My parents always put great effort and time into preparing for Christmas each year, and they were very special times in my home in Derrykinlough. When the season was near, we put up big and gaudy decorations, and we loved them. Nothing compared to the excitement of seeing our house transformed with Christmas cheer. The sitting room always received special treatment. Its timber ceiling easily accepted our drawing pins so we went particularly overboard with criss-crossing streamers with balloons added to each corner.
Nature made its contribution with the holly, which we raided from a neighbour’s tree, a bicycle journey away. We cut it into small branches and placed it over pictures and high-rise furniture. We did not care whether they had berries or not. Berries were generally rare except for the occasional year when a full bloom would surprise us all.
One Christmas in the early seventies artificial trees were on display for purchase in Jim Grady’s shop in Gurteen. We were all amazed at how real they looked, so my mother decided to buy one during one of her trips to the village. There was great excitement in our house when she arrived home with the parcel, and when it was unwrapped we thought it was the nicest tree we had ever seen. It was tall, broad and very convincing in its realism. At that time, it was unthinkable that anyone would assume it was anything but real, especially after we decorated it with tinsel and an assortment of differently shaped and coloured baubles.
Christmas heralded more frequent visits by the postman, who came daily with Christmas cards. We would line them up on the mantelpiece, and then the overflow would go on a specially constructed line of thread across one of the walls. We always counted how many we received to see if they outnumbered those of the preceding year. They usually did, but some years when the count seemed low we cheated a little by adding a few of the cards stored away with the Christmas decorations from previous years. It was tempting to delude people into thinking we had received more cards than we actually did, and I think it was my brother Kevin who started this trend, but I soon caught on to the idea too. However, one year we were over the moon when the real number amounted to over thirty cards. We thought our popularity was at an all-time high.
Something else stands out in my memory of earlier Christmases: the big market fairs in Tubbercurry. This annual event on December the 8th attracted large crowds since it was the place to go for Christmas gifts and, not least, to buy a turkey. Buying a turkey was no easy task, and my father would cast an experienced eye over all the birds until he spotted one he judged to be healthy and well fed. In the meantime many jokes were exchanged and plenty of bartering took place. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a reply to a trader asking for too high a price like, “Aarrah… What are you talking about? I wouldn’t give the butt of a fag for that,” when negotiations took a turn for the worse.
Eventually, a live turkey would be purchased and taken home, where its health and happiness would continue to be watched over until a few days before Christmas. Then it would be slaughtered, plucked and cleaned in time for dinner on the day itself.
Christmas time also meant an extended story about Fella, the office dog, in the December edition of St Martin’s Magazine. I would eagerly await and read the story longing to see what the twist would be at the end. Here is one of the stories:
Hello, Boys and Girls,
Oh, what an awful fright we got as Jock Bruce Spider put his hand in his pocket and took out the letters that were to be posted two weeks ago telling Santa what we wanted. Freddy Fly sarcastically said that if we woke up on Christmas morning and found nothing, Jock would be the first to call Santa names and say how mean he was.
Jock and I rushed downstairs to listen to what Freddy Fly and Mr. Fairy would say and to see if anything could be done for us. Freddy handed the letter to the Fairy and said: ‘That stupid Spider is going to ruin our Christmas’. Jock said to me: ‘Fella! I think Freddy Fly might sometimes be right, I think I am stupid.’ All I did was to give a big growl and make a bite at him. I said that besides being stupid he was unreliable, and I made another bite at him.
All this time the Fairy kept looking at the letters and turning them over in his hand, saying: ‘Mr. Fly, you are asking an awful lot. Do you know you are asking me to break the first law of Toyland, which is that all letters must be posted so that they will be received at least three days before Christmas? You beg me to bring your letter by hand just hours before Santa leaves! Oh! Mr. Fly, you are asking a lot, but put on the kettle and we will have a chat and see if anything can be done’.
