Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers were part and parcel of all my childhood Christmases in Ireland. My sisters and I loved playing with these festive, popping, paper tubes before we tucked into our Christmas dinner.

Boxes of Christmas Crackers on Shelves

On Christmas Day our place settings always included a Christmas cracker lovingly laid above our spoons.  Patiently waiting to start our cracker games, we admired the glittering favors on our yuletide table.

Once we all sat down to dinner the cracker wars began.  Crackers can be pulled in a sedate and genteel manner seated beside a table, but that would have been too lady like for cracker fanatics.  We stood face-to-face, with feet placed strategically apart, to create maximum pulling advantage.

Christmas Crackers

Holding firmly to my end, I pulled with all my might.  With eyes closed tightly I valiantly fought my Christmas cracker battles. 

The loud explosive crackle of  our gleeful paper tearing signaled time to open my eyes. Sheer delight followed if I held the larger half of the tube, with all its hidden surprises, which were usually found scattered all over the dining room floor.

Red Christmas Cracker

Now truth be told these hidden surprises were little more than plastic tricky trackies.  A corny joke on a little rectangular piece of paper was wrapped around a neatly folded colored paper crown.

Here’s a quick question for all my Irish readers –

 

Have you have ever eaten your Christmas dinner

with a brightly colored paper crown adorning your head?

 

I’m quite certain every Irish photo album contains a few pictures of relatives wearing Christmas cracker hats at the dinner table.

Christmas Cracker Paper Crown

As I started to reminisce about Christmas crackers I realized I have no idea when and how they came to be. I guessed they are an English, Victorian innovation, so I took to the internet to discover the “truth”.

Christmas crackers are indeed an English invention, and were first created by a Victorian gentleman and sweet maker called Tom Smith.

During a trip to Paris he was impressed by French bon-bon sweets, which were beautifully wrapped almonds with a joke printed inside. He tried selling  ‘bon-bon’s” in England, but they simply didn’t catch on.

One evening as he sat by his warm fire, watching the logs sparking and crackling, a brain wave struck.  Why not place the sweets with little toys inside a paper tube that popped once opened.

Golden Christmas Cracker

Tom’s cracker business was born and it was a resounding success. His three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry, eventually took over the business, and Walter introduced the now-obligatory paper crowns, which may symbolize the Wise Kings who visited Jesus in the manger.

I bought Christmas crackers for my children last year for the very first time. They were a resounding success. They absolutely LOVED them.

This year they keep asking me if we are going to have Christmas crackers again.

Vintage Christmas Table with Christmas Crackers

And so, in 2014 I plan to continue our little Irish Christmas cracker tradition.

From this year onwards our Christmas table setting will not be complete without a lovingly placed Christmas cracker above the spoon.

Box of Christmas Crackers

Wishing you all happy Christmas cracker pulling contests this year.

 

 

Nollaig Shona Daoibh

(Merry Christmas)

 

Irish American Mom

 

P.S. Purchasing Christmas Crackers In America

 

I have purchased Christmas crackers in Target and World Market in the past, but I found their stocks were limited.

A quick disclosure note: The link below is an affiliate link and I will receive a commission if you choose to make a purchase using this link. Thanks in advance if you do utilize this link for your Irish shopping.

For online purchases of Christmas crackers check out the Food Ireland website..  They have a wonderful selection of Irish goodies which can be shipped throughout the United States.

“Santy” – The Name I Used For Santa Claus, When I Was A Little Girl In Ireland

Santa Claus is the name my children call good old Father Christmas, but when I was a little girl in Dublin, I called the red suited toy deliverer “Santy”. 

Or maybe that should be spelled “Santee”, I’m not certain.

www.vintagerio.comImage Credit

For weeks before Christmas everyone in Dublin seemed to be interested in what good old St. Nicholas might be bringing in his sack on Christmas night.  Everywhere we went, kind folks loved to talk about chimney deliveries on Christmas Eve.

The milk man! The post man! The butcher! Shop assistants!  Irish people love to chat, especially with little ones, and at Christmas time their favorite question was:

 

“What’s Santy bringin’ ya’ for Christmas?”

 

Another frequent question was:

 

“Have you been to see Santy yet?”

 

I have no idea why Father Christmas was usually called Santy when I was growing up in Ireland.  On films and American television we heard the term Santa, but in our Irish family the white bearded giver was always Santy. 

We seldom even added his last name “Claus”. We were all on first name terms with our beloved Santy.

When I first came to America I remember asking a little girl – “What’s Santy bringing you for Christmas?”

She looked at me strangely, then asked:  “Who’s that?”

Until then, I had never really thought about this difference in terminology. And so my American evolution continued when I had to rename Father Christmas and use the more globally accepted term of Santa Claus.

