Jottings of my Life in Tyrone, Ireland – Christmas Time
How beautiful the winter was when all the woods were covered with snow and the frost sparkled by the roadside while the sun, in ruddy splendour, sank in the west and the lights merrily twinkled through the cottage windows. The “moo” of the cows as they returned from the pastures in single file, and the friendly barking of the shepherd’s dog as he helped collect the sheep for the night. Is it any wonder that I simply loved Christmas time in the country? You could go through the little towns and villages and see everywhere nothing but preparations for the great holiday. Many of the cottages would be whitewashed inside and out and a new thatch put on the roof.
I often used to stroll around and visit some of the cottagers and, sitting in front of the fire, enjoy a good hot cup of tea, the flavour of which would be greatly enhanced by drinking it-out of the saucer, and eat a delicious piece of hot bread just cooked in a Dutch oven. Of course, when I returned home and could not eat my meals, mother would say, “I know where she’s been, there’s no use in trying to stop her”. Sometimes my people would get vexed because my clothes smelt of peat, but I enjoyed every minute of my strolls in spite of the aroma with which I was impregnated. Mother always wanted to know if anyone was ill or in want of anything; she was always thinking of doing someone a kindness. I only wish everyone was like her; she hated to hear of any needy person not being assisted in some measure.
Getting ready for Christmas was started in our house about two months before that festive event took place. Men were locked in the cellars. while they busily bottled wines and ales. They were confined there to prevent them from giving any liquor out to the servants who could always have what they needed, in moderation of course, at mealtimes. Many head of stock were killed so that the spicing of the rounds of beef could be done in time for the Christmas gathering. Every day for a month men would keep rubbing all those lovely spices into the meat for about three or four hours at a time. Others would go to the market each week to secure dozens of turkeys, chickens, geese and ducks; then they would be kept until they were well fattened up. Two women, with younger girls to help them, were in charge of this part of the work.
Thousands of oysters were dredged and then kept in tanks on the shore, so that at any time we could have them for luncheons or suppers. My grandparents owned their own oyster beds and had a fresh supp1y of English and French oyster seed put out each year. No oysters under a certain size were taken from these beds. When we had visitors staying with us, one of the biggest treats was to take them down to the kitchen for an oyster supper. Each guest would be provided with a knife and a chunk of brown bread, together with a glass of Guinness stout and told to help himself. The large kitchen table would be laden with oysters, and we would eat them until we could not see each other across the table for shells. As this would generally take place about midnight, I could not say if their sleep was one of repose or not. Perhaps the next morning we would all go to a hunt and lunch at whatever place the hounds met, and on the return, drop into a wayside inn and enjoy a rather stiff hot toddy. This would fortify us until we reached home in time for afternoon tea. Then at about eight o’clock, came the dinner. We all wore hunting togs and were ready to “shake down” a five- to seven-course repast with a dance.
“What music’s so sweet to the keen hunter’s ear
As the cry of the hounds, when Reynard is near
How joyous that voice which all of us know;
‘ Awak’ning the echoes with a loud “tallyho”
On Christmas morning, in addition to the usual breakfast, there was the Christmas pie (see Appendix for the recipe for this piece de resistance). This is made the day before Christmas and, when cold, is placed on the sideboard in the dining room. It is cut lengthways so that each person gets a little tongue, turkey and goose on his or her plate, and is served with currant jelly. (Before dressing for breakfast, we had had a light repast in bed.)
My parents were very particular about our punctual attendance at meal times; but I am afraid many of us would be missing after the jollifications of the night before. After breakfast, we would all go to church and when we returned home, we all went into the drawing room to receive our presents. The youngest little boy or girl would hand them around. All the servants would be there to receive their gifts, too. Christmas was just for our own family; there would be a sort of reunion of uncles and aunts, cousins and dear grandmother, with all of us on our best behaviour.
We had lunch at two o’clock, afternoon tea later on. It all ended with a tremendous dinner at eight in the evening, to which the clergymen, both Catholic and Protestant, were invited. Several courses were served, including the boar’s head and the plum pudding. The pudding (see recipe in the Appendix) was covered with almonds and was always carried in blazing with brandy. It was so large that it would last for weeks, and each visitor would be given a piece of it for good luck, to take home on leaving.
The hams were partly boiled in champagne, which certainly gave them a delicious flavour. During dinner all sorts of old wines were served: sherry, sparkling burgundy, claret, and champagne. After dessert we would have black coffee with French brandy, and anyone who wished to smoke could do so. We could smoke all we liked in our own homes, providing we did not start too early in the day; but we never thought of indulging in this social activity in public, nor was it permitted.
Although from early times Christmas has been generally associated with scenes of hilarity and even inebriation, I wonder how many of us ever heard of a cake being affected that way. Well, the cake we had was not only tipsy but it had the faculty of raising the spirits of everybody who tasted it, and of course, it was very popular with us at lunch or supper. A timely caution from me – Do not get too familiar with it! (See Appendix for recipe.)
From tipsy cake to cherry brandy is but a short step and, if anything warms the cockles of your heart, that certainly does. Of course, it should be taken with moderation, especially after a slice or two of the cake. (See Appendix for recipe.)
Looking forward to the New Year was our idea of happiness. New Year’s morning, providing it was good weather, was always delightful. After a substantial breakfast some of us would go miles to return calls; others would go to the hunt which would meet at some nearby home. Then there would be lunch, etc. After dinner that night there would be a dance with a midnight supper, including soups and strong coffee, to keep us fresh. How I always enjoyed a supper near midnight particularly when we had devilled fowl, one of our favourite dishes. Being easily digested, it did not disturb our rather late slumbers. (See Appendix for recipe.) _ _
We always had friends coming for shooting parties, and these were usually all-day affairs. Hampers of good things would be sent after them for luncheon; and those of us who did not start as early as the more enthusiastic sportsmen, would go by car and join the party later.
All the damaged birds were given to the heaters to take home to their wives, and the others were divided among the people who took part in the sport. And, of course, lots of birds would be cooked for the use of the house. Often have I longed for the delicious flavour of a plump little woodcock or snipe that I enjoyed so much at home. I used to go duck-shooting with my brothers, but I much more enjoyed eating duck for supper with shallot sauce and port wine.
If we had a hard winter and the lakes were frozen over, as soon as the ice was tested and found strong enough for skating, we would crowd there each day as long as the frost would hold out. Sometimes we remained there until nearly midnight, and our help would dispense milk punch, coffee and sandwiches, which we all enjoyed by the light and warmth of huge bonfires and torches. Speaking of milk punch, the kind we used to make would drive dull care from the heart of the most dejected, so I am going to pass it along for you. (See Appendix.) Do not wait until this punch gets cold, but drink it while good and hot. You will be surprised at the effect it will have on your imagination. When out skating and in genial company, the effects of the above freshens you up, and one could feel like making figure eights on the ice until past midnight, when we would return home to find a wonderful supper awaiting us. How we enjoyed every minute of it: I hardly ever had the experience of a troubled sleep or nightmare. I now fully realize it is the only natural way to exist.
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Written by Elizabeth La Hiff Lambert
Published here 08 Sep 2022 and originally published 1979
Page 0092 of Athenry History