I sat down and asked my grandparents about what Christmas in Ireland was like when they were young. How much it differs from present day traditions. My grandfather grew up on a small island off the coast of County Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland. My grandmother grew up on the mainland of Donegal. Born in different decades with different experiences, here is what they had to say.
1940s on Tory Island
“When I was young, the midnight mass was at seven o’clock in the morning. There were three masses, one after the other. That was the way things were them days. There weren’t many alarm clocks around to get people up that early in the morning. Someone would have to walk the island, ringing a handbell to wake everyone in time for mass. There were about 300 of us on the island, I was 5.”
“I can remember walking to mass for seven in the morning. We thought it was great to be outside and it that dark in the morning. I had a white woolen jumper, blue trousers and new shoes. The jumper was knitted for me by my grandmother. She got the wool from the sheep on the island. They sheared the sheep, soaked the wool and washed it. Made it into rolls and rolled it on the spinning wheel. Knitted it, and turned it into the jumper that I would wear on Christmas Day.”
“We had no christmas tree, there was no electric light. We got our first tree many years later in 1962. It was tradition to light candles instead. The candles sat on the window sill on Christmas Eve to show Mary and Joseph the way to Bethlehem. We hung our woolen stockings knitted by our grandmother on the fireplace for Santa.”
“On Christmas Day, our stockings had a few soldiers made from lead. They were yankee soldiers and red indians. I can still picture an army of them, axes in hand. The american soldiers had bags on their backs with a wide strap, carrying rifles. A long long time ago. My sister got a toy cooker from Santa, I had never seen a cooker in my life. It was made from enamel. Everything was tin them days, no plastic. It had four black rings on top of it. A shelf, pots and pans. Our neighbours would come to our house to play with our toys when they didn’t get any. We didn’t get much but it was enough to share around.”
“For Christmas dinner we would have boiled meat, barley soup. Pudding would come after the tea and christmas cakes alongside it. There were 8 of us in the house to feed. It was the time of the war so everything was rationed. That was our christmas.”
1950s in Donegal
“All we would get was maybe a small box of chocolate, a notebook, some colouring pencils. My godmother bought me a doll, the only doll I ever had. Made out of delph. There was a small step outside our house. I was taking the doll outside to show my neighbour, I tripped and the doll fell and broke into pieces. When I turned 50 my grandchildren bought me one just like it. It brought back all my memories of Christmas long ago. Times have changed a lot since then.”
“We didn’t have a christmas tree. All our toys would be sitting in front of the fire. We didn’t even have socks up. We wouldn’t get toys, just something small. Maybe a jigsaw and a colouring book. That’s all we’d get. My mother would make a christmas pudding. Sweets used to come in a can, that’s why they’re called canned sweets. She would get a can with a lid on it and put the pudding into it and hang it up on the ceiling until Christmas time would come. Then it would be ready for Christmas.”
“She would get a goose and kill it by herself. She would pluck the goose, take all of the feathers off with the help of boiling water. Take it in and clean the guts out of it. Put it into a saucepan of water and boil it, roast it and have that along with soup, potatoes and veg. She would keep the wing for dusting. In her opinion, it was great for corners. We’d have the pudding with custard and a treacle bread in the evening with tea. If you were a regular customer in the local shop, the shopkeeper would give you a gift of a packet of tea or maybe a cake at Christmas time to thank you.”
From sitting down with two elderly people, I learnt a lot about how Christmas in Ireland has changed over the years. Irish families did not have much to get by with in these trying times but they still managed to keep the tradition of Christmas alive in their homes. I believe this tells us a lot about the spirit and loving nature within the Irish community from as far back as the 1940s to present day Ireland.