(Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, is the first day of the Liturgical Year in the Western Christian tradition, marking the start of the season of Advent. It can fall on any date between 27th November and 3rd December.
Advent Calendars, a C19th German Lutheran invention, usually take the form of a wooden or cardboard house with shuttered windows, one of which is opened on each day of the season to reveal a picture / message / proverb / poem / anecdote, perhaps part of the Nativity story, and / or a small gift, e.g. a sweet. Advent calendars are often sold alongside Christmas cards to raise money for charities such as UNICEF)
(Christmas Cards, invented in 1843 by the great British postal reformer Sir Henry Cole, were very popular until the advent of e-mail, and are still sent in significant numbers, especially by older folk. (Our mother used to spend days on end with stacks of cards, envelopes and stamps, carefully cross-referencing and updating her list of who had sent us one last year and who should be struck off). Unfortunately, the cards are not infrequently accompanied with round-robins telling the world of all the wonderful deeds and achievements o fthe sender’s family over the preceding 12 months)
(Letters to Santa Claus, comprising wish-lists laboriously scrawled or dictated by children all over Ireland, are posted in letter boxes across the country, and reportedly delivered to a (somewhat sinister?) address in Lapland. In 2012 the Irish Post Office (An Post) caused widespread outrage by announcing that unstamped letters addressed to Santa Claus would no longer be processed)
(Santa Claus is known in Ireland as Santa / Santy. The modern red-clad Coca-Cola version has long replaced any previous perception of Father Christmas, but it is interesting to note that a number of medieval Irish churches were dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra, the C4th AD Greek bishop of Lycia from whom the jolly Yuletide figure derived via the Dutch Sinterklaas. Several of these churches (including Dublin’s St Nicholas Without) claimed to harbour relics of the thaumaturg and patron saint of seafarers, supposedly brought from Asia Minor by Crusaders; although he is thought to have been buried on the small Aegean island of Demre, now Turkish, from where most of his bones were taken by Italian mercenaries in the C12th to Bari and Venice, at least part of his skeleton is said to lie in the grounds of Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny)
(The Late Late Toy Show, an annual edition of The Late Late Show dedicated to the showcasing of popular toys, broadcast live on RTÉ One before Christmas with an adult-only studio audience dressed in traditional seasonal attire, is regularly Ireland’s most watched television programme of the year. Sales of toys featured on the programme are considerably boosted in the build-up to Christmas)
Commercial preparations for Christmas used to begin in late November, but recent years have seen shops putting up Christmas decorations side by side with Halloween motifs in October, and Christmas radio advertisements have been broadcast on the last week in August.
Christmas Lights on Dublin-s Grafton St, flashing Nollaig Shona (Merry Christmas) (Photo by eyair)
Cities and town around Ireland put up seasonal lights and decorations and erect illuminated Christmas trees, often inaugurated with a ceremony including music and street entertainment. As the decorations are sponsored by the commercial premises on each street (often featuring their own Christmas shop window displays, some famous), the busiest / most upmarket thoroughfares feature the brightest / fanciest adornments.
Santa Claus impersonators promote various causes, but not in the absurd numbers that flock cities in the USA. The luckiest of these seasonal employees spend three weeks before Christmas enthroned in department store Grottoes, ho-ho-ing hollowly and dandling small children on their knees between furtive sips from their hip flasks of whiskey.
Municipal cribs, common in Southern Europe, can also be seen in some Irish towns, and Dublin’s Mansion House traditionally features a Nativity Scene with live farm animals (although Pope Benedict XVI has recently revealed that Christ’s birth took place without donkeys etc.) but public depictions of the stable in Bethlehem, the Three Wise Men etc. are more often seen in parish churches.
Christmas Whitewashing, a traditional custom thought to date from pre-Christian times, sees farmers cleaning their homes and stables before painting them white with lime and chalk. This practice probably signals the end of the old year and the start of the new, which everyone begins with a clean slate. Religious folk associate it with purifying the soul and awaiting the arrival of the Saviour.
The traditional date for putting up Christmas decorations in private residences was December 8th (see below). Irish houses in the past were usually minimally decorated with little more than a holly wreath on the front door, a perfunctory crib in the hall, a small tree (often fake) with a single string of lights and some tinsel in the living room and Christmas cards on display, perhaps hung on a festive ribbon linking sprigs of mistletoe and holly over pictures, windows and doors.
During the Celtic Tiger years it was not unusual to see houses festooned with multi-coloured lights like The Titanic, featuring neon Santas with elves and reindeer competing with Wise Men on camels processing towards strobe light stars on the roof , often blaring seasonal jingles from early November onwards. The current recession has only partially curbed such enthusiasm.
Christmas Carols can be heard in the streets throughout December, often sung live by mostly amateur choirs raising money for charities by performing at busy shopping locations or door-to-door around suburban houses. Languages commonly include English, Irish Gaelic, Latin and German.
