Sunday, 24 December 2017

Father Christmas, homesteader

This post first appeared in December of 2011. 

This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.

Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here believe Santa lives in Lapland, in Finland, rather than at the North Pole as American children do. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to attend a church, visit otherwise distant family, cook their own food, knock on the doors of their neighbours and other once-commonplace actions. It is the time of year when people are most likely to sing, and sing songs meant to be sung by ordinary voices together. Even the black-and-white movies often replayed this time of year, while not as old as Christmas trees or "Greensleeves," hail from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise there is another source of comfort and joy.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Patty's memories, part 2

Things were very scarce, and money tight. When I was older I met this boy in Sallins, and he used to play in a band, and I often used to go with him, and eventually we were married.

I remember as a young mother of two in ’47, it was a terrible winter. 1933 had been a terrible winter and the snow never melted, and no one talks about that, but 1947 was the worst. The roads were very bad – first it snowed, and then after a while the snow melted and it froze, and it was after the war so there was no coal, and the turf men couldn’t get through with the carts. We used to have rows upon rows of pony carts full of turf, but this time the ponies weren’t able to walk on the ice. I remember putting the kids to bed so they would stay warm. There was no central heating then.

When the turf men did get to Sallins, they charged a penny a sod. The reason they did that is that they had to go slowly – they had to stop and put a bit of hay on the ground in front of the horse, or the horse would be slipping and sliding. It was desperate mean, we thought, but there was a reason for it.

When the coal did open up again, one of our neighbours in Sallins said to the turf men got a letter from “I’m five-and-a-half years waiting to tell you that I don’t want any more turf -- you can stick it where the sun don’t shine. You’ll have your sons at Clongowes on our misery with all the money we’ve paid you.” And to think about it, he really was wrong, for those men had terrible work – they had to cut it, and foot it, and dry it, and drag it home, and then drag it to us. So I was sorry for the men.

Me: Did anyone cut their own turf?

Patty: Not around my place, but around the bog some people did have what’s called a turf bag. My husband’s sister married a man called Holt, and he used to cut his own turf. And sometimes you’d get this lovely black turf in wartime, cut with a wing-slane. The breast-slane cut the top of the bog, the soft, spongy stuff, which wasn’t as good.

The day the coal came back, somebody was in Naas and got a package with the coal, and a woman opened the package and held up oranges in her hand, saying “The oranges are back!” and a there was a young lad who came in to us, he grabbed it, and she said “Let me peel it for you,” and he shouted “No, I want to play with it!” He had never seen an orange, and thought it was a coloured ball.

When I got married during the war we were all given a half ounce of tea each, 12 ounces of butter and three-quarters of a pound of sugar. Everything was very hard to get. So they made up this rhyme,

“God bless De Valera and Sean McAtee,
They gave us brown bread and a half ounce of tea.
Bless them all! Bless them all!
So we’re waving good-bye to them all!
When Hitler comes over
He’ll give them turn over
So cheer up he has blessed them all!”

I can remember people singing that.

Me: Was it serious or sarcastic?  

Patty: Well, kind of sarcastic.

Patty: It was a parody of “The Sergeant-Major’s Sores,” a war song sung to the same tune.

Me: So did you have books in the house?

Patty: Oh yes, I was a bookworm, fond of reading. I married quite early, and in three or four months became pregnant, and I was at home by myself – my husband was away often with the band, and there wasn’t much company around. So I read, read, read all the time. I was sorry later that I didn’t take my leaving cert. I would have liked to work in a shop, but you had to pay a big fee.

A factory started in Celbridge in the Old Mill, called Irish Gowns, paying ten shillings a week -- and everybody thought that was grand, and I told them don’t do it, as it wouldn’t keep tires on your bike. My grandmother was all her life a big believer in the aristocracy, in working for the proper people, and not in being a barmaid or working for someone who wasn’t as good as yourself, or going out to a farm and being a drudge.

So she got me trained to be a silver service para-maid with Miss Fowler, and they had swanky friends who worked at Howth Castle, and they got me a job working there, and they made a person out of me. When I was working at Howth Castle, I trained under an English butler and an Indian valet – very strict. That experience stayed with me, and I still demand attention to detail – the people say “Oh, she’s particular.”

I’m 95 now, and if I don’t look it I feel it – and my hearing’s not great, but I still have my brain.

Photo: My neighbour riding her bicycle home from Mass.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Simple years ago

This is part of my recent interview with the wonderful Patty Trabears, who lives in a nursing home near us -- she's 96 years old and sharp as a tack.


