Christmas Preparations

Memories from the 1940s

Tom Keane, Cork

Christmas Preparations – Tom Keane

With all the hustle and bustle nowadays in the lead up to Christmas, there is always a danger that the original meaning of Christmas can be forgotten.  This was not always so; some of us even incorporated a donkey into our preparation story.  The black donkey and I were central to the pre-Christmas shopping experience in our home.

The donkey and cart had a central, all-year-round, place in the Abberton household.  Seated Left to Right: Marie, Mick Moran, Kathleen Keane née Abberton.  Photo courtesy: Tom Keane

The donkey got his annual four new shoes before our Portumna shopping expedition.  On one occasion, while on our way to the local blacksmith Tim Kelly, the pampered donkey did one of his buck leaps and dislodged me against a wall; an x-ray in later years bears testimony to the resultant whiplash.  I temporarily forgot the good deed of his ancestor on Palm Sunday.  A fistful of oats bridged the gap before our trip.

I sat out-front with my legs hanging down while the two Kates – Kate Abberton, my grand-aunt and our neighbour, Kate McDonagh –  shared the seating on the central board in the middle of the donkey cart.  Kilometres were unheard of, but everybody knew that it was five Irish miles to Portumna.

The black donkey remembered the distance from the previous year, and hadn’t he brought a load of bonhams there in June; he tried to pull a fast one on me when he tried to turn right to the Shannon bog at Laurence Gohery’s.  We had just passed Kylemore where the meaning of a commonage was explained to me.  That, at least, was my geography and civics lessons for the day.  When passing Clarke’s mill, I was reminded of the coffins they made, which were usually collected on horse carts.  Corn milling was now local in Abbey since John Joe had started grinding with the diesel in his new mill.

As we got nearer to Portumna we visited grand-uncle Pake and Maimie, to deliver some eggs.  No need for vegetables to that house as Pake was a regular prize winner in the vegetable section at Portumna show.  We could not go without the cup of tea ‘Christmas or no Christmas’.

We parked the donkey and cart at the fair green, where the church is now and there was little need to tie-up a tiring animal as he had done his Pilates for the day or, at least half of them.

Then, the turkey money was put into circulation and parcels kept arriving for the donkey cart.  More tea and more shopping until darkness began to fall.  A homesick donkey with three satisfied passengers were ready for the westward, return journey.  A tight rein was required because a galloping donkey under a cart was unheard of, and as long as the bands on the wheels did not come loose on the way home, we should arrive on schedule.  And we did.  Even if a band did come loose, it could be hammered back with a small stone and the whole wheel could be put steeping in the river until later in the week or to please the donkey, until the following year.

There would be another trip to Portumna before Christmas, but this would be made on bicycle to bring the wet battery for charging.  A Christmas without a wireless, in the forties, was beyond thinking about.

I still haven’t mentioned the whitewashing, holly, or the mummers.  The whitewashing is self-explanatory.  Above the fireplace, in preparation for Santa, care had to be taken to just covering the area above the two seating hobs and without making the central black smoky stream too narrow.  If there were yanks coming home, the whole back of the house outside, would have to be whitewashed, but yanks usually waited until the summer months.

About the holly, I usually found that the tree in Lynch’s field had most berries; we needed a lot of holly, because my good uncle Martin Abberton and Big Martin Kelly held the annual contract for erecting and decorating the church crib.

It would be misleading for me to comment about our mummers or wren boys.  We knew how to dress appropriately but we were mummers minus music; it is true to say that we were mummers minus music; in fact, there is more music in my last three words than in all the effort we put in on St Stephen’s Day.  If you are still with me, May I wish you, “a very, happy Christmas”.

This page was added on 19/12/2023.

Comments about this page

  • Hi Tom,
    Being close enough (even a bit too close for comfort) to your own vintage,and despite the considerable disadvantage of growing up in Wexford, I can identify with many as[pects of the scenario described by you.
    My uncle John had a brown donkey which behaved like a rodeo bull whenever I tried to mount him. He also owned a mill. A cause of great wonderment was the installation of the new diesel engine which replaced the water wheel powered by a wee stream called the mill race. A great source of fresh trout.

    By Steve McGarry (09/01/2024)
  • Thank you Tom for a beautifully written story of more simple times around Abbey in the late 1940s. A very enjoyable read.

    By John Holohan (20/12/2023)

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