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Christmas or “Christ’s Mass” was first celebrated in the 4th century but the modern idea of Christmas with gift-giving, cards, trees, turkey and Santa Claus took many centuries to develop. 

A family Christmas in Barrack Street, Newry, 1959. Courtesy of William McAlpine
A family Christmas in Barrack Street, Newry, 1959. Courtesy of William McAlpine

By the 12th century Christmas was a time of merriment and gift-giving. Caroling, which included dancing as well as singing, became popular and people began to decorate their homes with evergreens such as ivy, holly and fir. 

Indulgent feasts and elaborate entertainments increasingly became a feature of the medieval Christmas and, by the 16th century, wealthy families also enjoyed plays and pageants, singing, dancing, gambling and, of course, eating and drinking. Celebrations continued over the Twelve Days of Christmas which ended on the evening of 5th January (Twelfth Night).

Charlie Smyth leading the pantomime horse in one of his productions with Geraldine Fitzpatrick and Eithne Morgan on horseback.   Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Charlie Smyth leading the pantomime horse in one of his productions with Geraldine Fitzpatrick and Eithne Morgan on horseback. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

With the Reformation, however, in 16th century, some people disapproved of the revelry associated with Christmas. After the victory of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians over Charles I in the English Civil War, the celebration of Christmas was banned. Christmas Day became a normal working day and many traditions such as carol-singing, the making of plum pudding and mince pies were banned. In the 18th century Christmas was observed by church-going, decorating the home with evergreens and dinners featuring mutton, goose, mince pie and plum pudding.

Christmas, as we know it today, began to emerge in Britain and Ireland in the 1840s. In 1841, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, famously popularised the German tradition of Christmas trees and, in 1843, the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, promoted Christmas as a season of goodwill. Christmas cards were also introduced and the medieval custom of singing carols was revived. In 1848, the Christmas cracker – a simple package filled with sweets which snapped when pulled apart - was invented by the confectioner, Tom Smith. The turkey, as the centre-piece of Christmas dinner, also became popular.

The people of Newry found a very novel way of cooking their turkeys: “turkeys would have been cooked in McCann’s ovens and some of the home bakeries down Monaghan street, McAlinden’s and Foley’s”. 

Children at a party for the cast of Snow White at Newry Town Hall, c.1940. Private Collection
Children at a party for the cast of Snow White at Newry Town Hall, c.1940. Private Collection

Many countries have their own Christmas traditions. Irish Christmas traditions include the candle in the window. Lighted candles are placed in windows on Christmas Eve, as a guide for Joseph and Mary as they look for shelter.

Another uniquely Irish tradition is that of the Christmas Rhymers or ‘Mummers’, a group of young men disguised in masks, usually made of straw, who would arrive at a house and perform a ‘play’. Money was given to the Rhymers, who were thought to bring good luck to the household in which they were made welcome. 

Hill Street in Newry on Christmas Eve night in 1962 viewed from the top of the building now occupied by Danske Bank. Foster & Newell’s department store can be seen on the right decorated with coloured lights. Christmas lights then were a simple affair compared with those we see today. Courtesy of William McAlpiine
Hill Street in Newry on Christmas Eve night in 1962 viewed from the top of the building now occupied by Danske Bank. Foster & Newell’s department store can be seen on the right decorated with coloured lights. Christmas lights then were a simple affair compared with those we see today. Courtesy of William McAlpiine

Another Christmas tradition is the Pantomime, a form of winter musical comedy theatre that has its roots in 15th and 16th century traditions of Italian Commedia del Arte. This has been a popular Christmas and New Year entertainment for many decades in Newry with local people of all ages taking part in the annual ‘Panto’ on the stage of Newry Town Hall.

From the mid-1930s the annual pantomimes were produced by P.J. McKay with Harry Heather as Musical Director. In the late 1950s Charlie Smyth became involved in local pantomimes with Sean Canavan. During the Troubles in the 1970s, Paddy O’Hagan, Clerk of the Council asked Charlie Smyth if he could put on a show in Newry to raise people’s spirits. Along with the Glen Youth Club a pantomime was produced and performed in the Town Hall. This became an annual tradition.

Santa Claus arriving in Monaghan Street, Newry, Christmas 1960. Courtesy of William McAlpine
Santa Claus arriving in Monaghan Street, Newry, Christmas 1960. Courtesy of William McAlpine

No article on Christmas is complete without a mention of Santa Claus. We believe that Santa is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian bishop, famous for his generosity to children. By the 1860s, the cartoonist, Thomas Nast, had begun depicting Santa Claus as the jolly, bearded fat man in a fur-trimmed suit that we know and love today. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed. However, we wish our supporters a Merry Christmas and look forward to welcoming everyone back to the Museum in 2021.

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