A Typical Irish Christmas (Nollaig Shona Dhuit — The Blessings of Christmas to You, in Irish)
Ireland’s Christmas traditions are not dissimilar to those found in many other parts of the world — there is lots of shopping, gifts are exchanged, people eat too much turkey and Santa Claus is the main man for most children! These are some of the most widely practiced traditions surrounding an Irish Christmas, though of course every family will have their own traditions and will celebrate the festive season in their own way.
However, Christmas really brings out the best in Ireland and the Irish from cheerful festivities to happy reunions, musical celebrations in Church and continuous partying. In Ireland Christmas lasts for about two weeks and is gladly celebrated as a respite from the winter.
Preparing For Christmas
Preparations for Christmas in Ireland start early. The CHRISTMAS CAKE and PLUM PUDDING, both essential parts of an Irish Christmas, need to be made several weeks in advance, so many people begin their Christmas baking in October.
Christmas cards are exchanged and gifts are given to friends in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday, but those for close family are reserved for Christmas day itself.
As Christmas draws closer, almost every office or place of work will hold a Christmas party, often in a local hotel, which are often attended by staff member’s partners also. Since many clubs and sporting organizations, churches and other groups will also have parties, it is a very busy time socially and pubs, restaurants and hotels are packed each night throughout the month of December.
Prior to Christmas, it is also customary to give small gifts, usually of the cash variety, to the mailman and others who perform regular services on your behalf.
The 8th of December — Serious Shopping Begins!
December the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a Catholic Church holiday and all Catholic Schools – the majority in Ireland – close for the day. The stores however most definitely do not close! The 8th was the day when people traditionally started serious Christmas shopping and in the past special trains were scheduled to take hordes of shoppers to Dublin for the day.
Nowadays it is more likely that people will shop locally, since there are malls and large out of town stores throughout the country, but it is still one of the busiest shopping days in the run up to Christmas. It marks the beginning of a real frenzy of shopping, just as happens in most other countries now. Stores have extended opening hours, some staying open 24 hours a day in the last week or two.
Carol singers, usually collecting money for local charities, start to appear on the streets of most towns and cities around this time and there are carol services and concerts held just about everywhere too.
This is a day for last minute shopping and for meeting up with friends and relatives who are home for Christmas. The atmosphere in most town centers is very festive, sociable and relaxed, with people stopping to chat and to wish each other a Happy Christmas. Many people will be home just for Christmas and meeting up with friends and relatives they have not seen since last year. It can take a long time to just go a few yards down a street!
Back home some preparations are made for the big dinner the next day, while friends may call to toast the season. Many will light a warm fire in the parlor hearth using turf (peat), coal or wood logs. On the night of Christmas Eve children hang up their stockings, usually near the mantel piece in the living room or close to the tree. They also help to prepare the traditional snack left for Santa to sustain him on his journey. This may be a few cookies, a couple of mince pies or a slice of Christmas cake, accompanied quite often by a small glass of whiskey. A carrot or apple for Rudolph is added to the bounty. It is clear that Santa is greatly appreciative of this snack, since it is invariably all gone by morning.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a huge social gathering where family, friends and neighbors who you may not have seen all year come together and celebrate Christmas.
With Christmas carols being sung (often with live music), midnight mass in Ireland is a great place to catch up with old friends and get in touch with the local community at Christmas.
Family gifts are exchanged on Christmas morning in most families, though a few wait until after dinner. Most people will attend a church service on Christmas morning, if they have not already been to midnight mass the previous night.
Once the turkey is in the oven, those family members not directly involved in its progress use the extended cooking time to call on friends, relatives and neighbors to deliver gifts and share a drink or two.
Then it is home and time for the big meal. This is eaten in the late afternoon or evening. Christmas dinners in Ireland usually consist of the standard fare; turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc. Among the more traditional Irish elements are spiced beef (spiced over several days, cooked, and then pressed) which can be served either hot or cold.
The traditional dessert is usually composed of mince pies, Christmas cake, and Plum Pudding with brandy or rum sauce.
