by ehistoryadmin on October 10, 2014


Church ceremonies at the heart of Christmas of half a century ago 

Liam Kenny

Irish society in the 1950s was almost unimaginably different from the society of modern times. The certainties of church and State were firmly in place and this was particularly marked in the approach to Christmas and how it was celebrated. The relative absence of consumerism was apparent as was the picture of overflowing churches and devotional observance.

The Leinster Leader conveyed something of this devotional atmosphere with a report on the Christmas of fifty-five years ago in almost a dozen parishes across mid-Leinster.

In the North Kildare towns of Maynooth, Kilcock, Celbridge and Leixlip the Feast of Christmas was celebrated with all due solemnity and the faithful thronged the churches at all Masses. There was a musical dimension in Maynooth when the St. Mary’s Brass and Reed band paraded the town playing Christmas hymns and carols.

Farther west in Kilcock where a beautiful Christmas tree stood illuminated in the Square, the Christian Brothers boys’ Accordion Band opened the ceremonies and played seasonal airs around the streets to the delight of the townspeople.

At the Curragh Camp the temporary St. Brigid’s Garrison church housed an overflow congregation for midnight mass celebrated by Fr. Boylan, Chaplain to the Forces. A feature was the impressive singing of the recently formed male choir.

In Naas, the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated at the Church of Our Lady & St. David by the faithful with a deep devotional reverence for the great festival. Christmas began when in the presence of a capacity congregation Rev. Larry Newman, CC, celebrated solemn sung Mass starting at midnight. An edifying scene at this Mass, as indeed at each Mass during the morning was the very large numbers of parishioners receiving Holy Communion.

In wishing the people a Holy and a Happy Christmas, Father Newman said that the priests knew that there were a lot of emigrants home for the Christmas and to them they extended a special welcome.

Moving across county to Newbridge, it was reported that midnight Mass was celebrated in both St. Conleth’s ParishChurch and the DominicanChurch, there being capacity congregations in the two churches. One of the outstanding features was the exceptionally large number of communicants. Both churches were artistically decorated. On Christmas morning there were again scenes of deep devotion as parishioners thronged to Masses in the ParishChurch and at the DominicanCollege. There was a steady flow of the faithful to the Cribs in both churches throughout the period of Christmas.

A crib also featured in the Kildare town Christmas scene – this time a large crib erected in the Market Square through the efforts of the local Muintir na Tire branch. It was artistically lighted during the hours of darkness and was visited by the majority of parishioners at least once during Christmas.

Across the county boundary in Offaly the Christmas ceremonies in Edenderry were described as being ‘ impressive and extremely devotional’. On Christmas Eve there was a procession of school-children and musicians for the traditional ceremony of bringing the Christ child to the Crib. The St. Mary’s church choir gave one of the most magnificent recitals of music ever heard in the church with their rendering of ‘The Alleluia’ in four part harmony. The choir was augmented by the boys’ choir trained by Mr. Edward Moran.

The parishioners of Daingean must have felt a little nostalgic as they attended Christmas ceremonies at the old St. Philip Neri church. The Leader report remarks ‘ It will probably be the last Christmas in which such ceremonies will be held as the magnificent new church in the town is now rapidly taking shape.’

The report emphasised that church and liturgical devotion were at the heart of the peoples’ perception of the Christmas period: ‘With devout congregations thronging the churches, Christmas 1958, was ushered in with the traditional fervour and homage to the Infant born in Bethlehem’. Midnight mass was celebrated in many churches, the faithful participating joyfully in the ceremonies so closely and reverentially associated with the great festival.

At the Masses on Christmas Day the same spirit of religious fervour was evident in the many parishioners receiving Holy Communion whilst later there was a consistent stream of worshippers to visit the beautiful cribs created by loving hands.

Clearly the devotional nature of Irish society comes through in the reports of the well-attended and reverential ceremonies held through the Christmas of 1958. Leinster Leader 17 December 2013, Looking Back, Series no.362.

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