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Bringing home the Christmas

30 November, 1999

Chronicler of village life in Ireland, Alice Taylor, recalls some of the Christmas traditions of her childhood for John Scally.

In 1988 Irish publishing was rocked by the runaway success of a book from an unlikely candidate for superstardom. To School Through the Fields, Alice Taylor’s first book of memoirs of country life, became the biggest selling book ever published in Ireland.

Alice was born on a farm near Newmarket, Co Cork. She worked as a telephonist in Killarney and Bandon until she married, when she moved to Innishannon. At first she ran a guesthouse there, then the supermarket and post office. She and her husband, Gabriel Murphy, have four sons and one daughter.

Listening to Alice is like travelling by time machine back to an Ireland that no longer exists. She has a particular glow as she recalls the Christmases of her childhood. “Christmas really began in earnest when families journeyed into town to ‘bring’ home the Christmas. It was far and away the busiest day in the town, a fascinating mixture of the festive spirit and hard-nosed business. The market square was buzzing with the ‘making of the deal’, an event which inevitably provoked heated argument, exaggerated claims and affected disinterest and which ended either in stubborn resistance or with warm handshakes and’Gawd Bless you Mam and a happy Christmas to you and yours’.”

The three items sold on the square were geese, turkeys and Christmas trees. The trees were subjected to intense scrutiny: all trees had to be the genuine article, the faintest suggestion of anything artificial was regarded as nothing less than sacrilege.

There was the obligatory excursion for Mass, preceded by confession, for which we queued interminably. On the window ledges huge white candles flickered slightly as a draught touched them, then shone as brightly as before. Despite the solemnity of the Mass, the incense smelt more beautiful than a springtime primrose.

The main shops were then visited. . The heady exotic smell of spices and dried fruit, the striped pink and white sugar sticks, the gooey, twisty lengths of black liquorices, the golden candied fruits, the coloured jugs of red jam, the mysterious bulging packets were enticing promises of bliss to come. The prices of the most important items were carefully collated, before necessities as well as luxuries were purchased, stretching family financial resources to the very limit.

This was our substitute for going to Dublin on 8 December. That was the day Dublin was invaded by the culchies for the serious business of Christmas shopping. This was not as easy as it sounded, as all the better off people in rural Ireland congregated in Dublin for the same purpose and all targeted the prestigious shops like Clerys to make their purchases. The shop doors were continually opening, with the steady flow of bargain hunters, though some were there only to browse. There was barely room to sneeze.

Alice has a special love for the rituals of Christmas. “The Christmas tree was normally the first to be decorated. After great debate, the nicest cards we had received were selected and exhibited on the mantelpiece amidst a sea of tinsel and holly. Some people cheated by putting two rows of string across the ceiling and hanging up the nicest cards from previous years. A turnip was carefully chosen to play reluctant host to a tali white Christmas candle, which was neatly adorned with springs of red berry holly and dispatched on the kitchen window-sill. The next evening was always the time for setting up the crib. This task was conducted with an air of great solemnity.”

“At Mass the Sunday before Christmas there was a crush of people. The attendance was swelled by emigrants home for Christmas, a welcome respite for families divided by economic necessity. Christmas was a time of delirious reunions as trains and buses brought husbands, fathers, daughters, sons, girlfriends and boyfriends home to the bosom of their families.”

“In dark’s dull density, the curtains were stripped off the windows and a single candle was put to burn in each sill till morning, When the rosary was said, the children were dispatched to an early night in bed and no dissenting voice was raised. The back door remained unlocked whatever the weather, so that there was no danger of Mary and Joseph going astray in their search for a resting place. Across the fields, the houses glittered, the light from their candles like jewelled pinpoints in the darkness.”


This article first appeared in The Word (December 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.


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