Jock looked at me and said: ‘Fella, Santa will be leaving in a few hours and all that Fairy wants to do is sit there drinking tea. I know we are going to have a very sad and lonely Christmas.’ All I did was to give another growl and make another bite at him reminding him once again that it was all his fault. Boys and Girls, it was just awful listening to Mr. Fairy talking about football, and where he was when he was small, and all the time drinking cup after cup of tea but still there was no sign of him going. From where we were hiding we could see our three letters sticking out of his pocket and once again Jock said: ‘I hope he does not forget to deliver them’.
At last Freddy Fly said: ‘Mr. Fairy, I hope you remember the letters you have in your pocket, for in a few hours Santa will be leaving’. With that the Fairy jumped up and said: ‘I nearly forgot about the letters! Please let me out. Freddy Fly why didn’t you remind me? I’m late already and by the look of things I can’t see myself being in time for Santa before he leaves. Perhaps he will not even take delivery of them.’ With that he finished his tenth cup of tea and dashed for the door shouting: ‘Happy Christmas’.
When Mr. Fairy left, Jock Bruce Spider and I rushed over to Freddy Fly who said: ‘Men! Things are looking bad. I cannot see that Fairy getting those letters to Toyland in time. If he is late it should be a lesson to every little boy and girl all over the world to post their letters in time and not expect Santa to bring the toys if he doesn’t get the letters’. Then Freddy said that the best thing for us to do was to go to bed and hope that, maybe, Mr. Fairy would be back in time and we would not have to go back to play with our last year’s toys.
Jock and I went to bed and I felt sorry for poor Jock as he wept and said: ‘It is all my fault! As Freddy said I’m stupid, I’m stupid!’ Well, Boys and Girls, I do remember getting into my basket, but I don’t remember going asleep for all of a sudden I woke and there was Jock Bruce Spider dressed up like an Indian and screaming: ‘Fella, Fella, Santa came after all! A Happy Christmas Freddy Fly and Fella’.
Oh, Boys and Girls, I jumped out of my box and there stood a lovely, gleaming three-wheel tricycle with the words ‘For a good Dog. Happy Christmas from Santa’. Well, I could hardly believe my eyes to see such a lovely present. So Mr. Fairy got back in time to Santa in Toyland and we all had a Happy Christmas with all our lovely presents. We hope you have the same. Until next month, three barks and a wag of my tail! Woof! Woof! Woof! Fella.
The idea of Santa Claus was very much alive in my house when I was very young. I recall waking before dawn on Christmas morning and looking at the gap at the bottom of my bedroom door to see if I could see a light on in the sitting room. If I did, I knew my mother was up, and without further thought I would leap out of bed and race to the sitting room to see if Santa had indeed come. And there on the table would be a wrapped brown parcel waiting for me. The thrill and excitement of getting the string off added to the agonising suspense of the moment. Many coveted gifts would be revealed: train sets, colouring books, pens and Plasticine – Christmas had well and truly arrived.
What never seemed to arrive though was snow. I recall Christmas Eve as having a distinctive peacefulness about it. Snow certainly wouldn’t have been out of place then, and I remember often longing for a white Christmas. I think that Christmas cards picturing a pristine all-white world fostered the anticipation of snow, and maybe it was just as well we kept the nicer cards for redisplay because no snow made its appearance in the Christmases of my youth. The weather unfortunately always remained mild.
My mother switched on all the lights in our house on Christmas Eve, and a candle was placed on the kitchen windowsill. This was symbolic to show that our Lady and St Joseph were welcome in our house. This touching simplicity reminded us of the Christmas story, and that it was the beginning of a joyous time to be cherished and enjoyed.
Christmas Day was usually very relaxing in our house. After Mass, my brothers and I helped our father with the necessary farm jobs, but we did them as quickly as possible. The essential turf for mother’s fire was brought in while she had the very serious task of cooking the Christmas dinner. “Keep that fire well stoked,” was a remark often to be heard coming from her lips. The table was always meticulously laid with mother’s best table linen and crockery.
