By Collette Bonnar
When I was growing up in the 1960s the preparation for Christmas was far removed from what it is nowadays. There was no such thing as my mother getting caught up in the shopping rush. In fact, Mammy rarely bought presents. Yet, her generosity knew no bounds during the festive season.
From mid-November, the Christmas baking began. The aroma of rich fruitcakes permeated around our ancient kitchen when we returned home from school. Our mother had lists done out with the names of friends and neighbours who liked a traditional cake as a gift.
Then come December, it was time to make the puddings. The kitchen would be filled with steam for hours as the puddings boiled on the old black range. Again, the names would go on the list of those who preferred to receive a pudding rather than a cake.
On the farm, ducks, chickens, geese, and a few turkeys, were reared and fattened in the run-up to Christmas. A turkey, a goose, and a few ducks, were kept for our own table but the rest were distributed as Christmas gifts.
When the school holidays wore round, things got really busy in our home. A few days before Christmas, the light cakes were made – butter sponges, madeira cakes, caraway cakes, and of course marble cakes.
We loved making the marble cakes as this entailed using four different bowls after the mixture was prepared. One mixture was coloured pink, another green, one cocoa, and of course there was the remaining madeira mixture. Then we would put spoonfuls from each bowl around the bottom of the tin until it was covered and then repeat the process.
Mammy always knew which cake was the favourite with her friends and ensured that no one was disappointed. A rich fruit cake was kept for ourselves and a few days before Christmas it was iced with almond paste. Then after a day or so it was white-iced. The little plastic Santas and fir trees were kept from year to year and these adorned the white icing while a small mirror was used to create the impression of a lake.
Another homemade gift we enjoyed making was the Christmas logs. Our brother, Desmond, used to pick the best shaped logs from the pile of wood in the yard, bring them into the house and dry them beside the range. After drying out, we’d decorate the logs by sticking on moss with glue then spraying the moss with artificial snow and lastly putting a red candle in the middle. These made very attractive table centres and we took great pride in our creations.
Christmas Eve always seemed to be frosty, I remember the countryside looking like a winter wonderland as we dispersed in all directions to deliver the cakes, puddings, and fowl to Mammy’s friends. Earlier on Christmas Eve morning, we’d help to bake dozens of mince pieces. The pies were still warm when we’d be delivering them with the cakes and other goodies.
We never had the same appreciation for our own home-baked goods as we had for the beautiful boxes of chocolates, bottles of ginger cordial, boxes of biscuits and shortbread which we’d receive as gifts in the run-up to Christmas.
The decorating of the house didn’t take long as our family was a large one and everyone helped out. Of course, the decorations were simple, paper chains and balloons pinned to the ceiling. Every nook and cranny was decorated with bright, beaded holly and the crib took pride of place on the sideboard in the sitting room.
Sometimes, Santa would bring new board games but there was always the dependable Ludo, Draughts, and Snakes and Ladders. These games were the simplest to play and many an argument ensued on Christmas evening when there was a bit of cheating going on. This mainly happened during the Ludo game when a four on the dice would be conveniently mistaken for a six!
On one particular occasion, I remember it snowed on Christmas Eve which brought great delight to our house. As the roaring fire crackled inside, the snow was swirling around the farmyard creating a magical festive scene. The afternoon was busy spent preparing the turkey, stuffing, vegetables, and finally the big bowl of sherry trifle for the following day.
Later that evening, Daddy and our brothers had to carry hay to the sheep in the far field to ensure they were fed and nourished during the cold spell.
Christmas Eve was rounded off with Midnight Mass and after the choir sang the final hymn – Silent Night – we made our way home to partake of homemade soup and soda bread. A typical Christmas tradition in the csountryside.