Christmas 100 years ago

By Eoin Meegan

What was Christmas like in Dublin one hundred years ago? It was certainly a very different place than it is today.

The end of 1918 would have been a time of mixed feelings. Relief that the war was over and loved ones were coming home, excitement among some at the outcome of the December elections, and a sense of foreboding among others as to what the future would bring. No one knew it then, but Ireland stood on the cusp of great change and faced a harrowing War of Independence followed by an equally divisive Civil War.

Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), despite the fact that it was partly a building site at the time, its restoration having only recently begun, would have been packed with shoppers on Christmas Eve. They would be buying meat, extra food, maybe linen, the occasional present even then I’m sure.

Later, everyone would go to Midnight Mass. The Holy Family and the traditional message of Christmas took centre stage at that time. Christmas definitely didn’t start in October like today! And it wasn’t the consumer-driven extravaganza either. Workers would probably only get a few days off, some only Christmas Day.

Then on Christmas Day itself, people would sit down to dinner as a family, probably goose, or maybe a roast, poorer families might have a chicken. Homemade Christmas pudding and cake would be on the fare, as home cooking, not eating out, was standard then.

Families wouldn’t exchange lavish gifts as we do today, but there still would be treats for the children. Wealthy families could afford to get their children toys from Santa, dolls for the girls, and soldiers were very popular for boys at this time.

The figure of Santa was different too. The jolly fat man in a red coat hadn’t yet been invented. Back then he was a more austere figure, known as Father Christmas, and children held him in a certain reverence, even awe. He would most likely be attired in a long dark – perhaps green – cloak with a hood.

In an attempt to get the economy going again, many businesses were promising pre-war prices for goods. If you were wondering what to get the lady in your life for Christmas, then Clery’s department store had ladies’ gloves which retailed for 4/11 (that’s four shillings and 11 pence in the old money). Fountain pens also seemed to be very much in demand that year, perhaps due to the wartime custom when people were encouraged to write to the troops.  

When they could afford it, relatives or family members who were working in England would come home, often arriving on Christmas Eve and staying for a few days. There would be great excitement all around. No doubt a few bottles of Guinness would be stored in for the occasion and maybe a bottle of Jameson. This year was extra special because the war had ended and soldiers were returning for good. Throughout the war a collective guilt had curtailed excessive Christmas cheer – making merry just didn’t seem right when sons and brothers were away fighting. I think, all things considered, the “peace of Christmas” would have been a major theme.

What was missing in that Christmas one hundred years ago would be the sheer amount of light we now take for granted. Forget about your flashing Santas, LED bulbs, and gaily-lit trees on every street corner. While Dublin did have electricity at the time, it was in very limited supply. 

In 1903 Dublin Corporation opened a generation station at the Pigeon House (previously they had operated from a coal-fired station in Fleet Street), but only the big stores and very wealthy families could afford it.

Almost a decade would pass before the formation of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and the beginning of the electrification of Ireland. Back then, most people still relied on the old paraffin oil or Tilley lamps. 

The Christmas tree custom spread across Europe from Germany in the mid 1800s. It probably was late arriving here, but no doubt, some well to do families would have one in their homes. Obviously, it would be a real tree, not the modern plastic version, and decorated perhaps with streamers, baubles, or even fruit.

Many families preferred a crib. Candles were the precursor of the fairy lights. There was a tradition in Ireland to leave a candle in the window on Christmas Eve to light the way for Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and maybe also on New Year’s Eve. It must have looked a very picturesque sight with all the candles flickering in the windows on those frosty winters’ nights.

There was also less music around that time too. You weren’t bombarded with the strains of Slade and the Pogues everywhere you went. Some would say that was a blessing. But it’s hard to believe even ‘White Christmas’ was still more than twenty years in the future, and most of the songs we love now wouldn’t be written for nearly half a century.

Radio and TV too were in the distant future. Instead, people made their own music. In many homes there would be gatherings around the piano and people would sing the popular songs of the time, which included, ‘We’ll Keep the Home Fires Burning’, ‘It’s a Long Way from Tipperary’, and ‘Danny Boy’. Thomas Moore songs were still in fashion then. And the likes of ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ and ‘The Minstrel Boy’ would get many an airing. In case you’re wondering, Al Jolson’s ‘Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’ was the big hit that year.

Musical nights out would also be a big feature. Crowds would gather in the streets, joining in with traditional carols such as Adeste Fideles and Silent Night. Sweetmeats and mulled wine would be on offer. A tradition I’m glad we still carry on. The Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society probably performed an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. 

People then, as now, looked forward to a bargain in the New Year. In 1918 there was a sale in McBirney’s on Aston Quay, starting January 2nd. Clery’s big winter sale started on December 30th. They had tablecloths reduced to 16/-, 18/6, 23/6 and 25/6 each, pillow slips at 1/8 and 2/3 each, while bolsters were 12/6 down from 14/-. Not to be missed I’m sure. 

As they faced into 1919, people had a Royal Wedding to look forward to. It was the wedding of Princess Victoria Patricia of Connaught to Commander Alexander Ramsay. Patricia was one of the most beautiful women of her day and caused a stir in Edwardian society when she married her father’s aide de camp, a ‘commoner’. The wedding took place in Westminster Abbey in February. I guess some things never change.

But it wasn’t all a rosy picture. People in Dublin had some of the poorest living conditions in Europe and the inner-city was a warren of overcrowded tenement houses and slums. Henrietta Street was one of the worst. The Sisters of Charity ran a laundry at no 10. Many houses didn’t only house one family, but took in lodgers as well, all in the same room!

For these people, there definitely wasn’t any room for a Christmas tree, and I dare say very little Christmas cheer. Any labour was intermittent and unemployment was very high, with many families relying on charities such as the Mendicity Institute, or the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society. In addition, some buildings were in such bad repair that it wasn’t unknown for them to collapse, killing the occupants. A huge sanitary problem prevailed, with livestock and cattle yards, even abattoirs, side by side with human dwellings. Malnutrition and disease were rampant.

In order to save money, children would gather up pieces of coal that fell from the horse-drawn carts for fuel for the fire. The papers also encouraged the home keeper to gather up all the scraps and leftovers and stew them in a saucepan for half an hour in something called Edward’s Desiccated Soup. God only know what it tasted like.

Quaker oats were another popular form of nourishment, as well as old reliables such as Bovril. We must not forget that Ireland was in the grip of the second and most virulent phase of the Spanish Flu that December, with Leinster being one of the worst-hit areas, with some schools in Dublin having remainined closed since October. Dublin county and borough recorded 1,767 deaths from the epidemic in 1918 alone.

So yes, it was a time of great suffering and poverty in Dublin. However, despite that, at the season of Christ’s birth in 1918, one hundred years ago, no doubt smiles would return to the most hardened faces, and for a time at least things felt a little bit better.