Much of how Christmas was observed and celebrated has evolved and changed through the ages (something every generation can attest to, no matter which country one resides in) so how authentically "Irish" are the traditions we so closely associate with Christmas in Ireland? Some are surprisingly recent. And some of the simplest traditions retain the memory of times long past.
Did you know that Cromwell pretty much banned Christmas? (Down with revelry and festivities and that sort of thing). Or that getting Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve only became a much-loved Irish Christmas tradition after Vatican II? To see if your favourite Irish Christmas tradition is something old, new, or borrowed, read on ...
The Laden Table
A particularly Irish tradition was and is ‘The Laden Table’. This tradition was to lay the kitchen table once more even when the evening meal on Christmas Eve was finished. The families left a loaf of bread full of raisins and caraway seeds with a jug of milk and a lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched (not usually done nowadays!) so that Joseph and Mary or anybody passing by and needing sustenance could help themselves. Nowadays, rather than a full laden table, families often just use the opportunity to sample their first slice of Christmas cake in advance of Christmas Day.
Bloc na Nollag – The Yule Log
The Winter Solstice was called "Yule" in Scandanavia and in much of northern Europe. In Ireland, burning Bloc na Nollag was a tradition that continued up until very recently. Fathers and sons dragged home the largest log they could find. It had to be burned whole at the back of the fire and was supposed to last for the entire 12 days of Christmas. A small piece of the Yule log was kept by to use as kindle for the lighting of the next.
Whether it began with the Vikings, or the Celts before them, the necessity of burning a Yule Log died out with the introduction of central heating. Today, this most ancient tradition takes the edible form of a chocolate log-shaped cake (introduced by the French) and large Christmas trees are carried home instead.
An Cuileann – Holly
Decorating the house with evergreens is a tradition that has enjoyed uninterrupted continuity in Ireland since pagan times. Holly, ivy and other evergreens native to Ireland (i.e Arbutus, Yew, and Scots Pine) were brought inside as a reminder that life persisted in this dark time of the year. Fir trees were introduced much later in Ireland by the Victorians.
This practice was later adapted to the celebration of Christmas when Holly was re-cast to represent Christ's crown of thorns (and the berries his drops of blood) for example. Holly branches with red berries were the most sought-after and especially hard to find during a cold winter (as birds were inclined to have eaten them all).
An Coinneal Mór – the Candle in the Window
One of the most enduring images of Christmas in Ireland is the candle in the window on Christmas eve. This symbol of welcome to the Holy family is believed to be an adaptation of a much older custom dating back to the winter solstice that lit the way for all travellers on the longest night. During her term of office, President Mary Robinson famously re-introduced this custom when she said "There will always be a light on in Áras an Uachtaráin for our exiles and our emigrants”. Thanks to her, now we have a permanent candle lit in the window at Áras an Uachtaráin as a symbol of welcome for Irish emigrants and their descendants.
Please give your ancestors a shout-out HERE
Ag fáil réidh don Nollag – Preparing for Christmas
During the four weeks leading up to the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas, Advent (the Latin for "coming") was observed by all Christian traditions. On the first Sunday of Advent, the first candle of the Advent Wreath was lit, and so began the countdown. Children truly believed that the child Jesus would visit their house that night and in anticipation of that special visit they left welcoming refreshments out for the Holy family not "Santy". For this blessing that would fall upon the family home, everything had to be just right. The interior of the home was scrubbed and whitewashed and the farmyard made presentable. This was a busy time and people worked hard right up until Christmas Eve.
Christmas pudding and cake were made as much in advance as possible. The pudding was hung from the ceiling in a bag to "mature" and the Christmas Cake was also "fed" with a weekly drop of whiskey as it had to last the full twelve days of Christmas (and it just wouldn't do to have visitors say your cake was "a bit dry"). Plum Pudding has been a favourite in Ireland for centuries and a good Christmas couldn't be had without one. Even the Famine Orphans, en route to Sydney at Christmastime, knew what it meant when warned to stop keening if they wanted some Christmas Pudding.
The traditional "Christmas Box" in Ireland was a money collection for the priest. But the generous hampers gifted and delivered by the local shop-keepers were also known as Christmas Boxes. Everyone looked forward to (and relied upon) their arrival, as they included the large Christmas candle for the window and the makings of a Christmas pudding, rice, currants, tea, sugar etc. For whatever else was needed, geese were fattened to be sold at the Christmas Market. Then, "the Christmas" could be brought home. A goose retained for the family feast would have to be plucked, cleaned out, and hung for a day or two.
