Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 15: Christmas in Ireland

Heritage, Tradition, Perception – Christmas in Ireland
 
I’m Irish by heritage.  Born and raised in the U.S., but my mother was born in Ireland and moved here in her early twenties, and my father’s parents emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. before he was born.

That said, I grew up completely American. Aware of my Irish heritage, but with little interest in or connection to Irish traditions or culture, or to the extended family in Ireland.  Whatever my Irish-ness, it had no impact on my life; my mom’s Irish accent didn’t carry over to me, and with the possible exception of my hair color and – some would say – my temperament, I could just as easily have been of Swedish, Italian, or some other not-typically-redheaded nationality descent.
 
But a couple of years ago I developed an interest in that Irish-ness.  So I talked to my parents and grandparents about all things Irish, connected with the extended family in Ireland and elsewhere, read histories and fictions, and ultimately even began slowly learning Gaelic – a work *very much* still in progress.
 
Then last year I received the best present ever – a vacation to Dublin for the Christmas season.   It was a  magical trip.  Family I didn’t know welcomed us with open arms, we had a great time exploring the streets, shops, and pubs of Dublin, and experienced many of the traditions that help make an Irish Christmas special.
 
You won’t be surprised that Christmas in Ireland was traditionally, and to a large extent still is, very much a religious celebration.  Although Midnight Mass may have waned in popularity in the United States, it is still a vibrant, heavily-attended, community event in Ireland.  Decorations have traditionally not gone up until December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), and come down on “Little Christmas”, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  However, even Ireland has begun to see the move of the Christmas season to earlier in the year, and it’s not uncommon now to see decorations appear even as early as the first week in November.
 
The traditions and descriptions below come from a combination of my family and the Googleverse.  Blame for any errors goes there. *:) happy
 
Candle at the window.
 
The candle in the window is an Irish Christmas tradition that is apparently increasing in popularity.  Years ago a single candle would be placed in a window as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve, and also to indicate a safe place for priests to perform Mass during the Penal Times, which began in the mid 1500s and weren’t completely eliminate until the early twentieth century. Traditionally the candle would be lit by either the youngest member of the household or someone named Mary, and snuffed out by someone named Mary.  Now it is common for candles (usually electric) to be placed in most or all windows throughout the season, combining the welcoming tradition with a more decorative use as we’d see in the U.S.
 
Twelve Days of Christmas
 
During the centuries when it was a crime to be Catholic and to practice one’s faith, in public or private, in Ireland and England “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn the beliefs of their faith. It was a memory aid-when being caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged.
The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.
Tins of Biscuits
 
Families have their favorite brand which always comes out after Christmas dinner, and it’s also common to take them as “gifts” when visiting over the holidays.  Gifts being in quotes because, as far as I can tell, the biscuits are pretty much mediocre at best, and often much less than that.  No one in my family seems to know the origins of this tradition, but the general belief is that it’s simply equivalent to our Christmas cookies – sweets after a massive holiday meal.
 
Christmas Day swims in the Irish Sea
 
The most famous of the Christmas morning swims occurs at Forty Foot Rock near Dublin.  The swim is exactly what you’d expect – crazy people in bathing suits jumping into the cold Irish Sea, with a sizeable crowd of slightly more sane observers.  Many people consider this a hangover cure, something always in great demand in Ireland. I’m skeptical.
 
Holly Wreaths
 
There was a time when a simple holly wreath on the door was the *only* Christmas decoration for Irish homes, but those days are long gone.  Irish homes are now fully decorated with ornaments and lights, but holly, which grows wild in Ireland, still plays an important role.
 
Wren Boy parade
 
There are multiple stories about the significance of the wren and Wren Day, but the most popular one seems to be that, possibly during penal times, the location of Irish soldiers in hiding was betrayed by a chattering wren.
 
The tradition of the Wren Boy parades on St. Stephens Day (December 26) has mostly disappeared, becoming instead a day of caroling, often to raise money for charity. 
 
Horse races on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec 26)
 
Races are held on St. Stephen’s Day and the days after at multiple course around Ireland, with the best-known at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin. 
 
St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, which is the accepted reason for mid-winter racing, but it seems clear that this is more about getting out of the house and having a drink with friends – or strangers as the case may be.
 