The old tradition of lighting a candle in the front window of the family house to offer symbolic hospitality to Mary and Joseph, as there was none in Bethlehem, was extended by President Mary Robinson (1990-1997) by keeping a large candle lit in the main window of her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, in honour of the worldwide Irish Diaspora.
The dead are also remembered at Christmastime, when graves are traditionally decorated with wreaths made of holly and ivy and prayers are offered for deceased at Masses.
(8th December – Feast of the Immaculate Conception – This Roman Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, when believers must attend Mass, celebrates the Virgin Mary, supposedly conceived without stain or original sin. Many primary schools close for the day, and rural families take advantage of the occasion for Christmas shopping expeditions to the big cities).
In 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger era, the total amount spent in Ireland to celebrate Christmas was €16 billion, averaging out at approximately €4,000 for each person in the country.
Christmas Markets in the continental European tradition are a recent development in Ireland, enthusiastically patronised by shoppers in search of gift bargains at stalls selling a wide selection of gourmet and speciality foods, hand crafted decorations and accessories, one off art pieces, etc. Each year there are more, with several in and around Dublin and at least one in each major town.
The Belfast Christmas Market in front of City Hall is undoubtedly the biggest event of its kind in Ireland.
(Gaudete Sunday / Joy Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, can fall on any date from 11th to 17th December. The name from the first word of the introit of this day’s Mass, Gaudete (“Rejoice”). Gaudete is also the name of a famous medieval carol – a 1973 a capella version by the British folk group Steeleye Span can be heard here).
Christmas Superstitions in Ireland
– On Christmas Eve donkeys kneel to pay homage to Jesus. If you are able to touch their back with a cross while they’re doing it you will get your heart’s desire. Animals are able to talk like humans on Christmas Eve, but it’s terrible luck for a human to listen to them.
– Heaven’s gates open at midnight on Christmas Eve and anyone who dies on Christmas Day goes straight to Paradise. If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday you will have a terrible winter. Wearing new shoes on Christmas Day will bring you bad luck. If you dip your bread in gravy on Christmas Day your summer holiday will be ruined by bad weather. If you don’t eat meat on St Stephen’s Day your whole family will be immune from diseases for the following year.
– It’s good luck to hang a Christmas card with the image of the Three Wise Men above your front door throughout the year.
(24th December – Christmas Eve – not a holiday, but many businesses are closed and a festive atmosphere prevails as thousands engage in frantic last-minute Christmas shopping before travelling home for the morrow’s merrymaking. Most public transport services finish early.
Liturgically, Christmas Eve is the first day of Christmastide, aka Yuletide / the 12 Days of Christmas. The traditional Midnight Mass (equivalent to the Spanish Misa del Gallo), nowadays often held in churches at 22:00 or even earlier, is a major social event in some communities, especially in rural areas.
Fish used to be traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve as a form of preparatory fasting before Christmas Day.
Children leave empty stockings at the ends of their beds or beside the fireplace and try to stay awake to hear Santa’s reindeer landing on the roof or catch the fat man himself emerging from the fireplace, but never succeed. It is traditional to leave out a mince pie and a bottle of Guinness along with a carrot for Rudolph)
25th December* – Christmas Day – (supposedly the anniversary of Jesus Christ’s birth, actually an arbitrary leftover from a C16th Calendar change). Almost all businesses and all pubs remain closed, and there is virtually no public transport. Church services are exceptionally well attended.
The Christmas Day Swim is a masochistic tradition observed in many parts of Ireland, perhaps most famously at Dun Laoghaire‘s traditionally male-only Forty Foot (photo). Participants are often sponsored to raise money for charities. (Similar events take place on New Year’s Day)
Families gather for festivities featuring the usual Western-style Christmas paraphernalia, with traditional activities such as card games and story telling largely replaced by TV viewing (the highlight in many households being the Queen’s Christmas Message to the Commonwealth; the President of Ireland’s Christmas address to the nation is usually broadcast a few days earlier, perhaps to avoid conflict), videos / DVDs (hired to avoid the tedious film options offered by RTE) and / or computer games.
While stockings filled by Santa Claus are invariably fully excavated before breakfast, the time for opening presents from under the Christmas tree varies from one family to another, usually depending on the age of the children. Common gifts include hideous woollen jumpers and scarves hand-knitted by loving grand-aunties and selection boxes of chocolates (Quality Street, Roses) or biscuits (USA)
Christmas Dinner varies from house to house, beginning in some as early as midday and in others regarded as an evening meal, with most striking a happy median. Guests often include stray relatives. Some families observe the tradtion of symbolically setting a place for a passing stranger, who could be the Lord himself.
Roast goose, traditionally a favourite Irish Christmas dish, has largely fallen out of fashion, as have the alternatives of duck, capon or pheasant. Spiced beef still makes an occasional appearance, but nowadays is usually served cold. Contrary to Irish-American mythology, presumably arising from geographical confusion with Argentina, corned beef has never been popular in Ireland, served with cabbage or anything else, at Christmas or at any other time.