Christmas was a time for feasting on "the newest of all foods, and the oldest of all drinks". Up until very recently, the traditional Irish Christmas Dinner was Roast Goose and Ham. In the early 19th century, "turkey, chine and Christmas pie" graced the tables of landlords but not their tenants. The traditional turkey and ham for Christmas only became a must-have in Ireland in the late 20th-century.
With all those insights in mind, let's take a look at how much had endured (or changed) by 1930 when Irish children were asked to describe Christmas as part of the Dúchas Folklore Collection:
A Traditional Irish Christmas in 1930
Oíche Nollag (lit. Christmas Night) Christmas Eve
GALWAY "On Christmas Eve the doors are left opened until after midnight to afford shelter to casual travellers who may pass the way."
MAYO "It was an old custom long ago to leave the fire without raking on Christmas night. Long ago at Christmas, it was oatmeal cakes they used to have and slitters for Christmas night. The way they used to bake them was to get three sods of turf and put them on the hearth and leave the thongs on them."
CO. DUBLIN "Any person who goes out to a stable, before midnight on the same night may find the donkey knelt down as soon as the clock strikes twelve... uttering a sound, which was surely "Alleluia".
LIMERICK "On Christmas Eve a candle is then lit in every house to welcome Our Lord. It is said that the oldest in the house should light the candle, and the youngest should open the door. A tradition of this locality tells us that on Christmas night long ago, two men stayed up after midnight to see the water change into wine as we are told it does the two men put their fingers into the water to taste it and their fingers fell off. At twelve o clock that night the animals hang their heads to adore Our Lord."
CAVAN "On Christmas Eve the children hang up their stockings and when they think their stocking is large enough the boys take their trousers and tie them at the left so that they will hold more toys, these are hung on the foot of the bed for Santa Claus to fill."
WEXFORD "We make a little crib in the bedroom and light little lamps around it. The people in the street visit our house on Christmas Eve and my mother gives them wine and sweet cake and a present. My mother gives money to the breadman the milkman the paperboy and the coalman for a Christmas box. A custom in the town is that all the grocers should give their customers a sweet-cake and a bottle of wine for a Christmas box".
Lá Nollag – Christmas Day
It has long been a custom in rural Ireland not to leave your own home on this day.
GALWAY "On Christmas Day the people go to 5.30 a.m. Mass and pay a visit to the Crib, as a rule, they go to a later Mass after breakfast."
LOUTH "We put a log on the back of the fire on Christmas day."
St. Stephen's Day aka Boxing Day
December 26th is a sociable day when visitors called and gifts were exchanged. It was also a big day for entertainment, such a horse-racing, pantomime and home-made fun.
GALWAY "The wren boys long ago used to go from house to house dancing playing music, and singing Christmas Carols for the twelve days of Xmas but nowadays they only go out for one day. They dance and sing and say this rhyme:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds / On St. Stephens Day she was caught in the furze / Though the bird is so small, her family is great / Rise up [Old Woman /landlady] and give us a treat / Up with the kettle and down with the pan / A penny or two pence to bury the wren (pronounced "wran")
LOUTH At this time also people go around all dressed up, and false faces on them called Mummers. They go into nearly every house, and if they do not get money, they sometimes take a cake of bread if they get a chance. After Christmas, they have a big dance with the money they collect.
Oíche Chinn Bliana - New Year's Eve
DUBLIN "Some people play this trick on New years Night. If a girl wants to know what kind her future husband will be, she must go out in the garden at twelve o clock that night and pull up a cabbage head and bring it into the house. If it is a long one he will be long, if it is a short one he will be short and if it is crooked he will be crooked. Whatever shape the cabbage is it is said the man will be the same".
GALWAY "On New Year’s night the people used to find out whether things would be dear or cheap during the year. A hazel rod was cut and stuck in the well and then the stick was marked at the top of the water. If the water rose higher than the mark on the stick things would be dearer and if the water got lower than the mark they would be cheaper."
Lá Caille New Year's Day
Similar to "first footing" in Scotland, it was important in Ireland that a dark-haired man be the first to cross the threshold on New Year's Day. It was considered bad luck for a red-haired woman to arrive first.
CAVAN "Long ago the boys would get lead and melt it in a com. When it was melted they poured the hot lead into a bullet mould and let it cool. The boys would start off with the bullets to shoot rabbits and foxes."
What's your favourite Irish Christmas tradition?
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Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain faoi mhaise!
– a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from everyone at Ireland Reaching Out.