Christmas in Ireland, with all its religious overtones, is a time for family. The religious nature of an Irish Christmas begins with Advent. Starting four Sundays before Christmas Advent is a time to ponder the birth of Christ and get ready for the celebration of His birth. It is a time for confession of sins and for expressing sorrow for wrongdoing. One must be holy when expecting a holy Visitor.
Much must be done to prepare for Christmas. Houses must have a thorough cleaning. The grounds and all out-buildings get a good tidying also. Christmas cards are sent to neighbors, friends, and family members. Most of these cards have religious themes but Santa Claus, reindeer, and snowy landscapes may also be seen.
Christmas trees did not become a regular part of Christmas decorating until the 1960s. Some people put their trees up the first week of December while others wait until Christmas Eve. Electric lights, tinsel and a variety of purchased and homemade ornaments adorn each tree.
Even churches get in the spirit of the season by decorating the pillars and the altar with garlands of holly leaves. A nativity scene is also part of every church’s display usually found near the altar, in the back of the church, or outside in front of the church.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve day final preparations are made for the Christmas celebration. As expected, unmarried children, no matter their age or how far away they live, arrive at their parents’ house. Most, if not all, Christmas shopping is done; but many shops stay open later than normal for those last-minute shoppers. The house fills with glorious odors as food preparation begins in earnest. The family goes through the house giving it a final tidying before the celebration begins. Some of the more religious families fast on Christmas Eve until dinner when a simple meal of fish and potatoes is served.
Many families wait until Christmas Eve to put up their Christmas tree. Candles are placed in the windows. For many the Christmas season is about to begin, with the lighting of the candles. Traditionally the main candle is lit by either the youngest child in the family or a daughter named Mary. Some children hang their stockings before the family goes to Midnight Mass; others wait until after mass. After returning from mass the children go to bed. After the children fall asleep the parents place the children’s gifts under the tree or around the room often arranged in piles on chairs with the child’s name on the chair.
Christmas morning children awaken and rush to see what Santa Claus has left for them. Most gifts are practical, but as Irish affluence increases the gifts become less practical. Some who did not go to Midnight Mass, and some who did, attend “First Light” Mass at either 6:00 AM or 8:00 AM. After mass the men and boys enjoy games of hurling (a game similar to field hockey), Gaelic football (a game like soccer), shooting competitions, and hunting rabbits with greyhounds.
The women prepare the Christmas feast and deliver gift baskets to less fortunate neighbors filled with the ingredients for a “proper” Christmas dinner. The Christmas table is covered with a linen or lace tablecloth and set with the best china, polished silver, and cut-glass stemware. The traditional Christmas dinner may consists of roast goose or turkey (often served with ham) stuffed potatoes heavily seasoned with black pepper, mashed or roasted potatoes with gravy, and one or two vegetable dishes. Desserts may include Christmas cake, Christmas puddings such as bread pudding or plum pudding, mincemeat pies or tarts, sherry trifle, soda scones, fairy cake, and cookies.
After the Christmas feast families stay home relaxing, talking, singing and playing musical instruments, and telling stories. Irish history was once passed from one generation to the next via stories told at family gatherings like Christmas. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of these stories are of family ancestry, the famine, Irish heroes and villains, the countryside, as well as the Nativity.
Nollaig Shona Duit (Merry Christmas!)
For more information about the Irish Christmas season visit CustomsOfChristmas.com.