Films on television were limited, but anything with dinosaurs or something that would frighten or thrill would add another few hours’ enjoyment to an already perfect day. A few neighbours or my godfather, who lived nearby, would come to visit in the latter part of the evening, with my parents usually doing the chatting and entertaining.
St Stephen’s Day was special too – everybody in Ireland calls it St Stephen’s Day as opposed to Boxing Day. Ireland has a long tradition involving something called ‘Wrenboys’. This focuses around the wren – a little brown bird similar in appearance and size to a robin but without a red breast. Stories about the wren come from mythology dating back to the Middle Ages. The Irish word for wren is dreán or draoi éan, which translates as ‘druid bird’, and according to ancient folklore the wren is quite a mischievous little bird. Allegedly, when the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums and made a loud noise. This noise woke the rival troops in time to fight the Irish soldiers, resulting in many casualties. Another tale blames the wren for betraying St Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. Apparently, St Stephen was hiding from his attackers, but a nearby wren flapped its wings, alerting the pursuers to his hiding place. Evidently, because of these misdemeanours a folklore king dictated that all wrens should be hunted down and killed. Thankfully, a less harsh interpretation of this command was in place several centuries on and all that was required was to sing or play a musical instrument on December the 26th. Perhaps this was punishment enough for the wrens, having to listen to croaky voices and musical malfunctions when they could otherwise be perched peacefully on tree branches. A financial reward was usually given at the end of each wren entertainment. This is a little verse which explains the process a little more:
The wren, the wren,
the king of all birds
On Stephen’s Day
was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle
Down with the pan
Give us a penny
to bury the wren.
If you haven’t a penny
A ha’penny will do
If you haven’t a ha’penny
God Bless You.
I personally went out on the ‘wren’ for four years in a row; the first two with an older friend, and after he had outgrown the experience a different friend accompanied me for another two years. I can’t remember what I sang with the first friend, it could well have been a rendition of either Silent Night or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which are still sung by wren boys to this day. However, during the final two years my act became more refined in the sense that I chose a song by Brendan Shine, an Irish country and western singer, entitled Where the Three Counties Meet.
Throughout my wren career, I always cycled from house to house with my partner. We travelled around for at least eight hours, covering a dozen or so of the local rural villages with our act. Our trips took us through muddy boreens and over fences; we were often attacked by dogs, and knocked on dozens of doors before singing our song. But there was a tremendous excitement about travelling around and singing in public. Some households gave generously, whilst others only a little. But some people were kind enough to give us chocolates and biscuits as well as money. I left the task of ‘cashier’ to my partners. They collected the money throughout the day and at the end we went to one of our houses and split our earnings equally.I will always remember Brendan Shine’s song with its jovial lyrics:
Oh how lovely to be on the shores of Lough Ree
On a beautiful mid summer’s morning
Looking over the lake where the waters do break
By the hills in the County Roscommon
I left my home, in the town of Athlone
On the way to the Three Jolly Pigeons
It was near Glasson town, on the road I sat down
And looked over the beautiful Shannon
Lough Ree, oh Lough Ree, where the three counties meet
Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon
As I stroll round her banks, by the heather and peat
They’re the memories I’ve never forgotten
Oh sad was the day, that I went away
To work among timbers and concrete
For now as a man, I must follow life’s plan
I forsook the dear place of my homeland
If God grants me grace, I’ll return to the place
When the sunset of life has come o’er me
Once again on these shores, like a bird my heart soars
As I gaze on the beauty around me.
I would arrive home at the end of the day, just before dusk, exhausted and dirty, although I was richer than at the beginning of it. My mother would have something lovely and warm ready for me to eat, and I would go to bed afterwards feeling very happy. The exuberance of innocence and youth was in full flow. Christmas time was simply brilliant!
Published in The Ireland’s Own and the Sligo Weekend