Christmas in the Past

A few thoughts for the Christmas season. For our forefathers, Christmas brought the Advent fast to an end but it was not over until after Mass on Christmas Day. There were three Masses usually starting at six am and everyone went on foot. In the 1950s I recall large numbers of people walking up to four miles to Mass while others sat in the comfort of a trap. The congregation was fasting as no food was allowed for those partaking of Communion. For the Christmas dinner, the fare was good as this was a special day: chicken, goose or boiled beef. In the nineteenth century, there was plenty to drink as it was home-made. The turkey was allowed to go free as it was not on the menu. Women baked large quantities of bread and jam was a luxury for the Christmas table. Christmas offerings for the priest were collected at Mass and even in Protestant households, it was the custom for workers to be given half a crown or about 30 cents as the offering. This is evident from the diaries or account books which some farmers kept in the Laggan in east Donegal. There was no work on Christmas Day other than to milk the cows. The animals enjoyed Christmas as they got extra rations. Everyone was aware of the fact that Christ was born in a stable so the animals were rewarded because of their role in the Biblical story.  

In the houses of the gentry, the dinner menu was extensive and there was no scarcity of food with sweet breads, jellies, smoked salmon and port in abundance. Gentlemen withdrew to the smoking room to sample the cigars after the meal. Workers were given a share of the meal and part of the Christmas cake. In the 1870s Christmas trees made their first appearance in Inishowen and and it was the custom to decorate the tree for visitors to admire. In the days following Christmas, phaetons were taken out and visits were made to neighbouring members of the gentry. Attendance at church was essential and there was a strong emphasis on readings about the Nativity. Sermons were long – at least half an hour  – and ministers were aware that every word they uttered in the pulpit would be discussed over the dinner table. 

It is probably true that Christmas had a more spiritual flavour than it has today but rich and poor believed that it had to be celebrated according to their means. Merry Christmas.

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