In the context of a militaristic education system, in which PE was pointedly called “drill”, Christmas came not just as a festive break, but as a merciful release. (Drill on Telefís Éireann came in the form of Tone Up, a twice-weekly exercise class following the Angelus, hosted by Commandant JP O’Keeffe.)
Unlike today, when shops put up their decorations the morning after Hallowe’en, the Christmas countdown didn’t start until December 8th, the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when rural Ireland descended on Dublin for a shopping spree. Clerys department store had hit on the inspired idea of refunding the rail and coach fares of customers who spent a certain amount in-store, and by the 1960s meeting and regrouping under Clerys’ clock was itself a hallowed custom. For stocking fillers, decorations and cheap toys, the capital’s go-to stores were Banba Toys and Hector Grey’s.
And there was the rub. The young children of Ireland, with not a patriotic thought between them, were completely sold on these fantastic plastic and die-cast metal playthings stamped with telltale marks of quality that any kid could instantly recognise from the TV advertisements, like Mattel and Waddington. The trouble was that in the eyes of many of their elders and betters running the country, children choosing these foreign objects of desire were guilty of treasonous anti-Irish leanings.
As with TV, cinema, religion, sport and everything else, the State was certain that it knew best when it came to toys. There were tariff-protected toy factories in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Mayo, producing kids’ scooters, tricycles, seesaws and wheelbarrows, while cottage workshops turned out clunky wooden “craft” dolls, forts and puzzles. For Ireland’s rulers, these craft toys were not only morally superior to imported trash, but they also supported jobs here, while keeping out imports from Communist hellholes like Poland and Czechoslovakia. School principals were even enlisted by their political masters to badmouth foreign toys to their little charges through patriotic pep talks.
But the kids didn’t want worthy-but-dull home-produced playthings. They craved Triang’s 007 Aston Martin with an ejector seat that guaranteed the little plastic passenger would be lost forever before bedtime. They loved pneumatic plastic Barbie, despite an Evening Press plea to go back to wholesome “rag dolls, those squashy companions of our youth”. The ultimate tech pressie was Scalectrix, “the most complete model motor racing system in the world”.
The advent of TV transformed the way we spent Christmas Day itself as the 1960s wore on. The gogglebox ousted the wireless, and even the fireside, as the family gathering point. For those in multi-channel land, the BBC and UTV catered for kids from mid-morning with cartoons and frivolity. For that half of the country stuck with just Telefís Éireann, Christmas was most certainly not about kids. Loaded with civic responsibility and a deep deference to the Catholic Church, TÉ put edification above entertainment. So Christmas Day would start at 10am with Mass, followed by Pope Paul’s Urbi Et Orbi address, then non-stop religious fare until lunch when the froth finally arrived via the likes of Andy Williams, Lassie and a children’s hospital visit by School Around The Corner host Paddy Crosbie.
It was Christmas, but not as we know it.