Memories of a Cavan Christmas

The magic of Christmas, with all its wonderful world of childhood fascination and expectancy, crept in quickly in Cavan during the 1940šs. By: Brendan Murray

The magic of Christmas, with all its wonderful world of childhood fascination and expectancy, crept in quickly in Cavan during the 1940’s. The glad tidings that the season of goodwill was approaching, was usually heralded in by pictures of Santa’s benevolent bearded face appearing in the December issues of “Our Boys” and “Irelands Own”.

During subsequent days, confirmation that he was still alive and well and about to commence his journey from the North Pole was evidenced by pictures of him looking out from various corners of the “Anglo Celt” and the daily newspapers. He was always in jolly poses with his reindeers tethered to a sleigh laded down with sacks overflowing with toys, which our parents warned us were only for good boys and girls. So, we had to be on our best behaviour, at least until Christmas Day. Santa was never seen in the flesh in those days, at least, not in the small towns and villages of Co. Cavan, so in that respect he was like God; you believed in him even though you didn’t see him. Those life-like pictures of him in the magazines and newspapers were real proof of his existence.

Turkey Pluckers
During the weeks before Christmas, the gobble gobble of turkeys being conveyed in covered horse carts by farmers to market could be heard above the rattle of the cart wheels. The turkeys would be purchased by traders who employed pluckers working day and night to ensure an ample supply for both the local and Dublin markets. The pluckers were paid on the basis of the number of birds plucked and some of them had high reputations for the substantial earnings they could achieve. If you happened to pass a building in which they were working, you would hear then singing some popular songs of the day, such as “White Christmas”, “The polka from Castleblayney” (Pennsylvania) and “I’ve got spurs that jingle, jingle, jingle.”

School Holidays
School holidays commenced a couple of days before Christmas. The loud cheering of the children as they burst through the school gates, like caged animals let loose, an hour before normal finishing time could be heard far and wide. Most children then made a bee-line for a particular shop window in the town, famous for it’s display of numerous and varied toys. Winking Christmas lights, coloured red, blue, green and yellow would border the window, while other attractive lights showed to great effect the selection of toys, which included red and black train sets, cars, lorries, cowboy outfits comprising hat, gun and holster; red Indian outfits with head band of coloured feathers and bow and arrows, games of snakes and ladders and ludo, as well as compendiums of games. Also on display would be attractively dressed dolls, rag dolls, golly wogs and teddy bears, as well as jack in the box, nurses outfits comprising white cap and apron and small box with the words “First Aid” printed in bold red letters on the top; also bus conductor outfits with dark peak cap and wallet of tickets of various colours and price denominations with moneybags and ticket puncher and a great selection of Christmas Stockings stuffed with goodies. Having surveyed this array of toys, the childrens’ requests from Santa were either finalised or altered.

Christmas Eve
Events always reached a high peak on Christmas Eve. By this time, pieces of holly had been placed behind every picture in our kitchen and parlour and decorations hung across the ceilings with a large bell shaped decoration as a centre piece and the Christmas tree, fully decorated, standing in its usual corner in the parlour. The morning post on Christmas Eve brought the last of the Christmas cards, which were added to the increasing display on the mantle piece and sideboards. The cards with Celtic design and in verses by Brian O’Higgins were prominently displayed. Sometimes, the odd present for parents, such as a box of embroidered hankies or woollen gloves or scarves arrived by this post. Later in the day, the delivery of the Christmas box from the family’s main grocer in appreciation of our custom during the year was an enjoyable highlight. We sat around the kitchen table watching our mother taking out various items from the large cardboard box. The items usually included a half lb of tea, a large white candle, a bottle of port wine, a barm brack or small Christmas pudding and finally the item we were all waiting for - a beautiful white iced Christmas cake enveloped in silver and red crinkly paper and with “Merry Christmas” written in pink edible icing across the top. Smaller presents such as bracks and calendars would be received from other shops.

During the day, it was marvellous to stroll down the town and experience the cheerful convivial atmosphere, jovial farmers and townspeople entering and leaving shops and pubs, loudly exchanging seasonal greetings, the smell of whiskey and brandy on passing breaths and the loud singing heard from the odd pub as you passed. Men had the pubs all to themselves in those days became women did not frequent pubs and few women drank alcoholic beverages; those who did partook only of a small port or sherry, and then only in the privacy of the snug with their husbands and friends.

The solemn chimes of the church bell at 11pm reminded parishioners that it was time to commence preparations to attend church for the celebration of midnight mass. Soon, in the company of our parents, we joined the throngs of parishioners on the way to the church; some walking, some on bicycles lit by an assortment of lamps; battery, dynamo or carbide. The carbide lamps were obvious from the smell of carbide as they passed and their distinctive small red and green side reflectors. Also, the odd pony and trap with side lamps passed us by. When we reached the church gates we joined the long queue of people, young and old, awaiting the opening of the church doors. When the doors were opened, the men removed their hats and caps as they entered and took their places in seats on the right hand side, known as the men’s side, while the women with their heads covered by hats or beres of assorted shapes and colours occupied the seats on the left hand side, known as the women’s side. School-going boys occupied the first two rows of seats on the men’s side while the girls occupied the first two rows of seats on the women’s side.

