Monday 20 January 2020

Rolling back the Christmases

Christmas has become too commercial, we have lost the spirit of the season, and people are spoiling their children.

These are the familiar gripes about the celebration -- but has it really changed all that much over the decades?

Judging by the newspaper reports of the past half-century, the same concerns are raised year after year.


Ireland was going through a boom, but old traditions had survived.

In 1966, the Irish Independent noted that families were still putting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, to show that there was a welcome for the Holy Family, who had been turned away from the inn.

Many familiar modern yuletide gripes were already in evidence.

In December 1966, Irish Independent writers complained of the "hustle and bustle of the modern Christmas''. Frances Condell said the traditional celebration was in decline as people faced the "never-ending shuffling and jostling from shop to shop".

Extravagant spending on presents was also deplored.

A 1966 Christmas editorial expressed concern about road rage: "What impulse led you to hoot your horn in a traffic jam, to flash lights in front of a tardy driver, or to shoot impatiently past a slowcoach in front?"

John D Sheridan, in his popular Saturday column, explained how he could not handle the present buying: "Now when the number of shopping days can be counted on one hand, I find myself in a state of benign mental paralysis."

A typical small ad tried to appeal to lady shoppers by promising to turn their husbands into men of suave sophistication: "Frank Martin has inspired ideas to help you pick a Christmas gift for the man in your life. Peter England shirts, polo neck sweaters, Kilspinall knitwear, Bonsoir pyjamas, gloves.''

The ultimate present in 1969 was the bricklike Sony Compact Cassette-corder. Ads in the paper boasted that it was used to play music by the astronauts on the Apollo 10 Spaceship. You could not get any more modern than that.


As the boom came to an end, Irish consumers seemed to delight in buying the tackiest presents possible.

Top of the list for men were heavily-advertised aftershave and deodorants in bathroom gift sets.

In the Sunday Independent in 1978, a bemused Hugh Leonard advised readers how to react when they received a "toilet-set of particular repulsiveness''.

"Do not flinch; instead emit a series of gasps and cooing noises. Look the giver sincerely in the face and say: 'As long as there is breathing in my body I will never part with it.'"

In 1979, the Ferguson Music Centre and futuristic quartz digital watch with red display were all the rage.

Parents, who were reported to be spending an average of £25 per child on toys, fretted about spoiling the children.

And Senator Gemma Hussey told The Irish Press: "There's a terrible lot that television advertising has to answer for. Mostly what they show the children is rubbish and it's a form of blackmail for parents.'' The columnist Mary McGoris was unhappy with "piped carols in supermarkets''.

In 1979 we may have been basking in the spiritual glow of the Pope's visit, but the country had changed during the decade.

The pre-Christmas fashion pages advised readers about "slinky black negligées'' and "naughty nighties".

Just before Christmas in 1979, a young Dublin band billed as The U2s arrived in England.

They were hoping to crack London.

"I want to replace the bands in the charts now, because I think we're better'' said the precocious lead singer, known as Bono Vox.

However, only nine paying punters turned up in Islington to watch them.


An editorial in the Irish Independent in the middle of the decade said: "Christmas is a time which still has a religious significance for most of the people in this country, even if the glossy glare of commercialism blinds us a little to the true significance."

Drunk driving was a lingering concern that was said to "cause havoc on the roads".

Church attendance may still have been high, but the country was not entirely monogamous. In 1986 in the Sunday Independent, Kate O'Neill urged us to spare a thought for the mistress at Christmas: "Mistresses get the loveliest Christmas presents and the lousiest Christmases . . . whether they weather the day alone in some flat filled with memories of him, or moon around at home with their parents -- who wonder how they managed to acquire a fur coat, but no engagement ring.''


The Irish Independent reported on December 22, 1995 : "It's spend, spend, spend this Christmas and that's official."

The Dublin Chamber of Commerce reported the biggest spending spree in a decade. Parents splashed out on toys including Barney the Dinosaur, Power Rangers and remote control fire engines.

"Home computers costing up to £2,000 are the popular choice for families, while mobile phone sales have gone through the roof.''


It already belongs to a bygone era of extravagance. It is hard to fathom now, but in the year 2000, eager students were prepared to attend a course in Christmas shopping in New York at Portobello College in Dublin.

Guided by social diarist Angela Phelan, they learned about where to buy Prada handbags, Ralph Lauren shirts and Hermes scarves.

By 2007, the last Christmas of the boom, a staggering 170,000 people were airlifted to the Big Apple every year, stuffing their suitcases with over €170m of goods.

The country's enthusiasm for designer baubles at Christmas was only matched by its desire for over-the-top lighting displays.

The average suburban street turned into a mini-Las Vegas -- giant neon Santas, flashing reindeers and multi-coloured fairy lights in fibre-optic trees. The lights dimmed when recession came and the electricity bills had to be paid -- along with all the other debts.

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