"CHRISTMAS some 80 years ago was a very happy occasion," says a lady from Carbury in Co. Kildare. "Although there were no luxuries, as we know them today," Her mother, who is 87 years of age, recalls that in her young day people could only afford a roast at Christmas day (and at Easter). "Turkeys were a very real luxury. They never seem to have bothered with a turkey."
For a Christmas present. the grocer, where they were customers all the year round would give them one pound of rice. one pound of currants and the same of raisins — also a cinnamon stick, spice and nutmeg: that was for the rice pudding which was cooked in a pot oven on the open hearth.
For good measure they also got brack the size of a griddle and if the man of the house smoked, three clay pipes and a few boxes of matches. Then on Christmas morning, all would go to early Mass and home then to a pan of rashers and pudding. which was rare in those days.
This memory of Christmas is very typical of Irish Christmasses at the beginning of the century, and in the 1890s. The grocer always gave gifts to his customers — and they generally included rice: perhaps a fertility symbol for the coming year?
But then. in the Ireland of the turn of the century, it was not a question of a free market: the grocer was generously rewarded for his Christmas kindness.
"In those days." says a Galway man. "a family dealt religiously in a particular shop, and if that shop did not stock all the required items, the customer was satisfied with a substitute — or just did without".
In many parts of Ireland. they traditionally ate fish on Christmas Eve — "hake. white sauce and floury potatoes". recalls a Cork lady.
Hot wine and punch were drunk, as well as whiskey and claret.
All elderly people in Ireland remember that the run-up to Christmas was marked by a frenetic spring-cleaning of the house: an odd time of the year. perhaps. but the Irish were a deeply religious people and the notion behind the ritualistic cleaning was. of course. in pre paration for the birth of the Lord. Visiting the crib on Christmas Eve was obligatory, There was a side to the religious festivities that I think we would not altogether approve of today.
"I remember watching the men take up the collection," a Co Antrim man recalls of the 1920s, "one with a large soup plate, the other with a notebook and pencil recording names and amounts — leaning across occasionally to ask a name."
Amounts donated were afterwards read Out from the altar. the richest farmer inevitably giving a ha'penny. the poorest tenant regularly putting sixpence on the plate.
Of course, it was usual to hear three Masses on Christmas morning in Ireland traditionally. How many: of us hear three Masses today? (Mind you, the Antrim man recalls them as having been somewhat rushed through).
On Christmas Eve, a candle was lit and left conspicuously in the front parlour window burning all night, ostensibly in remembrance of Mary and Joseph on the road.
It was also customary to leave the front door open for any travellers in a similar position to the Holy Family.
Pagan superstitions mingled with Christian beliefs. The Irish were traditionally very suspicious about ivy: in fact it is a plant associated with the ancient mother-goddesses and thus s+ ith witchcraft.
In some parts of Ireland. it was considered unlucy to burn ivy until after the twelfth day.
Christmas Day itself was usually for the family: visitations began on St Stephen's Day — called Boxing Day now in Britain.
The feast of the Epiphany. January 6 was known as "Women's Christmas". "On that night a bucketful of spring water was left on a stool and we were told that at midnight the water would change into wine. but somehow it never happened." recalls a country woman.
The Christmas season didn't in fact end until St Brigid's Day on February 1. when the straw collected from the Infant's bed in the crib was placed in the ceiling of the house to keep away evil spirits.
More of the straw would be kept for the goose's nest on St Patrick's Day.
Christmas in traditional Ireland was the high point of a whole cycle of rituals which rotated around the year, interlocking into a pattern of unity.
St Patrick's Day. March 17, was the start of the Christmas preparations. in fact (and we think it gets earlier every year!). Then it was that the goose sat on her "throne of straw", hatching her eggs: the straw itself had come from the manger of the crib. you will recall. Through the summer and autumn, the animals were raised and fattened. and buying in for Christmas started soon after Hallow'een.
In Cork, the Christmas holly was sometimes burnt on Shrove Tuesday, so that there were echoes of Christmas right into spring.
Christmas Eve was, if anything. more important than Christmas Day itself, following the old Irish custom of counting the night before as the beginning of a Feast-day.
To the Irish countryman, "Christmas Night" still means the night before Christmas: the night of Christmas itself is called "Christmas Day Night-. The English would call that very Irish logic indeed.
In some parts of Co. Clare. it was believed that something special happened to animals at midnight on Christmas eve: cattle were said to be given the gift of speech. and the donkey was said to kneel.
This presumably derives from the presence of the donkey and the ox in the manger at Bethlehem. A fascinating ritual which must have gone back to the Middle Ages was that of the "Mummers". Children would dress up in fearsome clothes and visit neighbours on Stephen's Day. This was linked with the ritual of the Wren: the children would chant "The Wren. the Wren. the king of all birds," and beg money for the wren. This again may have a pagan ceremonial root, although in symbolic language a bird is the image of the soul — being winged, it stands for spiritualisation. The Wren. I think. has now almost completely died out in Ireland today: indeed. most of the rituals and traditions, which had lasted hundreds, perhaps a thousand years have been almost wholly wiped out within the past fifty years. as Ireland has moved over to the cosmopolitan Christmas of identikit commercialism: the same Father Christmas from San Francisco to Tokyo; the same German Christmas tree, the universal turkey and jingle bells.
Of course, elderly people in Ireland recall vividly the poverty and hardship of the country before the first world war,— they remember that Christmas was notable for being the one time of year people had enough to eat. But inevitably. the price to be paid for material progress is the loss of traditional ways; the consumer society is an international culture which disdains old. identifiable customs. An Irish Christmas today is more or less indistinguishable from Any other.