Christmas in Ireland, as I remember, is different from how Christmas was celebrated by our forefathers in the 19th century.
By the time I was born in the 1960’s, Ireland had adopted many English and European customs, such as Christmas trees, plum puddings, and Santa Claus. Ireland’s Christmas traditions evolved and changed over the years, as rural dwellers moved to the larger cities during the 20th century.
On Christmas Eve, I always remember watching Eamon Kelly (1914-2001), the great Irish seanachai (or storyteller) on television. He sat in his rocking chair by a blazing fire, recounting stories of Christmas times past. I sat with my parents and sisters, mesmerized by his lilting, Kerry accent, and his magical tales of times, long gone. His stories usually began…. “In my father’s time…..”
And so, I dedicate this post to the ancient Christmas traditions of rural Ireland, to recreate the festive celebration …” of our grand-fathers’ and great-grandfathers’ time.”
Preparation for Christmas began during Advent. Men and women shared the rituals of Christmas cleaning. Women folk concentrated on the interior of the house, while the men applied a fresh coat of white wash to the exterior of their little, thatch cottages.
Decorating the house required holly and lots of it. Children scoured the hills for the red-berried bushes which grow wild in Ireland. Sprigs of holly were placed over pictures, on mantles, on window sills, and wherever the woman of the house got the notion to display it.
The American tradition of hanging a holly wreath on the door at Christmas time, can be traced back to 19th century Irish settlers.
The man of the house usually headed to the nearest big town, to “bring home the Christmas.” Extra provisions, and special treats such as tea and sugar might be purchased. Those wealthy enough to hold an account with a shop-keeper, might return with a gift from the merchant. This was called the “Christmas box.”
Those with relatives who had emigrated to America, might be lucky enough to receive a Christmas letter from across the ocean with news of their loved ones, or maybe even a few dollars to spread some Christmas cheer.
Many Americans believe the Irish only settled in America after the start of the Great Famine in 1845. This catastrophe opened the flood gates of immigrants to America, but prior to the Famine, a steady trickle of Irish left their native home in search of a better future. The “American letter” was the highlight of Christmas for many poor, Irish families.
Christmas Eve was a special day in rural Ireland. All work finished by midday. After the evening meal, the table was re-set for three with a large raisin and caraway seed bread loaf, a pitcher of milk and a candle to light the meal for the Holy Family.
The door latch was left open, and a grand fire was set before retiring to bed. Keeping holy visitors warm was a must.
A candle was placed in every window of the house. A girl named Mary was chosen to light the first candle of Christmas. If there was no Mary in the house, which would have been a very rare case, the honor was bestowed upon the youngest child.
Candles burned in the windows of country cottages, lighting the way for Mary and Joseph should they pass on this holiest of holy nights. Tiny pinpoints of light scattered across the darkened countryside.
In this age of electric and neon lights, it is difficult to imagine the utter darkness of the Irish countryside in the 19th century. Few people lit candles on a regular evening, to save money. Most sat by the light of a turf fire, only lighting a tallow candle intermittently to guide their way in the darkness. On the holiest night of the year, flickering flames beckoned in every window, lighting the way for the Christ Child.
In the morning a cow horn echoed through the stillness, calling the faithful to early mass. After the final blessing, everyone took turns to visit the crib in the church. After praying devoutly, a wisp of straw was usually “borrowed” from Jesus’ crib, and retained for luck throughout the coming year.
Christmas was a family day centering around a large meal. For those that could afford the luxury of meat, spiced beef or goose was the highlight of the Christmas menu. Stories were told, and a quiet drink was enjoyed in the company of family.
St. Stephen’s Day:
Once Christmas Day passed, the revelry began. The day after Christmas is called St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland. Children and adults dressed up in straw costumes, visiting neighbors to perform and ask for money and treats. These mummers were, and still are, called “The Wren Boys.”
Story telling, dancing and parties in the homes of neighbors and relatives, kept everyone busy and entertained for the full twelve days of Christmas.
Women’s Little Christmas:
Finally, on the 6th of January, the last day of Christmas, the women of Ireland were treated like royalty. This day was, and still is, known as “Women’s Little Christmas.” The men folk dutifully prepared a fine meal for their wives, mothers and daughters to show their gratitude for their tireless work throughout the busy Christmas season.
And so, there you have it – a short synopsis of an old Irish Christmas. I love how Christmas Eve centered on the birth of Jesus. Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.
Nollaig Shona Duit
Irish American Mom