Decorations in the Pavillions Swords

Now that I have kids of my own, I sometimes slip up and say ‘Santy”.  They just roll their eyes, and say:  “I think you mean Santa, Mom.”

I don’t believe Irish children use the name “Santy” anymore. Popular culture and American influences have changed our naming of Good Old Saint Nick, but in my memories every Christmas Eve, I waited for “Santy”.

Now in Irish or Gaelic the term we use is Daidí na Nollag, which is literally Daddy Christmas, or Father Christmas. But we were English speakers in my home, and therefore we called him “Santy”.

I wonder does the name “Santy” bring back happy memories for any readers of my ramblings.

Christmas Fireplace in Dublin Castle

Truth be told, no matter the name we call him, Santa Claus, Santy, or Daidí na Nollag, he is the same generous guy, who makes his rounds each Christmas night, sharing his love all over the world.

 

Nollaig Shona Daoibh

(Merry Christmas)

 

Irish American Mom

Why Graveyards Remind Me Of Christmas

Visiting our departed loved ones at Christmas is an age old Irish tradition. My childhood memories of Christmas Day include a trip to the local cemetery to say a prayer at the gravesides of our deceased relatives and friends.

Irish graveyard - Leaba Molloga, Kildorrery, Co. Cork

To many this may seem a very grave matter for Christmas time, but if like me your heritage is Irish, connecting Christmas with death is a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.

Honoring our ancestors and those who have gone before us is very important to Irish families.  Christmas is a family holiday which we not only celebrate with the living, but also the dead. When a close relative is unable to visit a grave, a cousin or a friend will often complete the traditional task.

Irish graveside

I have heard that Finnish people also observe this tradition of Christmas visits to graveyards. There however, the visit usually happens on Christmas Eve just before dark.  Finns usually light a candle in memory of their loved ones.  I can only imagine how beautiful it must be as darkness falls.  Graveyards must transform into a beautiful sea of candles.

On Christmas Day in Ireland graveside weed pulling is deferred, but old vases and pots of decaying flowers are replaced with wreaths of holly and ivy.  We pay our respects in many ways. Some write little notes, and graveside mementos are placed respectfully over the dead.

Irish graveyard ruin

But these customs are not reserved for the recently departed. Our long lost ancestors are often acknowledged on this holy of holy days.

Cemetery visitors nod to each other, respectfully conveying season’s greetings, yet all the while acknowledging our forebears are now close neighbors.

Like many other Irish people, I find graveyards have long been a source of solitude, comfort and contemplation.  Even as a child I never objected to our yuletide cemetery visits, recognizing at a young age that this was part of our heritage – our family duty.

Ancient door in an old Irish church

As I have grown older and look back on my Irish childhood I have come to fully appreciate this family ritual, even though many may deem it too somber for this merry season. But I never felt somber as I searched headstones for names I recognized so well.

Our ritual actually felt joyous, as if somehow in my young heart I knew I was bringing the joy of Christmas to our beloved family members who had passed away. Together we honored their lives, aware their lives gave us life, and the ability to celebrate this joyous season.

Celtic Cross, Molloga Graveyard, Kildorrery

A silent spiritual music provided rhythm to our Christmas stroll around grave stones and family memorials. Trees seemed silent and indifferent, yet ancient stones comforted us, rooting us to the valleys of our past.

As I now walk amongst the Celtic crosses of my memories, I am reminded that we too are simply passing through. We are only temporary residents on earth, yet duty bound to find joy in the simple things in life, especially family holidays and celebrations.

 

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

 

Irish American Mom

Favorite John O’Donohue Quotations Especially For Thanksgiving

Wishing everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. To celebrate this day of reflection and thankfulness here are some quotations from John O’Donohue (1956-2008), an Irish scholar, poet and philosopher, and expert on Celtic spirituality. 

This selection of his beautiful words focuses upon gratitude and blessings.

Irish Sunset

May you experience each day

as a sacred gift

woven around the heart of wonder.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

Autumn foliage

“Blessed be the gifts you never notice,

your health, eyes to behold the world,

thoughts to countenance the unknown,

memory to harvest vanished days,

your heart to feel the world’s waves,

your breath to breathe the nourishment

of distance made intimate by earth.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

Donegal Sheep

“Take time to see the quiet miracles that seek no attention”

~ John O’Donohue

 

Donegal Scenery

 

“Keep something beautiful in your heart

to survive difficult times and enjoy good times.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

Mackerel Sky

“May dawn find you awake and alert,

approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises;

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled;

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected;

May your soul calm, console and renew you.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

 Donegal Castle Ruins

 

“May I live this day

compassionate of heart,

clear in word,

gracious in awareness,

courageous in thought,

generous in love.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

La Bella Luna

 

“So at the end of this day, we give thanks

For being betrothed to the unknown.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving To All.

