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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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An Irish Christmas

rock of cashel

The Rock of Cashel - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Of all the Christian festivals in Ireland, Christmas is considered to be the most important. An Irish Christmas lasts from Christmas Eve until January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, or "Little Christmas." Preparations begin weeks in advance. There is the physical preparation of foods and gifts, decorating the home, and also a spiritual preparation that begins with the start of Advent--additional prayers added to the morning and evening devotions, the children urged to say extra Paters and Aves.

In bygone days, everyone, lapsed or faithful, was expected to attend chapel during the Advent season. On farms, a thorough cleaning of the house and farmyard ensued, including the whitewashing of the house, inside and out. Barns and outbuildings received an outside coat. Women scrubbed the house till it gleamed, scoured every pot and pan, laundered all garments and table linens. To children fell the task of gathering and making decorations for the house. Alice Taylor, in her An Irish Country Diary, wrote:

"There was the going to the wood for the holly and peeling the ivy off the bark of the old trees and looking forward to decorating the house, which we were free to do exactly as we pleased.... My father was dispatched to pick out the largest turnip from the turnip pit and we scrubbed it clean and then he bored a hole to take the tall white candle. My mother always insisted on red berry holly for the candle."

Berry holly was prized as were long ivy tendrils which were used to make garlands. Loose holly and ivy, and laurel leaves were added using a packing needle and twine.

georges.jpgA few days before Christmas, some of the family went to town to "bring home the Christmas." The Christmas Market (Margadh Mór--Big Market) found country people bringing butter, eggs, hens, geese, turkeys--though turkey has only recently become a popular festival food--, vegetables and other farm produce, and exchanging these for their Christmas purchases. Shopkeepers made presents of seasonal dainties to their customers.

The Christmas Market provided much goodwill and excitement from the street stalls and sideshows. Publicans enjoyed a brisk business.

Christmas Eve
Christmas was a family affair. Sons and daughters working away from home were expected to spend time with their parents, especially Christmas Eve. All tried to finish their work early in order to reach home before nightfall. The last of the preparations were concluded, usually for the next day's feast--the most plentiful and extravagant one of the year.

Roast or boiled beef seems to have been the most popular Christmas dish, with roast goose next. A boiled ox head was a favorite dish in Counties Armagh, Tyrone, and Monaghan.

Shortly after dark a large candle, often in a sconce made from a turnip, was placed in a prominent window and lighted to show the Holy Family that there was room and a welcome in that house. The candle would be extinguished at dawn, before going to the early Mass, or if the family was fire conscious, at midnight upon retiring. In some households, candles would be lit for the family members as well.

The traditional Christmas Eve meal consisted of fish, usually hake or cod with creamed potatoes. This was a fast day, and often no food was taken until the main meal.

After the candle was lit, the real celebration began. The iced Christmas cake, for weeks primed with good Irish whiskey, was cut, and tea was poured. The children enjoyed sweets around the fire until it was time for prayers and bed. Sometime during the night, the rotund visitor made an appearance, and children woke to stockings filled with an assortment of practical but welcome gifts.

Christmas Day
St. Fin Barre's, Cork CityChristmas Day began with several family members attending early Mass, often before daylight. Boys in some parts, brought hurleys to church for a game afterward. But in most communities, Christmas was a family festival where people remained at home following the Mass, enjoying the quiet gathering and the lovingly prepared dinner.

St. Stephen's Day
December 26th was celebrated uniquely in Ireland. Hundreds of "wren boys" searched the countryside in the days preceeding Christmas for the hapless little bird who was knocked on the head and placed in a box with holly or upon a pole decorated with holly. The wren boys then paraded up and down the streets in petticoats or other outlandish getup and sang the wren song at various households along the way.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Though his body is small, his family is great;
So, rise up good woman, and give us a treat.
Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:
Give us some money to bury the wren.

The words varied from locale to locale, but the above is a reasonable translation. I cannot but wonder if this custom has seen a decline in popularity with the current trend favoring animal rights.

Christmas carols were never as popular in Ireland as elsewhere; in fact, most of them are English carols. One such carol is Cornish. Ma Gron War'n Gelinen celebrates the nativity of Christ and the older veneration of the evergreen.

Now the holly bears a berry
as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus,
who was wrapped up in silk.

And Mary bore Jesus
our Savior to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood,
it was the holly.

Now the holly bears a berry as
black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus who died
for us all.

Now the holly bears a berry
as blood it is red,
Then trust we our Saviour
who rose from the dead.

A few seventeenth century carols survive, particularly in the county of Wexford. An even older carol, "Curoo, Curoo," survives. It, and the Cornish Carol, were made popular by the Clancy Brothers a number of years ago. Out of print, this Columbia recording may, from time to time, be available on Ebay.

Putting up a Christmas tree is a relatively modern custom, initiated in the sixties with the advent of television. Previously, homes were decorated with boughs and garlands of laurel, holly and ivy.

Christmas has become commercialized in Ireland as the rest of the world. But here, the festival as a family occasion comes first. And the religious significance is at the heart of each family celebration.

Christmas in Ireland brings to mind the simple and lasting pleasures. It's a wonderful time for budget airfares and accommodations. Be sure to check in advance for openings. Many B & Bs close for the winter, as do some tourist attractions. However, for those who enjoy the warmth of a turf fire, the cheer of a friendly pub, and miles and miles of open fields to walk in, there's no better time to travel.

Nollaig Shona Duit agus Slainte.

Until next time.

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blackwater in december

River Blackwater - photo by author



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