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Home for Christmas, Joe Palmer

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story

Joe Palmer

Christmas in Ireland is a very special time for families. Each has their own particular memory of the seasonal celebrations, especially from childhood times.

My own recollections are no less treasured but they may be somewhat different from the norm. That’s because in our home, Santa Claus didn’t play a starring role. For our family at least, the great man played second fiddle to the Christmas table.

Preparations for Christmas started very early, I don’t remember just when. What I do remember is my mother buying the eggs for baking at a time when they were best value in the shops, then preserving them for use later on. She did this by rubbing them with Vaseline, piercing them individually with a small pin prick, then stacking them on their trays in a closet where they were left in the dark until ready for use.

The Christmas baking got under way in October and continued for weeks. Old biscuit tins of all shapes and sizes were taken out of storage and filled in succession with sultana cake, Madeira cake, cherry cake, coffee cake, lemon cake (my father’s favourites) and finally with Christmas cake.

Then it was time to prepare the plum pudding. For this, it was all hands on deck as all four children were required in turn to give the mix a good stir. The day before that however, a bottle of Guinness stout had been poured over the dried fruit to ensure it was well plumped up before the various aromatic spices and remaining baking ingredients were added. After being transferred into the various containers for boiling, there was always a rush of little fingers to scrape the inside of the mixing bowl.

A week or so before the big event, we visited our grandmother’s at Cloongad to deliver a wide range of Christmas fare in exchange for their annual gift of a fine big turkey.  The following day, the turkey was prepared for its final destination. This was hard work. The plucking was done first. This required the use of pliers to extract the biggest feathers. Then the Primus camping stove was lit and the turkey held over the naked flames to singe off any remaining feather fluff and hair, creating the most awful smell in the kitchen. Finally, the claws were slit open down the sides for the hardest job of all, the extraction of the sinews from the legs. At last it was ready for hanging in the larder to await the arrival of Christmas morning.

Once home from early Mass, the most important job of the day began. This was the setting of the table, a task carried out under my father’s strictest supervision.  We all stayed well clear of the kitchen, under specific orders not to stray under our mother’s feet.  Our finest crockery, cutlery and crystal was taken out from storage, linen and hand-embroidered table cloths, serviettes and placemats were retrieved from cupboard corners, decorative flower creations appeared from the garden. When finally set, for ten and often more, the table always looked stunning.

The place of honour at the top of the table was reserved for my elderly grand-aunt, Mary Agnes. As the oldest among us, to her was given the honour of carving the turkey. At the other end, my father carved the huge ham. In between, my grandmother Daisy, my aunt Mary, my mother Mae, and my sister Frances, shared the tasks of adding the vegetables, potatoes and gravy as the big plates were circulated in turn around the table before being placed in front of the eager diners.

Later, the plum pudding was lit with flaming brandy and carried ceremoniously into the dining room by my father. The consumption of cake followed much later, by which time only the larger tummies had room.

Auntie Aggie, my grand-aunt, always made a big ceremony of her special carving role. Before setting into her task, she would first ask ‘anyone for the Pope’s Nose?’, before slicing off the turkey’s tailpiece and placing it one side for her own consumption.

For some reason of other, I was to recall that special Christmas moment many years later and in totally different circumstances – as special guest at a town-twinning ‘Fest Noz’ in Crozon, Brittany. A suckling pig had just been barbecued and I was asked formally would I accept its rarest cut of meat. I was then presented with the pig’s cheeks.

They were just delicious. As I enjoyed a new gastronomic experience, I remember wondering how it might compare with the taste of the ‘Pope’s Nose’.  That remains a delicacy I have yet to explore.

About the author

Joe Palmer retired three years ago after a lengthy career in regional tourism in Ireland’s north-west and south-east, prior to which he worked for seven years in provincial journalism in his native Sligo.
He has an enthusiastic interest in walking, particularly in the Camino de Santiago, having so far walked 600 kms of the French and English routes during four separate week-long excursions with another trip planned for May.
He also enjoys gardening, travel, food and wine, and golf, is Secretary of the Waterford Male Voice Choir, and likes to read military history.
He is married to Colette, has four adult children and two grandchildren. He started writing since retirement ‘just for the family record’.
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