Patty: Sometimes when you are asked a question, it puts your mind back to something you had forgotten about for years. For example, when you asked that I remembered when we used to say the rosary at night.

There was eight of us, and we’d all say the rosary. And when we were done Daddy would say to us, “that’s the end of that now –say your own little prayers, like good children.” Well all you’d hear was the tick of the clock, the all-weather clock on the wall. And that was all you’d hear was the quiet, but these days everything is buzz, buzz – noise everywhere, and people in a hurry all the time.

I remember well my young days, particularly Black ’47. I’m a child of the state, for I was born on Christmas Day 1921, and the treaty had been signed but not ratified. I made my First Communion on Trinity Sunday 1928. There’s a lady here who was born in ’28, and I think I’m doing better than she is.

Me: So you’re older than the state.

Patty: Well I would say so – you mean from the time the treaty was ratified?

Me: | suppose so.

Patty: Oh, no I’m not then – the treaty was signed on December 6, but it was ratified until sometime in January. It was because of Dev and Michael Collins and all the rest.

Me: You grew up in Sallins?

Patty: Well, I come from farmers from Rathcoffey -- we are an old, old family, and go back there a long, long time. My father had a couple of brothers and no sisters, and he was an eldest son, and left a heap of his own. He married his first wife and was widowed in three years, with two children, one six months old, one two or three. That would be in the early 1900s. He always knew my mother, as they both went to Ladychapel Mass in the one parish Maynooth.

Then the First World War started, and he went over to take part in it -- you had to do three years. I don’t remember, but my father told me he was a tilly steward for a Mr. Ganaher (sp?) on a big estate. My mother was there as well, in one of the child’s houses, the daughter.

He married my mother on the 10th of June 1918. At their wedding she said, “Look at all the flags going – the war must be over,” and he said, “I don’t think so,” and sure enough it wasn’t until that November.

I wasn’t the first baby – the first baby was born dead, and there was one or two misses, and then I was born Christmas Day 1921. Ever since 1921 I’ve tried to live my life; I married quite young, and worked in Howth Castle in Dublin.

Years ago if you worked in a shop then you had to pay a fee. Well there was eight of us – two boys, six girls – and we didn’t have a lot of money then; my father was trying to screw a living from the land. That was before the Land Commission, which brought up those people from Kerry and Mayo and such places. Some people got land and two or three houses and mowing machines and such – and my father did get a divide of land but he only got land. He had to supply everything else himself. 

There was only one big farm and eight children. But he built our house in Straffan on a loan and a grant – he applied for a loan from the Free State government – and that’s where I was brought up – Barberstown, Straffan.

I was brought up in Straffan – but all my family and heritage were from Rathcoffey -- Johninstown, Straffan, they call it.

Me: So you had lots of cousins in the area?

Patty: I had family, but there are also lots of Trabears in the area that aren’t related to us. One of my nieces found that we were actually French Hugenots, and there’s a graveyard near Stephen’s Green that’s a Hugenot graveyard, with quite a few Trabears in it.

Money was very tight now, and you’d be great if you got a penny off somebody. I think I made my Communion around the time Kevin O’Higgins was shot – everyone in school was excited about getting money for their First Communion, but when the time came Kevin O’Higgins had been shot and people could talk of nothing else, and I didn’t get that much money, just a few half-crowns.

When we’d go to school you’d slide a lot -- the winters were harder then, and you’d be breaking the ice on the lochs of water. You could buy oil coming in for the winter, for the lamps, but if you didn’t get there by a certain time by daylight, you wouldn’t get it, for they wouldn’t go to the oil burner at night. It was peculiar.

Things were so simple years ago. Once in a while you’d get a pot of jam and a packet of biscuits, and bread was four loaves was a shilling.

They’d lots of things people used to do. My father had only a small plot of land, and it wouldn’t keep you in it, and he was just one man. So like many, he got paid to be in charge of a stretch of by-road by contract and to patch up all the holes on it, putting gravel in. And he’d have to go to a local pit with his horse and cart, and fill it up with gravel – sometimes the men who worked the pit would just give it to him – and use that to fill all the potholes on the road. If he didn’t, he would get a letter from the County Surveyor saying, “Trabears, such and such a road was very bad – I noticed you haven’t patched it lately,” down by Round Tower or Trabagore, and then my father would have to go and do it. 

My father also did his own bit of farming on 27 acres, four fields, which went down Barberstown road and stretched around the back road behind Straffan toward Celbridge. You’d go around the back of my father’s farm and across a by-road and would be right at the Liffey. There was always a man in the summer time and go swimming – we called it swimming, but it was really just paddling around – and there used to always be a man in the summer time with a scythe, cutting grass.