Midnight Mass
 
Midnight Mass is becoming less of an event in the United States, and has even disappeared from many Catholic Churches, but in Ireland it remains a vibrant, community event.
 
Christmas Pudding
 
Almost every home seems to serve a version of the traditional Christmas Pudding, with a recipe usually handed down through generations.  Most people apparently like it.  I’m not one of those people.
 
Women’s Little Christmas
 
And finally we come to my favorite tradition. January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, is traditionally when the Irish finish celebrating Christmas. It is known as Women’s Little Christmas, or more commonly just Women’s Christmas.
The tradition is that while women have spent the holidays catering to everyone else’s needs and the men of the house had it easy, the women of Ireland would finally get a break.  They’d gather in each other’s homes, or often in a local pub, for a glass of stout and a few hours of relaxation and fun while the men took care of the children and housework, and took down the Christmas decorations.

Today Irish men are often more involved with their children AND housework but the tradition has survived, with wine and lunch usually replacing the glass of stout and pub sandwiches.

 
So there you have it – Christmas in Ireland. (I obviously treated traditions like Christmas trees, presents, Christmas dinner, and large amounts of alcohol as a given.)  As I mentioned, for me it was a magical trip, and at the time it felt so *different* from Christmas at home.  Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green felt special somehow, as if places like that don’t – even couldn’t – exist here.  The food tasted better, the lights were brighter, the cold was enjoyably bracing. You get the idea.
 
But that was more perception than reality.  Certainly some of the traditions don’t exist here, as you’d expect.  And Ireland is a small, less diverse country, so traditions are more likely to be observed by everyone, rather than traditions often being regional / religion / nationality based as is more often the case in the U.S.  The magic, though, wasn’t in the traditions.  It wasn’t even in the newness of the things I saw and experienced for the first time.  The magic was in the sense of belonging, to a history and a family and a community that – to my discredit – I had never much cared about.
 
And ultimately, for those of us who celebrate it, isn’t that a large part of what Christmas is?  Whether you’re religious or not (full disclosure: I’m not), Christmas is at least partially about that sense of community – a shared celebration in the birth of Jesus, or simply an annual shared celebration of family, friends, and being alive. In Ireland I met family who supported the legalization of gay marriage, and family who I knew were adamantly opposed to the LGBTQ “lifestyle”.  But each of them, every one, welcomed us.  We were – we are – family, our own extended worldwide community, and that was what mattered.
 
My Christmas wish:  May each of you have, or find, that community I found last Christmas.
Nollaig Shona Duit! 

 

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35 thoughts on “Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 15: Christmas in Ireland

  1. pieclown says:

    Hi. Thank you for sharing. I work a M-F normal job, where I speak with people from Ireland. The address in Gealic are some real hard to make out. I like you said about be small and giving Ireland a sense of community that is lost here in the US.

    Pie pie 4 now

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julie says:

      The diversity in the U.S. does have advantages – unfortunately along with occasional disadvantages. But, maybe just because it was so different for us, there was definitely something attractive about that larger sense of a shared history in Ireland.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Julie says:

    BTW, while any errors in traditions / descriptions still do go where I placed them 🙂 , editorial errors such as the missing d in what should have been “eliminated” and the missing possessive in “songs” are purely mine. 😦

    Like

  3. Sheila Gallagher says:

    What a interesting post. I always like to know more about traditions, whether US or other countries. So many traditions have been integrated into the US celebration that it is nice to know where they are from, how they started, and what they mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julie says:

      It really was fascinating to see how many similar traditions there are, then notice the often subtle differences in traditions that are the same on the surface.

      Like

  4. Joelle Casteel says:

    How interesting to read about the traditions, thanks for sharing them. Isn’t it interesting to see those things of our ancestry that we take part in and that we don’t- without any impact by my parents? Like I’m really into German rock music, although my paternal grandmother came over to the US when she was a little girl and promptly forgot the majority of German she knew? That’s fantastic about the community you made in Ireland when you visited your family there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julie says:

      It literally opened a whole new world to me. I did question my mom about not exposing me to much of my heritage, but I get that since she grew up there she has fond memories but doesn’t really consider it special.