After dinner most people simply ﬂop in front of the ﬁre and the television, to watch the inevitable seasonal movies, reruns and Christmas specials, too full and too exhausted to do anything more energetic!
The Christmas Swim!
There are some intrepid people who get out in the open air and away from all the excess on Christmas morning, though it can be fairly miserable out there at that time of year. One long standing tradition are the Christmas day swims, which take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning but probably most famously at the Forty Foot Rock in Sandycove, just south of Dublin.
On Christmas Day hundreds of people can be seen jumping off the rock into the freezing Irish Sea wearing only their bathing suits.
The water in the Irish Sea on Christmas Day is usually around 50F / 10C. Unfortunately the temperature outside the water is usually about have of this making the experience bracing to say the least. It’s crazy but they say it’s fun! This is certainly not for the faint hearted but is a proven hangover cure and its participants often receive sponsorship for charities.
Quite a crowd of less brave people – wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves – gather to watch the blue swimmers emerge from the water.
St. Stephen’s Day — December 26
St. Stephen’s Day (also known as Boxing Day), the day after Christmas, is also a holiday in Ireland and in some places is celebrated with just as much vigor! The WREN BOYS will be out in many places (especially in the South of Ireland), calling to the door for money, with whole families dressing up and joining in the fun. Other families will head to a horse racing event, visit family or friends or just get out into the country for a long walk. Few shops open on St Stephen’s Day, though some of the larger stores start their sales and are crowded with bargain hunters. Traditionally, pantomime plays are performed on St. Stephen’s day, in which women play the men’s roles and vice-versa. In Dublin there are usually several plays going on with subjects including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Babes in the Wood.
“Hunting the Wren” is an ancient Celtic ritual — in its original form a wren was hunted, killed and hung on a holly bush. The wren had, according to legend, earned this punishment by betraying the hiding place of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, to Roman soldiers.
In reality Hunting the Wren is a tradition that almost certainly refers back to pagan times, predating Christianity and related to the position of the wren as the king of birds in Celtic Mythology. This position was supposedly earned by flying higher than any other bird, a feat managed by the tiny bird hitching a ride on an Eagle, and then flying higher when the Eagle became tired and returned to land.
Nowadays no birds are killed, instead those engaged in the hunt, the so called ‘wren boys’, dress in straw suits or other costumes (not unlike Halloween costumes) and go from door to door, beating drums and playing whistles, asking for “a penny for the wren”. Sometimes they are accompanied by a sort of pantomime horse.
The ‘pennies’ collected were in the past used to fund a big party for the wren boys in a local hostelry, where much alcohol was consumed. This, along with its probable pagan origins, made the tradition very unpopular with the clergy, and their disapproval, along with mass emigration, was instrumental in the tradition almost dying out in the mid 20th century. It has been revived now though, and since the money collected now goes to local charities the clergy are much more supportive.
The song they yell from house to house is called:
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
And through he is little, his family is great,
So rise up, landlady, and give us a great.”
Most people treat the Wren Boys to porter and pudding. Any young people in the house are cajoled to continue on with the gang until there is a decent assembly of young folk being followed by most of the children in the neighborhood. They will end up in some neighbor’s house and if someone produces a fiddle the party begins.
Horse races on St. Stephen’s Day
Though St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, it is not the reason that horse races on St. Stephen’s Day have become a tradition in Ireland. The races in Leopardstown, South Dublin attract almost 20,000 people every year.
Heading off to the races is a chance to get out of the house, stretch your legs, and have a social drink with family members and friends.
Christmas is a long holiday in Ireland — many businesses remain closed until the first Tuesday of the New Year, with others operating on restricted hours or with reduced staff. Shops are the exception. Once St Stephen’s Day has passed, the New Year sales get into full swing and town centers are once again crowded with shoppers eager to find bargains.
Little Christmas — January 6
Also known as ‘Women’s Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan, Little Christmas falls on the 6th of January (the Feast of the Epiphany), and marks the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally the men of the house take over for the day, preparing meals and allowing the women to have a rest.
Little Christmas is also the day when the tree and all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put into storage for another year. It is considered unlucky to take the decorations down prior to this day.
A Light In The Window
One old custom that many continue to observe is the placing of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a symbol to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home.
