A Country Christmas

Christmas in our house was always magical and for weeks beforehand my toes would tingle at the thought of it. The first inkling of its reality was Santa’s picture in the Cork Examiner: we pored over him, loving every wrinkle in his benevolent face. At first his was a small face peeping from an obscure corner, but as Christmas drew nearer his presence became more reassuringly felt as he filled a larger space on the page.

The first step in the preparations in our home was the plucking of the geese, not only for our own family but also for all our relations. A night in early December was set aside for killing and plucking; homework had to be completed quickly after school that day and when the cows had been milked and supper finished the kitchen was cleared for the undertaking. I never witnessed the actual actual because my mother performed this ritual away from the eyes of us children, but when she brought the geese still slightly flapping and warm into the kitchen I always felt that she, who was gentle by nature, had been through some sacrificial fire which but for necessity she would have avoided.

Each member of the family with arms strong enough sat on a súgán (‘súgán’ – Irish Gaelic: a rope made from hay or straw – pron. ‘soogawn’ – Ed.) chair with a warm goose across their knees. My father, however, washed his hands of all this crazy carry-on and, after imparting a lecture about relations providing their own Christmas dinner, he set out across the fields roving to a neighbour’s house where “sanity” prevailed. Strong feathers were eased off first and put into a big box and then the pure down was stowed in a smaller one. As the night wore on our arms ached and our noses itched with downy fluff, but my mother coaxed and cajoled until half a dozen geese lay starkers on the floor. With our mission accomplished we viewed each other with great merriment, our white downy heads and eyebrows lending us the appearance of white-haired gnomes. We tidied everything up then and gathered with cups of cocoa around the open fire, where my father would join us with perfect timing, bringing with him the tang of the night air and frost glittering on his high boots.

During the weeks that followed the outside walls of the farmyard were whitewashed or cement washed and all the yards and passageways were brushed. Inside, the house itself was washed and polished, but first the wide chimney was brushed. Standing close to our fire and peering up the chimney you could see the sky: it was a perfect Santa chimney. The kitchen floor was scrubbed, as were two tables and the chairs used to seat the lot of us. Our household seldom numbered less than ten: my parents, six of us children, a man who helped my father, a girl who helped my mother, and invariably one or two others, either miscellaneous relations or extra helpers.

The next step was “the bringing of the Christmas”, as we called it. My father and mother would set out early one morning for the nearest town to buy everything that was needed for Christmas. At this stage we usually had our holidays from school and we waited expectantly all day for the homecoming; usually night had fallen by the time we heard the pony’s hooves in the yard. Bubbling with excitement we watched the succession of interesting boxes being carried in and stored away in the parlour and glimpsed bottles of lemonade sparkling amidst red and white Christmas candles which foretold their own story. Other goodies were skilfully obscured from our prying fingers and inquisitive eyes.

At last, Christmas Eve dawned. We brought in the holly which we had collected from the wood the previous Sunday and in a short time holly branches were growing from behind every picture – everywhere but around the clock, which was my father’s sanctum and could not be touched. Then the Christmas tree. Our house was surrounded by trees: my father planted them all his life and he loved every one of them. At Christmas he suffered deciding which of his little ones had to be sacrificed. We usually ended up with a lop-sided branch instead of a full tree, but when it was dancing with Christmas cards and balloons it always seemed a beauty. We ran streamers across the kitchen and did everything our way while my mother made the stuffing and ignored the bedlam.

A big turnip was cleaned and a hole bored in it for the candle; this was decorated with red berried holly and placed in the window. That night no blinds would be drawn so that the light would shine out to light the way for Joseph and Mary. Before supper the Christmas log was brought in and placed behind the fire in the open hearth. Banked around with sods of turf it soon sent out a glow of warmth to make the toast that that was part of our Christmas supper tradition. But before anything could be eaten the Christmas candle had to be lit. We all gathered round and my father lit the candle and my mother sprinkled us with holy water. Then we sat around the kitchen table, my father at the top with my mother on his right and each of us in our own place. I feasted my eyes on the white iced cake, the seed loaf and barm brack, but most of all I gazed at the mountain of golden toast streaming with yellow butter. After supper we had lemonade and biscuits and the ecstasy of the gassy lemonade bubbling down my nose remains a memory that is Christmas for me.

Our gramophone was normally kept safe in the parlour but at Christmas my father brought new records and we played them non-stop. Silence was restored for the news on the radio but we young ones had no interest in the news; to us there was no world outside our own. After the news we all got on our knees for the rosary, something I never enjoyed usually, but on Christmas night it became real: this was the actual birthday of the baby. Looking out of the window into the dark night, thinking that the same stars had shone on him so many years before, in my imagination I saw the cave and the animals in the warm straw and heard the angels singing. On that far-off Christmas night I was there in my child’s mind.

Off our knees my father performed the usual ritual of winding the clock. Then, standing at the foot of the stairs, his last words to my mother were: “Len, come to bed before morning”. My mother, a night person who always got a second wind facing midnight, had jelly to make, stockings to darn, underwear to air around the fire. We hung our stockings on the old-fashioned crane convenient for Santa as he came down the chimney, and then mother ushered us all off to bed, the more responsible ones with a sconce and a candle.

Ours was a large room with two beds and an iron cot with shiny s railings and knobs. If the night was very cold we had a fire which cast mystic shadows along the low timber ceiling while the moon shone fingers of light across the floor. Anything seemed possible. Try as I might to keep my eyes open to see Santa appear out of the shadows, I was soon carried into the world of nod and awoke to the excruciating pleasure of sensing that Santa had been. No sensation in later life could compare with the boundless joy of those early Christmas mornings when Santa was an unquestioned reality. The gifts in the stockings were always simple and indeed often of a practical nature but the mystique of the whole occasion gave them an added glow.

Having woken mother and father to display for them Santa’s benevolence, those of us going to first Mass set out in the early dawn to walk the three miles to the church. Candles glowed from the farmhouses in the surrounding valley, making this morning very different. The lighted church welcomed us, but it was the crib rather than the Mass that was special to me, to whom these were no plaster dummies; they were the real thing. Afterwards we either walked home or got a lift from a neighbouring horse and trap. Breakfast was always of baked ham, after which the remainder of the family went to the second Mass of the day. Before leaving for Mass my mother placed the stuffed goose in a bastable over the fire with layers of hot coals on the cover. There it slowly roasted, filling the kitchen with a mouth-watering aroma.

The clattering of the pony’s hooves heralded the family’s arrival home and finally after much ado we were all seated around the table for the Christmas dinner. Was anything ever again to taste as good? My mother’s potato stuffing was in a class of its own. We finished our dinner as the King’s speech began on the radio. My father had Protestant roots and always instilled in us an appreciation of things British as well as Irish. My mother listened to the Pope, my father to the King of England, and to us they were both as much a part of Christmas as Santa. our new records were played again and again, and toys were savoured to the full until after supper exhaustion finally won the day and we dragged our small, weary feet upstairs to bed.

It was all over for another year, but each year was another page in the book of childhood.

: Alice Taylor. From her classic book To School Through the Fields – an Irish Country Childhood. First published by Brandon Books, Dingle, County Kerry, in 1988, it went on to become the most popular book in the history of publishing in Ireland and has been reprinted many times.

We are grateful to her publishers for permission to reprint this delightful piece, the final chapter of the book.

Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997

Christmas Box