      Like

      • Joelle Casteel says:

        I think sometimes it’s so much about generational issues. Like for my paternal grandparents (both “off the boat” immigrants to the US), it was so much about becoming “American.” So many traditions were lost and not passed to my parents- although my aunts and uncle all fondly remember the Polish words for “Happy Birthday.” I think your sense on your mother is probably right; it can be more difficult to appreciate the “every day.”

        Like

  5. JoanneBest says:

    maidin mhaith mo chara daor na hÉireann ❤
    Okay so I used a translator to say 'good morning my dear Irish friend' 🙂

    My smile is bigger than a double rainbow right now, I love your post so very much, you've taught me things I should already know, on my Mom's side, we come from the O'Carey/McNulty lines, the O was dropped when my great great Grandparents came through Ellis Island (I may be adding a 2nd 'great' when it's only 1, we're in the process of searching our roots now) and however many greats he was, when he first came over he was immediately ushered into the Army fighting in the Civil War over here in the US.
    There was so much anti-Irish sentiment back then, No Irish Need Apply signs were everywhere, as generations continued, they ended up in Pittston Pennsylvania, nearly all the men worked in coal mines, including my Grandpa.

    I've always been fascinated by all things Irish, and it's not just my red hair, pale skin and freckles that gives me away, I have a temper that is better left unreleased, or as we refer to it, I sometimes "get my Irish on" when pushed to that point 😀

    So you went to Ireland you lucky lass you ❤ A dream of mine, but more importantly, my Mom always told us if she didn't get to see Ireland at least once in her life she'd come back and haunt us till the end of our days :O
    This is where my older brother's money came in handy as he took his family to Ireland and brought my Mom along for her 75th birthday (no I am *not* bitter that my brother's wife got to bring her sister, and my brother didn't bring his own sister aka me, even though he paid for everything -and had already promised to take me to England- anyway, I would've gladly paid my own way, nope, not bitter at all 😛 )

    I haven't always known all the meanings behind the traditions, but we did honor some of them, for example the candle in the window, holly wreath on our red door with our bronze Claddagh door knocker (along with other decorations), going to Midnight Mass (some years, once I became a teen).
    We didn't have a tin of biscuits or Christmas pudding but we had a traditional boiled fruit cake my Nana made every year, nobody really *loved* it but everybody ate it because you never said no to Nana 😀
    http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=boil+cake+irish&view=detailv2&&id=56082BF05BB46D4EF79133050ED22FAAF3F3E62F&selectedIndex=54&ccid=DyMv1w%2fM&simid=608035810793817646&thid=OIP.M0f232fd70fccd3aa544116617947fa3eH0&ajaxhist=0 (Link to a picture of Boiled fruit cake)

    I love the idea of Women's Little Christmas, I wonder now if that's where the tradition we had came from : every Christmas dinner was cleaned up, all dishes washed, etc, by my Dad and brothers, but as we got older aka I became a teenager, my Mom and I wound up doing cleanup, but it was a good run while it lasted 🙂
    Speaking of the LGBTQ community, back in the day, when we were all kids and before my Godmother/Aunt Geri, who was bisexual herself, passed away from MS at the age of 40, Christmas wasn't Christmas without her married gay friends, Artie and Chuck, joining us at Nana's house, so in my family, the gay community wasn't ever considered out of the ordinary, to us it was the norm, some people were gay, some people weren't, it was nobody's business but their own. We loved the person, not their sexuality because who is anyone to judge anyone else?
    Oh, we have the ritualistic swimming in the cold ocean, usually called The Polar Bear Club, but for the most part it's done on New Years Day, regardless of the weather conditions.

    Ireland, and anything related to all things Irish, calls to my heart always.
    Every year I make sure to buy a new Irish-themed Christmas Ornament for the tree, and this will be the first year wear I have all of my Mom's Christmas Ornaments, and if I wanted, I could decorate the entire tree in all Irish decorations ❤

    Some day, I hope to make it to Ireland, I would love to meet some distant relatives I don't yet know, but being in Ireland at Christmas? Oh it sounds lovely!!!

    Thank you for such a wonderful post filled with both familiar and new traditions. I could picture myself wandering around Ireland at Christmastime as the snow fell, blanketing everything in a cold blanket of white while carolers caroled and the world was at peace ❤

    Wishing you the Merriest Christmas ever ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julie says:

      Agus maidin maith a thabhairt duit, Joanne!

