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The magical Christmas coat | Print |  Email
Sunday, 12 December 2004
A weary mother, a young girl, and a little blue coat - Mary Moylan tells a story of Christmas magic, from Ireland's rationing years.

by Mary Moylan (

See more Then & Now stories.

I was born in the rationing years in the county of Cork. These were times of scarcity after the Second World War when all goods were in extremely short supply and one had to have a ration book and a quota of stamps and these stamps only covered minute quantities of food, clothing and heat.

I was thinking about that the other day as I stood in one of those malls, those huge ones, with the lights and the magnificent displays of just about anything you could ever want or dream about, surrounded by shops and all the sparkle and glitter that is Christmas in Canada (and everywhere else in the world, too) around me.

I was remembering way back, about a week or so before Christmas and my mother was fretting and worrying about a little blue coat and a little blue bonnet that she wanted me to wear for all the Christmas visiting we would be doing around Midleton where we lived. The little coat and hat had been passed on and it was a tad too small for me so she had to wash it and pull it and twist it in order to stretch it a bit larger. I sat on the kitchen table in our little walk-up flat and watched her, my mother the magician, working a miracle on the coat that had pinched me under the arms it was so tight.

In those years, I would take it for granted that I got the special biscuit that my grandmother had scrounged somewhere and would wrap up in a piece of used greaseproof paper and unfold out of her big black bag like a priceless jewel when she came upstairs to our flat to visit. An aunt would unwrap an egg well protected in an old scarf and put it on the kitchen table and say it was for "the growing child." A neighbour would come up with a treasured half an orange and proffer it to my mother, insisting she take it.

I was the eldest grandchild and had a few years on my own as queen of the home until my brother was born and looking back, these little pieces of food, in my parents' eyes, must have seemed like offerings to the goddess. I have no sense of deprivation in those years, though I do remember as my parents would be wetting the last cup of tea in front of the fire before my bedtime when there would sometimes be the announcement of "well, that's the last of the sugar, then, for the rest of the week" as they scraped out the bowl.

Anyway, to get back to the little blue coat. When my mother had done enough of the pummeling and yanking each way to Friday on it, she hung it on the wire fireguard in front of the parlour fire to dry out in its new shape, a shape we fervently hoped would fit me. It wasn't a common practice for her to light the fire until after our supper as the turf and coal were rationed but this was a special occasion. The smell of steaming wool invaded the flat as the coat started to dry out and my mother and I went about the business of putting the bit of supper together in the kitchen. I, I'm quite sure, more of a hindrance than a help as we set the table in anticipation of my father coming home.

It was a while before we noticed a brand new smell coming from the parlour and my mother dropped everything and raced in to the fire. She was too late; there was a huge brown mark on the back of the blue coat where it had scorched. It was the first time I had seen her so upset. She sat there by the side of the fire, close to tears, holding the destroyed coat in her arms. I now had no outer garment to protect me from the weather over the Christmas.

My aunt chose that moment to drop in on our little drama and was quickly apprised of the story.

"We'll get everyone's clothing stamps," she announced, "I'll go around to the sisters and the pals and yank every stamp I can get my hands on. Come here, Mary, till I measure you."

And I stood there while she measured me with a piece of string and a scissors and then all we heard were her clippitty footsteps going down the stairs as she went on her way.

We had a sad little supper that night. My father heard all about the ruined coat.

To this day I can still see my aunt as she burst back into the room a couple of hours later, her face glowing from the cold outside, telling us they had opened up the drapery shop just for her. She had her hands behind her back, hiding something.

"Every last stamp," she said to my mother, "I got every last stamp. I had barely enough!" and with a swirl and a twirl she produced the most astonishing outfit I have ever seen.

They put it on me right away. Little red leggings, a red coat and a red bonnet and a little pair of red mittens on a string. They took me down the stairs and out on the Main Street and they walked me up and down for what seemed like hours. People stopping and staring and pointing and smiling.

"My," said a neighbour summing up the whole situation for us all, "Isn't she the very picture of a merry Christmas!"

And I was.

Beannachtai na feile Nollaig oraibh go leir. The blessings of the season to one and all.

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