‘It was a time of happiness and goodwill’ - Joan Cleere reflects on festive traditions and times past

Hoyne’s Hardware Store, Thomastown

Hoyne’s Hardware Store, Thomastown

My memories of the festive season in Kilkenny are mostly happy ones.

When I was small I remember watching the local store for weeks beforehand waiting for the toys to be displayed.

When the great day arrived, the word spread like wildfire - within a short time the big plate glass window of Hoyne’s Hardware Store in Thomastown was hard pressed to withstand the pressure of a couple of dozen faces, noses and hands as we jostled each other to get a better view.

Our excitement knew no bounds; there were oohs and aahs from everyone as each child pointed out his or her favourite toy.
In my young days (the early 1950s) toys were only in the shops at Christmas time, so it was a real treat to see such an array of playthings.

Of course, nowadays there are toy shops all year round. I wonder if children of today are missing some of the simple pleasures which we enjoyed.

Hoyne’s always had the biggest display in the town. A few days before Christmas, Santa Claus would drive down the main street in a pony and trap resplendent in his red robes.

The staff in Hoyne’s had a place ready for him. There’d be two big sacks behind the counter; one held pink parcels and the other blue parcels. They cost sixpence, one and sixpence and two shillings - old money of course.

Hoyne’s also owned the local cinema at the time and on the Sunday after Christmas a special matinee performance was put on for the children.

On the way in each child was given a raffle ticket. During the interval a big table was set out at the top of the hall laden with games and toys. These were raffled as we all watched our tickets anxiously.

In our school, which was run by the Sisters of Mercy, we were often called on to help with the erection of the crib. When the crib was in place we felt so proud.

Carol singing was a part of Christmas which I loved. A week before we’d go around the different areas in the town singing for local charities. We carried lanterns decorated with coloured paper. On Christmas morning the whole choir assembled for the main mass of the day.

In our family, my brother and I looked forward to Christmas Eve as we were brought down the town by our father and mother.

First of all we’d visit the shops and then it was on to the local pub for lemonade and chocolate. On reflection this must have been as much a treat for our mother as it was for us children! In those days it wasn’t customary for women to frequent the pubs.

The postman was a very popular figure at Christmas time. We’d be watching for his big blue-clad figure to appear at the end of the road, his bicycle laden down with parcels and cards.

At Christmas there’d be extra deliveries and sometimes he came after dark. There was something special about getting a parcel delivered late at night.

One parcel which we looked forward to was from an aunt and it always contained an assortment of colouring books and paints. We’d tear the brown paper off excitedly and then spend the night colouring contentedly.

At last Christmas morning arrived and when we had opened our presents and emptied our stockings we usually paid a visit to our cousins across the road to see what they had got from Santa.
It was a time of happiness and goodwill and everyone was in good humour. Chocolate and lemonade was in plentiful supply in everyone’s house.
The Wren
No memory of that time would be complete without mentioning our annual outings to ‘follow the wren’. Early on St Stephen’s Day we’d get kitted out in our brightest and gaudiest clothes and set off.

“The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds, St Stephen’s Day, he got caught in the furze, Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us a penny to bury the wren.”

First we’d call to all the neighbours houses and then we’d make our way down to the pubs in the town (13 in number).

Lastly, we made our traditional call to St Columba’s Hospital where we’d sing for the nurses and patients.

At the end of the day our pockets would be heavy with coins. On our way home, the local newsagent’s shop, Statia Heafey’s, was our final port of call, to check out bargains left after Christmas. Then we’d head home contentedly to the fire for a game or two of snakes and ladders of Ludo before falling into bed.

As I grew older I looked forward to Christmas for many different reasons. There were dances and new clothes and presents to enjoy. When I was 18, Christmas took on a sad association for me, as it was the Christmas when my father died. We had watched him failing for many months and he died Christmas 1963.

Something seemed to go out of Christmas for me after that.

It was only when my own children came along that some of the old magic was rekindled.I’ll finish with an age old Christmas rhyme:

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man’s hat
If you haven’t got a penny, a halfpenny will do, if you haven’t got a halfpenny, it’s God Bless You.

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