WE have some more of your happy recollections of Christmases past this week, when things somehow seemed simpler and warmer.
Those were hard enough times, heaven knows, but families dug in and worked hard and enjoyed the few festive treats all the more.
Felim Buckley, now living in New Jersey, shared some more of his childhood Christmases, saying that his warmest memories of those days are: “My mother, who was a country girl from near Cootehill, Cavan, making the Christmas pudding in the kitchen.
“The pudding was boiled in a white pillow case and the resulting cannonball shape was hung overnight from a kitchen table leg to cool and set.”
Felim recalls “the spiced beef cooking late on Christmas Eve and the children given a sliver of the cooked meat before heading off to bed, The aroma of the spiced beef was like a Christmas pot pourri.
“Spiced beef is not available here in the USA, but I have managed to recreate it myself, and try to keep the tradition alive with my American children.”
Other memoried stirred up by Felim were “the deluge of post and Christmas cards every day... drinking Raza raspberry drink...” and “a mystery relative on a motorbike who delivered a tin of Afternoon Tea every Christmas and rode off into the night.”
Also: “Christmas Bazaars in the City Hall, where winning a hamper meant having a luxurious Christmas dinner.”
Oh who else remembers those Christmas bazaars in the City Hall?
To our childhood eyes they seemed like the Arabian Nights, with stalls all round selling fascinating things, maybe a tempting sample of some delicious foodstuff, new-fangled toys and kitchen equipment to catch the eye, and quite often a Grand Fancy Dress which had creative parents working for weeks beforehand to ensure their child got noticed.
We remember particularly one pretty little girl with dark curls who wore a green dress trimmed with white fur, while behind her trailed a large spring. Her title? “If Winter Comes, Can Spring Be Far Behind?”
“My sister and I went as a medieval princess and her page,” recalls Eileen Barry.
“Our mother made everything, even down to the tunic and multi-coloured tights for the page. We dragged along our pet Pekinese as a medieval dog, to complete the picture. She wasn’t too enamoured of the whole thing, but we did get a prize.”
Tom Jones, now living in Key West, shared more memories of Christmastime on Shandon Street in the early 1950s.
“I send to you these recollections of mine. I hope they do not appear to be too Dystopian, as that was not my intent, but I wrote what my recollections bring to me when I take my mind on a journey down Nostalgia Lane, back to a time now long past in the recess of my memories, yet never forgotten.
“Shandon Street back in the early 1950s, or the year 1955, with the destruction by fire of the Old Cork Opera on December 12, which I witnessed, a night when Cork collectively cried”.
Shandon Street, said Tom, “was a pretty vibrant street, both as a residential and commercial thoroughfare of enterprise. In particular with people who resided in the northside of the city. It was, after all being said and done, the Main Street for many back then.
“Bradleys Grocery Store, situated around mid-Shandon Street, would be a hive of activity at Christmas as indeed all year, and was a major source of commerce, with necessary items like tea, sugar, and such, purchased sometimes by the ounce, and weighed on the scales counterbalanced by little weights placed on them. Self-serve shopping did not exist in those days.”
Indeed it didn’t, Tom. Now, if we’re kept waiting in a supermarket queue we tap our feet, look annoyed, and signal to the girl on the check-out to call for another outlet to be opened.
In the 1950s, you queued patiently in the shop, using the time to chat with friends, catch up on gossip, eye the shelves to see if there was anything new in, or if there was something you had forgotten.
When it got to your turn, it was expected that the customary pleasantries and enquiries were exchanged before any business was done.
Sugar was weighed out into blue bags, broken biscuits tipped into a brown paper one, and often the rashers cut to the exact thickness you preferred, on the dangerous-looking slicing machine at the end of the counter.
Sometimes the shopkeeper, knowing you of old (and quite possibly your mother too) would courteously remind you of something you might have forgotten. “Some soap, maybe? And did you have enough potatoes? Three and a half pounds, I’ll get them right now.”
And back to the old heavyweight scales at the other end of the shop, there to haul the freshly-dug potatoes from the sack. Yes, it was slower, but we were used to it. We seem to have lost the sense of taking things at a gentle pace. Maybe it’s time to get back to it?
“Now, I sincerely hope I’m not doing anyone an injustice here,” says Tom carefully, “but many customers back then would be getting their groceries ‘on the book’ and paying whenever funds became available, for such was the zeitgeist of the early 1950s for many people in Cork.”
