The lyrics ‘Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat; please put a penny in the old man’s hat’ come from the old festival seasonal rhyme from a time long since past when children would go from door to door and recite the ditty in exchange for a few ‘coppers’. The following are some of the Christmas events that occurred over the last 100 or so years.
The Christmas Cracker was invented in 1847 by Tom Smith, a baker from Clerkenwell in London.
In 1840, while visiting Paris, Smith came across ‘Bon Bons’, an almond sweet wrapped in ‘twisted’ paper. He had never seen these sweets before and liked the taste so much that he began producing and selling them in London. They became very popular, particularly as gifts from young men to their sweethearts.
Smith, who was always on a lookout for new promotional initiatives, noticed this and added a new idea to his product. Inspired by the Chinese fortune cookies, he introduced small slips of paper inside the wrappings, which contained love mottos. One evening while sitting comfortably by his fire, the crackle of a log burning gave him a new idea. After much experimenting, he managed to reproduce a similar sound and spark by using two strips of thin card with salt petre spread on them.
Smith’s latest invention became very popular and were called ‘Cosaques’ after the cracking of the Cossack’s whips. Some ten years later, they came to be known as Christmas Crackers. He later added small toys to his crackers, which was an instant success. The particular design and colourful wrappers was such a success, that they were sold in packs of six or twelve. His crackers became so popular that it gave rise to many competitors. This forced Smith to patent his invention under his company name, ‘Tom Smith Crackers’. Success continued and, by 1900, Smith sales had reached some 13 million crackers.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Christmas pantomimes were all the rage in Galway during the festive season. Many were ‘travelling pantomimes’ making their way around the most popular parts of the country.
Fred Smith was one of the most celebrated people in the business at that time. The following is an advertising report of his arrival in Galway for Christmas in 1898:
‘We are sure the playgoers of Galway will be delighted to learn that the popular favourite, Mr Fred Smith, is about to visit this city next week, on which occasion he is to introduce the amusing pantomime of, ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’, a piece which has been got up for the Christmas entertainment in Galway at great expense. From what the public know of Mr Smith and his talented company it is needless for us to expatiate on their ability, but we cannot help saying that their performances cannot be excelled by any company travelling. What Mr Smith announces in his programme is carried out to the letter, and on this occasion we feel that those patronising the pantomime will enjoy a treat, which, for brilliancy of effect and exquisiteness of display, they well remember with pleasure for as long as they live.’
Christmas Day with the Boer Army
Brian MacGoey was a soldier of Irish Brigade fighting against the British during the Boer War (1899-1901). He was from Galway and, in 1953, he recorded his memories of Christmas Day with the Boer army in 1900.
‘Those of us now left who served with the Irish Brigade in the Boer Army in the South African war are few. We were organised and led by Colonel Blake and Major MacBride, who so nobly kept the fighting traditions of our race, ‘neath’ the sultry African sky in company with the Boer Commanders. Colonel Blake has left us his impressions and experiences in a book entitled: A West Pointer With The Boers.
It is a well-written book, at times rather piquant, and gives vivid pen pictures of the men he met and the battles the Irish Brigade went through. The Battle of Colenso had just been fought and won, and the victorious Boer Commanders had returned to their camps and homes to celebrate the victory in their own simple way, while Sir Redvers Buller, defeated and depressed, sat down by the Angela River to reinforce his depleted ranks and prepare again for the spring campaign.
Fifty of the Irish Brigade had been in the thick of the battle and had taken part in the capture of the British guns, which set the seal on the Boer victory. Full of Irish fun, these Irish exiles on the Veldt were determined to have a typical Irish Christmas at our camp at Modderspruit. We organised horse races and a hurling match and invited the best horsemen and athletes in other Commandoes to take part. Here on Christmas Day, came Generals, Commandants, Field Cornets with wives and families. Many ladies, old and young, were also present from Pretoria.
It was a gala day for these soldier Gaels. Buntings floated from every mast and pole and among the flags were the victorious Vireklver Flag of the Boer Republic, the Emerald Green Flag of Ireland with the Golden Brian Boru Harp in the centre, partly encircled with a spray of shamrocks with the Harp of Tara on the shamrock, the Flag of Sarsfield, Tone and Emmet. I trust and pray the Irish people will restore it as the National Flag of a United Irish Nation. With horses recently commandeered in Pretoria a few days previously, the Irishmen won all the horse races but most of the athletic events went to the young Boer farmers.
The field programmes being finished, a splendid feast was served but Colonel Blake regretfully announcement that the liquid refreshments intended to complete the celebration were missing! Some cases of whiskey, which were to finish the day’s amusements, were captured at the station by another Commander. Regret was general! However, we all spent a great Irish day and, when the shades of evening were gathering over our friendly camp, the sturdy Burgers retired to pray.’
Christmas dinners dropped by parachute
During Christmas 1959,Santa Claus arrived by air over three storm lashed islands off the Connemara coast to drop Christmas supplies and food hampers by parachute. The islands – Inishark, Inishturk and Inisturbot – had been cut off from the mainland for weeks because of high seas.
A Dublin firm decided to try to obtain a plane for a parachute drop. The Skycraft Services provided a Rapide aeroplane for the Irish Parachute Club, who organised the dropping of the Christmas hampers. Families on the three islands were struggling, as they had no fresh meat, meal nor poultry and had to cook some ‘old bacon’ for Christmas dinner.
A few days later, Freddie Bond, the Parachute Club’s instructor, dropped nearly a quarter of a ton of food on the three islands. The operation was originally planned for St Stephen’s Day, but Arthur Wignall, the pilot was in England and could not get to Ireland in time. He arrived the following Sunday and said afterwards that, in spite of the terrible weather conditions, the dropping of supplies on the islands had been a great success. However, he also said that it was the worst weather he had ever experienced. On two of the islands – Inishturbot and Inishturk – the people were expecting the plane and stood around in groups watching the supplies floating to the ground. The people on the other island – Inishark – received a great surprise when they saw the items dropping from the plane as they were not aware of the impending airlift.
Christmas ‘Teddy Boy’
On Christmas Eve 1959, ‘Teddy Boy’ riots broke out in Dublin city when about 200 of these young ‘hooligans’ went on a rampage of ‘wanton blackguardism’ throughout the capital. It was part of a national trend across large Irish cities including Galway.
One report stated that, ‘The wave of wanton destruction that has taken place in Galway within the past couple of months has shown that Galway is not without a taint of the same spirit’.
The authorities stated that the answer to the problem was simple, and it would be addressed after Christmas, ‘…if more Guards were needed to deal with the Teddy Boys, then more Guards would have to be provided.’ The second action was the responsibility of the judges and the courts. They must be forced to take a stronger stance against tugs and not take the ‘easy-going’ approach, which seemed to becoming the norm.
Events of note: Congratulations to Tom Small of Kiloughter on his ‘large’ birthday today. Tom is a great local historian, appearing on many TG4 programmes. He also supports this column regularly.
The St. Bridget’s Terrace Residents Association Christmas party takes place on Friday, 14 December at 8pm in the Western Hotel, Prospect Hill. (Sit-down meal €15). It is part of the 100 years anniversary celebrations. Tickets are available from Brian Kennedy on 091-562495.
The Old Galway Society lecture, ‘Galway Cinemas’ by James Casserly takes place at Victoria Hotel, Victoria Place tomorrow, Thursday 13 December at 7.30pm.