Past Christmases in Carlow
By Alec Burns
Previously published in the 1990/91 edition of Carloviana pages 18 &
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.
great event of that period was the "calling of the waits." Three
— 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 mantelboard 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
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.
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
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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