Immediately at the midnight hour, the priest with full retinue of alter boys, all neatly dressed in black soutans and immaculate white starch surplices, emerged from the vestry and the celebration of midnight mass in the Latin tongue, commenced. During the service the choir sang hymns, which included “Silent Night”, “Angels we have heard on high”, and “Adestes Fidelas.” Following the service as the congregation exited through the lighted church porch seasonal greetings were exchanged with special “welcome home” greetings for the few attractive and sophisticated looking young girls who had been lucky enough to get jobs in the civil service in Dublin. When we arrived home, stockings were hung on the ends of beds and then it was straight to bed and to the land of nod before Santa arrived.

Christmas Morning
We awoke early on Christmas morning to the incomparable pleasure of seeing Santa’s gifts protruding from our stockings or on the floor beneath them. The gifts might not have been what we requested, but the joy and excitement of the occasion ensured that we were well satisfied with them. No matter what gifts Santa brought there was always the added bonus in our stockings of a lovely shiny red apple and a big jafa orange, which in those days when fruit was so scarce was greatly appreciated. Now it was time for action and fun and during the swallowing of our breakfasts we showed and demonstrated Santa’s gifts to our parents and then we joined the cheerful and noisy neighbours kids playing in the street, boys wearing cowboy outfits firing cap guns in the direction of red Indians, who in turn were shooting arrows back at them, other kicking colourful balls around and others demonstrating their gifts to all and sundry. Girls were in groups showing all kinds of dolls to each other, sleeping dolls, dolls in prams as well as rag dolls and annuals and games. We all agreed that Santa was a great man. There was definitely no disbelief whatsoever regarding the question of his existence.

St. Stephens Day
On St Stephen’s Day, we usually awoke to the sound of young wren boys knocking and singing at our front door. They usually wore false faces and old clothes to disguise their identities. Some had their faces blackened. These groups were usually given a penny or two from the pile of coins left on our kitchen mantlepiece by my father for this purpose. As the day progressed groups of older wren boys, dressing in drag or other colourful outfits came and entertained on our front door step our parents and any visitors in our house at the time. Some of these groups were accomplished musicians and accompanied their singing and dancing on various instruments such as the accordion, melodian and harmonica. They were given a six-penny piece from the pile of coins on our mantle piece.

Concert on St Stephens Night
The concert on St Stephen’s night produced by the local drama group was eagerly awaited with great expectations. The plays and variety items would have been rehearsed for weeks beforehand. Plays produced by the drama groups in those days were “The New Gossoon”, “The Damsel from Dublin”, “Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff” and “The Money Doesn’t Matter”. As there was no stage in the “concert hall” (a large warehouse owned by a local businessman) a large temporary stage would have been constructed for the night from scaffolding planks placed on wooden porter barrels, hidden from view by dark drapes.

As members of the audience entered and made their way to their seats, some of which had been borrowed from the chapel earlier in the day, the noises of final preparations by the actors and entertainers behind the borrowed or rented plush wine coloured stage curtains and the blue side drapes to the wings, gave a great air of expectancy to the event. People greeted their friends and neighbours as they settled in their seats and offered them a choice of colourfully wrapped sweets from selections in a paper bags. Soon all seats would be occupied and there would be standing room only for late arrivals. A hush would settle on the loquacious audience when a bell sounded behind the stage curtains to indicate that proceedings were about to commence. Proceedings usually opened by some light entertainment provided by local talent, songs, recitations and irish dancing. The local music teacher always provided accompaniment on the piano for singers on the night. A three act play followed and then there would be short interval when the sale of cloakroom tickets would take place for a raffle for a box of biscuits or chocolates. Price of the tickets were always two pence each and four for six pence. A comedy sketch rounded off the night’s entertainment to ensure that the audience went home in a lighthearted mood.

Final days of the school holidays
The final days of the holidays from school were enjoyed to the full. The games of snakes and ladders and ludo were played over and over again with our pals. The storybooks and annuals were red and reread many times. Outdoor activities such as cowboys and Indians commenced on Christmas morning continued intermittently and if by chance we had a White Christmas then snowball fights were always part of the fun. Jack Frost always visited County Cavan so were were able to make a long slide of about eighty yards in length down the hill in the middle of the road approaching the town. All the children small or tall were expert sliders on this glassy slide. Following a fast run up to ensure maximum speed at take off point, kids would slide most of the length of the slide on their hunkers.

There was an orderly procedure of getting your turn to slide; each of us took our place in the queue of kids of all ages and sizes about thirty yards from the take off point at the top of the hill, and when our turn came, like athletes in a long jump event, we ran and propelled ourselves forward at max speed to commence sliding with left or right foot forward and speed down the glassy surface closely followed by our companions. Some farmers sons wearing hobnailed boots had a great advantage as the hobnails allowed them to slide much faster then others; some of these lads pretended to be well shod horses and as they “galloped” towards start of the slide, they whinnied as they rapidly caught up with you from behind and propelled you faster downhill. Of course when each of us reached the bottom of the hill there was a mad scramble back up to the top to be first to join the queue for the next turn.

Days of Port Wine
The edible presents received at Christmas were consumed at varying rates. Santa’s apples helped to sustain our energies on Christmas Day. Our bosum pals were allowed a small sample bite. The jafa orange did not last beyond St Stephen’s Day and then it’s juices became the main ingredient of a hot orange drink. A box of afternoon team biscuits won by my mother one year at the St Stephens Night concert lasted until the day of Little Christmas.

The bottle of port wine received in the Christmas Box of 1942 from our family grocer remained unopened until the twenty forth day of May when it was consumed by our female friends and relations at the christening celebrations for the new addition to our family, baby Mary Carmel Theresa.
During subsequent years, the christening celebrations for each of the four more additions to our family saw the last of Christmas and the port wine.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2002