria, it is still customary at dusk to light all the candles on the fir tree before the family stands around it and sings Silent Night. 

“I remember staying in a lovely old wooden guesthouse in the Tyrol one Christmas,” says Grania.

“We had come back from tobogganing and were getting ready for the evening, when a knock came at our door, and it was the youngest child with a plate of freshly-baked lebkuchen. 

‘From the Christchild’, she said, and bobbed a little curtsey before continuing down the corridor on her deliveries to other rooms. Wasn’t that lovely?”

Later on, recalls Grania, as they were walking down the snowy main street, they saw locals heading to the little graveyard to light lanterns on the tombs of their loved ones, so that they too were remembered.

Every household in Ireland, it seems, had different traditions for Christmas, and these over the years grew to be absolute in their observance.

To change anything was unthinkable, even though the customs might have originated in babyhood and all the children now fully grown. Like playing certain games, and exactly when gifts should be opened.

“All our family presents were given on Christmas Eve,” says Ger Fitzgibbon. “I think it might have been after the German tradition, though I don’t know where that came from.

“Only official Santy presents were opened on Christmas Day. I remember being amazed that other families didn’t seem to know about these rules.”

Christmas Eve, he avows, followed strict formulae. “Mother cooking up a storm of spiced beef and ham in the kitchen; the rest of us fighting over brown paper (Christmas wrapping hadn’t yet arrived) and string, and who had the scissors. Trying to find sneaky quiet corners to wrap things; sometimes, a last trip into town; then tea; then everybody (eight of us in a bulbous A40) headed in to St Marys on Pope’s Quay where there was a ceremony which ended up with a procession and the placement of the figure of the infant in the crib.

Ger adds: “This was followed by what seemed like hours, hanging around, shivering on the steps of St Mary’s while my parents met people they hadn’t seen since last year.

“Then home, a lot of scurrying around, and a gathering around the kitchen table where we (the kids) all solemnly handed out our presents according to a strict rota (youngest first, naturally).”

In their house, says Ger, Santa presents were left at the foot of the bed, in a pillow case.

“I never understood the whole Christmas stocking business. You couldn’t even get one annual into a Christmas stocking!

“So, about six o’clock in the morning, you’d wake up and your feet would bump against something unusual resting at the end of the bed and you’d remember what day it was.”

A Christmas party for Army children at Collins Barracks, Cork, just before Christmas in 1934
A Christmas party for Army children at Collins Barracks, Cork, just before Christmas in 1934

Then it was out to early mass (“or masses —we sometimes stayed for all three”) and then home, shivering, for breakfast, followed by the busiest time of the year for his hard-worked mother with all the preparations for the festive feast, not least the drama of the turkey (“would the drafty gas-oven do its work? Would Everything be Ruined?”) etc.

In many households, going to Midnight Mass was an integral part of the festival, and in country villages this was a ritual observed by everyone, young and old.

In the city, though, such events tended to become a little too crowded and enthusiastic for cautious parents.

“We were never allowed to go to Midnight Mass,” remembers Eileen. 

“But we were always up for the eight o’clock one on Christmas morning. It was so exciting getting dressed and going out into the pitch black, with all the stars still blazing in the sky.

“The living room had been transformed overnight while we were safely asleep, and once breakfast was over, the door was unlocked and we were allowed to rush in and gasp at the tree and see all the presents which had magically appeared there.

“I can remember the wonderful scent of that spruce as if it were yesterday. It’s something that always brings the memory of Christmas back, wherever I catch the scent now.”

Christmas in the 1950s was a brilliant time, says Johnny Campbell, though far removed from the razzmatazz we see today.

“My mother came from Doneraile originally, but the family moved to the city when she was quite young. I suspect she brought some of the Doneraile customs with her, which included goose instead of turkey for Christmas dinner.

“She had four children of which I was the second youngest and she carried out the task of making each of us feel we were her special pet with aplomb.”

“We never got into making presents for each other as she organised everything and made sure we had presents for everybody.

“There was a ritual where our parents would bring us to HCC and Woolams, the main toy shops on MacCurtain Street, and we would pick out presents from them. Santa would, of course, bring us our ‘real’ present if we were good and we wrote and posted our letters to him in good time.

“We would have been in and out of HCC and Woolams for weeks before and would know exactly what we wanted.”

Santa in the Campbell household, however, was a different matter.

“We would all gather in our parents’ bedroom early on Christmas morning and Santa would arrive in full regalia — red suit, red hat, red socks, big white beard, sack on the back.

“This worked very well for a number of years until the fateful Christmas when Santa stubbed his toe on the foot of the bed and turned the air blue with undeletable expletives. We were all shocked but Santa beat a hasty retreat and our mother calmed us down as only she could.

“We were very suspicious though and early in the New Year, my big brother suggested to me that there was something strange going on and we should search the spare room in the attic. In a trunk which contained spare bed linen and unwanted wedding presents, we discovered a large pillow case with all of Santa’s gear inside. I was devastated. My brother suggested that our father was acting in loco Santa Claus, who was, after all, a busy man, but deep down inside, we had doubts.

“We probably kept it going for another year but then faced reality and committed the cardinal sin of telling all our friends in the neighbourhood that there was no Santa Claus!

“About three years ago, a former neighbour of mine told me I was the first man to break her heart. I looked at her, puzzled, and asked her to explain. ‘You took away my dreams’, she said, ‘you told me there was no Santa Claus’.”

There has been much discussion in recent years about the worry of confusing small children with visits to various Santas in city stores. Will they wonder which is the real one? Will it give them complexes?

“Oh we had no illusions about the toy shop ones,” declares Eileen. “You knew perfectly well they were people taken on for the season. Some were certainly better than others of course.

“You would see a bad-tempered younger chap in one place, with a beard that didn’t fit at all well, and he seemed to grudge handing out the presents, let alone talking to you.

“Then there were others who were really nice and more like your idea of what he should be. But Santa Claus himself, the great Spirit of Christmas from the North Pole, came on Christmas Eve, and there was no question about that.”


To finish, a lovely email from Des White, who thoroughly enjoyed our earlier columns on Cork’s café society.

“What a trip down memory lane,” writes Des. “On my first day in UCC in 1964 I knew nobody in Cork. I had just bought a cuppa and a bun in the Rest and was looking for a place to sit when a stranger came up to me and asked me to join him and his friends.

“It was dental student Noel O’Donovan, mentioned in your article. We became fast friends but I haven’t seen him since 1970.

“A great column with spot-on detail! Keep it up.”


In next week’s Throwback Thursday column, on New Year’s Eve, we will be remembering the theatrical ghosts of Christmas Past, and some legendary theatres which were the nurseries of future dramatic stars.

Merry Yuletide to you all, and while you’re posting your letters to St Nicholas, don’t forget to email your memories to us!

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