I remember one day he was making a lot of noise, and my sister Eileen said “That man is trying to talk to you,” and I stood and said, “Yessir?” he said, “Young Trabears, will you get those children out of there – the flood’s coming down from Ballymore, and the Liffey will be rising and you’ll be drowned in the current.” I was the biggest one, so I brought them all home.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Thoughts as everyone puts up decorations

I was writing something about how most of our Christmas imagery -- Christmas trees, snow, carolers, mistletoe, holly, Christmas cards, Santa and so on -- come from Victorian Britain, especially Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The strange thing is, he was talking about London, and London never gets white Christmases anymore.

The reason, of course, is that Dickens grew up at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, that cold period that took place during the 1600s and 1700s. When Dickens was little London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, times when the weather was so cold that the Thames froze thick with ice, and people held public carnivals in the middle of the river without fear.

Why was there a little Ice Age? The leading theory is that when native Americans filled North and South America, they had cleared much of the land for farms. When the Spaniards invaded, they spread ten thousand years' worth of diseases for which the natives had no immunity, and perhaps 99 percent of the population died. The farms lay vacant, and within a century the forests had grown back, two continents of trees suddenly sucking millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

As you would expect, the global temperature dropped, and Europe began seeing harsher winters -- the Dutch masters painted scenes of men and women ice skating on the canals, which the Dutch could never do today. And in Britain, generations grew up associating the Christmas season with deep snow.

Hence, Dickens portrayed a snow-bound London with all the accoutrements that we now associate with Christmas. We still use such images even when few of us live in places that have white Christmases anymore -- even London itself. One wonders, as the climate continues to change in the decades ahead, what old imagery we will cling to long after the world has shifted and the imagery no longer makes sense.

But those can be melancholy thoughts, so I'll just end with recipes. This will appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week:

Everyone makes their own Christmas supper --- some with ham, some with turkey, some with Chinese they ordered out at the last minute. There’s no definitive Christmas recipe list, but this might give you some ideas for the big day. 

Turkey – We won’t go into all the details of roasting turkey, which are in many cookbooks and which vary according to the size of bird you have. I have found, though, that you can improve any recipe you have by finely grating 10g of ginger, 20g of garlic, 5ml each of salt, pepper, vegetable stock powder and lemon zest, and mix it in a bowl with 50g of butter. Then mix it all together and rub it under the skin of the turkey before roasting.

When I roasted a turkey, I made sure to take out the organs on the inside and stuff the cavity with the lemon halves I had recently zested. Then I laid it in a deep pan with the breast down -- that is, upside-down from the way it’s usually pictured, so that the breast didn’t dry out. I then packed skinned and quartered onions and chopped carrots, celery and potatoes -- each cut into about two-centimetre pieces -- and filled the space around the turkey with them. I then poured two cups of my mead -- honey wine from my beehive, but white wine would also do -- over the vegetables, and paid tinfoil over the whole thing.

Mine was a small turkey, so I roasted it for an hour this way, and then took it out, uncovered the bird, and mixed up the vegetables. Then I turned it over so that the breast part browned as well, and roasted for another 30 minutes. Generally you roast a turkey 10 to 12 minutes per pound (21 to 25 per kilo) if it is not stuffed, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads at least 83 Celsius. Let the turkey sit at least 15 minutes before carving.

Cranberry sauce – put 200g of cranberries, in a pan with 100g of brown sugar, 50 ml of white wine in a pan, and simmer it for five minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the cranberries start to soften and burst. You can try to mix it into a finer consistency, or serve as is.
Potato salad: Rather than making a traditionally heavy potato salad to go with a heavy meal, make a light one with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives.
As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Kale: First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar and one tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter.

Butternut squash: Cut up a butternut squash – just the flesh, not the skin or innards --- into cubes about 1 cm across. Take about 50 ml of stock – or perhaps hot water mixed with stock powder – and mix in 10 ml each of finely-chopped herbs like oregano, sage, parsley and basil, along with 3 – 5 ml of spices like cumin and coriander, 10 ml of soy sauce, 5 ml of salt, and a pinch of cayenne. Add a few dashes of lemon juice.

Line a baking dish with butter, and put in the squash. Pour the mixture over it, cover it with foil and place in the oven. Bake at 200 degrees for about 60 minutes, or until the squash is … well, squashable.

Finally, take it out of the oven and take the foil off. Grate some cheese – gruyere works well – and sprinkle it over the top of the squash. Put it back in, uncovered, for a few more minutes until the cheese is melted.