Yes, that was the normal way of surviving then. If your husband got paid on a Friday night, that was when you settled up. It was customary for the shopkeeper to note anything bought during the week on your particular page in his ledger, and then tot it all up when you came to pay.
“As for where I lived,” continues Mr Jones, “it was on the top floor of 64, Shandon Street, diametrically opposite Nosy O’ Keeffe’s shop at the bottom of the street.
Life there for me at that abode consisted of two rooms and two windows, looking up Shandon Street in one direction, yet down the River Lee from the same window or viewpoint.
“The window nearest the North Gate Bridge illuminated the living room, kitchen, pantry, playroom, etc. The other was in the bedroom from whence I got my first view of the outside world at large.”
On looking to the left out that window, he says, the next door neighbours were two of Cork’s most famous premises: “O’Connor’s Funeral Home and, perhaps the busiest of all for the period that’s in it, namely William Jones Pawnshop Ltd. (no relation).”
Yes, for many in the city the pawnshop was part of everyday life: bringing something in, like a best suit or coat, and getting much-needed money for food, hopefully redeeming the pawned article when funds were available again.
O’Connor’s Funeral Home never held any terrors for the young Tom. “Indeed, I still retain fond memories of Val O’ Connor greeting me or providing me with some goody or other, as I played in front of his place of business.”
Other images that come back to Tom’s mind now are women in shawls everywhere, “while others in coats and scarves would congregate on the street, gossiping about the news of the world, or more colloquially the joy or worry, and concern of providing for the oncoming Christmas season.”
“Even though I believe I possess a pretty good memory,” says Tom, “still some reflections in the mirror of my memory banks come back to me in shades of mediocrity and in a monochrome of muted gray, but where other events are recalled, I’ll see them in living colour.
“But through it all, for those of us who can traverse time, and once again see through the eyes of a child, we can linger a while, enraptured in the aura of our childhood.
"Then, once again, I see Christmas time on Shandon Street in a brighter ambience, and a bit more pizazz, with many shops brightening their windows with a Christmas wreath or some other form of decorative tinsel, and local butcher shops with plucked turkeys yet full carcass, with legs tied high and heads dangling from their long necks, much like in the stalls of the English Market once upon a time.
Pictured: A view of Shandon from Shandon Street, Cork, in May, 1928. A reader today recalls his memories of the street while growing up in the 1950s
Tom continues: “A walk down North Main Street to visit Kilgrew’s Toy Store, or Woolworths on Patrick Street with their brightly coloured candles of every shape and size, and walking past Woodford Bourne at the top of Patrick Street with scents that would stimulate our senses to another level altogether.
“The paper Christmas decorations and brightly coloured balloons that hung in some stores. Some organization or other holding a Christmas Bazaar in a storage shed or an unused storefront. The Christmas trees and holly and ivy being offered for sale on the Coal Quay. The excitement of experiencing the Christmas lights of the city. The shops that dressed their windows with a Christmas theme, or filled them with train sets and other toys while we looked at them in awe and longing admiration. These will always be a reminder of, not so much how it used to be, but so much more than that, for, it was in essence, a reality for many of us. It was the way we were. Memories are made of this.”
Expensive or elaborate presents would not be paramount to the content of Christmases back then, he points out. Far more than presents was the presence - a ubiquitous presence in many homes - of a box of a mixed variety of biscuits. Adorned with the scene of a white Christmas on the tin, it was a joy to behold, and which further expanded its longevity by becoming a storage of memoranda for many years to come.
“I’m not sure when the “Selection Box’’ became en vogue,” says Tom, “yet I know it was to become a staple of a Cork Christmas in times to come. As indeed the Gift of the Magi for many a household back then was the Lipton’s Christmas Hamper, which was a godsend. It generally contained a bottle of Raspberry Cordial. That never lasted long, but a glass of diluted ‘Raza’, combined with a piece of Christmas cake, usually a currant or madeira cake, would have been known as ‘mi daza’ and exemplified for us children of the ’50s that Christmas was a special time of year.
“Indubitably, there would be a Christmas annual provided, something of the sort of what was popular back then, The Beano or The Dandy are two that jump to mind here, and Desperate Dan was a favourite of mine.
“A simple pop gun or cap gun, toy soldier, or vehicle was a wonderful gift, and my child’s imagination would run wild and free, fly higher than any bird ever flew. For such were the times of our lives.”
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