      Translation tools are awesome! Although I suspect much like GPS if we overuse them our brains begin to deteriorate. 🙂

      I have the red hair also, and definitely the temper. I prefer to think of it as a strong personality.

      I wish I had grown up with more connection to things Irish, but I’m so glad I got to make the trip to connect to that part of me. A year later I’m still not over it, although If I thank my partner for the trip one more time I think she’ll regret having taken me. I so hope you get to make the trip someday. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re able to go around Christmas. It’s no exaggeration when I say if felt magical.

      Nollaig Shona duit!

      Like

  6. Sassytwatter says:

    Loved reading about the Christmas traditions in Ireland. Soentbjng so fun learning and hearing how different people celebrate. I’m sure it was An amazing trip? Were any of these traditions the tin of biscuits or the Christimas pudding part of your holidays here growing up since your mother came from their did she incorporate into the holiday? Lovely to mesh traditions togther! Happy holidays!

    Like

    • Julie says:

      She always makes far too many Christmas cookies, but I hadn’t had any experience with the tins of biscuits. And she says she was “more than happy to leave the Christmas puddings behind”. 🙂

      Like

  7. Bonnie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Ana! Being of partial Irish decent myself and having a family who doesn’t communicate as well as a family should I couldn’t get any of them to speak on the matter. I have found a sense of community and tradition with my better half’s family and some close friends and for that I love them,I had lost that Christmas spirit slowly though I love so much slowly because of peoples actions and steadily growing consumerist values. I have slowly started to get the Christmas spirit back with the making of many gifts and the addition of store bought items and found that the home made items were loved just as much. We make candies and cookies and work together to help each other complete the tasks of cooking and candy making as well as gift wrapping then we say good night go our separate ways and come together again Christmas morning for food and gifts my better half and little girl and I leave early from the festivities because my better half works Christmas night☹ so I spend the rest of the day and much of the evening tidying up and removing packaging and gathering trash before putting on one last Christmas movie and snuggle up with my little one and when she falls asleep I tuck her into bed take a deep breath and sigh both in sadness and relief that another Christmas has come and gone and that I still have family and friends to celebrate with! ❤

    Like

  8. Julie says:

    Agus maidin maith a thabhairt duit, Joanne!

    Translation tools are awesome! Although I suspect much like GPS if we overuse them our brains begin to deteriorate. 🙂

    I have the red hair also, and definitely the temper. I prefer to think of it as a strong personality.

    I wish I had grown up with more connection to things Irish, but I’m so glad I got to make the trip to connect to that part of me. A year later I’m still not over it, although If I thank my partner for the trip one more time I think she’ll regret having taken me. I so hope you get to make the trip someday. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re able to go around Christmas. It’s no exaggeration when I say if felt magical.

    Nollaig Shona duit!

    Like

  9. SH says:

    Fantastic post! Lucky you for a trip to Ireland, how exciting! Learning about other cultures is a lot of fun! I love to go to midnight mass. We don’t go as often as I would like but I always find it magical.

    Like

  10. catrouble says:

    Hey Julie…even though I’m 1/4 Scots/Irish, I didn’t learn many Irish traditions growing up. We did have the candle in the window, give tins of cookies (biscuits) to friends and neighbors and attended midnight mass but never really knew the meaning being them. Thanks for sharing!

    Hugs and blessings…Cat

    Like

  11. awesomesub says:

    Hi Julie, what wonderful traditions. I didn’t know that 6th January was called women’s little Christmas, but like the idea behind it, and will not forget that one ever, because it is my due date. 😀
    I am with you on the thought of community for Christmas. It is such a wonderful time, and even though there might be so much work around it, I love that it is a time to be together with family and friends; yep, that is what it is about for me too. 🙂

    hugs

    Nina

    Like

    • Julie says:

      Hi! It sounds like you have the *perfect* opportunity to establish “Women’s Little Christmas” as a tradition for your family. 🙂

      It can be so difficult to remember to focus on what’s really important. Family is a given, for better or worse (lol), but we’re making a concerted effort this year to celebrate the holidays with as many of our friends as possible. It’s making for a busy month, but it’s so, so worth it.

      Like

  12. Irishey says:

    I love hearing/reading about traditions. Thank you for sharing these from your trip!

