An Irish Christmas
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:
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.
A few days before Christmas, some of the family went to town to "bring home the Christmas." The Christmas Market (Margadh M
The Christmas Market provided much goodwill and excitement from the street stalls and sideshows. Publicans enjoyed a brisk business.
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.
St. Stephen's Day
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.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright © 1997-2012 Suzanne Barrett and licensors. All rights reserved.