The lighting of candles in Ireland also has a religious significance. The candle signifies symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph. It was a way of saying there was room for Jesus’ parents in these homes even if there was none in Bethlehem.
Some families even set extra places at their tables as a preparation for unexpected visitors.
Decorating The House
Houses are decorated with natural material such as holly, pine cones and ivy but also glass, wooden or plastic ornaments. Many people place a natural holly wreath on their front doors.
Most Irish families will have at least a small crib in the house, with the baby Jesus only placed into the manger on Christmas morning. Cribs are also erected, some almost life size, in churches, town centers and even shopping malls.
Natural Christmas trees, usually Noble Fir, are by far the most popular choice, though fake ones are increasing in popularity. Trees are decorated with lights and trinkets, generally the same ones year after year, though some style conscious people create (or buy) a whole new look for their tree annually. The 8th of December, or around that time, is the usual date for putting up and decorating the tree.
Decorating Public Places
Town center decorations are erected and lights turned in late November or early December – it seems to get even earlier with each passing year. Streets are filled with lights, shops vie to have the most impressive window display and huge trees go up in town squares and shopping centers. Decorating the outside of houses was a rarity until the last 5-6 years but is now becoming more common, with some people putting on quite lavish displays of lights.
There are hundreds of different recipes for Christmas Cake, all with slight variations on the same theme.
In all cases is it a moist, rich, slightly spicy cake crammed with fruit and nuts, which is traditionally baked at least 6-8 weeks before Christmas, and then ‘fed’ whiskey regularly in the run up to the big day.
The finished cake will be covered in white icing or frosting.
Preparing a Christmas Cake is quite a hassle, but is certainly worth the effort and no Irish Christmas would be complete without ‘the cake’.
Despite its name, plum pudding contains no plums. It receives its name due to the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for raisins.
The pudding is composed of many dried fruits held together by egg and animal fats, moistened by molasses and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. The pudding is aged for a month or even a year; the high alcohol content of the pudding (brandy being the most popular) prevents it from spoiling during this time.
It is very dark in appearance — effectively brownish black — as a result of the dark sugars and black molasses in most recipes, and its long cooking time. The mixture can be moistened with the juice of citrus fruits, brandy and other alcohol (some recipes call for dark beers such stout). Initial cooking usually involves boiling and steaming for many hours. It is then hung on a hook and left to dry for many weeks.
To serve, the pudding is reheated by steaming once more, and dressed with warm brandy which is set alight. It can be eaten with hard sauce, brandy butter, rum butter, cream, lemon cream, custard, or sweetened béchamel (a rich white sauce made with milk infused with herbs and other flavorings), and is sometimes sprinkled with caster sugar.
Today, many families buy their puddings readymade from shops and they can be reheated in a microwave oven with a much shorter cooking time.
The top ten best Irish Christmas food and drink treats
- Minced pies: Usually served after Midnight mass when the family gets home and enjoyed by all the family.
- Cadbury’s Roses: Box of the best of Irish chocolate with many different delights. Cadbury’s roses are found under every Christmas tree.
- Irish trifle: Delicious dessert made of jelly, cream, chocolate sprinkles, about 10,000 calories, but who cares its Christmas. Even better when brandy is added.
- Guinness porter cake: Delightful after dinner treat and the kind of filing food that makes the waist size stretch just that little bit more.
- Tricolor drink: Green creme de menthe, with white vodka and gold whiskey. If you can survive that you can live for ever.
- Irish sausages and black pudding: Served for breakfast on the great day itself…so you’re stuffed before you even get to dinner.
- USA biscuit tins: A long time staple, different flavor biscuits of every kind, in two separate rows. Woe betide the person that tries to reach down into the bottom level before the top ones are all gone.
- Whiskey eggnog: The usual eggnog with a dash – or more -of Powers – perfect for relaxing in front of a roaring fire.
- Mulled wine: Delicious when you come in from a cold walk. Heated wine that hits the spot.
Information (edited by Greg Seán Canning) and Photos taken from the following Internet Sources:
Celtic Cultural Alliance December 2007 Newsletter