In our family we usually have a light first course of smoked salmon with capers, then roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and giblets, roast honey-glazed ham, gravy, roast and boiled / mashed potatoes, buttered Brussels sprouts, carrots & parsnips, celery / broccoli, served with cranberry sauce, bread sauce and English mustard, followed (after a brief respite to snap Christmas crackers, don paper crowns and swap awful jokes) by plum pudding (allegedly so named because the Victorians called raisins “plums”) doused in potín, rum or brandy and set alight, sherry trifle, Christmas cake, mince pies and brandy snaps with brandy butter, all washed down with numerous bottles of wine and champagne / cava and ending with coffee and cognac or port.
Nobody can possibly deal with so much food at one sitting, so the constituents sit in the fridge for several days, subject to sporadic raids (plum pudding fried in butter is divine!), while the carcass undergoes various incarnations as turkey pie, turkey stew, turkey kebabs, turkey curry, turkey fricassee, turkey casserole, turkey croquettes, turkey pasties, turkey burgers, turkey sandwiches, turkey couscous, turkey mousse, turkey pate, turkey paste, turkey ice-cream, turkey delight, turkey surprise etc.
26th December* – St Stephen’s Day (Republic), Boxing Day (UK / Northern Ireland) – Many pubs remain closed, but bars are open at several Racecourses across the country, with some 20,000 people attending the fashionable Leopardstown Races in south Dublin annually. Many take the opportunity to get some exercise after the excesses of the day before. Hunts traditionally meet for a relatively gentle outing; some say that the British name for the day comes from the custom of keeping a fox in a box for the occasion, but this is only one of several theories.
Aka Wren Day / Wren’s Day (Lá an Dreoilín), the day after Christmas Day was the traditional date for “Hunting the Wren” / “Going on the Wren” (pronounced “wran”), when gangs of oddly dressed and straw-bedecked “wren boys” would capture a live bird and either tie it to their leader’s decorated pole or kill it and carry it in a small casket and parade around the district from house to house, singing “The wren, the wren the king of all birds / St. Steven’s day he was caught in the furze / Up with the kettle and down with the pan/ Give us some money to bury the wren / A penny or tuppence would do it no harm” and presenting one of the unfortunate victim’s feathers to each patron for good luck, regaling the assembled company with musical laments for the deceased and pleas for contributions to a funeral fund. The money was used to host a local dance that night.
The old custom, long abandoned in many areas, has been modified in others, and now involves “hunting” a hidden fake “wren”; the boys, still disguised by straw masks and colourful motley clothing, have been joined by girls and adults, and the money that is collected is usually donated to a school or charity. The pole, decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers, remains central to the procession, often accompanied by a ceili band and sometimes illuminated with wren-shaped lanterns.
A common explanation for hunting the wren is that it was Gaelic tradition surviving from early Christian times, when the wren, representative of the old year, was killed by the robin, representative of the new; this may have reflected a pre-Christian idea, possibly associated with the Samhain celebrations. Some say the little bird was vilified because, by pecking at some crumbs on a drum, a wren betrayed the hiding place of Gaelic warriors preparing an attack on marauding Norsemen and led to their defeat. Other myths hold that a wren’s chirping led Saint Stephen’s betrayal and killing, making him the first Christian martyr.
Although the custom of sacrificing a wren is most commonly associated with Ireland, similar customs are to be found in the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and some other parts of France, while comparable rites exist in England, Germany and elsewhere.
“Wren boys”, aka “Straw boys”, are sometimes referred to as “mummers”; rightly so, according to a County Sligo website which claims that this is the correct name for the Yuletide performers, and that “Straw Boys” pertain to a different tradition of musicians who attended weddings. While the arguably more famous mummers of southern County Wexford suggest that their tradition was imported from medieval England, they record that the ancient Annals of Ulster mention men in tall conical masks as chief entertainers to king Conor at Emain Macha / Navan Fort near modern Armagh town some 2500 years ago. The distinction is also discussed here.
Film buffs may recall a portrayal of 1950’s vintage Irish mummers in Gillies McKennon’s 1992 film The Playboys, starring Albert Finney and Aidan Quinn. Can anyone remember the name of the powerful Irish film involving a simple girl in an C18th family who is almost literally carried away by the music of the Straw Boys at her sister-s wedding?
(27th – 30th December, if weekdays, see many shops, especially department stores, furniture superstores and book shops, holding their post-Christmas Sales. Race meetings continue, and sports events return to their normal schedules. Funderland in Dublin’s RDS is one of several big children’s amusement fairs held around the country).
(31st December – New Year’s Eve – celebrated all over Ireland with family festivities and street parties. Thousands of Dubliners traditionally congregate in Christchurch Place to count out the Old Year, queue to kiss police officers while the Christchurch Cathedral‘s 19 bells peal midnight and toast the New Year with copious amounts of alcohol. Whereas in 1986 our inquiry at the Cathedral door was met by the dour information that the midnight service was “for Protestants only“, it is nowadays preceded by a musical performance, usually given by a gospel choir).
* When the usual date falls on a Saturday / Sunday, the ‘substitute day’ is normally the following Monday.