Mother celebrated every feast day with aplomb – Shrove Tuesday with specially prepared pancakes, Halloween with monkey nuts (peanuts in the shell), bobbing for apples, and Barmbrack, which is a fruit loaf with hidden charms that has special significance for the person who discovered it in their slice. Her most elaborate planning, however, was for Christmas.
The preparations in late autumn. The plum pudding was made, stirred a final time for good luck, then tied in gauze and seamed in a bowl on top of the our wood-burning Stanley stove. The big square Christmas cake, heavy with fruit, raisins sultanas, glace cherries, was baked until it was golden brown, and in the weeks ahead it would be doused with whiskey to keep it moist. Closer to Christmas it was covered with almond paste, which required a lot of kneading and rolling to get to the right thickness. Two days later the white icing would be applied using a spoon to raise the icing into little peaks to give it a snow effect.
On Christmas Eve, we all piled into the car for the trip to town and Midnight Mass. I still remember the crunch of feet on frosty gravel and how we avoided looking in the window of the front room (where the Christmas tree took up much of the Bay window) in case Santa (we always called him Santy) was there, putting our presents out. Mass was magnificent; the choir, the Latin, the Nativity Scene, and best of all, the anticipation of what was to come when we got home as we were allowed to open our presents and play for a short while before bed.
Christmas dinner was a feast that began early in the afternoon and consisted of the traditional turkey or goose, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, and a carrot parsnip mix mashed with plenty of butter. Dessert was Sherry trifle, Plum pudding, and cake.
Christmas in Ireland began early and lasted well into the New Year. The most important part of the early Christmas rituals for us kids was the annual trip to Limerick City (30 miles away) to Todds’ department store for a photograph and present from Santa. Since it was the same Santa year after year (I have photos dating to 1955 below to the one above, in 1959, when we were seven siblings), we had no trouble believing he was authentic.
Merry Christmas to all Irish America readers, especially to all the big Irish families who will gather together to celebrate. At the time of writing (2002) mother was living in San Francisco, still baking Christmas cakes, steaming plum puddings and saving her pension to buy presents for her many American grandchildren. She passed on New Year’s Eve 2008 at 89, and while she is greatly missed, we are grateful for all that she gave us and taught us . ♣
– Patricia Harty