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.
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.
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 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.
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!