Christmas always brings about nostalgia and fond memories of times long ago, times back in Ireland when folks lived frugally but loved abundantly.
The Irish Voice asked some of its readers to share some of their warmhearted memories from the land they left many years ago.
Patricia McGouron, a Co. Derry native, joyfully remembers Christmas 1938. Like most Catholic families of that era, money was scarce.
"We were poor back then," she said, "but waking up to an open fire and my stocking hanging up," put a smile on McGouron's face that Christmas morning.
A peek inside her stocking revealed good old Santa Claus had left her an orange, an apple, some peanuts and, to her utter delight, a smiling doll.
"It was a beautiful doll that a rich lady had sent on to me, but all the time I believed it was from Father Christmas," said McGouron, who came to the United States in 1946 and now lives in Michigan.
McGouron thinks back to the great quantity of food that graced their table that Christmas. "We had a big vat of barley soup, chicken, plenty of vegetables and some soda bread."
As an after dinner treat that year, fruitcake was shared among the adults and kids and "a very special wine that was kind of burning going down and made weeks ahead of time," was also enjoyed.
For Maura Mulligan, a Co. Mayo export, December 26 was more special to her than Christmas Day itself. St. Stephen's Day, as it is celebrated in Ireland, was the day Mulligan and her siblings would peer out the window and wait on the many musicians and singers who graced their house the day that is dubbed by the Irish as Wren Day.
"The faint sound of tin whistles in the distance became clearer as the Wren Boys came closer to the house," she said.
Mulligan remembers the excitement as her mother opened the door to, what she describes, "the most exciting visitors" donned in disguises. Mulligan and her siblings would spend minutes trying to guess who was behind the festive costumes.
"That's Tommy Kilkenny, I'd think 'No. Its Paddy McHugh', my sister Mag insisted. Or maybe it's SZan Kenny?"
After the Mulligans were entertained, Maura's mother would give the Wren Boys a "few sweets or a penny so they'd go off to blazes with themselves and take their ruaile buaile (mischief) someplace else."
Liz Kenny, a Co. Longford native who has been living in New York for 21 years, lovingly recalls Christmas with family including her six sisters and one brother. Kenny said one of her favorite memories of Christmas in Ireland is her mother's Christmas pudding.
"We used to have it warm with custard and I can still taste it. It was delicious," remembers Kenny, admitting she didn't inherit her mother's baking hands.
Upon thinking of Christmas traditions, Kenny mentions the lighting of candles.
"We would always have a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, and I still carry that tradition here. This is to show respect for the night before Christmas when Our Lady needed guidance to the stable," she said.
Like the Mulligans, Wren Day was always celebrated in style in Kenny's home.
"We used to go out, even in the freezing cold, and sing songs and hymns to all the neighbors," said Kenny, recalling one specific St. Stephen's Day. "I was about nine or ten and I was in front of someone's door. We were tired of singing all the same songs, and couldn't think of another, so we stood looking at the homeowner who took pity on us and brought us in for cake and something warm to drink just because we were the only visitors on that day," said Kenny.
Pat McGuckin's favorite Irish Christmas memory was very recent. McGuckin and his wife Carol visited Ireland last week to take in the Irish Christmas spirit.
"Dublin was lit up spectacularly, and we loved strolling through Temple Bar and down Grafton, Henry, O'Connell and Nassau Streets shopping," said McGuckin who lives in Sherman, Illinois.
McGuckin, whose ancestors originate from Co. Tyrone, was equally impressed with Belfast, where he said was also "beautifully decorated" and with a "magnificent continental Christmas market at City Hall."
Music, explains McGuckin, was a big part of the reason for going to Ireland this time of year. Their expectations were exceeded when they heard live performances by The Pogues in Belfast.
"Hearing 'Fairytale of New York,' one of the greatest Christmas songs ever, in person brought tears to my eyes," said McGuckin, adding it was his third Pogues Christmas show in Ireland.
George Gibbons spent many a Christmas in Cong, Co. Mayo, before moving to the New York in 1970 where he resides today beside his six children (his wife, Mary, passed away in 2004).
Growing up, Gibbons lived in the center of the village.
He told the Irish Voice that playing cards with his friends was a big part of his tradition.
"Sometimes we would play cards in the houses that had shops and we would play for lemon sweets and Christmas cakes. If I were lucky enough to win anything, I would go home all delighted with myself," recalls Gibbons.
Before serving his duties as an altar boy in his local church on Christmas morning, Gibbons would get up far too early to see what "Santa had left for me under the tree."
Goose was the customary dinner served to the Gibbons family on Christmas Day. It was a gift from the local shop owner.
"He would give her (his mother) this goose as an annual present for her patronage as a loyal customer throughout the year," said Gibbons.
Also celebrating the Wren Day but in a more formal manner, Gibbons said they would seek out a wren early St. Stephen's morning, usually found on the thatch roof of his home.
"We would then travel from house to house with the wren in a box with a piece of glass on top so everyone could see our bird. When our neighbors would answer the door, we would chant, 'The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furs, up with the kettle, down with the pan, please give me a penny to bury the wren. If you haven't got a penny, a halfpenny will do, if you haven't got that, God bless you,'" recalls Gibbons.
Since moving to the U.S., Gibbons said he has created some beautiful memories here with his family. Remembering the children's faces on Christmas morning, Gibbons said, "They would anxiously await the arrival of Santa and we had some laughs around our tree watching the children tear through the presents that came directly from the North Pole," he said.
"Sadly, Mary passed away in February of 2004 when we were on a trip to Ireland and since then, Christmas in our house has always been somewhat incomplete."
Now Gibbons spends Christmas at his daughter's house with her husband and their three kids, Marina, Seamie and Triona.
"I love going up every Christmas morning to see my grandchildren come downstairs to see what Santa brought them. Then we go to mass, if we did not already attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve," said Gibbons, who will double as the holiday chef this year in charge of cooking the turkey, ham, and duck and when the sun sets, Gibbons will entertain all his loved ones with the guitar.
"I sing a few songs and it takes me back to the old days in Cong, Co. Mayo."
For Theresa McGowan, a Co. Leitrim native, Christmas in Ireland brings wonderful memories. A memory that pops to the forefront is one with her siblings as they trailed the Irish fields to collect holly for the house.
"When we came home we tied the holly with some string around the fireplace and some windows. We would write notes to Santa to get a gift and put them out on the front door. We would have to rewrite the notes when it rained because the notes got wet and we were afraid Santa couldn't read them," she recalls.
For the McGowans, Christmas Eve was a very special night. The very best of clothing was taken out of the press for mass at St. Claire's Church.
Traditionally, for years, when mass was over, they would return home and neighbors would come around for tea and chats.
"My mother had white candles lit in the front windows which were the custom at that time," said McGowan.
Remembering her mother fondly, McGowan said, "She (mother) was a good cook so she would bake nice brown bread and soda bread. My father played the accordion until the last neighbor was on their way home."
Christmas day was special. "My mother used to raise turkeys and then sell them before Christmas. She kept a big one for the family."
Remembering gifts she received at Christmas from relations in the U.S, McGowan said, "There were lots of lovely clothes. I remember so well one time my sister Margaret and I got two lovely red capes and white fluffy mittens. We were on top of the world. We had never seen such nice clothes before. We were so happy to be able to walk in and out of school and town with the new outfits."
McGowan left Ireland when she was 15 to come to America. "I thought I'd like to return to Ireland one day for Christmas and the memories, although, I knew it would never have been the same as when I left it."
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