Cooking the Goose
Myths of Christmas Past
Speaker: Mr Roddy Hegarty
Tuesday 13th November 2012
In a most entertaining and informative presentation, Roddy Hegarty (Chair of the Ulster Federation of Local Studies) looked at how we arrived at what we have come to accept as ‘traditional’ about Christmas.
For some supermarkets, the festive season seems to begin around September and perhaps the mystique has gone as we tend to believe that ‘it was always better in the past’.
The best known and most widely celebrated Christian festival was not celebrated until the 4th century and in terms of where it fitted in to the calendar, it had to compete with other European festivals many of which had their origins in pagan cultures and rituals. Roddy referred to other significant or influential festivals e.g. Saturnalia (Roman God of agriculture) and the Germanic Yule festival. These were celebrated at the end of the farming year (November), well before the winter solstice. The Christian calendar fills this period with Advent. Christmas was not widely celebrated in Ireland until the 18th century.
Our recollections of Christmas are of ‘good old days’ with cooked goose and mulled wine, Christmas pudding and family celebrations. Spiritually, it is a time for preparation, Advent, prayer and cleaning; making ready for the new season. Images take us back to some idyllic Victorian or Edwardian era of a simple life and wooden toys. All this, said Roddy, has been perpetuated by the advertising industry; the wholesome family Christmas is the creation of Coke-Cola. Even the image of a red suited Santa is the creation of the Coke-Cola Company and Haddon Sundblom. Born in 1899, Sundblom dominated the commercial art scene for decades. Often using himself as the model, he developed the image of jolly Saint Nick for Coca-Cola in 1931. Clement Moore in his1822 poem ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’ describes Santa as ‘chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf’’ creating a character that is half Bishop and half leprechaun, generous and magical.
In Ireland in former times the festival was associated with sport and renewal. In Donegal, young men (Presbyterians) took hurls to church and after the service played a game. Some people placed a candle in the window of their homes (symbol of light) and would whitewash their homes and outhouses. The chimney would also be cleaned. The ‘Londonderry Sentinel’ in 1837 reported on an incident in the Lifford, St Johnston area when Presbyterians were playing on the common and were attacked by Catholics.
Homes would be decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe (evergreens with berries) to symbolise life even in the darkest times.
Christmas Mummers would visit homes, perform little dramas and songs and receive payment in return. Another activity that took place on 26th December was known as Hunting the Wren, a tradition that consisted of ‘hunting’ a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the mummers would celebrate by dressing up in masks and straw suits and, accompanied by traditional music bands, parade through the towns and villages.
The Christmas market was a time for selling livestock and settling debts. Money from the market sales would be used to purchase a gift or treat (Christmas box)
Under the Julian calendar, Christmas fell on 6th December. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar meant that the 25th December became the fixed date of Christmas and was celebrated for 12 days.
Charles Dickens in Christmas Carol, attacked the emerging industrial era that exploited workers and controlled their lives (clocking on and off in the factories). In the 17th century, under the influence of puritanism and Cromwell, celebration of Christmas declined in Britain, it was regarded as ungodly and even to this day is not so widely embraced by Presbyterians as it is among other Christian faiths.
Prince Albert introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree, which was essentially another way of bringing greenery into the home, something that had been done for centuries before. Victoria and Albert, the celebrities of their day established many of the ‘traditions’ and the populace followed suit.
The first commercial Christmas card was printed in London in 1843. The card was a way of exchanging greetings in an increasingly busy world. By the start of the 20th century, Marcus Ward and Co (Belfast) was the biggest producer of cards in the world. The images on the cards showed churches, family scenes, sledges and snow with no mention of the spiritualism of Christmas. Cards are now sent, promising that ‘we must meet up in the New Year’ but seldom do.
More than 100 years ago, advertisers invited customers to purchase their Christmas presents at Lipton’s (Tea sellers). Presents included hams, cakes, chocolate and confectionery. In the 1920s, there is the decline of the old industries and the increase in commercialism.
The 19th century ‘scramble for Africa’ had resulted in bountiful supplies of coffee and sugar. Much of the sugar could be turned into confectionery and since the ordinary person seldom had access to such luxuries, Christmas became one of those times when people could treat themselves.
Brussel sprouts were not available in Ireland until the 1950s. Up until then the ‘traditional’ Christmas meal consisted of goose, with stuffing and Christmas pudding. Olive oil was unheard of as a cooking ingredient. Warm olive oil was a treatment for ear wax and food was cooked in lard.
The goose was also an important part of the local economy. Farmers would walk their flocks to Derry for the ‘Scotch Boat’ and export. These economically valuable creatures, known as ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’ had their feet covered in sand and tar for protection and at the docks they would be inspected for spots of blood or injury and be ‘repaired’ before being exported.
The demise of the local shop and the expansion of supermarkets meant that customers could ‘reserve and buy’ and join ‘Christmas Clubs’ making things more accessible. Christmas shopping is often now associated with the ‘must have toy’.
During the war years, some foods were prohibited (glazed fruit, icing sugar and flour). This period of austerity and ‘war effort’ changed the economy and activities associated with Christmas.
Early 1900s, beef was plentiful. In Tyrone, Armagh and Monaghan, the people ate boiled ox head and vegetables (steeped peas and carrots). Fridge freezers did not exist and tea was a luxury, consumed only at Christmas time.
Our understanding of Christmas traditions has been handed down by folklorists. These stories create a picture of Christmas as an idyllic, peaceful time however, this comes to an end with the industrial scale slaughter of WW1. The story of British and German soldiers playing football in no man’s land during a break in the fighting on Christmas Day 1914 is an abiding image of the contrast to killing and destruction.
During the 1930s, Christmas adverts begin to appear in newspapers. The ‘Northern Whig’ in 1938 reported on the introduction of traffic lights and expressed concerns about the impact of this new devise on motorists. At this time, too, tastes began to change and there is the beginning of the tradition for eating turkey. In 1937, 1.4m turkeys were imported to Britain from Hungary, Yugoslavia and Ireland. In NI in 1938, 450,000 turkeys were fattened for the Christmas table.
Roddy showed a picture of a workhouse in 1906 with the Santa character visiting children. He is dressed in his familiar garb of long coat with fur decorations / trim. The workhouse is decorated with greenery.
Recently the Orange Lodge has developed a Christmas card that wishes the receiver ‘a very merry Christmas and an Orange New Year’. The Drumcree Santa on the cover of the card wears an orange sash
The Christmas pantomime, so loved by children and adults, has its origins in the distant past but has replaced the Mummers to some extent. In the Mummers routine, someone dies and comes back to life (St George, St Patrick or Beelzebub). Modern mummers have given his idea a new slant and have introduced ‘Donegal Hitler’ and Derry Bin Laden’ to their cast of characters.
Post WW2 and the ending of rationing, things began to ‘feel better’ and people started going to dance halls and the ‘Picture House’ where they saw movies such ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. This movie had nothing to do with Christmas but over the years has become synonymous with everything that we understand about the ‘traditional’ Christmas. Although a box office flop when it was first released the film became a family favourite after it was repeatedly shown on TV during the 1970s. Ironically, many of the images that we now have of Christmas have been created by the talents of Irving Berlin and Haddon Sundblom, both Jewish.
In the modern era in the USA, Christmas has been ‘externalised’ with people lighting up the outsides of their homes. This practice is becoming more common here too. While the wooden toys and handmade presents of a hundred years ago may have been replaced by computers, the Christmas meal almost unrecognisable in terms of variety and availability, and we are increasingly influenced by Television telling us what we need to have, for the true believer, Santa really does exist and there is no magic greater than the magic of Christmas.