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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Past Christmases in Carlow

Past Christmases in Carlow

By Alec Burns

Previously published in the 1990/91 edition of Carloviana pages 18 & 20

ONE of the first signs of Christmas in the early part of this century was the Turkey Market which was held in the space beside the Town Hall. Long tables with scales were provided for displaying the birds which were solely "American Bronze" as the white turkey had not appeared on the scene then. Of course, the usual buyers then would be out on the edge of the town trying to purchase for their firm from the carts coming into town but generally, sellers preferred to come to the market and sell by weight.

The poultry merchants in Carlow were Frank Slater, Walter Kehoe, Joe Parker and Bill Moore. Slater seems to have been the largest dealer as he had to have a special train one year on the Sunday before Christmas Day to market his supply on the English market. They all gave great employment to women plucker’s for weeks before Christmas.

As regards Christmas shopping, this was confined to a few days before Christmas as money wasn't all too plentiful then. If children could get a new article of clothing, no matter how small, they would be doing very well. The majority would be lucky to have something in their stocking on that morning.

Christmas boxes were a usual gift to good customers in grocery shops. Generally, they contained tea and sugar, currants and raisins, other ingredients for making the pudding; small bottles of whiskey or port and a calendar; also a barm brack. Publicans gave a free drink on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Candle was a great tradition then, lit by the family members on Christmas Eve night and placed in a window, and in the centre of the table at dinner time. Going to Mass that morning (no midnight Mass then) was the big event of the day as was the exchanging of greetings with all your friends. Hardly anyone left their home on that day.

St. Stephen's Day meant that the Wren Boys would be in town. They came over from Athy, generally, and created a great stir around. A great custom after dinner was to visit the crib in Graiguecullen, St. Dympna's Hospital and maybe the convents.

Another highlight was the dance in the Ritz Ballroom. It would be packed out, with people from all parts, as it was one of the largest dance halls in the country then; some dances were held in the Town Hall and Deighton Hall on that night, also.

Typical Victorian Christmas CardAnother great event of that period was the "calling of the waits." Three Graiguecullen men — Jack Gamble, "Reid" Farrell and another — would go all through the streets of the town at night. One would carry a storm lamp; Reid would give a blast on a melodeon; and Jack would shout "good morning Mr. and Mrs. . . . it's a fine, frosty morning at 3 o'clock and all's well." Sometimes he would make a mistake in the house and give the owner the benefit of a family although he might be a bachelor or even a childless couple. When he would come a few days later to collect alms for his trouble, he would get short shrift for making such a mistake.

Previous to the festival every house got a good scrubbing down, windows painted, curtains washed, delph on the dresser cleaned up and a good coat of whitewash everywhere. Sprigs of holly decorated all pictures and the mantel board over the fireplace. Mottoes were hung on the walls with inscriptions such as: "God Bless Our Home," "What Is Home Without A Mother," "Merry Christmas To All." A sing-song was the usual culmination of the celebration before going to bed.

Where there was a family there would be rivalry between the sexes to see who would be the best. A goose was a must for the dinner with the middle class while the very poor were well satisfied with any meat that could be got, even a bit of the "lad" bacon, the salty stuff from America, or a stew.

Talking a few years ago, one father told me that he was unemployed just before Christmas and was at his wits end to know what he could do for the dinner and a few toys for the children. He hit on the idea of trapping rabbits which he sold to buy the toys and kept some for the dinner which everyone enjoyed so much, he was encouraged to continue getting them for the Sunday dinner afterwards.

A practice at that time, for those who could afford it, on St. Stephen's Day (when there was plenty of food in the home) was to abstain from eating meat, same as on a Friday. There was a belief about then that this sacrifice would keep sickness away from the home for the remainder of the year; many a family believed in it.

Another favourite custom on St. Stephen's Day was the groups of children knocking on doors and calling for pennies to bury the wren with a small branch of green leaves or small twigs in their hands and chanting:

The Wren, the Wren
The King of all birds
St. Stephen's Day
Was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the Wren.

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