People often ask what Christmas was like in the 1940s and ’50s when I grew up in Ireland. The first signs of Christmas began when Mom bought imported fruits, spices and nuts as soon as they arrived by train into Bagenalstown, a small railway town, where we lived on the Barrow River. As the aromas of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace and pecans danced in the air, the sounds of chopping, mixing, talking and laughing were heard throughout the valley as families made their Christmas fruitcakes.
Massive house cleaning started when a man in a tall hat arrived with his brooms to sweep the chimneys so Santa Claus’ red suit and white beard didn’t get soot on them. Dad whitewashed the scullery, where we kept the water, milk, cheese, butter and eggs. He bought extra paraffin for the oil lamps, coal for the fires and tobacco for the pipes. Windows were cleaned with vinegar and newspaper. The frost showed its spider-web designs through the lace curtains that had taken days to wash and iron and hang again. Crisp white linen tablecloths covered the table, set with blue china.
Three shiny half crowns were put in an old tin box on the cupboard. One was for the coalman, whose thin back was stooped over from carrying heavy sacks of coal. Another was for the postman, whose eyes sprinkled from the frost while he pedaled his bike delivering letters and parcels from his wire basket. The third half crown was for the milkman, who stood up like Ben Hur in his horse-drawn cart while he delivered milk in glass bottles.
Dad arranged red-berry holly over the pictures and along the mantelpiece. Christmas cards stood on tables and window sills and brought news from people who lived far away.
Mom spread marzipan all over the Christmas fruitcake, then smothered it with white icing. With her crochet hook, she drew Celtic designs all over it, and put a few sprigs of holly on top.
On Christmas Eve, the family attended midnight Mass together. The church was crowded and young local people, working in England, came home for the holidays. They wore drainpipe trousers and mini skirts, and paraded up the aisles like fashion models, their French perfumes wrestled with the smell of candles and incense. When we went home, Dad lit a candle and placed it in the window, a symbol of welcome.
While we enjoyed Mom’s fruitcake, we exchanged hand-knit gloves, socks, scarves, jumpers and homemade jams, cakes, wine and books. The children’s hand-knit stockings hung by the chimney waiting for Santa to stuff them with toys. A Seville orange always rolled out of the toe.
Early Christmas morning, Dad banked the coal fires high in the grates in the kitchen and parlor. Mom loaded the goose with savory potato stuffing. The aromas from the roasting goose crept into every pocket of the house. Grandmother and other family members visited in the evening. While the men puffed halos above their heads, the parlor became hazy with blue-gray tobacco smoke. An aunt made the piano tinkle while we sang our favorite Christmas carols. Gran’s cheeks became rosy while she drank her hot whiskey punch.
In those days, Christmas was simple. Gifts were handmade, and the fires kept the house so warm, the hard frost didn’t bother us. All of the rituals had meaning and were carried out in anticipation of the birth of the baby named Jesus.