BY MARIA C HENRY
From the Bisto in the gravy boat, to the bottle of Blue Nun, the Christmas dinner was taken very seriously indeed, in one Beara household, many moons ago
I WOULD go to bed on Christmas Eve thinking I would never sleep. Somehow my youngest brother Martin woke me wanting to check if Santy had been. As the eldest, it was my job to lead my tribe of siblings tiptoeing down the stairs to discover what was under the tree.
I don’t know what time my mam got up – or even if she went to bed at all – because the house was toasty warm and the aroma of boiling ham drifted throughout the house. The jubilant screams from her children in the sitting room would disturb her from crooning along to the seasonal tunes on her sturdy Bush radio.
The excitement was ninety upon sight of all the presents under the twinkling tree. My mam started the delivery of gifts with the traditional mandarin, along with the story that that was all she had got on Christmas morning! She reminded us to be grateful for everything we got, which was grand for her, but I was a new generation with materialistic expectations of toys from the shops.
As my mam read the nametags and handed us our gifts, one by one, it started as a civilised affair, but soon bedlam descended as we ripped the neatly-wrapped packages. All year, children had to be seen, not heard, but Christmas was different. For a few days, it was like we had a special licence to be noisy.
Soon the floor was awash with scraps of paper in between toys, games, books and annuals. Every year there would be a new fad, from Buck-A-Roo to the Spirograph, Operation, Ker-Plunk, Etch-A-Sketch, and Mouse Trap. My best present as a child was my chemistry set, which made proper explosions – in a time before health and safety! It was a complete fire hazard (but that’s a story for another day).
Everyone got new clothes and a selection box that my mean mam wouldn’t allow us open. I had to save it for another day, or at least until she wasn’t looking!
Another great thing about Christmas Day was daytime telly. RTÉ geared their programmes up for kids for a change, and there were no interruptions from commercials. I enjoyed A Wonderful Life, Wanderley Wagon, and the Circus as I waited for the call to the dinner table.
Those rare treats that were squirrelled away in the cupboard under the stairs would emerge. I knew that life wouldn’t be worth living if I attempted to peek inside, let alone raid it.
As a kid, you knew your job on that day was to stay as far away from the kitchen as possible. As the day progressed, my mam would be up the walls with the noise from the TV, sibling squabbling, rowdy toys she cursed Santa for bringing, and the heat off the range. Eventually, the call to take our place at the table would come and we awaited the biggest roast dinner of the year.
A white linen tablecloth dressed the battered table and the best dishes from the glass sideboard sat on placemats. Freshly cut holly with bright red berries took centre stage, alongside a burning candle. Cutlery from a box – not the everyday knives and forks – was wrapped in a Yuletide napkin and the posh glasses were out. For one day, everything matched and there wasn’t space for an elbow.
Back then, no one drank at home except at Christmas. However, before Christmas, McCarthy’s Bar would deliver the wooden crates of Guinness and Harp, Babycham, sherry and minerals. By the time dinner was cooked, my sophisticated mam would plough into the Blue Nun.
There was mighty craic as we pulled crackers to wear the obligatory paper hat with the disappointing plastic toy that would be abandoned within minutes. All the unfunny jokes were read out, only to receive a deflated sigh. I loved them. Those Christmas crackers were a con according to my mam. She vowed never to buy them again … but always did.
Then the demolishing of the meal my mam had spent weeks planning began. After the vegetable soup, she served the traditional overcooked turkey and boiled-to-death ham with a medley of winter vegetables and, for one day only, stinky Brussels sprouts. All drowned under a gallon of Bisto from the gravy boat.
At this stage, the adults were opening buttons and belts on the waistbands to prepare for more food to come. Pudding and custard followed for the grown-ups and the best part of the meal for me – the trifle. I always wanted a big scoop of that sponge soaked in red jelly with a thick layer of custard, topped with cream sprinkled with ‘hundreds of thousands’ on top.
As everyone announced they were stuffed, my mam wasn’t having any of that. With pomp and ceremony, she would present the iced Christmas cake that had been in the making since October.
With full bellies, everyone retired to the sitting room to watch the anticipated afternoon film. We kids sat mesmerised and silent singing along to all the songs as our parents and grandparents fell asleep.
In the evening, piles of sandwiches made from the leftover meats were served. The first box of USA biscuits was opened as soon as my mam got through the miles of Sellotape. I loved the smell, especially the pink wafers.
Far too soon, the day was over and we had to go to bed. As far back as I remember on Christmas night, adult neighbours and friends called to play card games.
I don’t know how I was expected to sleep with the racket from them, but eventually I did.
What’s wonderful about Irish Christmas traditions is that many of them are rituals we inherited from our parents, grandparents, and generations before.
It gives us a lovely sense of continuity with the past, and brings families, friends and communities together.
Wishing everyone a joyous and peaceful Christmas.