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

 

Irish American Mom

Chilblains, Hot Water Bottles And Other Chilly Memories Of An Irish Childhood

Chilblains were part and parcel of an Irish childhood for many when I was growing up.  Memories of red, itchy, inflamed toes still linger for my generation, but painful, chilblain flash blacks still haunt the generation that went before me.

Chilblains and Hot Water Bottles

Now many of you are probably wondering what on earth a chilblain could possibly be. The word is not feared here in America, with very few even being familiar with the term.

One cold winter’s day I was reminiscing with an American friend, and asked her if she ever suffered from chilblains as a child. A flash of fear spread across her face, as if I had asked her if she ever had the plague. She never before had heard of the dreaded CHILBLAIN, but the very word put the fear of God in her.

A Chilblain On The Third Toe

A Chilblain On The Third Toe

She was relieved to hear they’re non-contagious, small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to extremely cold temperatures. I have only ever seen chilblains of the toes, but apparently they can appear on fingers, heels, ears and even on the tip of the nose.  OUCH!

I was one of the lucky ones in Ireland in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. My little piggies seldom succumbed to the frosty bite of winter’s chilly air, but my poor sister often complained of burning, itchy toes that swelled and turned bright red. Sometimes her poor little piggies were blistered by these notorious chilblains.

Chilblains seldom occur in America, because despite the cold winter temperatures, the air is dry, unlike the cold, damp conditions found in Ireland and the United Kingdom during the winter months. Chilblains were common in my youth, in the days before we had central heating.

Now it’s time for a little technical explanation … after studying physical therapy, I just can’t resist sharing the medical rational behind this winter discomfort.

Chilblains are caused by an abnormal reaction of blood vessels to the cold. As the skin gets cold, blood vessels near the surface get narrower, and then when suddenly exposed to intense heat, the blood vessels near the skin surface grow wider too quickly, and the blood leaks into the surrounding tissue, causing none other than, a chilblain. Warming our freezing toes by an open fire was not a good idea.

Allergy to cold and hives are two diagnoses some American readers have reported, but I think a differential diagnosis of chilblains might be indicated in some cases.

A Cozy Fire

Does anyone remember coming in from the freezing rain, discarding coats and scarves by the door, and ripping off wet shoes and socks to wiggle those freezing piggies by the fire?  If you answered yes, then you must be IRISH.

Little did we know we were creating the perfect conditions for a CHILBLAIN ATTACK.

I remember sitting by the cozy fire in the living room, my legs all toasty and warm, mottled red and white from the heat of the fire. We always said we had the ABC’s on our legs when we overheated our skin. I remember trying to convince myself I didn’t need to go upstairs to the bathroom, afraid to face the arctic air of the hallway. You see, when I was young, most houses were heated by an open fire, with no central heating. The living room was the only comfortable room in the house.

Hot water bottle

At night we snuggled under a layer of wooly blankets and brought our favorite friend to bed – the hot water bottle, hoping to ward off those dreaded chilblains. In my day, if our hot water bottle was too warm at first, we wrapped it in a towel, but nowadays they come with all kinds of fancy covers.

Apparently wearing socks in bed is a better way to prevent chilblains. Our hot water bottle solution only exacerbated the situation, creating more exposure to extreme temperatures.  Little did we know!  And oh, how I loved my pink hot water bottle. It was made of pink rubber, and had no fancy knitted heart like this modern day hot water bottle pictured below.

Pink polka dot hot water bottle cover with a white heart

Chilblains are now practically a thing of the past. Central heating has ensured most houses have a nice warm, dry atmosphere promoting chilblain free Irish feet.

A few years ago when I took a guided tour of Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal, I learned a neat little fact about its previous aristocratic inhabitants.

Servants were tasked with warming the master’s bed before he retired for the night. No, the poor servant didn’t have to jump in and lie there for a while to warm the sheets.

Metal Bed Warmer

Metal Bed Warmer

Image Credit

The task of heating the sheets was accomplished using a special metal bed warmer, which consisted of a copper container, shaped a little like a frying pan.  The pan was filled with hot coals from the fire, covered with a finely perforated lid, then placed under the bed covers. A long handle allowed the servant to swish the hot pan over and back across the sheets without burning them.  This process also dried out damp beds. I wonder if the gentry suffered from chilblains?????

Anyway, as I snuggle under my comforter each evening, warmed by the soothing warmth of my forced air heating system, I wiggle my pain free toes, and count my blessings. It’s lovely to live in a chilblain free age.

And so, I hope all my American readers have learned a little bit about our Irish winter time ailments of days gone by, and that my Irish readers won’t have any chilblain infested nightmares after reading this little post with a trip down a chilly memory lane.

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

Irish American Mom