    I have Irish from one side and Scots-Irish from the other side of the family – as far as I can figure out. Ancestor records get a little sketchy with changed spellings and similar surnamed, lost/inaccurate documents, emigration. and so many repetitions of the same first/given names.

    I have looked around online and found some ancestors who came to the USA at different times from the 1600’s to 1800’s, but not towns of origin. I haven’t tracked down any living extended family in Ireland, but haven’t really expended the time or money to dig deeply beyond what already is in the open domain.

    We’ve never had Christmas pudding like what I think you mean. Did you get a good recipe? My mom and I made a steamed plum pudding for Thanksgiving one year, that was speed to be tradition English fare (also part of my heritage). We make some German dishes, also, but I think they are Americanized enough that no German today would recognize the dish as anything they would eat traditionally (yes, I am German , too).

    I think Women’s Little Christmas is an awesome tradition! Maybe we should meet here at Ana’s on January 6th to celebrate this event?! Ooooohhh, Ana, I know it’s tacky to invite oneself, along with a party, but may we please come here to celebrate Women’s Little Christmas? 😉

    Hugs!

    Like

    • Julie says:

      I didn’t get a recipe, since it really wasn’t something I wanted to try to reproduce!. 🙂 I probably wouldn’t like the steamed plum pudding either….was it good?

      That’s a great idea to meet here to celebrate our own Women’s Little Christmas. I’m *sure* Ana won’t mind if we hijack her blog!

      Like

      • Irishey says:

        The plum pudding was really good. We didn’t have a steamer; the oven was too busy with turkey, pies, casseroles and dressing; and the stove top was full, so we used a metal coffee can to hold the batter. We set the pan in a water bath in the electric skillet, or top of a cleaned tuna can ring. I can’t recall what we used to elevate the skillet lid high enough over the top of the can a couple inches to allow steam to reach the top of the batter, but we used aluminum foil to make an enclosed tent from the lid to the skillet base, and left open the steam vents in the skillet lid. The water simmered a long time to steam the pudding. I am thinking 2 or more hours. It is a slow-cooking dish.

        When finished, it was a moderately dense, moist, rich, not too sweet, cake-like dessert. We dumped it out and sliced it into rounds, dusted lightly with powdered sugar, served with unsweetened whipping cream. Very yummy. Wish I still had the recipe. We made this was when I was in high school.

        I have no idea why it is called pudding any more than bread pudding is called pudding. Or, I suppose I should say I have no idea why Americans used the word, pudding, to describe our creamy, cooked milk desert.

        I’ve used the same steam arrangement to make Boston brown bread. Love that, too.

        Look at you, speaking for Ana! Lol!

        Like

  13. Loralynne Summers says:

    Wonderful post! I come from a Polish background and we’ve always waited until Epiphany to take down the decorations also. Although I’m always the one doing it. M6 husband helps if he’s home, but I have a suspicion that if I left it all to him I’d tear my hair out when it came time to decorate the following year. 😉

    Like

    • Julie says:

      I guess part of celebrating Women’s LIttle Christmas is being willing to go with the flow. Maybe he’s trainable, so if you did it year after year it would get better? 🙂

      Like

  14. kaisquared4 says:

    Great post! I love the idea of Mothers Little Christmas. I am IBM….. Irish By Marriage…. but Christmas Eve service has always been an important part of Christmas, with the candles being lit and handed to everyone, the most crowded service outside of Easter morning at our church.

    We are the luckiest folks here in the Milwaukee area because we not only has the best Irish Fest in the world every August, complete with the cultural area and Gaeltacht where the Irish language is spoken, but we have the Irish Cultural Center available year round.

    Re the decorations, we have always left them up until Epiphany. I agree that we should have Women’s Little Christmas here in January.

    Like

  15. renee200 says:

    Wow, I love Ireland. The only place I have ever visited outside of the US is Ireland. Now granted I was 21 and it was a Pub hop so there are some gaps in my memories. However, I do remember how beautiful the country and people were. They also had some lovely pubs. Thank you for sharing. And I think this would be a great place to have Women’s Little Christmas too. Please Mistress Ana… Blessings. R

    Like

  16. Laura says:

    I loved reading this post. I’m 50% Irish(both grand dads) and 50% Scot (both my grans). I have always wanted to go to Ireland as we have quite an extended family over there. My daughter Shannon took step dancing for 14 years. She loved it. Thanks.

    Like

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